What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.
~Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
Immersion into the strange, stark beauty of one of the world’s great deserts can lead to unexpected insights. While on pilgrimage to a monastery in the great saguaro desert of Arizona I took a walk the length of two Sabbath days’ journeys outside the monastery gates. It was mid-afternoon, the sun at its zenith of intensity as it dropped westward in the brassy sky. The temperature was 115 degrees, the silence deafening, scorpions huddled underground awaiting their nocturnal venture forth when the scorching sun might finally abate. I wrote this later in my journal:
“The monastic services are beautiful here, but it is the silence, the heat that takes the breath away. It is the vast and deadly sweep of the desert itself that has been the catalyst for my real epiphanies here about life with God. The desert should not be pitied. Only a pampered perception judges such a place needy, the human tendency to recoil from what is not overtly ample, lush, even excessive. Plants out here naturally distance themselves from each other in the competition for moisture. When the rain does come, it suffices the comical teddy bear cholla, saguaro cactus, and scrappy shrubs. Most of these can survive years without moisture, if they must. This lean outback so austere of the sensorial is a reminder our souls and bodies need far less from earthly surroundings than we think. To insist on more than presents itself naturally through God’s provision is to squander life energies designed to be satisfied in simplicity, which has its own allure. In the deafening silence I have grasped briefly—very briefly for this extrovert—why so many saints of the past chose the desert for the formation of their souls.”
The deserts in our lives usually aren’t literal. They come to us in the withering away of familiar things that support and offer orientation to our souls; good health, financial security, friendships we thought were forever, loss of a job that fueled our self worth. As one friend put it during a time of great personal loss, “When this is over, will there be anything left of me?”
There’s no sense denying the desert is uncomfortable. Yet it does serve a purpose by reducing our lives to the most essential elements. If we can manage our arid losses with valor, if we can discipline ourselves to wait in the desert and listen to the good that is there, we may find, with the Little Prince, that a source of life-sustaining water may be waiting for discovery among the dunes. We find that the monotony, perceived mediocrity, the deathlike quality of the desert experience does not destroy us, but makes us stronger. And then the water comes.
On the next go-around with the deserts that sometimes encroach on our lives, let’s stop thrashing our arms in the heat so much, spread ourselves apart from others a bit, conserve energy by not making so many judgments about our circumstances. Let’s work at being a little more zen toward this ironic thing called life. As we wait quietly for the water to come, we may very well find ourselves drinking deeply from an inner well we could never have imagined existed.
What have your desert experiences taught you? What was it like to finally drink from the well hidden in the experience?