Guest Columnist

Michelle Francl-Donnay

O God, You are my God, for You I long;
For You my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for You
Like a dry, weary land without water.
Ps. 63:1

Just how far I was from home last week became evident when the road signs warned of camels crossing – not deer. Red-gold sand rippled down impossibly high dunes. No trees, no water; there was not even a sign that water had ever flowed here. I was skirting the edge of the Empty Quarter, a vast desert on the Sinai Peninsula.

In his essay, “Praying the Psalms,” Trappist monk Thomas Merton encourages the faithful to take up residence in the psalms: “Move them into the house of our own souls so that we think of our ordinary experiences in their light and with their words.” Spending a day “residing” in the desert, the psalms and the prophets moved into my soul in new ways. I saw the desert in their light and heard their words on its wind.

As the wind spun clouds of sand and dust, obscuring the cliffs in the distance, the words of the Canticle of Moses from Deuteronomy rose to my lips: He found them in a wilderness, a wasteland of howling desert.

Suddenly I could see how you could be lost here for 40 years. I could see how you might have despaired of ever finding your way out.

The dry and weary land of Psalm 63 spread before my eyes. The sand is so dry that it simply falls through your hands. There is nothing to hold one grain to the next. The dunes shift, there are no permanent landmarks. This is a land that thirsts in a way I had never experienced – and my family lives in California’s high desert.

To thirst for God as for water in this landscape is to long for that which will give shape to our lives, will provide firm signposts for our wandering souls.

In a shallow valley tucked tight up against the mountains, swaths of green curled like ribbons through the rock and sand. Unlike the date palms that lined the highway leading here, grown with water brought miles from the sea, this blooming valley was watered by warm springs.

The waters were a delight to my aching feet; such a place must have been a nearly unimaginable miracle to a people wandering the desert. The lame will leap like a deer, God promised through Isaiah, when the parched land becomes like a marsh and the thirsty land springs of water.

The massif rose up out of the desert without warning. Forbiddingly rugged, yet promising the only shelter in sight. Psalm 31 cries, be a rock of refuge for me, a mighty stronghold to save me. God’s firm promise of safety and shelter in a world that promises little of either was clearly manifest in these immense rocks.

As I drove back through the now darkening desert, the words of Psalm 63, written it is said by David when he was in the desert, echoed still. “On you I muse through the night for you have been my help.”

Sunday found me back home in Philadelphia, far from biblical deserts and feeling almost as weary as the Israelites from all my wanderings. I picked up my breviary to pray, the first psalm was 63, and I was transported back to the shimmering desert heat. My soul thirsts for God, the God of my life. As never before.

God our Father, gifts without measure flow from Your goodness to bring us Your peace. Our life is Your gift. Guide our life’s journey, for only Your love makes us whole. Keep us strong in Your love. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. — Opening Prayer for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: