|Pilgrim's Way, Lindisfarne|
Mouths beyond dryness, we stared
at the vast face of a featureless plain
shifting under our gaze, the dust of a thousand stars
reflected in its brightness. Too fierce
the sun beat down upon heads governed by the ticking clock
and the exacting schedule.
Here in the midst of nothing, we were cast adrift
by the empty echoing voice of the wild; yet still
we found the voice drowned out by others, clamouring.
Before us lay the endless desert that called to us across the ages;
while we could only see the sand
that counted out the minutes and the months.
I'll admit it: I find the notion of the desert experience terribly romantic.
Looking back at some of the poems I have written over the past (harrumph) years, there are a few words that feature again and again. These are the words I roll around my mouth and thoughts, drawing on them to express something deep and hidden.
Wild in the sense that God is untamable (in the imagery of C.S Lewis), unpredictable, existing in a state of liberty that we cannot imagine; and wild in descriptions of uncharted places, where the rules that govern our ordinary lives no longer reign - for good and evil.
Deserts are stripped-down, bare spaces where the elements of sand and air overrule the rhythms and seasons we live by in the everyday. Where there is no true silence, as the rocks moan at the circling winds; but where a silence of the soul may be found.
Yet when we speak of 'wilderness experiences' we often mean something negative - a painful time when we are set adrift, characterised by (if we are fortunate enough) a long slow walk back to God.
During Lent many of us seek to place ourselves in the desert, through time set aside to pray, and through self-denial. Not unlike the example of Jesus, who was led into the desert by the Holy Spirit. Led, not pushed: interesting. Some of the time we spend may feel fruitless; perhaps we doubt that we have managed to make the journey into the wild at all. But generally speaking it feels good; a time to regenerate, and do business.
So what of the times we find ourselves in uncharted territory, and it is not of our making? When the sudden tragic event, the illness, the crushing disappointment of life, or the gradual cumulative pain due to whatever circumstances leaves us feeling far from home - and God? What of this wilderness experience - how can it be beautiful?
This is where I find the romance. The sense that the darkest hour, the most painful experience, can be transformed - but only if we allow ourselves to wander in the wild for some time. To return too quickly to the everyday would jar, and the sense of dislocation become acute.
For me, this Lent is both a chosen journey and one of painful footsteps in a direction I had not forseen. Events and the ecclesiastical season have chimed both beautifully and distressingly.
But that's OK: I'm out here in the desert, where I should be. I'm listening to the wind, and gazing at the stars.
I'll come home at the right time.