Is the Desert the Most Spiritual Landscape?

Joshua Tree WilderneSS Experience

I’ve been busy ever since I got back from my time in the wilderness of southern California. My brother was in town for the first couple of days. Then my Aunt Jayne and Uncle Jim were in town. We had lots of snow and ice to clear. And it’s also just been hard to catch up on the normal stuff. Especially when everyone else around me is basically up-to-speed on the new semester, and I’m playing catch-up. I have hope that things will eventually level out. But for now, I’m struggling to gain traction.

All that notwithstanding, I’m still very glad for the extra and extended time that I had with God in the desert. Like I wrote when I started debriefing my week in the wilderness: “The desert is a fascinating place, and I understand now how the austerity of the landscape can really help to force one’s focus inward and upward.” But is the desert landscape the most spiritual landscape? I’ve been wondering about this, since my return to Ohio.

Joshua Tree WilderneSS Experience

Ironically, while I was in the desert, I felt like God showed me that I don’t have to go to the desert to be with Him. A person doesn’t have to go to Mount Sinai or Eagle Mountain to soak up the Presence of God. I’m inspired by the example of Moses in Exodus 33:7-11 to just go right outside of my daily living space, to get with God in my self-contained, self-selected “Tent of Meeting.”

And the more I started thinking about this, the more I remembered other spaces where God has met me.

One special place to which my mind has returned through this experience is the Benedictusberg in the southern part of the Netherlands. That may actually be the closest parallel to this month’s WilderneSS Experience. It was a clear getaway from everyday life, with multiple days in a row of deliberately seeking God and listening for His voice. The main difference between the wilderness and the Benedictusberg was the comfort level. At that Benedictine monastery, I got my own spacious room with a bed, a desk, a bathroom, and a window looking out over the farmlands. They even fed me three delicious meals per day. And they served coffee and tea at other parts of the day! What a special experience that was! And God really did meet me there, too, just as he met me in the desert.

I’m thankful for all the different times I’ve gotten to do something like this (albeit usually in smaller doses). I’m thinking of a small cabin with a wood-burning stove near Appeldoorn. Or the Gracepoint Retreat Center near Yosemite National Park (especially the majesty of the Mariposa Grove and the Merced Valley). I remember how full my heart felt while driving out to Colorado by myself, stopping in Custer State Park to see the Needles, Cathedral Grove, and the herds of bison

Even some of the brother trips I’ve taken through the years have a similar emotional core (even if not exactly the same spiritual focus): Scotland with Jay (x2)… Ireland with Todd and Joe… Iceland with Chad and Jason… the Indiana Dunes and Chicago with Elliot (echoing an earlier trip with Dad, Jay, and Alex)… the Adirondacks with Cor… and even all the different anniversary trips I’ve gotten to take with Marci.

All of these experiences have woven together to create a rich tapestry of walking with God and enjoying His Presence. And most of them have not involved sleeping on the ground for seven nights or fasting for three days!

Honestly, even as I read the Book of Exodus out in the desert, I was reminded of the way that eating can be an act of worship. The people gathering manna and quail demonstrated daily dependence upon the LORD. The Passover Feast (plus two other feasts mentioned, but not detailed, in Exodus) included all kinds of feasting. Explicit instructions in Exodus talk about the priestly portion of food drawn from the Tabernacle offerings. I still see a clear biblical precedent for fasting (Moses took no food or water for the 40 days that he was up on Mount Sinai with the LORD). But there’s something to be said for incorporating food into these times of seeking God, too.

I’m just saying that fasting is not the only form of worship or the best form of worship.

Joshua Tree WilderneSS Experience

I’m still really thankful for the time that I got to spend in the desert of southern California. It was really helpful to have some external structure and organization to make myself get away from everyday life and rediscover the joys of encountering God. But I’m not sure I’m going to make an annual habit of returning to Joshua Tree National Park. Something about my time in the desert made me realize that I can carry the “tent” myself and pitch it in the place of my choosing, under the circumstances of my choosing. Which will probably involve more food, more creature comforts (like indoor plumbing and a bed), and less shivering in my sleeping bag.

In any event, my time in the desert helped me to reach a new level of resolve to more regularly seek God in similarly deliberate ways. The next time I get an email about the WilderneSS Experience, I’d like it to serve as a personal prompt to look up a Benedictine monastery somewhere here in North America, where I could pursue intentional time with God and a bed, a blanket, and food prepared for me.

Intentional pursuit of God is essential. But the means to that end are many and varied.

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