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?