Desert Journeys – 11/4/2017

Desert Journeys 30

April 11th 2017

Aboriginal hunter in outback at sunset.

Many cultures and faiths other than Christianity feature stories or traditions of people stepping away from home and going off into the wilderness, often to commune with something greater or divine.

The aborigines of Australia walk the Songlines across thousands of miles, the Native Americans seclude themselves in a natural environment on Vision Quests, and the story of the Buddha reports that he left a life of luxury and meditated under the Bodhi tree for 49 days before achieving enlightenment.

In our ‘always on’ lifestyle, where smartphones and emails constantly connect us to the 24-hour cycle of updates and newsfeeds, and where the ethos is often to add and complicate rather than to subtract and simplify, it’s both challenging and appealing to think about unplugging ourselves from the constant churn of input, and to allow the natural world around us to be heard.

Forty days and nights of fasting in the desert isn’t feasible for most of us (many employers allow flexible working now, but wi-fi tends to be hard to come by in places where the view to the horizon is nothing but sand), but it’s nonetheless possible to get away from it all, even if only on a temporary basis; in recent years, the idea of a ‘digital detox’ has been gaining in popularity, and whilst it might be beyond some of us to go an entire day without checking email or social media, simple steps like not checking email before breakfast can be seen as a small victory, a way of fighting the temptation to allow a distraction to become an addiction.

Similarly, physically taking oneself away from everyday locations can allow for refreshed insight – a change, they say, is as good as a rest. A lunchbreak spent in a nearby park instead of eating a sandwich at your desk, or even taking a moment to look up, at the sky, instead of down at a smartphone, can provide us with a micro-retreat – a small speck of comfort, perhaps, but then again the biggest desert is made up accumulated grains of sand.

In his popular philosophy book The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff points out that “if timesaving devices really saved time, there would be more time available to us now than any other time in history”, and yet we often hear about our ‘busy modern lifestyle’, one in which it seems that we have no time to stop and think, or to walk in nature – we have things to prepare for, plans to make, and things to do.

And yet as the time of his passion drew close, Jesus made a point of taking himself away from everyday life to reflect and prepare for the days to come; if this was the case for Him, how much more so would our lives benefit from us breaking from routine to think, reflect, and pray?

John Soanes


Desert Journeys – 10/4/17

Desert Journeys 29

April 10th 2017

I have been privileged to travel widely in my life. I have seen majestic mountains, green valleys covered in wildflowers, awe-inspiring waterfalls, animals of every size and shape, and oceans teeming with fantastically coloured coral and fish.

But one of my favourite areas of beauty is the desert. I have wept for joy at a breath-taking sunset. I have been lost for words at the intricacy of limestone formations. I have laughed with exhilaration, racing over massive sand dunes on a quad bike.

We often use the desert as a metaphor for difficult times, loneliness or solitude. Indeed, all of these have their place, and God can teach us much, and show us his power and faithfulness in them.

Lent can be like that. It reminds us of the sadness of Jesus’ journey to the Cross; of the seriousness of our failures which demanded his sacrifice; of the wretchedness of life without the grace of God.

But the desert can also be a place of life and growth, of amazing discovery, of adventure and celebration.

And Lent can be the same—as we read our Bibles, give more time to prayer, live generously and spend time with the people of God, we can be enriched in faith, encouraged in hope and excited by all that God can do in and through our lives each day as we give ourselves into his hands.

In Philippians 4, Paul exhorts us to rejoice in the Lord. I love the way Eugene Peterson phrases it in The Message: Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him!

Let’s make Lent not only a time of reflection, but also a time of rejoicing—beauty in the desert.

Janet Gaukroger



Desert Journeys 7/4/17

Desert Journeys 28

April 7th 2017

Prison as a desert journey…

Imagine yourself in war-torn Germany in April 1943, being hauled off to prison by the Nazis, not knowing the charges against you, much less how long your imprisonment might last. How would you feel? How would you react?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the great Lutheran theologians of the 20th century provides fascinating insight into this scenario in his book, Letters from Prison.

…People outside find it difficult to imagine what prison life is like. The situation in itself – that is each single moment – is perhaps not so very different here from anywhere else; I read, meditate, write, pace up and down my cell… The great thing is to stick to what one still has and can do…and not to be dominated by the thought of what one cannot do, and by feelings of resentment and discontent.

(Bethe, Eberhard, ed., 1981. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. London: SCM Classics. p. 4)

Does Bonhoeffer’s early desert wisdom carry him through his two years of incarceration? The intimacy of his personal writings to family and friends, and the faith to which they testify, makes compelling reading. Immerse yourself in his desert journey.

(Bonhoeffer was martyred on 9 April 1945)

Sarah Owens

Lay minister, St Anne’s Lutheran Church

Desert Journeys – 6/4/17

Desert Journeys 27

April 6th 2017

The desert has many teachings

In the desert,

Turn toward emptiness,

Fleeing the self.

