Have you ever been so thirsty, hungry, and hot that you thought you would die? That’s what just a day in the desert without water, food, or shade will do to a person! Why would anyone want to go through a desert?
I grew up on the edge of the Sahara Desert in Niger, West Africa in a a buffer or borderlands known as the Sahel. This strip of terrain made up of low brush, thorny trees, and sand is all that stands between the ever encroaching desert, and the rest of Africa. It is an inhospitable place with sandstorms that blow in like a blizzard with fine sand particles penetrating every nook, crook, and cranny. As a kid, I remember waking up after a sandstorm hit in the middle of the night, and seeing the white outline of my body sketched on the sheets by a fine layer of brown dust. The scarcity of water, unrelenting heat, and sparse vegetation means it is a constant struggle for every living thing to simply survive.
The scorching temps reach 50+ Celsius during the middle of the day, and every living thing comes to a stop finding cover in the shade to sleep and cool down. I vividly remember it being so hot and still for about a month before the rainy season that even at night we would roll out our beds onto an outdoor veranda to sleep, sometimes naked, with a wet towel draped over us to try and keep cool.
The desert and the borderlands are places that most people choose not to live in, and try to avoid at all costs. If people have to go through the desert, it is because the desert stands between them and their desired destination on the other side. Most folks want to get through a desert as fast as possible!
Yet in the desert there is a profound encounter with beauty and life formed out of the suffering, struggle, and hardship found nowhere else. I remember the stunning sunsets, shapes of sand dunes and rock carved by the wind, and the beautiful people, vegetation, and wildlife uniquely adapted to life in the desert.
Just as the desert is a physical reality, there is a spiritual experience in life referred to as the desert or wilderness, the dark night of the soul, or a season of winter. It is period of one’s life where there is a unquenchable thirst for deeper in the soul and spirit. The spiritual terrain is dry and barren. The normal pathways of connecting to God do not satiate or satisfy the inner void, thirst, and longing. The scorching heat of suffering, testing, and trial leave one wondering if they will ever make it through to the other side. One feels alone, done, forgotten, and hidden away in obscurity. In this chapter of one’s life, there is loss, lots of silence and solitude, waiting, depths of despair, doubt, and depression. God seems to be quiet, distant, and to have abandoned us.
Throughout the Bible as well as in other religious texts such as the Koran, and throughout Church history there is a repeating pattern found in the stories of the Apostles, Desert Fathers, saints, mystics of all faiths, and ordinary folks who share of their desert experience as a necessary and normal part of their spiritual quest to grower closer to God. For Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Mohammed, and Paul the desert experience, both spiritually and physically, was essential in their character formation, in clarification and preparation for their calling. For each of them, the desert was not an experience that could be shunned, avoided, bypassed, or rushed through on life’s road map.
We must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call. Richard Rohr
I have just come through a deep, prolonged desert experience that lasted 10 years to the week. I think I’m out, or at least in the borderlands, I hope! I will be sharing more about my time in the desert in this and future blogs. It has been the most powerful and most painful time of my life. As I say repeatedly, I wouldn’t wish what I’ve gone through on my worst enemy, and yet I wouldn’t trade what I have learned for anything. It has been a time of preparation, training, formation, gestation, and incubation for the next leg of my journey.
I will be doing a series of blogs sharing some of the life lessons and wisdom that has be squeezed, pressed, and tattooed into me during my time in the desert.
If you are presently going through a time of grieving, loss, and feeling spiritually barren or dry. If the world seems grey without any colour, or you have plummeted into a pit of despair, and are experiencing a time of deep questioning of your faith. If God seems to be far from you and silent, know that you are not alone.
Though you may be in a desert know that there are deep, hidden wells and springs of life to be found in this place, and that God will guide you to them . There is an intimacy, union, and communion with God that can only be found by walking through the desert. God is as near to you as He ever has been even if you can’t feel, see, or hear Him.
In the desolation and darkness, God is as near to you as a mother hen holding her chick close under the shadow of her wing. (Ps. 17:8)
Take heart my friend and fellow seeker that though this season is painful and not for the faint of heart, if you let go and hold on to Jesus for dear life you will find deep character, beauty, and treasure formed in you and around you during this part of your sojourn! There is an end! This to shall pass! you will come through more free and fearless!
Every devout soul which has loved to see God in His house will be refreshed by visions of God in the wilderness of sorrow and solicitude.” Christopher Wordsworth
In my next blog, I’ll explore the types of deserts and how we end up in a desert.