“Oh, the desert is lovely in its restfulness. The great brooding stillness over and through everything is so full of God. One does not wonder that He used to take His people out into the wilderness to teach them.” Diary 6 March 1895
Lilias loved the desert. She loved its people who lived out their lives in the most basic battle for sustenance and survival. She loved the desert’s brooding beauty with its long stretches of open spaces and its clear star-filled skies. She loved its “lovely… restfulness.” Little wonder, given the crowded and cluttered conditions of the Casbah, that she found its great stillness “so full of God.” So intense, for her, was the lure of the desert that she tested her desire to return to the Southlands to see that it was of God.
She was not alone, nor the first, in her craving for the desert. Egyptian hermits of the 4th and 5th centuries – desert fathers – withdrew themselves from the activity of society to seek the calm and rest of the desert. Here, apart from the commerce and business of everyday living, they could reclaim their true selves and encounter the love of God. So rich was the learning of their solitude that people made pilgrimage to seek their desert wisdom. “Seek God,” said Abba Sisoes, “and not where God lives.”
For the thirty-seven years of Sundays that I worshipped in my Lake Wales church, I was handed a weekly bulletin upon the cover of which these words were printed: “To all who are weary and need rest; to all who are lonely and want fellowship; to all who mourn and need comfort; to all who pray and to all who do not, but ought; to all who sin and need a Savior; and to whosoever will come – this church opens wide the door and says in the name of the Lord Jesus, ‘Welcome.'” And always, almost without fail, each time I read those rest-promising words, I would experience a little catch in my heart. For this was, of course, a liberal paraphrase of Jesus’s gentle words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest… rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11:28,29)
Rest for the soul. Each of us, most likely, has a place in our mind which represents the “desert rest” that Lilias craved. And yet, in reality, rare are those places of rest, and few and far between in our everyday existence. Even when we actually experience our brand of “desert rest,” well, we take ourselves with us. Our restless and fractured and fragmented selves.
Is there ever a time when we are free from the clutter and noise of busy lives and restless hearts? The student years with deadlines and demands. . . the early years of career-building forging ones way while burning the midnight oil. . . the family years – infants, toddlers, childhood, adolescence and all the related actions and activities requisite to raising our young to leave us. . . the empty nest, then retirement with the increased care of elderly parents, to say nothing of the sheer maintenance of our own bodies and homes and accommodating our ever-expanding off-spring.
With or without the desert – real or figurative – the rest for which we long must transcend our circumstances or we will forever be tossed to and fro by whatever winds assail us. We must create our own desert – our own sanctuary of the soul – within which we can create the emotional and spiritual space that allows for the presence of God.
The Russian mystic, Theophane the Recluse, said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.” It is God, and God alone, who can give us true rest – rest for our souls.
Let us draw a circle of quiet around our hearts and welcome God into that space. Let us “descend with the mind into the heart, and… stand before the face of the Lord.” Let us catch up with our souls as He brings rest to our hearts.
Circle me, Lord,
keep protection near
and danger afar.
Circle me, Lord,
keep light near
and darkness afar.
Circle me, Lord,
keep peace within;
keep evil out.
In the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.*
*prayer from the Celtic tradition of Lindisfarne
Painting: Travel Journal 1895