My favourite Bible passages are, and have always been, passages about the desert. When I was in uni, I stuck up twenty sheets of A4 on my tiny bedroom wall and scrawled across them the text from Hebrews 11:32-8:
'And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets - who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight... They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated - of whom the world was not worthy - wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.'
'Of whom the world was not worthy'...man! Doesn't it get your blood racing? I love that image of prophets and wayfarers, roaming the earth as aliens and strangers, as princes of a foreign land. DL Sayers wrote my favourite poem, 'Desdichado', in which she depicted Christ as a 'bonny outlaw' and 'rascal fiddler' who roams the world, calling to his Bride, the Church, like Orpheus or a prince from a fairy tale. There's something mouthwatering about the desert, about the kind of raw, wild existence where your only security is utter dependence on Christ and there are no false comforts to hide behind.
A few weeks ago I stayed with the Northumbria Community, a new monastic community with a retreat house near Alnmouth. Stuck in the middle of the bleak northeast, curled up beside roaring log fires with thick, chewy books pilfered from their library, I learned a bit more about the desert; its role and its riches.
The desert is a place of acknowledged need. It is a place of thirst and hunger, a place of extreme heat and extreme cold. It is a place where your dependence on God is brought to the forefront. The desert fathers chose it as a place of solitude - a time for the heart to be alone with God. A place to face and fight your inner demons (as in the monastic refrain, 'your cell will teach you everything'). A year ago, I sensed God telling me that he was leading me into a year of drought. A few months later, everything fell apart. Does that sound dramatic? It felt dramatic. Things I had counted on for security were taken away, and in their stead a whole raft of changes blew in. I became depressed, and in trying to deal with some of the challenges that threw up, came face to face with a whole host of inner demons. Part of this year has been learning how to embrace celibacy - and so much of that feels like a desert.
Here in this place of depression and desert I am in a place of loss - a place of grief and anguish. It's a place where I am alone with my heart - with all its pains and longings and weaknesses and fallibilities, stripped of falsehoods and deceptions which comfort and self-satisfaction provide. I am in a place of extremes: extreme cold - the absence of the warmth love and partnership bring, of embrace; and of scorching heat - the heat of anger, rage towards myself, the church, and perceived injustices. There is no shelter behind which to hide from these extremes. Here in the desert I am left bare before them.
But as I stood in the barren, bare, windswept fields in northumbria, watching the thick mist roll, I found myself thanking God for the desert. Thanking him for the insight it provided, the opportunity to rinse my soul, to uncover wounds and perceptions which fogged my faith. In reply, he told me there were more riches to be found in the desert; and to enjoy it.
Before you start worrying I'm going all dark ages and self-flagellating on you, I don't mean 'enjoy' as we commonly use it, but meaning literally 'to find joy in' the desert. The more I walk with God, the more I realise the link between suffering and joy. 'The crown of suffering is joy' keeps floating through my head, and I think it's true. "We have left everything for you!" exclaimed Peter to Jesus in Matthew 19, and Jesus replied, "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.' It's not just that God blesses us; suffering increases our capacity for joy. We train our souls to let go of the foolish, filthy toys of this world, and in doing so open our hands to receive the solid, true riches of God. "Indeed," wrote CS Lewis, "if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
It's not fun in the desert. There is altogether too much pain for that. But I pray that as I continue to journey deeper into this drought, that it would be a journey deeper also into God's heart; that my eyes would be opened to new joys, new riches and new loves; and I would hear DL Sayer's bonny outlaw Christ singing,
"Lady, lady, will you come away with me? Was never man lived longer for the hoarding of his breath; Here be dragons to be slain, here be rich rewards to gain... If we perish in the seeking, ...why, how small a thing is death!"