I first fell in love with the desert in 1967 when I moved to the red rock country of Sedona, Arizona to join the Spiritual Life Institute. I had grown up in lush green New England, yet I immediately loved everything about the desert: the stark landscape and sparse vegetation, the heat and aridity, the clear air and bright skies, and especially the silence and the spaciousness, where the inner as well as outer landscape drew me far beyond familiar horizons.
I learned how to garden in dry soil, to explore the habits and habitats of shy desert animals and cheeky birds, to wait through long droughts and then revere the power of lightning, thunder, and flash floods through the arid snaking arroyos.
I gathered rocks, bones bleached white in the glaring sun, cactus “skeletons,” dried seedpods and grasses. I learned the names of all the wild plants around me because they were my friends and companions. I discovered where they “lived” and when they might appear, but they were always surprising me. My favorite plant remains the evocative four-wing saltbush, a lovely pale green in spring and an equally lovely sand color in autumn.
When we lost our Sedona retreat center to land developers in 1983, I was heart-broken. Just as every Carmelite around the world considers the slopes of Mt. Carmel, outside of Haifa in Israel, the “homeland of the heart,” I called Sedona my “homeland.” Yet a new desert found its way into my heart and taught me deeper dimensions of the meaning of desert.
Sometime after we relocated to Crestone, Colorado, friends took me to the Great Sand Dunes an hour away. The massive rounded dunes reminded me of the Sahara and seemed as close as I’d ever get to the North African desert that has captured my imagination since childhood. I looked at the vast expanse before me and said out loud, “This is worth losing Sedona for.”
As I wander the Dunes over the years with friends and family, with our students from Colorado College, and especially by myself, I always look for a concave spot where I lose sight of the surrounding Sangre de Cristo Mountains and see only sand and sky. Then I know even more deeply what William McNamara meant when he wrote, “The desert is not merely a natural phenomenon, but a way of life.”
When I left monastic life in 2005 after almost forty years as a monk, it was natural for my heart to lead me more deeply into the desert in all its meanings, and to the creation of the Desert Foundation.