The Desert as Reality and Symbol

When one thinks of desert, one thinks of desertedness and barrenness. Yet it is a barrenness balanced with beauty. The desert is not simply one thing. In its utter simplicity the desert is multifaceted. Nor can one simply say that a desert is a desert. There are different kinds of deserts. Nor is a desert simply a place without rainfall. A desert can experience flash floods, as bedouin well know and fear. It is a diminished rainfall, an unpredictable and irregular rainfall, yet a rainfall that supports widely varied and surprising vegetation….
The experience of the desert is first of all an experience of dependency. Once one makes this shift from self-reliance to reliance upon God, from independence to dependence, the desert is no longer frightening but reveals an unparalleled beauty. The desert is a call to surrender; it is also the offer of delight. The awful becomes the awe-full. And neither of these two sides of nature can be dismissed. Both are part of the reality and the experience. Its barren landscape and dry breeze can inspire insecurity and facilitate fatigue. One can bake by day and freeze by night: survival is an issue. At the same time its varied colors, its fantastic shapes, its breathtaking vastness and staggering heights, its solemn silence, especially this stillness — these delight the senses, overwhelm them, can lead only to a beauty that one cannot grasp. Its uncontaminated and sometimes unthinkable purity can easily lead to the description from Deuteronomy 1:19 — “that great and terrible wilderness.”…

Reality becomes symbol. Reality becomes something more than simply real, or more fully real by what it reveals. Just one example — water. How the desert brings home its nature and meaning! In the desert the reality of water becomes the very symbol of life and the thin line between reality and symbol breaks down, for there is nothing more real than these symbols whose meanings are not difficult to elucidate. Water in the desert is a reality that is a gift. Every bedouin knows that. It is not to be taken for granted. One may not know with scientific sophistication its chemical composition, but one knows it contains the power of life, is a source for purification, and is always a gift, yet one upon which we depend and without which we cannot do. As symbol, its inner meaning is revealed….

“The Desert as Reality and Symbol “ by Donald Goergen, OP
“Spirituality Today”
March 1982, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 70-79.

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