The Desert of Solitude

Spring 2010 #13

There are seasons of life that must be faced alone; times when, in spite of our urgent longing, the counsel of wise men is locked away.

In the difficult seasons of life a listening ear can be hard to find.  How often have we watched that absent, distracted look on someone’s face, even while we are unloading our grief?  With intense, private concentration they are busy preparing a tale of even greater misfortune to trump ours.  It’s so frustrating!  But, I must admit, once the crisis of loneliness has passed (as it will) I have generally been grateful that I did not say too much.  There is something holy about loneliness, and holding one’s council is the sacred rite of solitude. 

Author and Priest Henri Nouwen wrote that life’s great and unavoidable journey is from loneliness to solitude.  Loneliness, he says, is inescapable.  It will come to us sooner or later through the circumstances of life: somehow every one of us will be abandoned to ourselves.  Gradually, though, we might move from lonely desperation to discover that we are merely alone.  From there it is possible to reach solitude; the place of unique and singular being.

I have never felt loneliness to match the past three months; there is no avoiding the truth: the going has been tough.  But neither have I felt such fulfilment in seclusion.  The desert is like that, it’s a place of extremes. Before I had turned twenty I was traveling one day with two aboriginal men through rough spinifex country.  On the second day of our journey we had driven for hours at walking speed, labouring in low range through steep sand, each spinifex clump twisting the groaning chassis.  I was behind the wheel when we were startled out of a trance and halted on a wide sandstone shelf.  The track we had followed all these hours was gone.  Briefly (very, very briefly) we were lost!  My two companions were gone only moments before returning with much gesturing and discussion; evidently the track was found.  In that short pause my young, impressionable mind glimpsed the extreme scale of the wilderness we had traversed within the vastness of our continent, and the minute size of us three in our Landcruiser.  Frightening and exhilarating, it was a shuddering glimpse of real isolation, the essence of which has never left me. 

In last week’s chapter I wrote about the frustrations of three months of heightened uncertainty; but I fear I overindulged the graphic description of my predicament, and understated the wonder of wilderness.  It’s true that medical opinion has been divided, uncertain and unhelpful; and it’s true that therapists and support agencies seem to have taken the easy path and opted out for the time being.  I don’t know what’s wrong, and I don’t know who will help.  But what of it?  I am torn between the desire for certainty and the wonders of not knowing.  There is a time for each, but I know I would rather be alone with the Almighty than be surrounded merely by the voices of men.   

True to their name, deserts are deserted.  They are places of intensity, hostile in their climate, vast in their remoteness.  Perhaps more than anything else deserts are places of solitude, even of abandonment.  The desert is also a place of astonishing vision. Bone dry air allows perfect visibility over immense distances; you feel you can see the very leaves of a gum tree on a mile-away ridge. Aboriginal brothers, with eyesight that defies belief, will see a kangaroo afar off when all I see is rock.  There are colours in the desert that will never be seen elsewhere; reds and purples so vibrantly bizarre that photos invariably look doctored.  But I have sometimes watched Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the dusk of an isolated dune; and it is all very real. It is no different in the desert of the soul; there are hues and textures unseen in the burly of urbanity. There is a subtlety to the heart’s palette and a depth of field that can hold me captive for hours.  Deserts are rarely places of physical comfort.  It’s either baking heat or frost.  Dust dry or flood bound.  Of course there are monsters in the desert too. Strange creatures found nowhere else, marsupials of curious habit, lizards of more curious appearance.  And there are monsters to imagine as well; beings that dwell mostly between thought and reality, quite invisible to anyone but you.  Most desert monsters are nocturnal, never quite revealing their terrible form.  Finding a lone wanderer they wait, and they stare.  Life is scarce in the desert; it’s just too hard to keep on living.  Yet life is nowhere richer.

I am afraid that I will be left alone; that no one will hold my hand.  I have found a path too narrow for two, but even still there is One who lever leaves. Despite my need for family and my dearest friends, I need also to be alone; unencumbered and aware, because only in solitude do I find myself equipped for the day. To borrow words from Charles Cummings, another monastic writer, “I resolve to live in grateful presence in the desert of my life”.




More than one correspondent has castigated me for the barrage I let loose last week against that poor, defenceless number: 49.  It is in fact an idyllic pair of digits, the square of the perfect 7.  I stand corrected, and I am now relishing being 49, the perfect age for a desert dweller!

One thought on “The Desert of Solitude

  1. Trish Tiffen

    Roderick, you write so well, I enjoy getting away in your thoughts. Thankyou for the insight, I have learnt so much through your experiences. I have to agree with you I am at my very best when I am safely locked away in my prayer room experiencing the presence of God…love it!

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