I can’t quite remember now what it was that I had been expecting to find when I experienced the Judaean wilderness for the first time – but it had certainly never occurred to me that it would be beautiful. Although when I use that word, I don’t mean beautiful in a ‘pretty’ kind of way – but rather a stark and awesome and terrible beauty.
Because I found myself in the middle of the most breathtaking and powerful landscape imaginable: arid and desolate and inhospitable – but very far from being dull or monotonous. On the contrary, it was full of dramatic hills, and rocks, and plunging ravines. And there was something about the sheer scale of the place, which was utterly daunting: it seemed to go on forever. Standing in its midst, one felt like a microbe in space, an insignificant speck against such a vast and ancient landscape. It was quite unlike anything I had ever experienced before.
And encountering that kind of place can generate some interesting responses in the human soul. I can remember feeling incredibly exposed: exposed, most obviously, to the searing heat of the sun; but also utterly exposed to the searching eyes of God. Because the desert is a place of hard truths; a place where it is difficult to hide, either from the heat, or from God, or from oneself.
Which is why the desert has also traditionally been seen as a place of battle: there is, of course, the sheer physical battle necessary to survive in such an inhospitable place, full of hidden dangers; but the desert is also a place of spiritual battle. Since time immemorial, the desert has been a place that has drawn people who were searching for God; a place that was free from the distractions and complexities of daily life. And those who spend time in the wilderness, more often than not, undergo some process of spiritual testing: whether that was the forty years that the Israelites spent in the wilderness, learning what it meant to be the people of God; or, centuries later, the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting and undergoing temptation, in preparation for the ministry that he was about to begin, as he got ready to embrace his destiny.
And it is easy to see how the God whom one experiences in such an austere setting, can appear to be a very powerful and uncompromising God. One might well expect, therefore, that prolonged exposure to the desert by human beings, would turn them into hard and uncompromising people, however holy they might regard themselves as becoming in the process. But interestingly enough, that does not, in general, seem to be the case. Because for many who are called out there, the desert turns out to be the one place above all other places where they learn about the importance – indeed, the essential nature – of compassion.
Alan Jones, author of a book entitled The Desert Way of Spirituality, describes how the stark extremes of the desert experience forced him to reorder his priorities – in a way that impacted upon his relationship with other human beings. He wrote this:
The desert does strange things to the way one sees. It plays tricks with the imagination, and, at the same time, intensifies and magnifies experiences. The hot sun and the apparent deadness of the desert clarify one’s mind and reorder one’s priorities. It is easy to see why codes of hospitality are strictly adhered to in this part of the world. Hospitality is a matter of mutual survival. It didn’t take me long to realize what most mattered in all the world. Heat, dust and loneliness made me appreciate our need for three simple things: food, shelter and companionship.
From the mid-third century onwards, in the deserts of Egypt, small groups of Christian monks began to cluster together under the supervision of an abbot. This gave rise to what would become a thriving and distinctive monastic tradition. The sayings and stories associated with their most famous abbots, the Desert Fathers, were passed on orally, before being written down, and they give us a fascinating glimpse of their lives.
There must have been something absolute and uncompromising about the kind of faith that drove such men (and some women) to leave behind all creature comforts and pursue their Christian commitment in such extreme and inhospitable circumstances. And again, one might reasonably expect this to be reflected in high expectations they had of one another, in terms of rigid standards of discipline and asceticism.
And yet, what comes across most strikingly in the stories of the Desert Fathers is something rather different: something that is in fact, profoundly humane. Let me read you a couple of examples. Take, for instance, the following anecdote told of a Desert Father called Abba Poemen:
Some old men came to see Abba Poemen and said to him, ‘We see some of the brothers falling asleep during divine worship. Should we wake them up? [Abba Poemen responded:] ‘As for me, when I see a brother who is falling asleep during the Office, I lay his head on my knees and let him rest.’
Or what about this story, told of another of the Desert Fathers, Abba Bessarion:
A brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and followed him out; he said, ‘I, too, am a sinner.’
Or what about this story?
Abba Zeno said this: ‘If a man wants God to hear his prayer quickly, then before he prays for anything else, even his own soul, when he stands and stretches out his hands towards God, he must pray with all his heart for his enemies. Through this action God will hear everything that he asks.
You see, the desert may be characterized by its arid and infertile soil, soil in which, by definition, nothing can grow; and yet precisely the opposite is true in the context of the spiritual life. Deserts, be they physical or spiritual, often provide the seed bed for the most astonishing kinds of growth: a desert experience can enable us to grow in ways that would never be possible if we were to remain cocooned in comfortable, easy surroundings. Because the point of a desert place is that it can reorder our priorities in a very radical way; and it can reveal to us, very acutely, the things that are of God. And therein lies the importance of Lent, for those of us who seek to follow Christ. Because we are invited, for this finite period of forty days, to strive to live more simply; to structure our lives in a more disciplined way; and consciously to focus our hearts and our minds on God more directly. Because that is how we grow in understanding, of both ourselves and of God; and that is also how we grow in faith.
The Orkney poet Edwin Muir, was a man whose own life was blighted by the darkest of deep depressions. And yet, interestingly enough, in a very striking poem entitled ‘One Foot in Eden’, which some of you will have heard me quote before, Muir reflected that for all its legendary fertility, there were some things that could never have taken root in the Garden of Eden, precisely because of its perfection, and the superabundance of everything that grew there. He wrote this:
… Famished field and blackened tree
Bear fruits in Eden never known.
Blossoms of grief and charity
Bloom in these darkened fields alone.
What had Eden ever to say
Of hope and faith and pity and love
Until was buried all its day
And memory found its treasure trove?
Strange blessings never in paradise
Fall from these beclouded skies.
The Jesus who emerged from his wilderness experience, was a Jesus who had fought his battles with himself, as well as with Satan, and who emerged ready to embrace his ministry and his destiny. But he emerged also as a Jesus who knew all about human weakness and human frailty and human despair, and whose ministry was there for all. Because ours is a God of compassion, who knows us and calls us; who rescues us when we fall, and who embraces us with a love that knows no bounds.
And in a world in which the distorting and corrupting power of human selfishness and human evil have never been more apparent – in our wanton destruction of our planet, and in the horrors we are witnessing in Ukraine, we need that love and compassion and the hope that it inspires, more than ever before.