To know the wilderness as love

If you know wilderness in the way that you know love, you would be unwilling to let it go... 

~ Terry Tempest Williams

Sunday's Gospel introduced us to John the Baptist, the "voice of one calling in the wilderness". When we think of wilderness we can't help picturing somewhere barren, desolate and inhospitable; somewhere bleak, where life is stripped back and full of hardship. And when we speak metaphorically of a "wilderness experience", we mean a time of trial, intense confusion and inner drought, while "wilderness years" are endured by those who have been excluded from influence and recognition. The wilderness is not something we welcome, or expect to find welcoming; and whilst our eyes might feast on the vast sweep of a desert's stark beauty, it can be hard to imagine ever knowing it in the way we know love. We can fear it, respect it, romanticise or admire it from afar... but love it? And know it as love...?

And yet... and yet... according to Luke it was in the wilderness that the word of God came to John. This was the core of a reflection I read the other day on the Facebook page of the Benedictine nuns of Turvey. It began by referencing Those who wait by Tanya Marlow, in which she imagines John the Baptist saying: “It was in the wilderness that I finally found my place. From the first day, the vastness of the desert relieved me, and I was happy to surrender myself to its sound and space.”

The reflection continues:

This reminds me of the desert fathers and mothers who left their homes to seek God in the harsh, uninhabited desert places. They saw the desert as the place to discover the treasure of God’s presence in their hearts and to grow in self-knowledge and compassion. This resonated with one of my favourite passages from Isaiah:

“Let the wilderness and the drylands exalt, let the wasteland rejoice and bloom, let it bring forth flowers like the jonquil, let it rejoice and sing for joy.”

Harsh as the wilderness experience must have been for John the Baptist it became a place of joy and hope for him. In allowing himself to absorb its harsh silence he began to discover the person God called him to be.

Certainly, looking back on my own times of pain, heartache and difficulty, and especially on the years when prayer was filled with dark emptiness, I can see that those times in the wilderness, though hard, were also times of grace and growth and encounter. God was there, albeit largely hidden - but still ever-present. I can see hope and a strange, quiet joy; and yes, over time, I have come to know the wilderness as love.

Has it been like this for you?

Whatever and wherever our wilderness may be, whether we are deeply immersed in it or it still awaits, for an unknown future time, may it become for each one of us a place of joy and hope, where we can hear and receive the word of God. And in this mystery of growth and grace, may we all, ultimately, come to know the wilderness as love...