A few years ago, Spike Lee directed the movie, 25th Hour. It stars Edward Norton as a guy convicted of selling drugs. He has one day left before he goes to prison. He has one day to say goodbye to his friends and to imagine what could have been—if he hadn’t gone down the path he chose.
At the end of the movie, his father, played by Brian Cox, is driving him to prison. They’re going up the interstate, and they’re approaching an exit that would take them out west. He doesn’t want his son to go to prison. His father says to give him the word, and they’ll just take off.
In a beautiful monologue, as they’re traveling across America with its vast array of scenery, his father lays out the alternative. He tells his son he can still have another life. Find some little town out west and just blend in. And he talks about the landscape.
He says, “Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die. Nothin’ at all for miles around. Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky. Not a soul in sight. No sirens. No car alarms. Nobody honkin’ atcha… You find the silence out there; you find the peace. You can find God.”
In the early church, in the 3rd through 5th centuries, people known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers went out into the wilderness. They lived in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Arabia. They also were seeking God. They were fleeing the corruption of the cities, as well as a church that more and more identified with the state, the Roman Empire. Christ and Caesar were becoming indistinguishable. (We often have that problem today!)
Brian Cox’s character in 25th Hour would likely agree with the Desert Mothers and Fathers. The desert is a place to flee the corruption and madness of civilization. It is certainly a good place to find solitude. Still, if the motivation is to simply escape the stench of society and of other people, then that is not a path of love. It is a path of self-deception, and ultimately, a hatred of those we would flee. And the terrible irony is if we don’t make an effort at peace, then we carry those people with us—and not in a good way. It’s a burden.
Solitude need not only be found in the desert. It can and should be found here in daily life, in times of withdrawal from the busy voices filling our lives to hearing God. (But maybe escaping the stench of others still applies! I’m including myself in the category of stinky!)
The desert is a place of contradiction. God can be found there. It can be a place of new life, of renewal. But it is equally a place of death. It is a place of thirst. When moisture is at a premium, we shouldn’t expect to find lush gardens. But it can also be a place of great beauty.
The desert can be inhospitable, especially for those who do not respect it. The desert is not a place for arrogance.
In his book, Thoughts in Solitude, Thomas Merton speaks of those desert monastics, the desert wilderness, and the way we often treat the desert—to our peril.
Regarding the Desert Fathers and Mothers, he says that they “believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men [and women]… The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone… God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.”
There is something supremely counter-cultural when looking at the desert this way. It is a rejection of what we usually believe is important.
Still, as Merton points out, there are other aspects. “First, the desert is the country of madness. Second, it is the refuge of the devil… [Remember, the Holy Spirit sent Jesus into the desert, and he was tempted by the devil.] Thirst drives [us] mad, and the devil himself is mad with a kind of thirst for his own lost excellence—lost because he has [imprisoned] himself in it and closed out everything else.”
I suppose there is a bit of madness, a bit of craziness involved in choosing to live in the wilderness—maybe a good kind of crazy, but still, a craziness that has to be held in check.
In Mark 1, we see someone who’s a bit of a madman, John the Baptist. He’s been out in the wilderness, and his diet and appearance might be considered slightly crazy. (Perhaps I’m speaking out of turn. Do we have any connoisseurs of locusts and wild honey?) Despite all of that, people are going out to him so that they can be baptized.
Notice what he says about the coming One, the One whose advent is near. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John uses water, but the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit, and as Matthew and Luke add, with “fire” (Mt 3:11, Lk 3:16). The Holy Spirit is often associated with fire, as on the day of Pentecost.
How appropriate it is, while in the desert, to speak of one who baptizes with the fire of the Spirit.
If we can summon and practice patience, we can hear the voice of the Spirit in those lonely places.
In Isaiah 40, the prophet speaks words of comfort. In verse 3 we hear, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The desert is indeed a place for listening. But we have to be silent.
Verses 4 and 5 add, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” According to the prophet, the desert is not only a place for listening, but for listening to good news.
Mark borrows words from Isaiah, agreeing that the desert is a place for listening—and listening to good news. However, he adds a new dimension, a different perspective. Here, it is word that Messiah is coming; the advent is near.
We need that word in the desert, because as I mentioned earlier, there is also the reality of human arrogance in the way we treat the desert.
In his book, Merton also talks about this. With our technology, “the wilderness at last comes into its own. [We] no longer need God, and [we] can live in the desert on [our] own resources. [We] can build there [our] fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal and experimentation and vice.”
In our desert southwest, with moisture at a premium, metro areas have been built. And when we think of experimentation and vice, what better example of a metro area is there than Las Vegas! And thinking of fantastic, protected cities of withdrawal, what better slogan is there than “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”?
He goes on, “When [we] and [our] money and machines move out into the desert, and dwell there, not fighting the devil as Christ did, but believing in his promises of power and wealth, and adoring his angelic wisdom, then the desert itself moves everywhere. Everywhere is desert.”
I imagine you’ve figured out “desert” as a place of building those protected cities of withdrawal, of human arrogance, is not simply a literal desert. It is the desert in our own lives. At the same time, desert is the place where we listen for good news. The desert is where we can find God. As I said before, the desert is a place of contradiction.
What are the deserts in our lives? Where are those places of contradiction? Where do we need the crazy ones to bring us water—to plunge us into water—and bring good news?
The prophet comments on our fragility, saying, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (vv. 6-7). And in one of the most powerful lines in the Old Testament (in my humble opinion), he declares, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever” (v. 8).
As the rock band Kansas once sang, “All we do / Crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see / Dust in the wind / All we are is dust in the wind.” Even our plans are dust in the wind, or perhaps, sand being blown by the desert wind.
Desert experiences, be they uncertainty, abandonment, bereavement, whatever, can be barren and trying. Even so, there is that voice in the wilderness, crying out to prepare the way of the Lord. Even in the desert—or maybe, especially in the desert—the Spirit blows where it wills. That Spirit of fire calls us to good news. Even in the bleakest of places, the coming One welcomes us.
When we acknowledge and embrace and take joy in that, then the desert will bloom.
 Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1958. eBook edition, 2011), Kindle edition, Chapter 1, section 2, paragraph 1.
 Merton, 1.2.3
 Merton, 1.2.5
 Merton, 1.2.6