The Greek word traditionally translated “desert” or “wilderness” is erémos, and it doesn’t mean hot and dry. It means uninhabited, lonely, with no human population. The erémos is a desolate location, whatever may be the reason for its desolation. The word can even be applied to people, in the sense of being without friends or supporters, or simply solitary. In a word, it means deserted.
Where might we experience deserted spaces? There are emotional deserts, for one thing, which can show up in all sorts of ways. There are bodily deserts. Illness and accident, germs and genetics, cut us off from physical health. Age robs us of what we once could do with ease. There are vocational deserts. We may be in the middle of college and have to admit that we have no idea why we are there. Or we look around in our middle years and suddenly realize that we still don’t know what we want to be when we grow up.
There are economic deserts. Poverty is a wasteland that seems to have a hundred paths, each of them leading back to the same unlivable place. There are social deserts. A friendship may seem to beckon, but prove impossible to develop because of various obstacles. For a person who never learned how to make friends in childhood, adult life can be lonely even in a lively church, even within a marriage. There are deserts of time: too little available, too much wasted, a lack of control over our time, time on our hands that seems impossible to fill.
There are most definitely spiritual deserts. Some people sense a calling, a certain sense of being summoned by God in a particular direction, but every circumstance of life seems to rise up and forbid them to answer. Others may have every opportunity to follow the path to which they see Christ beckoning them, and yet again and again fail to set one foot in front of another and go the way that they are called. Any of these situations can lead to a sense of desolation and abandonment, of being left alone to face a howling wind, a raging sea, or simply a moonless, starless night, an absolute darkness with no sense of which way to go or what we may encounter.
Every area of life has some potential to be desert. Of course, most of the things I’ve listed involve unchosen deserts rather than voluntary withdrawal into the wilderness. Yet in a sense everyone who has chosen the life of commitment to God has chosen the desert. Even if we have not entered a convent or a hermitage, once we have decided to love God “with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength” (see Mark 12:30), we have subordinated everything that we have and are to the will of God. The glad realization that God is worthy of an all-embracing sacrifice brings with it the sobering reality that we will be called upon to make that sacrifice ... enter the desert way. The truth is that we must simply learn to live in the desert, must try to remain oriented toward God as we go on through the misery. The divine presence is not the way out of the desert, it is the way through the desert. Remain attentive to God, stay utterly dependent on God – this is the lesson of the desert.
Adapted from Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Spiritual Life, May/June 2001. Copyright © 2001 by The Upper Room. Used with permission.
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