Stand alone, Ask no one’s help,

And your being will quiet,

Free from the bondage of things.

Those who cling to the world,

Endeavour to free them;

Those who are free, praise.

Care for the sick, But live alone,

Happy to drink from the waters of sorrow,

To kindle Love’s fire With the twigs of a simple life.

Thus you will live in the desert.


This lovely little poem was written by Mechthild of Magdeburg who was born around 1208 and died in 1282 at the convent of Helfta near Eisleben in Saxony-Anhalt. For about 40 year she lived and worked as a Beguine in Magdeburg.

Mechtild’s theological works were written in vernacular German and not in Latin. She sometimes referred to a divine authorisation for her mission and her criticism of church dignitaries, religious laxity and claims to theological insight aroused so much opposition that there were calls for her writing to be burned.

In the context of a simple, solitary existence in the desert, Mechtild identifies, in this poem, the virtues of caring for the sick and freeing those who seek to cling to the world. The poem praises the goal in living in an imaginary desert and how this might be achieved. The language of the poem beautifully captures the simplicity of desert life – the phrase “the twigs of a simple life” is particularly powerful.

The messages from the 13th. Century of seeking freedom from the bondage of things and breaking the bonds that cause us to cling on the world seems remarkably prescient today. The simply expressed insights into desert life and the parallels which are drawn identify this poem as a particularly appropriate to study and ponder during Lent.

Chris Ayscliffe


Desert Journeys – 5/4/17

Desert Journeys 26

April 5th 2017

Lent. Time of desert and purification. Time of silence and temptation. Jesus went to the desert for forty days, fasting and being closer to his Father. He alone. Trying to listen more carefully to his voice, to create a space for himself and for God the Father, trying to better understand what he was going to experience during his Passion.

The desert is very crucial and surprising for Christians: we are in front of Jesus who looks powerless, tempted three times by Satan, but with an extraordinary power which only the Father can give. He didn’t give up, even when he was about to fall, even after days and days of fasting.
All this internal power and strength he showed against the Evil was given by a stronger and a deeper relationship with his Father, being closer to him and listening to his voice. Jesus for forty days experienced the weakest human nature.
And we are asked to react to our temptations simply as he did: establishing a closer and a true relationship with God our Father, taking a time from our busy everyday life, listening to his voice, authentic nourishment for our lives.
Matteo Lachetti

Desert Journeys – 4/4/17

Desert Journeys 25

April 4th 2017


On my journey as an artist I often feel rather lost, as in a desert wilderness. I can be plagued by self-doubt, unclear of which path to take and starved of inspiration and direction.

The work I always turn to when floundering in such quicksands is Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. I first saw an image of this sculpture in a book at school and it affected me profoundly. I later saw the sculpture ‘in the flesh’ and was deeply moved by it. A version is displayed in the gardens west of the Houses of Parliament in London.

The work commemorates the heroism of the six Burghers of Calais who were willing to give up their lives to save the French port of Calais from siege during the Hundred Years War.

Such self-sacrifice is tenderly yet harrowingly depicted in the work; the figures’ expressions and gestures are anguished and melancholic, rather than self-glorifyingly heroic.

The six burghers were eventually spared execution, thanks to the intervention of Edward III’s wife Philippa.

This work that speaks so powerfully of the wilderness of self-sacrifice often serves to steer me through my own creative desert. That a work of art can have such a profound affect redirects me to the path of making again, however rocky that route can be.

Victoria Burgher

Desert Journeys – 3/4/17

Desert Journeys 24

April 3rd 2017

This Wednesday will mark two weeks since the attack on Westminster.  We have all, in some way or another, been affected by what happened.  Some of us were there, or know someone who was killed. Others of us are simply part of the wider narrative of national pain felt by the whole UK. But, interestingly, much in the same way after September 11th, Bastille Day, the Boston Marathon, and the Charlie Hebdo killings, there is another narrative – this one worldwide – that flows alongside the grief and pain.

It is a narrative of love, and it tells the story of resistance and resilience in the face of adversity. We’re not all lawyers or priests, army generals or politicians. We don’t all have a leading role in the wider story of justice, but we all have a part to play and in difficult times like this humanity shows us its best while coping with its worst. A prayer, a hug, the refusal to give in to fear and intolerance – all these things are ways in which we contribute to this narrative of love, we only need be brave enough to do it.

Our local Tube Station sent us this poem, written by a staff member in the wake of what happened. It is simple, but it is heartfelt and it reminds us that we all have a role in strengthening our world and the people in it.

In these sad times
London can feel quite small
But the people join together
And we stand so tall

We love this great city
And enjoy it every day
Some times can be tough and
We don’t want to play

The sun will always shine bright
It will never fade
Together we are London and
We are not afraid…..

Samuel Gaukroger, All Hallows by the Tower

Poem by Tower Hill Underground Station staff

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