The gifts of the desert

Image by _Marion from Pixabay

The desert has a long history as a wilderness place where we are forced to confront ourselves in that barrenness that leaves us nowhere to hide. Often this is used as an image to describe the wilderness times that all lives encounter, but it’s also been used as a place to intentionally strip our lives bare (think of the Desert Mothers and Fathers).

I recently came across a little novel written by Agatha Christie in 1944 under the name of Mary Westmacott that used this theme with haunting beauty. The book is called Absent in the Spring, and it’s a significant departure from her usual cozy murder mystery style.

The book chronicles a trip by a middle-aged woman who is heading home to England after visiting her youngest daughter in Baghdad. It’s normally a week-long trip via an overland route, but she gets stuck at the Turkish border for days due to a train mishap where she finds herself isolated and alone in desert terrain.

At the start of the book, she is a very self-satisfied woman with a bit of a condescending air and a strong control streak about her, but a chance encounter begins to hint that maybe her life isn’t really as perfect as she thinks it is.

As she encounters this extended time alone in the desert with nothing to entertain or distract her, she is gradually forced to re-evaluate herself and her family, and she begin to realize that her attempts to control everyone around her has done more damage to those she loves (and to her relationships with them) than she had ever allowed herself to see.

As the days in the desert continue, her attempts to hide from this truth with the illusions she’s built up for herself over the years gradually collapse. She experiences a deep change of heart and a spiritual breakthrough in that desert place that she vows to carry back with her when she returns.

The story of the gradual unraveling of her carefully built illusions about herself and her life and her confrontation with herself as she has been (first with horror and then with growing repentance and commitment to change) has stayed with me long after finishing the book because of how well it describes my own experience of desert times.

The deserts in our lives

Most of us will never have the opportunity to spend time alone in the geographical desert, but that doesn’t keep the desert from coming to us in its own way.

Quite often, those times when we encounter brokenness in our lives are times when we find ourselves thrown into an emotional and spiritual desert place. The deep grief and pain that we experience at those times breaks through our normal illusions about ourselves and our lives and offers us the chance to encounter ourselves as we really are.

Just like the woman in Christie’s novel, this deep encounter with self inevitably becomes an intense spiritual encounter as well. The defenses we employ to hide from the truth of our selves that we do not want to see wind up also being walls that shut out the Divine.

As those walls collapse, the Divine flows in along with the deeper level of truth. (This is as likely to cause us to doubt or question our faith as we have understood it as it is to bring comfort, at least initially.)

These desert times are not easy to go through, nor are they times which are well-understood or supported in our culture, but they come for us anyway.

Staying with the desert

When we find ourselves in those desert times, our first instinct is to anything and everything we can to escape back to our normal lives. We do our best to distract ourselves with busyness and to numb ourselves to the intensity of the experience.

Not only is this a natural response to pain, it is also our cultural norm for responding to difficulty. But avoiding the desert when it comes for us only prolongs the suffering.

In the novel I referred to earlier, the main character had experienced numerous opportunities for breakthroughs and change earlier in her life, but she kept herself so busy controlling those around her that she avoided ever seeing the truth of herself.

When her eventual encounter with herself came in that desert place, the intensity of the experience and the amount of damage that had been done to her relationships was so much greater for having been postponed for so long.

So it is with us. Leaning in to those desert times when they come to gain whatever insight is available to us allows us to heal in stages along the way as each new layer rises to the surface.

The gifts of the desert

When we are willing to stay with the desert times when they come and lean into whatever is available to be seen ourselves and our lives, we open ourselves to healing and transformation.

Observing ourselves as we really are makes space for the deep wounds in us to be dealt with in ways that shift them from liabilities that create pain for ourselves and those around us to the kintsugi gold of healing that offers that healing back out to the world.

The clarity of vision found in the desert also helps us to make sense of our lives in ways that can radically improve our decisions and our interactions with others as we operate from a deeper knowing of ourselves.

And the encounter with the Divine that is inherent in our opening to greater truth creates greater meaning and purpose, even when it comes with an initial destabilization of what we thought we knew. Staying with that evolving relationship creates the possibility of greater depth in our spirituality.

Time in the desert is always hard and always challenges us to our limit, but leaning into those challenges with a determination to gain all of the insight, truth, and wisdom available makes it possible to maximize our healing and our gold from those challenging times.

In the novel, the main character returns to her old life in England determined to be a different person, but encounters even greater difficulty upon trying to integrate those changes into her old life. Next week, we’ll take a look at ways to best bring back the gifts of the desert into our everyday lives so they don’t get lost.

Questions to ponder

When have you experienced desert times in your life? How did you react to them when you encountered them?

What have you gained from times in the desert? What clarity of vision about yourself or your life? What spiritual insights? What healing or transformation?

How might you change your reaction to desert places in the future to gain more from those times?

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2 thoughts on “The gifts of the desert

  • July 6, 2016 at 11:10 am

    I always appreciate your posts and the same goes for this one. As I look back over my life, it becomes so clear to me that those desert times have made me stronger; however it still seems that when I first get into a desert situation, I have to remind myself to go to the oasis. Also, thank you for the information on Agatha Christie’s book. I didn’t realize she had ever written under another name. I will be on the hunt for the book.

    • July 6, 2016 at 12:08 pm

      Thanks so much, LuAnn! I’m slowly learning to value the desert times in my life, but I still tend to resist them so strongly, especially when I am first entering them, even though I know they have gifts for me in the long run.
      I just happened upon this book at a used book store, and it was the first I’d heard of this other pseudonym of hers. The description on the back of the book bears little resemblance to the actual story (in my opinion), but parts of her self-realization hit so close to home for me that I’ve found myself thinking of it over and over again since I finished it. If you find a copy, I hope you enjoy it too!

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