Maybe it's just the heat, but I've been thinking a lot about the desert lately. Or maybe it's because recently I've been thinking a lot about my brother, whose health has been faltering. I've always loved getting out on the desert with him. There's always a new canyon to explore, a gargoyle rock formation, a stunning vista. Whenever you come to rest, you're overcome by a similar impulse: silence. The endless space births it and demands it. At times the desert landscape sucks the breath from your chest, and any words you dare speak are lost into the vastness the moment they leave your mouth.
The desert, I learned, is a place to listen. If you're patient, you may eventually hear the brief call of a bird, the scurry of an insect, the click of deer hooves on stone, or the wind through a crevice. But most of all you'll hear nothing but the deafening silence. It may frighten you at first. But if you have the courage to rest in it, you can get beyond the noise that's been echoing inside yourself for far too long. You'll look beyond yourself at the endless skies, and you may begin to feel very small. A bigger perspective takes over. If you manage to stay long enough, beyond the silence you may be privileged enough to hear the voice of God, saying simply, "I am God, and you are not." Okay, humbling, but for someone like me it's not a bad thing to feel at a loss for words.
Our neighborhood is pretty quiet by urban standards. As I sit outside in the early hours writing this, the only sounds are cyclist peddling by, the occasional car, and the crescendo and decrescendo of a horde of crows. It's quiet, but it's not the remote, deafening silence of the desert. Only a few steps inside from my tranquil writing spot, or out to the streets, I'm deluged again by the noise of email, gadgets, and people wanting something. Then I long for another desert trek with my brother.
The other night, I was reading a bedtime story to my four-year-old. She was distracted by her older sister who was also reading aloud in another corner. I stopped and asked if she wanted to listen to her sister's story or to mine. She said, "I have two ears. I can listen to both." My, how early and how subtly it starts.
In this grand cacophony of voices you are born into, which ones do you listen to? How do you focus in on that one still voice in the silence from beyond eternity? Most of us cannot simply go to the desert on a whim.
When I was doing my masters in theology at Regent College, among the treasure trove there, I was introduced to some of third-century Christian monks of the Egyptian deserts known as the Desert Fathers. They completely fascinated me. They were thoroughly versed in the Christian scriptures, and knew God's voice there. But they wanted to remove themselves from the vices and voices of civilian life to the desert to seek solitude, not for asceticism's or solitude's own sake but in order to attend more fully to the voice of God.
Reading some of their wisdom (Sayings of the Desert Fathers), you soon see that they not only heard God speak directly into their lives but also heard God speak to the concerns of the thousands who sought them out. (I wonder at the thought of what must have become of their solitude.) Their movement grew, the first Christian monasteries arose, and they became the inspiration for much of early Christianity.
The story of the Desert Fathers makes me realize this desire to hear God's voice runs very deep in most people throughout the ages. The challenge becomes finding his voice among the many -- kids, phones, collectors, tasks to be done, not to mention the liars and counterfeit gods -- that demand our attention. And then, are we ready for what we might hear, even if it is as simple and startling as "I am God, and you are not"?
Perhaps we don't have to go very far to find the desert. There are many deserts, metaphorically, in our lives. I think of friends in financial difficulty or in troubled relationships. I think of my brother, and of my brother's family, as they see him slip away from them. When everything feels stripped away and we're looking into the vast unknown, and when all other voices become mute to us and the silence at times becomes deafening, perhaps then God speaks most clearly. Call it grace. We may hear him directly, or we may hear him through another who has been in the desert, but when God's voice does come, the moment will be a gift given at the appropriate time.