Q: Why focus on the desert?
A: In a world of mobility and displacement, many long to recover the importance of the sense of place in general. A common Arabic greeting is “Ahlan wa sahlan,” which roughly translates, “These are your people and this is your land.” The Desert Foundation is an informal circle of friends who share a love for the desert: the land, the people and the spirituality.
Q: What if I don’t live in the physical desert?
A: The desert is not only geography, but spirit. Some desert places, such as the American Southwest and the Middle East, are considered sacred and have also become “a battleground of conflicting claims based on a multitude of cultural voices,” as Belden Lane wrote in Landscapes of the Sacred. We hope to shed light on such claims and highlight peaceful solutions to these geo-spiritual conflicts.
Q: At this sorrowful moment in history when the sons and daughters of Abraham are shedding each other’s blood throughout the world, you emphasize peace between Jews, Christians, and Muslims.
A: Yes. Peacemaking happens best when we develop a way of life that includes an understanding of desert spirituality. That is, the desert, in addition to being geography and spirit, has traditionally fostered a way of life characterized by hospitality, respect, and dialogue with the stranger. This spirit arises from various aspects of the “desert”: a freely chosen dedication to humility, interfaith dialogue, and simple, ecologically sustainable living.
Q: What about the “inner desert”?
A: The inner desert arises primarily from grief, a universal human experience: the desert of unchosen loss, death, of exposure to pain that grinds the soul to dust and bears within it the threat of despair as well as the hope of transformation, compassion, and a life dedicated to justice and mercy.
Q: Is the inner desert a dark night of the soul?
A: Mystics such as St. John of the Cross also acknowledge another dimension of the inner desert: loss of the faith that sustained us at an earlier time in our lives. Beloved images of God may no longer speak to us. Ways of praying or meditating may feel utterly fruitless. Old certainties feel embarrassingly inadequate. How could we have been so smug? John said that as faith gets deeper, it gets darker. This can be deeply disturbing, but it is not the loss of faith; it is the maturation of faith. John called it a guiding night, a night more beautiful than the dawn because it unites the lover with the beloved.
Q: Can you speak more out of your own personal experience? Your mother’s painting here profoundly illustrates your own inner desert of loss and grief.
A: Yes. My mother, Marilyn Denny, painted this Sonoran desert landscape surrounding our home outside of Tucson when she was in her prime and had full use of all her faculties. Then she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for almost eight years and finally died from a terrible fall. Her brain could no longer tell her how to put one foot in front of another and walk. The pain of watching my mother struggle, and my father with her, truly ground my soul to dust. It sometimes led me to the brink of despair, but I can honestly say that I now know deeper realms of mercy and compassion.
Q: Many of us think of the desert as a wasteland.
A: For many people, the desert is a place to avoid, a place of banishment or grief, or simply useless and vacant. In English, when we say that a place is “deserted,” we usually mean that we find nothing significant there. But Abraham, Jesus, Muhammad, and countless saints and mystics from each of the Abrahamic traditions discovered the desert as a harsh school of human and moral maturation. The Arabic verb ashara means to enter the desert willingly, for there, according to The Sacred Desert by David Jaspers, “If one knows where to look, there are springs and wells of water and places of life.” That’s why Isaiah 35:1 so aptly describes the heart of the universal desert experience: The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.