It’s early morning in the high desert and I am running on the path through the ranch. I inhale the cold, fresh sage-scented air. The sun is still behind the dark mountain, a glowing edge of cadmium orange promising the dawn.
The path, lined with smooth, round rocks like loaves of stone bread, winds higher and now I can see the cattleman below on horseback guiding his herd. As the sun breaks above the mountains, the desert bursts into life. In the morning light, desert grass gleams like spun gold, flaxen waves punctuated by bursts of bright yellow flowers topping sage brush. Lizards and chipmunks skitter across the path.
We think of the desert as, well, a desert. As in: nothing there but endless dryness and hot desolation, a wilderness of desolation. In the spiritual life, the desert is key. Before embarking on his ministry, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he is tempted by the devil. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after they left the slavery of Egypt. The desert is the dryness of a spiritual life without consolation but also it’s the place of solitude, away from the world, where holy men and women went to seek God.
But always, at the edge of the desert, there is the lure of the world: And the devil took him up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant and said to him, “to you I will give all this authority and their glory…” (Luke 4:5-6).
Below the desert trail, like a jeweled necklace lies the city: sapphire blue, glittering emeralds, twinkling lights. This city is awake 24/7; neon lit casinos beckon gamblers and party goers, cabs shamelessly promote legal brothels. Dark mountains loom above the city, stern.
The desert fathers, the first contemplatives, didn’t run to the desert simply to escape the world: to avoid temptations and to avoid people. As Baptized Christians we are all called to be in relationship: with God, ourselves, and others. The holy hermits were not engaged in a negative escapism, but rather were seeking God and holiness.
As we do today.
My breath is uneven as I run, gulping the cold, pure air. The desert is beautiful, but hard. I am still seduced by the world, giving in daily to materialism, vanity and pride. Like the Israelites who wandered for 40 years in the desert, longing all the while for the fleshpots of their slavery.
The desert is not empty, but it’s purifying. The psalmist yearns for the peace and simplicity where he dwells with God alone: O that I had wings like a dove to fly away and be at rest. So I would escape far away and take refuge in the desert.
We may not be able to physically flee to the desert like the holy men and women of the 4th century, but we can create some space in our daily lives where we retreat in silence and contemplation. Even if it is a stolen 15 minutes before the household wakes up, a solitary walk in nature, or a brief visit to the adoration chapel, these moments spent away from the worries and temptations of the world will renew our peace and serenity, our commitment to following Christ’s path of love.