Desert Journeys 31/3/17

Desert Journeys 23

March 31st 2017

I was brought up in a church going family and I want to connect with the Anglican church in a serious way but am often unable to do so. I leave a service with more, rather than fewer questions so I regard myself as rather a failure as a Christian. I suppose deep down, I am not sure what I believe but I want to find something.

I say all this because three things have inspired me in the last two weeks. On a recent trip to Berlin, my husband and I went on a tour of the Stasi prison and were shown round an enormous complex of buildings including cells and interrogation centres – none of which had any view on the outside world. Incarceration there would have been as vast and blank as any desert. Some of the tour guides are former prisoners who are still visibly re-living their ordeals. Secondly, at the Free Thinking festival in Newcastle this last weekend, the former hostage Terry Waite was being interviewed and he talked about his 5 year imprisonment, much of it in solitary confinement and in the dark. My last inspiration was from a novel by Georgina Harding called, ‘The Solitude of Thomas Cave’. This is the imagined story of a man, in the 17th century, left by a whaling boat who, for a wager, stays alone for an entire winter. The boat returns in the spring and he is alive – just. He survives but never adjusts to normal life.

How would one recover from ordeals like these? Terry Waite said that you had to take control of your mind and establish order in your thinking to enable you to cope. That is exactly what Jesus did when tempted and tormented in the wilderness. He took control of his mind and was able to face what he knew was coming. Thomas Cave also prayed for hours a day. Prayer is the key to that inner strength for us all.

Philippa Owen


Desert Journeys – 30/3/17

Desert Journeys 22

March 30th 2017

We found ourselves in the desert; that is to say the missing part that was each other.

We were recently graduated art students, brought together in the Middle East, cast into the same place at the same time by a series of fortunate coincidences. Just before meeting we had both had the identical, intensely physical and surprising experience of feeling we’d “come home” when our feet first hit the parched earth of the Judaean desert. In that desert we felt as if connected to the very beginnings of civilisation; at the same time vibrantly and joyously alive in the present moment and yet somehow also conscious of a life about to change.

That is the curious and alluring things about the desert: sands of time, vast and everlasting yet made of individually insignificant tiny specks, constantly shifting. One is piercingly aware of transience and mortality, survival potentially being only the thin line between a few sips of water or none. One is able to connect to one’s own thoughts and beliefs in a clarity often not afforded us in the hectic bustle of a large modern city.

Perhaps this inspiring, overwhelming environment made us each more receptive, therefore able to recognise the path of a new adventure and take a leap, or maybe we were just lucky that our inevitable meeting had such an aesthetically stunning and conceptually interesting backdrop. What we do know is that all these years later we return to that desert in our minds when we need to focus on what is truly important in our lives and to remind us to be grateful for the here and now.

Thomas & Angel Zatorski


Desert Journeys – 29/3/17

Desert Journeys 21

March 29th 2017

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said —“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

One of the most famous poems featuring a traveller in the desert is the sonnet Ozymandias, by Percy Bysshe Shelley.

The words engraved on the statue’s base, ‘Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ are very powerful. Given that Ozymandias is reputed to have been an alternative name for Rameses II, arguably the most powerful ruler of the Egyptian Empire, it’s a line which can easily be taken at face value. Look at everything I have achieved, it seems to brag, and despair – because you’ll never be as great as me.

But there’s another interpretation of the ‘look on my works … and despair’ line, which the poem leads on to. The statue is fallen into ruin, its now-broken pieces submerged below the rising sands, turning to dust just as surely as the empire of Rameses II has withered and faded. Look on my empire, other mighty rulers, the poem warns, and despair that everything I ruled, and had, is now lost and buried beneath the sands of time. I even called myself King of Kings, and yet all I strove for and owned is now lost and forgotten.

‘All is vanity’, Ecclesiastes cautions, and in his poem about Rameses II and his crumbled statue (and, by implication, his empire), Shelley also reminds us that all those humans who would dare to call themselves king will one day be dust. Perhaps this can be seen as a Lenten prompt not to be too beguiled by our own importance, and instead to look at ourselves in the wider perspective of the kingdom of God.

