The ancients often fled to the wilderness to meet God. Today, when possible, spiritual people take opportunities to retreat from our everyday worries and responsibilities. And there are some wild places to go. Deserts, forests, caves, beaches, plains (just watch BBC’s planet earth)! There’s even the urban desert where it takes the most courageous of the oppressed to find one fresh vegetable. Yet, the most insightful humans have discovered another desert. They go there or are led there by some unknowable force. And inside that place, they find they are just as helpless as if the Sahara’s sun were beating down with no oasis in sight. It is the desert within. It is that place where, as Carlo Carrretto says, “One meets God beyond the senses, beyond the imagination, beyond nature.”
Now, I am not one who advocates a scorn of this world. I quite like this place. Still we would be wise to heed the call of those who went before us: in order to enter this world rightly, we must first be taken out of it and get stripped of every attachment for worth and meaning that is ultimately linked to anything less than God. It is said that there should have been thirteen disciples of Jesus, but one could not give up everything he owned, sold it to the poor, and followed the Master. Jesus could have accepted his money, like he did with Mary Magdalene and the others, as a ministry contribution. And there were other rich disciples. But for this one, Jesus knew that he must give up even his attachment to wise giving and the ability to act as patron. It was as if Jesus was saying in line with Carretto, “It is not your acts and deeds that I want; I want your prayer, your love.”
And for this to happen, we must embrace that place inside and out where we find ourselves most helpless. Don’t seek for helplessness. It will find you at the right moment in the right place. You will then find out what Merton meant when he said about a humble heart, “That is why they refuse to keep still. They want to be the sole principles of their own acts. The thought that they cannot act according to their own spontaneous impulsion brings them a suffering and humiliation, which they find it hard to stand.”
The wilderness experience is never about feeling bad. It is about becoming more than a shadow of our best selves. It is about tapping into a great and mysterious flow of life force. It is about melting away all that is within us that would starve us from joy. It is about becoming perfect lovers who can offer a single act of perfect love, “where every vestige of hate, resentment and selfishness has been destroyed by this love and cast into its fire.” Carretto was deep onto a mystery. And when we look into a mirror or are led into the helpless tracks of deserted wilderness, may we be ready for the abandonment it will take for survival. May we learn peace in our small deserts so we can find what meaning lies hidden in the large. And, may we learn to die now so our beautiful lives and their glorious forces may be transformed into the loving likeness of God himself.