“Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tested by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over he was famished.” (Matthew 4:1-2 NRSV)
One of my favorite experiences of living in Jerusalem for almost a year was our trips into the desert of Wadi Qelt. The desert in “The Holy Land” (or “The Land of the Holy One”) is what Scripture often calls the wilderness. The wilderness where Jesus walked and meditated and faced temptations is not a thick, dense, dark forest of huge trees, but a vast expanse of sand dunes and rocks, As far as the eye can see, a landscape of golden, glittering hills and valleys rises and falls. It is breathtakingly beautiful and literally breathtaking by its heat and dryness.
I loved the desert. I love my memories of the desert. The more often we traveled there, the more I noticed the abundant life that flourished in that rugged place. My journal always went with me to the desert.The temptation for me in the desert was to expect poignancy and meaning. But I did not write about great spiritual insights most of the time, I recorded the rich physicality of the place–not in sentences but just in words. The shapes and colors jumped out at me. It was as if God was saying, “Don’t try to be spiritual, Be in this place, right now. Just look, see, absorb, marvel, drop your jaw in awe….” If there were spiritual insights for me, they often came later. Here are some of the wilderness words I recorded.
On one visit I noticed the wide variety of colors in what, at first glance, appeared to be a bland, monochromatic landscape. So I looked more closely and made up crayon colors: Dusky Gray, Dusty Sage, Sand Tan, Scree White, Temptation Gray, Fire Ant Red, Snail White, Camel Dung Brown, Sunburnt Orange, Mottled Stone, Desert Sky Blue.
Writing haiku is another way I captured the wilderness experience. Here are a few I wrote in the desert.
Last year’s Lenten calendar theme was stepping stones in the desert. My entries were a hodgepodge of places I went and things I saw during Lent.
This year, I am in Florida, in a climate and setting quite different from the desert of Wadi Qelt. When I look out the windows of my house I see palm trees, live oaks, pine trees, vines, and ferns. It is a mini, 2-lot tropical jungle. During CoVid and before our time in Jerusalem, the jungle taught me to observe. I spent hours on the deck just looking. So many colors of green jumped out. The jungle hosted a whole community of critters: lizards, squirrels, raccoons, possum, snakes, a tiny screech owl, birds, and the ubiquitous insects and mosquitos. This year’s Lenten calendar looks like a jungle wilderness with leaves, vines, and briars. The words on it come from daily Scripture readings, many from the Gospel of John.
I am aware that my images of the wilderness, both desert and jungle, have the luxury of nostalgia, admiration, fantasy, and fascination. Wilderness is a metaphor for challenge, trials, unpredictability, and hopelessness. But wilderness is more than a metaphor. The dangers there are real, both physical and spiritual, and death is always a possibility. But so too is the possibility of unexpected new life and blossoming.