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

Desert Journeys 17/3/17

Desert Journeys 13

March 17th 2017

About twenty years ago, I went on a group tour of Egypt, and saw wonderful things – monuments which will last long after all of us are returned to dust, and gems which still shine as brightly as the day they were created. Two decades on, there are many things I remember, and the one which comes immediately to mind is probably hardest to explain. But I’ll give it a go.

We travelled overnight by coach through the desert, from Hurghada to Aswan. As darkness fell, the glow of city lights receded beyond the horizon and the sky seemed ink-black. Apart from the coach driver, I was the only person awake on the coach, and I looked out of the window, fascinated. I saw diamond-bright stars on a sky like velvet, and desolate sands and rubble streaking past on the other side of my coach window.

I was seized with a strong feeling of connection, of presence in place and time, and a sense that this was a reminder – of how the immensity of a natural landscape often makes us feel part of something larger, whilst also reminding us how small we are. When faced with a desert stretching to the horizon, or a star-filled sky reaching to the edges of our imagination, it’s hard to cling to our human-sized concerns and worries.

The American writer Henry David Thoreau wrote that ‘we need the tonic of wildness’, and I agree; when we remove ourselves from our everyday lives, reflection seems a natural reaction. And when we connect to creation in all its sweep and scale, wisdom and insight can make themselves heard. In taking ourselves away from it all, perhaps we’re best placed to rediscover who we are.

John Soanes

Desert Journeys – 16/3/17

Desert Journeys 12

March 16th 2017

Cancer makes you confront your own wilderness as you stand on the precipice of your life, wondering ‘How did I get here? What is next? Where will I be taken?’

You look around you and all is distant and remote but the world has not stopped. The cogs continue turning. Financial, material, physical and emotional burdens press in and the flesh cries out for sustenance that is not of the physical kind. The gloom surrounds you and the ability to see, to understand diminishes rapidly. You persist, however.

It is then the dawning realisation emerges that when you embarked on this journey to your wilderness you were not alone – God has been walking by your side. The peace and joy amidst this wilderness is suddenly evident. You have been pressured but not crushed; perplexed but not in despair; struck down but not destroyed.

There will be many times of trial and tribulation and our faith will be tested over and over again. But God’s grace will meet us in our wilderness and there he will invigorate and revitalise us as we start a new journey – a journey that will bring us peace and understanding and strengthen us further. Through all this we must not forget Jesus also went through his wilderness but never without God’s grace.

Hasmeeta Mahandru

Desert Journeys – 15/3/17

Desert Journeys 11

March 15th 2017

We travelled in deserts on a trip exploring the Silk Route about four years ago.  We went through part of the Gobi Desert and we touched on the fearsome Taklamakan desert.  It is there we heard the stories of the lost cities of long ago which had been buried by sand storms in the sixth and seventh centuries.  We travelled by train for miles through the Gobi, seeing the track of the Silk Route running alongside.  Sometimes the sand dunes seemed to be as high as hills, and on one occasion we could see that the hills were covered in snow. Sometimes we would stop to see ancient trading towns as well as fortresses.  Even at 8.30 in the morning, the intensity of the sun was strong enough to provoke later attacks of heat stroke (as I discovered to my cost).  The desert was, then, a fearsome place.  But it has an extraordinary kind of beauty and intensity.  The air has a purity so delicious that one wants to stay there forever.  The colours are rich and deep and vibrant.  I will never forget seeing sunrise in the Gobi.

And in among the terrifying brutality of this elemental place was exquisite beauty. Merchants of the sixth, seventh and eighth centuries built temples on their way out of or their way into the Taklamakan, either to give thanks for having survived it or to request the gods for protection.   We saw some of the Mogao caves, hollowed out of the soft rock with the most beautiful and awe-inspiring figures of the Buddha in them.  Further on, we saw a tiny family tomb with a space in the back for just the farmer and his wife.  Pictures of daily life – gathering mulberries, taking a pig to market – were there. The atmosphere was deeply peaceful. All along this harsh route were instances of man’s belief in the afterlife.

What relevance has this to our Lenten preparation?    For me, it is the fact that amidst both physical austerity and emotional or spiritual darkness, there is also great intensity of experience; there is life and hope and survival, together with evidence of man’s belief in God and life after death.  The farmer’s tomb which has survived eighteen centuries is an example of this depth of faith, and for me, at least, is a source of consolation and inspiration.
Kate Price

Desert Journeys – 14/3/17

Desert Journeys 10

March 14th 2017

Peace for the journey…

We all experience the sense of being in the wilderness at some point. Sometimes this is voluntary and at other times it is without any choice. Personally, I have experienced both. But the one that has been the most testing, and also most rewarding, is happening right now. I have been going through the discernment process, exploring my (possible) call to ordained ministry. I spent a year doubting, questioning and praying. Was this really a call from God? He seemed oddly silent. I had no intention of airing these thoughts, who on earth would believe me? I wasn’t even sure I believed it! After a year of dismissing, fighting and some full on ignoring on my part, I found myself saying the words “I’m thinking about ordination…” – nobody was as surprised as me. Everything happened very quickly from there and I now find myself preparing for a Bishops Advisory Panel and I am not sure how I got this far. It could all stop in May but for now… I prepare.

Throughout this process, I have had amazing people supporting me – but there are times when I need to take myself into a sort of wilderness; where I can retreat and listen to God. Jesus often retreated to pray in the wilderness, leaving behind the distraction of everyday life.  By following His example, I have learned that I can be nourished and enriched by solitude.

Often when I feel most alone it is then that I feel God is most aware of me; that the potential for closeness to Him is at its greatest. So whether you intentionally retreat or are forced into an isolating period of time you can be sure that God is close, He is listening and He will guide you out of the desert.

Juliette Soanes

Church Administrator

Desert Journeys – 13/3/17

Desert Journeys 9

March 13th 2017

The London School of Economics (LSE) has established a multi-faith facility for worship, prayer, interfaith discussion and hospitality for its diverse student body. Reflecting the special place of the desert for the world’s religions, the theme for the LSE faith centre is the ‘sacred desert’. The Judeo-Christian tradition was established in the Sinai whilst the Thar desert in Rajasthan was the home to ancient Hindu traditions. Trade routes through the deserts helped to ensure that deserts became places of inter-religious encounter.

The LSE Faith Centre recognises the desert as a place of profound religious intensity in spite of the harsh and unyielding nature of the terrain. These difficult and austere desert characteristics have helped develop a nomadic tradition amongst peoples living in the desert which has placed a greater emphasis on sharing and cooperation rather than colonisation.

Desert survival encourages people to put aside their differences and work together. The Desert Fathers who lived mainly in the Scetes Desert in Egypt often formed small communities, a tradition which gave birth to monasticism in Europe. The Thar Desert is home to significant numbers of Hindus and Muslims who, in spite of the violence of partition in 1947, still maintain the long-established tradition of toleration and living together peacefully.

On the face of it there seems to be a contradiction between the barren nature of the desert and its fertility in nurturing and sustaining many of the world’s great religions. Maybe it is because life in the desert reduces the emphasis on hubris, wealth and prestige. Desert life is harsh but it forces a focus on the simple basics – water, food and shelter which somehow deepen the spiritual attraction of the desert by clearing away the complexities and distractions which can characterise life elsewhere.

For the diverse student community of the LSE, the desert theme encourages reflection on how we can live harmoniously with each other. Do the lessons of desert life point us to working together rather than withdrawing behind walls and controlled borders?

Chris Ayliffe