The desert is a dangerous place. It is always moving, so it is hard to know where you are.
This is how the desert Godly Play stories begin, with the storyteller smoothing the sand in the desert box with her hands, creating undulating ever changing dunes.
As I’ve traveled this land and walked the Israel National Trail, I’ve learned that the deserts of southern Israel are not sandy; they’re rocky and jagged. The scree on the hillsides and the smooth stones lining the wadis shift and slide underfoot, quickly wearying legs unaccustomed to the terrain.
In the daytime it is hot and the sun scorches your skin. In the night it is cold. When the wind blows, the sand stings when it hits you. People wear many clothes to protect them from the sun and blowing sand.
In the summer months, the heat bakes the ground until it fractures, and the only sources of shelter from the harsh sun are the nooks in the cliff faces at the edges of the giant craters. Millennia of winter rains have carved ravines into the rock, metres deep in some places, with walls of smooth stone, and each year, we hear of the tragic deaths of hikers killed by flash floods.
There is little water, so you get thirsty and you can die if no water is found. Almost nothing grows there, so there is almost nothing to eat.
Those who live in the desert know how to find water. They know where to find enough food to survive. From generation to generation, they have shared the secrets whispered to them by the land, secrets for which most of us have neither time nor need.
The desert is a dangerous place. People do not go into the desert unless they have to.
The Godly Play stories are right: most people do not go into the desert unless they have to.
There is an unsettling vastness to the desert. To an untrained eye, the landscape all around looks the same, almost hypnotic. It’s all too easy to get lost. Walk far enough in, and the buzz of cars, the distant beat of music, the hum of electrical wires all give way to chirping birds and insects. Then for a moment even they pause, and …. silence.
The silence of the desert is not an absence of sound. It’s a presence. Deep. Profound. Absolute.
If you stop and sit, at first it envelopes you, the novelty of it calming in a world which thrives on noise. But gradually you feel its weight settle, heavy against you. It fills the thick dry air and chokes you as you breathe. Your thoughts quicken, racing to push away the discomfort, but they come unbidden, emerging from the darkest shadows of your memory. In the haze, the unresolved wrongdoings, regrets, hurts, shame, anger of the past take on physical form.
Then a sudden noise shatters the silence. A rock clatters down the hill across from you. The shadowy shapes from your past disappear, and you see for the first time a camel grazing, camouflaged against the scorched brown earth. You welcome the distraction. You begin to walk again just to hear the sound of your footsteps.
It is for good reason people do not go into the desert unless they have to.
Most of the people in our scriptures do not choose to enter the desert. They are sent there by God — as Abraham and Sarah were. They are driven there by others — as Hagar and Ishmael were by Abraham. They flee there — as Moses did after murdering the Egyptian. They wander there — as the Israelites did after the Exodus. They hide there — as David did when he learned Saul wanted to kill him. They go there in despair — as Elijah did when he sat under the broom tree.
In this season of Lent, the Spirit leads us, as a church, as individuals, into the desert, as She led Christ in the days after his baptism.
The desert is a place where people of faith often grumble and rebel and talk back to God. And it’s no wonder because as long as we’re speaking, the silence cannot descend and remind us of the times we preferred to remain silent as others have suffered. As long as we hold God responsible for the injustices of the world, we can ignore the shadows of our complicity in systems of oppression. As long as we keep moving, they can’t form into the faces of those we have harmed.
But in this season, we are asked to sit in the silence, to answer the questions it asks of us: When have we given in to the temptations of ego and empire? How have we been fooled by the dual myths of supremacy and scarcity? Where have we been responsible for the tarnishing, diminishing, or defacing of the image of God in others and in ourselves?
If we sit in the silence long enough, if we listen hard enough, we will hear the desert whisper her secrets: there is life to be found here.
If we can resist the urge to seek distraction and escape when the shadows of our past emerge into the light, we will know then our need of God. And in our need, we will know God meeting us, ministering to us, with mercy as deep, profound and absolute as the silence itself.