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Blog

What Makes the Desert Beautiful

Jean Hoefling

11 Oasis

What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well. Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

My priest said words to this effect, back in Lent when I went to confession: “We have this idea that life is about a good night’s sleep and a full stomach. Comfort isn’t a sign that all is well. It’s after vigil, prayer, and fasting that salvation comes.”

How this paradox works will probably always be a mystery to me. Barrenness, deprivation, silence—they look and feel like death, yet those yawning, hollow spaces foster a life that might be what Jesus meant when he talked about “the pearl of great price.” While on pilgrimage at a monastery in the Great Saguaro Desert of Arizona, I walked a Sabbath day’s distance outside the monastery gates. The sun was at its zenith in the brassy sky, the temperature 115 degrees, shade or no shade. I pictured scorpions and tarantulas in hiding, waiting for sundown. Patience. All fiery trials eventually abate. I wrote this in my journal:

“It isn’t even the heat. It’s the silence that takes the breath away. My ears are ringing with it. The silence forces a showdown with your inner wreckage; here there’s no place to get away from, well, me. But 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. Thirty-nine pairs of shoes in the closet. Super-size your lunch. No workout without an iPod blasting. But not in the culture of desert. Plants out here keep their distance from each other in the competition for moisture. When the rain does come, it suffices. The saguaro and comical teddy bear cholla don’t need much to thrive. This lean outback reminds me that I need far less from earthly surroundings than I think. To insist on more than presents itself naturally is to squander life energies. 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.”

For most of us, the desert pushes itself into our lives without an invitation. To the extent we resist, the more obvious it may be that we need its stark ministrations. And afterwards, the water comes.