Her name was Susan. She was in Year 8 and I remember her for one thing. Despite very clear instructions about what each student was permitted to backpack into the annual four day bush camp, she replaced one of her two water bottles with her electric hair drier.
As Susan found out, some things have to be left behind when you move into the semi-arid spaces of Australia. Spending time in a desert environment means coming to grips with no electricity or running water as well as no things to do, no places to go, no people to see, no internet access. You could say it was a landscape of loss.
In the 3rd and 4th century surprising numbers of women and men left behind comfortable lives and occupations and retreated to the deserts of Egypt, believing that by embracing loss they would be better disposed to hearing and loving God. But loss isn’t something most of us need to look for. It finds us. And as those long ago hermits found out for themselves, it’s not easy to recognise God in the silence of loss.
Desert country is dry and inhospitable, hot and uncomfortable. It’s so big and so – empty. And isn’t that how we feel sometimes? We don’t need to pack a tent and water bottle to have a desert experience. It parks itself right inside us with what seems like staggering indifference. That’s the feel of a marriage relationship that has turned sour. It’s the slog of being stuck in a dead-end job. Sometimes it’s depression, not only the full blown clinical diagnosis, but the ordinary kind that assails us all occasionally. Even though we may be serious about our faith, religious practices that once felt life-giving can begin to feel as dry as a desert wind.
In the desert places in our lives we feel deserted- by the ones we love, by politicians or employers who treat us as disposable commodities, by personal expectations hijacked by reality. Not so long ago I paid a lot of money and travelled across the world to participate in a much anticipated sabbatical experience. It didn’t live up to my expectations. The setting was stunning, but isolated. I had little in common with the other participants, and instead of being challenged by cutting edge presenters and liturgy, I was bored. The three months left me feeling cheated and distressed.
For a prayerful and God-conscious person, one of the hardest things about feeling alone in a trackless place, is assuming that God is indifferent to our anguish. In hindsight I recognise that my sabbatical expectations implied a cosy spiritual experience in the company of people who would appreciate me. I had forgotten that when Jesus went into the desert to pray temptation tagged along. He cried in the loneliness of Gethsemane. But on the fringe of that same desert he fed 5,000 hungry people and with twelve apostles created a new community. In mysterious ways my disappointing desert time is revealing its unexpected life.
On the wall of the Our Lady of the Desert church in New Mexico there is a saying that paraphrases Hosea 2:14: “The desert will lead you to your heart where I will speak.” Wherever your desert lies, trust it and the God who resides there with you. What may look like a landscape of loss will slowly reveal itself as pocketed with a humbling and new self-awareness coupled with an invitation to live a stronger, more authentic, more Christ-centred life.