John Soanes

Desert Journeys 28/3/17

Desert Journeys 20

March 28th 2017

A Poem

Without food and only a little to drink,
He travelled for forty days.
It was very hot there,
He felt lost, like He was in a maze.
On and on, Jesus went,
Even though there was so much heat.
The Devil tried, but He never gave up,
Even when the burning sand hurt His feet.
No juicy raspberries, not even trees,
He couldn’t see anything but sand.
Very tired as he finished the end of his trip,
God, family and friends made Him glad.
Evie Lawley, aged 8

Desert Journeys – 27/3/17

Desert Journeys 19

March 27th 2017

Amidst the events of Wednesday afternoon, in a city of sirens, helicopters overhead and blue lights, the trauma of what was happening became quite overwhelming for me at the realisation that once again London was under attack. The immediacy of the coverage of such events – the details of the casualties and their loved ones – becomes shocking as we feed on the stream of media reporting. It touches scars that cannot be seen, but that can manifest themselves in moments when we have time to allow them.

I have been on the edge of terrorist atrocities four times in my life. The first was in 1970 as a bell boy on the QE2, victim to an IRA attack. In 1973, when a bomb was detonated near the Old Bailey, I found myself driving past the incident only a couple of minutes later and being unable to comprehend what had happened. In 1996 I happened to be driving around South key in the immediate aftermath of a massive bomb in Docklands. Now this week in Westminster, the school where I work was in a lockdown following the attack near the Houses of Parliament. During the incident our school headmaster stood reassuringly present in Dean’s Yard for most of the time, as pupils’ movements were restricted. The Prime Minister spoke of the atrocity committed on innocent victims, but also of normalisation, of going about our business as usual.

In that vein I came to my church, All Hallows by the Tower, for our regular Wednesday Taizé service. Getting the tube at St James’s Park the train passed almost funereally beneath Westminster Station, the platform seeming sanitary under the artificial light, bereft of commuters. We passed silently through, but there were apprehensive looks on the faces of my fellow travellers as we thought of the devastation that had been wrought on the lives of some of those on the surface.

In the City I found my emotions becoming overwhelmed. I stopped in a café to settle myself as the day’s events overtook me. A chap in the café noticed my distress and we chatted for a few minutes before he left. He was like a voice in the desert at that moment which I was grateful for. At moments like this I find my faith gives me strength, and the well-known ‘Footprints’ prayer is very helpful. It reminds us that God is always with us and that if there are dark times when we can’t see him beside us, it is not because he has left us but because he is carrying us.

David Risley

Desert Journeys 24/3/17

Desert Journeys 18

March 24th 2017

I am dust, and to dust I shall return.

I’m no scientist, but I have a gut feeling there is some truth in this. My recent learnings in the gastronomic world have lead me towards exploring the role of bacteria in our physical well-being. Some say that we are merely vehicles for these organisms. There are 100 trillion bacteria in the average human gut, 10 times the number of cells in the whole body. I have recently been adding a sachet of 650,000,000,000 bacteria on my porridge as an experiment to check the side-effects before encouraging my post-operative mother to do the same. The antibiotics she took for 3 months will have wiped out her natural gut flora, and as probiotics are all the rage, someone recommended she take a massive daily dose of microorganisms. If you think Streptococcus Thermophilus, Bifidobacterium Breve and Lactobacillus Plantarum sound like characters from Star Trek, you are not alone. They are just a few of the many types of bacteria I’ve been ingesting daily. Not exactly a Lenten diet.

Diet fascinates me, and the relationship between life and food, bacteria, dust and even death. The bacteria that cause decay in dead plants and animals promote health in us. We are surrounded by fine particles of matter in the air: bacteria, spores, minerals, metals. Every breath is a wave of a million minute particles. There are more microbes in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet. The humble carrot absorbs nutrients from the earth that we then consume. Therefore we should value the farmer who cares for this earth. In His tilth are our seeds planted and we, too, were blown here from elsewhere. This cycle has probably been going on since the Cretaceous era, yet every day something new is revealed. How new can it be? There is nothing new under the sun. It is the earth recycling its dust into life ad infinitum.

If I am dust, I am life.

Jake Kemp

Desert Journeys – 23/3/17

Desert Journeys 17

March 23rd 2017

In 2011, I spent 6 days and nights in the southern Sinai Desert, traveling with a small group led by Wind Sand and Stars. By day we trekked on foot and on camelback, sheltering in the shade of rocks in the hottest part of the day. We ate food cooked over a fire by our Bedouin hosts. At night we slept under the stars, the moonlight magnified by the pale dunes.

