By Michelle Francl-Donnay
So I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. – Hosea 2:16
I grew up on the Illinois prairie. Fields and dairy farms spread out as far as I could see, unbroken by the sorts of tall trees I dreamed of climbing. To my dismay, neither the birch tree growing outside my window nor the crab apple tree my father planted in the backyard were anywhere near large enough to climb.
Now I live surrounded by towering trees. The branches of the oak in the front yard reach out to my study window, allowing the chirping birds to safely tease the cat who guards my computer. Even in my sixth decade I will clamber up a favorite beech tree to while away a summer afternoon nestled among the leaves with a book and a thermos of iced tea. If you asked, I would say I have no desire to return to a place with a view of unrelieved fields.
But that’s not quite true. Last week, I drove through one of California’s immense inland valleys. Flat and dry, the land stretched away from me for miles in each direction, rising abruptly to rolling foothills. It was a paradoxical landscape, one that left me feeling simultaneously like a mote on the surface of the earth – nothing compared to the vastness of God – and safely cupped in God’s hands. God transcendent and God immanent in a single breath. It suddenly occurred to me that perhaps this paradoxical view was one reason people went to pray in the desert.
I generally think of deserts as risky places. To go is to place myself in peril, stripped of resources. To go there and pray is to acknowledge my fundamental dependence on God.
Deserts are uncomfortable places, hot and cold by turns, sand and dust are constant irritants. To go there and pray is to do penance.
Yet St. Cyril of Alexandria suggests that the desert Israel is lured to in Hosea is a place of safety, not of peril or penance. From the outside it seems desolate and forbidding, but inside it God’s words of hope and new life echo. I think of the Israelites, wandering the vast Sinai in safety, God ever before them, in fire and cloud, night and day.
In his introduction to “Verba Seniorium,” a collection of wisdom sayings from the desert fathers, Trappist Monk Thomas Merton points out that the desert offered these hermits a clear unobstructed view of what they sought, freedom and quiet, rest. In this open space, they could see themselves simultaneously anchored in Christ, and lost in God.
As the shadows grew long in the valley I sat on a picnic table at a rest stop to pray, firmly grounded and simultaneously lost in awe. And wished I could be like the desert fathers, foreswearing dreams of trees that could obscure the horizons, and stay and contemplate that vast wilderness forever. To be at once both lost and found in God.
All things counter, original, spáre, strange;
Whatever is fickle, frecklèd (who knows how?)
With swíft, slów; sweet, sóur; adázzle, dím;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is pást change: Práise him.
– Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., in “Pied Beauty”
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: email@example.com.