Not all desert places are dry, barren, sandy, and lifeless. Even a place such as Florida in spring can be a desert. I spent the month of March there, and my experience revealed to me that a desert can be anywhere and at any time. It is any place we enter alone, leaving behind excess baggage.
We rented a lovely home for the month, but it was not my home. Nothing there belonged to me, not the bed I slept in, the dishes I ate from, nor the walls that sheltered me. No family pictures, no mementos, nothing from my life back home. My surroundings were comfortable but unfamiliar, strange in a way. I left everything behind except for the clothes in my suitcase, and even those were inadequate. I packed for warm temperatures but many days were cool, and the mornings were downright cold! I missed my sweatshirts, among other things, that I left in Wisconsin.
I had no plans for the month, no agendas, no responsibilities other than to cook some meals and wash our clothes. I felt lost without my daily planner telling me where to go and what to do. I felt bare, naked without my “stuff” surrounding me and filling the house. To add to my unsettledness, the book I brought along to read was about the desert mothers in the early church who intentionally left their lives and “stuff” behind to go into the desert to deepen their relationship with God. Is this what a desert experience feels like? I wondered.
That thought helped me see my Florida vacation in a different light. I began to realize how dependent I am on my “stuff”. How much I cling to it. How much it defines me. And, more importantly, how I can live without it (at least for a month!). The same thing could be said with my calendar and daily planner. I didn’t stop living because I had no commitments or things to keep me busy and active. I discovered another me, learning how to simply be, letting each day unfold as it will and finding out things about myself I could never have known back home.
I should not have been surprised to find some oases in my Florida desert either. All deserts have them. A re-connecting with friends from 20 years ago, a deeply inspiring and motivating day of renewal by author Patricia Livingston, awesome sunsets on the beach – all unplanned, unexpected – graciously given by a God who inhabits not only deserts, but oases and even the life we leave temporarily behind.
The austerity and harshness of the desert places I have read about in the lives of the saints and mystics have filled me with fear and dread, something I wanted no part of. I think differently about that now. It is not a space to be feared but one to approach with trust, faith, and even wonder. Deserts hold blessings and graces not found elsewhere. I think we all need to experience that at least once in our lives. Is God inviting you to a desert place? Where might that be?