Every day of the year in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London we welcome large numbers of people from all over the world, and not least of all from the United States. And so, not for the first time I’m glad, if I may, to return the compliment and be with you in this service today. I think it was October, November last year when your Dean was with us in London for three or four days. We had one or two discussions. He spent the whole of a morning at a Chapter meeting, poor man. I’ve always believed that our two cathedrals have a great deal in common. I believe we have a great deal to learn from each other. And so I’m particularly glad to be here today. I did also say at the beginning—and I think from the response, one or two heard me—I brought with me the mother and father of all colds, and for that I can only apologize. I hope that my voice survives for the next, what, thirty or forty minutes. (laughter) Uh, last time you laughed! (laughter) Perhaps you think I’m serious. For the next ten minutes or so.
It’s well over thirty years now since an English journalist set out to cross the Sahara Desert. Down the centuries, there had been a well-established caravan route from the North to the South, from the Mediterranean to Black Africa. There’d never been any reason to cross the Sahara from the West to the East, from the Atlantic to the Nile. But this was the direction it would our man was determined to travel.
It was to be a journey of three and a half thousand miles. He planned to use Bedouins along the way to act as guides in the desert. But that apart, it was to be a journey that he would make alone, traveling by camel and on foot. He’d made the most careful preparations before he set out. He knew the hazards he would face: violent changes of temperature, with blinding sun and heat by day and biting cold by night, the sandstorms that could blow up without any warning and bury all living things, the physical exhaustion, the body’s sores, the mental fatigue. But then, our man knew what he was doing and why he was doing it. He wasn’t simply setting out to cross the largest desert in the world just because it was there to be done. It was a discovery of himself and not merely a discovery of the desert that he was undertaking.
He’d reached a point of crisis in his life, and he wanted to use his words to examine the extremities of his own fear. Part of him recoiled for what he was about to undertake. He feared his encounter with the desert. But he knew that if he could cope with the desert, all that the desert—the physical desert—could offer, then he would be able to cope with all the other deserts—the deserts of the mind, the desert of the spirit that we all encounter as we make our way through life.
He’d come to see that the desert is a place of truth. It’s a place where a person must travel alone, and travel light. It’s a place where all the supports we take for granted are removed. Where all the potentials with which we surround ourselves are stripped away. The desert leaves a person feeling very exposed. It humbles. It disciplines. It chastens. In the desert a man can come to know himself, the truth about himself, and if he has a mind to do so, he can come to know God, the truth about God.
The desert sharpens a person’s perspective. It enables us to see things with a new clarity. It leaves us in no doubt about our dependence upon God. Yes, the desert is a place of discovery, a place of truth, a place where a man can find the truth about himself, the truth about God.
Our man, our English journalist, has told his story in a remarkable book, The Fearful Void. I suppose that that book, when I first read it, did more to help me understand the importance of the desert in the Christian tradition than anything else I had ever read. In one sense, I knew with my mind that the desert was important. I think that book helped me to see why it was important.
The desert is there, of course, in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, in the early centuries of the Christian Church. It’s there in the Old Testament in the story of the Exodus, as the children of Israel made their way as a people from slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. But it was in the long years in the wilderness that they found their God, their faith, their law, their vocation, their identity as a people. And the experiences of those years could never be forgotten. The Exodus was the event in the light of which the whole of their history had to be interpreted.
And there again is the desert in the New Testament, in the story of our Lord being driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted, to be tested, for forty days and forty nights. It was there in the wilderness, as the Gospel writers tell the story, that Jesus discovered the meaning and the pattern of his vocation and his discipleship.
And it’s there again in the early history of the Church, in the lives of the desert fathers of the fourth and the fifth centuries who, confronted by a world that was collapsing around them, went out into the desert to find in solitude the things that are true, the things that endure. They discovered that living in the desert does not only mean living without people, but living with God and for God.
But the desert has come to mean a good deal more in the experience of the Church, than the physical desert, the Sahara if you like, where a person might choose to go. There are deserts of the mind, deserts of the spirit, through which any one of us might be called to travel at any time. The desert in this sense is not a place. It is a type of Christian experience.
And it’s not something that we choose. It’s something that confronts us, that overtakes us. For some, it will be the desert of doubt when faith is hard and prayer loses its meaning, and God is known not by his presence but by his absence. For some, it will be the desert of personal relationships—the frustrations, the disappointments, the betrayals, the breakdowns, when all that we want for ourselves and for those who we love most is either taken from us or seem to be totally beyond our reach. For some, it will be the desert of suffering and death, the torments of body and mind, the emptiness, the helplessness, the loss of all that matters.
These are things that touch every one of us at some point in the course of our lives. They are probably the nearest we come to the desert experience of which I spoke at the beginning. The desert as a place of truth. The desert as a place where we must travel alone and travel light. The desert as a place where all the supports we take for granted are removed. The desert as a place that leaves us feeling very exposed. The desert as a place where we can see things more clearly and find a new perspective. The desert as a place where we can come to know the truth about ourselves and the truth about God.
But how do we survive the desert experience? How do we learn from it, build upon it, make sure that it is for us the place of discovery, the place of truth?
Many years ago I found a book about the place of the desert in the experience of the Church. It was called A Hermitage Within, and it was written by a man who was only allowed to call himself “a monk.” I’ve always been grateful for that book because it gave me one sentence that I’ve tried to hold onto over the years. I quote, “Not everyone can or should live as a hermit, but no Christian can do without an inner hermitage in which to meet his God.” “Not everyone can or should live as a hermit, but no Christian can do without an inner hermitage in which to meet his God.”
Lent is the season of the Church’s year when we are called to find again our inner hermitage. No doubt it will mean different things to all of us: a place where we can be alone, a time when we can be still, the disciplines, the rules of life, the resources that are there within the life of the Church. Lent is the springtime of the Church’s year. It brings with it the promise of new life. But the journey of the Promised Land demands that we first encounter the desert. It is only in the wilderness, in the wastelands of our experience, that we can learn to live by faith alone and find in God the beginning of the end for every journey.
The meaning of the desert, the true meaning of the desert, is to be found in the call to love God and God alone.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.