That’s what we did, but what happened? How was that experience of spending time in the wilderness, admittedly not alone, yet far from the familiar, the comfortable, the known?

The desert was truly awe-inspiring with its extremes of temperature, its stark vastness and raw beauty but, for me, it was the encounter with the immensity of silence that was the most visceral experience. It stripped me back and asked hard questions. It urged me to face the reality of what I am and what I am not, what I most need and what I do not. The experience of journeying with so few belongings and no way out without a guide, brought with it a profound sense of peace.

Leaning into that silence brought clarity of thought, insight, a sense of what really matters. I was challenged, called to something beyond the known path and the safe option.

In desert times and in silence our human vulnerability is exposed. So is our false belief in our independence, autonomy or superiority of any sort. Can we dare to trust, to follow in the footprints of Jesus, to simply be there with our discomfort, our struggles, and to listen? And then, as the silence brings clarity, and truer alignment of heart and mind, can we follow his example by risking all to follow our personal calling regardless of the cost?

Felicity Collins

Labyrinth Facilitator, Freelance Trainer and Writer

Desert Journeys – 22/3/17

Desert Journeys 16

March 22nd 2017

Lent is an invitation to renew your life, and so we might wish we could, like the desert fathers, remove ourselves from the noise and confusion of modern life to live a simpler life where we could better hear God’s voice.

San Juan de La Cruz (St John of the Cross) often took his brothers, in the dark of the night, to meditate beside the river, to show how a place for silent contemplation can be found close to home. As the 5th Century desert monk Evagnius said, ‘A monk is he who, separated from all, is connected to all’.

There is no need to travel far to replicate the experience of the desert monks. We can withdraw to our own ‘desert’ if we can ‘de-clutter the soul’ by trying to remove the all the usual attachments, desires for success, and the need to achieve and gain.

For myself, the most difficult to remove are those attachments and desires that arise from defensive survival needs when attempting to cope in what sometimes feels like a hostile and aggressive world. San Juan compares this challenge to a ‘dark night’ which is to be overcome. So my Lent ‘desert journey’ will be one of trying to empty the soul of such clutter, leaving a ‘desert’ or space, for God to enter.

In such a way, we can experience the ‘sounding solitude’ and hear the ‘silent music’ * as God speaks to us, rather than the other voices we usually listen to, including our own.

*Cantico Espiritual, San Juan De La Cruz

Helga Rapur

Desert Journeys – 21/3/17

Desert Journeys 15

March 21st 2017

‘They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts he made the water flow out of the rock for them; he split the rock and the water gushed forth.’

Isaiah 48:21

What is the desert and, for that matter, where is it?

If we seek the desert, what are we looking for? Mystics down through the centuries have sought solitude in which to find God: God, that mystery which can give purpose and strength to our existence. The paradox of that needing is to recognise that we each need to find God for ourselves; no one can do it for us. Others can start us on the path, but for each of us walking that road is personal. And in that sense, we each need to find the desert in which to be alone with God.

Tom Emlyn Williams

Desert Journeys – 20/3/17

Desert Journeys 14

March 20th 2017

The dust of the road and the dust of the desert permeates so many Bible stories. Seemingly sterile yet imbued with so much possibility. Adam made of clay, stones turned to bread, Jesus healing with spit and dust, Jesus drawing in the dust, hearts of stone being converted, even the Ash Wednesday sentence said to everyone who receives the mark of ash, ‘Remember Man that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return’. One cannot spend any time in the countryside around Jerusalem without being struck by the vastness of the desert and the prevalence of dust and stones. Dust is as much a part of daily life now as it was then. It seems no leap of imagination to feel it possible to disappear into the dust of the landscape.

It is the human dichotomy of being as low a form of Creation as the dust yet also being the zenith of this Creation, made ‘little lower than the angels’ that is a meditation that never seems to wear out. How can we be both things at once? How can we get it so wrong, act as selfishly and thoughtlessly as humankind has done for millennia, and yet be loved as much as we are? And yet… And yet … And yet …

We must live with ourselves as we are made, flawed yet beautiful, as common as dust yet called to inspiration.

Adey Grummet

Education and History Officer, All Hallows by the Tower