25th November 2009
This paper is one of a series of six describing a Prayer Retreat at Lake Mungo in N.S.W. Here we have an account of an inland dust storm that provoked a number of insights around the meaning of the desert .It is also the background story to the shorter version, "Desert Surrender".
After a combined Communion service in the bush we each retreated to find a solitary spot in the Lake Mungo dunes in order to reflect and to individually nibble at the lunch we had prepared for ourselves earlier in the day.
I sheltered on the windward side of a small gully that had been carved out by the winds of time in the hope of finding protection from what had developed into a howling gale .An eerie light had descended to tinge the landscape. Earlier I had seen what looked like the smoke of a fire on the horizon but now it revealed it's hand to be a full-blown dust storm intent on a "wipe-out"-Without mercy it blew away every thing that was before it .Not only were we slap bang in a most remarkable place, a place that can only be described as an area of sheer geological desecration, but we were in the midst of thousands of tons of moving desert sand. My jacket was quickly covered with fine sand and it quickly became impossible to eat my sandwiches without crunching the grit between my teeth. I was not the only one malfunctioning. When I tried to write, to scribble a few notes the ball of my biro-pen scratched the page in protest.
Over thousands of years the soft sand of the dunes had mixed with the clay base of the ancient lake only to be gradually eroded by the wind. All that remained was a patchwork of hardened pinnacles, often toped with salt bush and surviving vegetation. Like battered lighthouses of the desert they withstood the relentless wind and dotted the surrounds for as far as the eye could see. Gradually, day by day, year by year, decade by decade, grain by grain the wind was taking the pinnacles apart, dismantling them to reveal the underbelly of ages past, the archeological treasures of Lake Mungo, the early remains of civilisation and human habitation.
A blanket of dark red dust that was well beyond the lens of any camera or brush artist to capture enveloped me. The desert was on the move, the loose surface yielded while the skeletal remains of the dunes resisted as they had resisted other storms through the ages. To my surprise, three small "Welcome Swallows" appeared from nowhere and for a moment or two flew recklessly into the full force of the wind Then they were snatched away, hurled backwards and away by the ruthless power of the wind .I watched in amazement, so small but so resilient.
Before leaving, the group we had read of the "Valley of Dry Bones" from Ezekiel 37 and someone had prayed for our parched land,-- the spirit bones of our Australian nation. Indeed it is interesting to note that the vision of Israel's spiritual restoration not only included a reinhabited land but also the picture of a regenerated earth. This raised the question of the possible link between the moral/spiritual realm and the natural world. Today we are all learning that our bad choices can damage the environment but is the natural order of the cosmos and what we think of as the sciences linked to the order of the soul? If Creator God is the source of both a universal natural order and a universal moral order, does our violation of one order in some way affect the other? According to the New Testament record the moral/spiritual crisis of Jesus crucifixion was accompanied by cosmic and geological signs. The sun's light faded and the earth quaked enough to terrify the soldier's looking on.( Math 27.54) Does our rejection of God, our idolatry or sin literally result in cosmic, geographical consequences or is this just fairy tale stuff belonging to the ancient world?
Other questions about the significance of the desert were also important. What was God doing with Moses during his years of apprenticeship in the deserts of Midian? What was God teaching Israel during their years in the wilderness? Why was John the Baptist a man of the wilderness and why did Jesus retreat to desert places where He was alone?
With the dust storm raging around me I could only conclude we don't come to the desert to be entertained by its beauty, we come to be overwhelmed by the wind of the Spirit, --dried out, eroded until only the bleached skeletal remains are left. At Lake Mungo, gradually even the bones yield to the sand so that as far as the eye can see there is no evidence of life, no human relief or way of reinstating the earth or Lake Mungo's once forested foreshore.
Is all of this a desperate picture of life itself? Is the searching journey of life little more than a futile desecration of self, a sadistic, masochistic attempt that leads to nothing more than universal destruction?
I pondered, the analogy in terms of what it meant for me and the future of our world, after all throughout history, in their search for Christian piety some have withdrawn from the ruff and tumble of the market place in order to avoid the barren desert of secular society. They literally withdrew to a desert place to refine a more productive solitary lifestyle. Are these disciplines, like those adopted by the Desert Fathers of the 3rd centuary little more that an attempt to mortify the sins of the flesh, a sort of paying of indulgences to ensure a fast track to Heaven? Is it that like the ancient pilgrims of Europe who left food as good will offerings at wayside shrines to ensure their safe journey that we also strain to reach our ideals in the hope of a safe journey to a better future? On the other hand could it be that the desert places of life are, in fact, places apart, sacred places where like kneeling under the awesome arches of a Cathedral, if we come with humility we may be drawn into a refreshing awareness of another presence?
At first in my arrogance I thought I was an observer of a dust storm, an independent observer ready for an adventure. Assuming I was in control and being impressed by it's magnitude I thought I would capture the event, record it for future reference, to show others what I had endured. All of this and more until the memory of my camera suddenly ran out and I was enveloped in what almost seemed to be the angry dust of the storm. It was obvious I was not in control. I was more than an observer. Like it or not I was a participant in something well beyond my control, nor could my camera or my resources ever hope to contain it. Not only was my arrogance demolished by a loss of visibility and the awesome magnitude of the event but the grit between my teeth interfered with the food that was meant to nourish and sustain me. All of this was personal enough to come as a crushing reminder of my fragile mortality alongside the unleashed might and power of natural world.
The geographical desert then became the virtual reality of my personal desert. We are often battered and bruised as pilgrims, even transformed by our own inner wilderness. Surely the desert experiences of life, whether they be our personal sins that entrap us, the suffering or trials we encounter or the literal desert of our damaged world environment, are like the Apostle Paul's description of the purpose of the law. The desert is the schoolmaster intended to lead us to Christ. The desert places are places where we see ourselves as we truly are and they become the interventions in our lives that exhort us to trust in God and in God alone.
In the book entitled," In the Heart of the Desert" by John Chryssavgis, (Bloomington 2003) he quotes Church historian Irene Haussherr as speaking into the context of this century's reliance on rational solutions, material pleasures and power based securities as saying,
"Each time that there is a spiritual renewal in the Church, the Desert Elders are present". The writer goes on to conclude, ---"the desert is any place where we are stripped of the resources we normally rely on, a weakening of body or an oppression of spirit, a place where fresh revelations change the directions of our lives, a place where God whispers words of tenderness in our hearts" Hosea 2.14.
I concluded that nothing could be more relevant for me, for Christian people or the Church today. Being faithful stewards of the gospel entrusted to us, through the crisis desert-time in which we live, like the Saints of old we need to learn to listen to the whispers of God and tune into that awareness of His real presence.
Rev Ted (EA) Curnow