In my mid- twenties I was asked to leave the palm trees and blue sea of the NT Top End to teach at a Mission school 85 kms from Alice Springs. Being both young and a good religious I said yes. This, my first and last experience of living in desert country, only lasted six months. I just wasn’t ready, or generous enough, to live and teach in a landscape without trees, gritty red dust, wind and the paralysing vastness and silence of the miles between me and Alice Springs.
The silence of that landscape was so big, like an entity all its own. There was a depth to it that scared me and then other times I wanted to scoop it up and hold it in my hands. But then, what would I do with it? That was a long time ago, but the memory of the silence I experienced in that six months has never left me. As Richard Rohr is fond of saying, ‘God comes to us disguised as our life’ and I’m finding it takes a lifetime to gradually reveal the God who hides behind some of those disguises.
Have you noticed that there’s a push-pull about silence. First comes the craving for it, a longing for a time and space to just be, without the ping of an incoming text or a plaintive ‘Mum’, the hum of distant traffic or a radio that never gets turned off. So we carve our self some time, maybe a whole day or a weekend silent retreat. For a while it’s really good, that is until we discover that the silence is becoming oppressive. Silence is inviting, yet so often we are not comfortable to remain in it. Shouldn’t I be doing something? Maybe Jesus’ temptations in the desert were a result of the pull- back he felt when there was nothing standing between him and what he knew was the God-pull within.
We lead busy lives and any quiet times we are able to timetable come in small bites – taking the dog for a walk, a leisurely late night bath or an early morning coffee before the rest of the house is up. Giving ourselves space to slow down means we can see more clearly what is around us. If we can put to one side the chatter tape that plays endlessly in our heads we will encounter a deep and powerful silence. If we let it, that kind of silence, like the silence of the desert, can put us in touch with the brokenness we feel inside- we’re lonely and powerless. And chatter-free silence is powerful because somehow God is in the silence and we hear it with our whole person.
Most of us live in the suburbs and the nearest we get to a desert is the one within us. It takes courage to go there and to stay there, even for a few minutes. But if we do we will hear God’s voice. Not with our ears, and usually not right then, but in little life-giving spurts that catch us up in peace or joy or one of those light bulb moments that come out of what seems nowhere. As Hosea says, putting words into God’s mouth, “I am now going to allure you; I will lead you into the desert and speak tenderly to you.”
Next week: Desert-ed Places