Beneath the towering umber faces of Mount Sinai lies a broad, empty valley called the Plain of Waiting. Bounded by peaks that rise sharply out of the south Sinai, the Plain of Waiting is where tradition says the people of Israel waited and waited in a howling desolation. Dislocated from familiar things, reduced to a marginal existence, they grew more and more anxious. To their leader Moses they repeatedly cried, “Did you bring us out into this wilderness that we might die?”
To be alive in this time of global pandemic is to occupy a “plain of waiting.” We wait for a vaccine. We wait for the number of active cases to reduce. We wait for the end of a “second wave.” We wait for the easing of restrictions. We wait.
As he left them to climb the mountain, Moses had told them to wait. Weeks had passed. His absence stoked anxiety. They had come so far, leaving everything behind. They knew they would never go back. They had fled, accepting the challenging reaches of wilderness. In trust they had followed their leaders’ directions, moving into an unknown and desolate landscape, clinging to the hope of a land promised; a new and safer future.
Last April when the virus claimed precious life after life, and spread quickly across the globe, whole populations fled into isolation and accepted the diminishment of an uncertain and unknown landscape. New leaders emerged in the form of chief medical officers and immunologists to guide this flight into the desert. Their directions, and those of our politicians, were at first clear and resolute. Urban areas around the world willingly accepted the complete shut-down of commerce, schools and social enterprise in a bid to survive this insidious contagion. In this new landscape we have learned much, fashioning new ways of connecting, working and surviving together. We have adapted to a strange and fearsome reality.
The books of Deuteronomy, Leviticus and Joshua testify that when Israel came up out of the desert at the end of the Exodus, they carried a host of new realities fashioned in the wilderness. The record maintains that the desert gave them the Tabernacle, the priesthood, the service of the Levites, the Sanhedrin (a pattern of religious-political governance), the Torah and the twelve tribes. Biblical scholars caution that some of these developments might have come later after the Exodus or might not have emerged from the desert sojourn so fully formed. However, the principle message was that the wilderness, for all its hardships, wanderings and waiting, became a birthing-room of the divine new. Rather than a stagnant and aimless period in Israel’s history, it broke open to become a landscape of revelation, discovery, renewal and transformation.
The Song of Songs (3:6) asks, “Who is she who comes up out of the wilderness?” Is it too soon in our experience to ask, what is the spirituality that is arising out of this time of pandemic? What might we hear from the desert tradition by seeing our situation against this ancient background?
The Plain of Waiting is a harsh landscape of broken rock and sharp grains of granite. There is no sand on which to set your bedroll as you sleep in the open, beneath the stars. The wind blows down the mountain passes and whistles through the camp at night. You shiver even in the summer. High above, against a sparkling galaxy, the dark silhouette of Mount Sinai carves an ominous blackness. One might ask, “Who am I, in this forlorn and empty place, this landscape of Genesis?” The answer comes, “I am nothing more than a grain of sand blowing through this valley of waiting, wrapped in a pervasive silence.”
The Hebrew word for the silence of the desert is “damam.” The Semitic root for this word is but one letter different from“dam,” meaning “blood.” What we hear in the silence of the desert is the sound of our own blood, and thus we are bought nearer to the essence of our being. We hear ourselves. Removed from the distractions and preoccupations of life, the soul is permitted to inhale and turn inwards.
In mid-March the pandemic drove us into our homes—drove us inside. For many this isolation brought a void of distressing loneliness. For some it also introduced an unfamiliar intimacy; parents teaching their children, families doing crafts and puzzles, a surge of outdoor activities, couples rediscovering each other with what has become a spacious if unsought and unplanned holiday. While these months have been stressful for families, for single people, for students, for the elderly, for the employed and for the unemployed, it also seems true that this interval in the year 2020 has stirred a level of connectedness that perhaps did not previously exist.
One of the ways the Bedouin manage the scale of the wilderness is to periodically stop, settle in the shade of a large rock, light a small fire and sip strong tea. They sit talking, telling stories, connecting. The Psalmist sings, “O Lord my rock, my fortress in whom I take refuge.” As the pace of life slows, its spaciousness permits new conversations to arise, connections to deepen and the journey of life to be viewed afresh.
As much as this period of the pandemic has slowed our lives and slowed our economy, it has also accelerated realities that, if present before, were not yet fully appreciated and developed. The application of the internet is revealing multiple benefits in new work patterns and online learning. One can anticipate a reduction in business travel with long-distance conferencing managed remotely. Alternative work-at-home options or employee-work-clusters in suburbs or rural areas are, for many, introducing a reduction of stress, commuting and transit, while reducing greenhouse gasses in urban skies. The captivation with the inner city is already deflating as we see interest in rural real estate as urbanites seek healthier lifestyles and a re-balancing of the work-life equation. Many say they can hardly wait for things to return to what they knew; pleasure travel, commerce, etc. However, in the desert one does not go back: the movement is forward. Many things will be different in 2021, 2022 and beyond.
On the Plain of Waiting the people of Israel lost hope. They began to doubt if God was with them or even real. The same can be true of the church. The pandemic has been hard on faith. Dislocation from corporate worship has been a significant loss. For some, the months of absence from our churches have brought a faith that seems thin and empty, at times even meaningless. In the present reality, some of us find ourselves with a disturbing question: Is it only because we are not worshipping with others, not sharing Eucharist, not singing our faith, not gathering in fellowship or serving with friends, that faith seems so strangely faint? Or is it possible that this isolation from church is revealing how shallow our spirituality has become? The solitude of the desert directs us inward.
Two-thirds of the way up the length of the Plain of Waiting is an oasis. It is the only way the people of Israel could have survived there. For the Bedouin an oasis is a gift of God. If a well is dug in the wilderness and water is found, then the Bedouin say that well can be claimed, defended and built upon. But the oasis, as a gift of God, exists for all life. It cannot be claimed. In the desolation of the wilderness the oasis appears as a flash of green seen far in the distance. The tips of tall palm trees signal salvation. The heart leaps. The weary pilgrim arrives under the gentle palms to find living water, welcome, solace from the heat of the day and shade from a blistering sun.
Western Christianity must find this oasis again. For too long we have been building. We have built boundaries with our theologies, boundaries in practices, boundaries in preferences, even in towering walls. We have named those boundaries, relished the aestheticism of our creations, and magnificent they are. But it is also possible that we have become over-identified with such boundaries; reinforcing them, retaining them and relying upon them. Much of what we have come to know and love as worshipping Christians will remain, yet we also know that we ourselves shall have been changed by our desert journey—changed in ways we have yet to discover.
When the wilderness comes in our lives, it is never a destination but a way to pass through by stages; a harsh reality to be survived. It is a way of wandering and waiting, a place of anxiety and longing. And yet, what the Scriptures show is that the desert is the place where God shapes us for the future we are being prepared to enter.
If this is so, we need to embrace this landscape, to find hope in its quiet spaces, to believe that a simple bush can light with the fire of God’s presence and call.
On many journeys in the wilderness of the Sinai, I have learnt what I believe to be the four rules of the desert. I also believe them to be true for the church of our time:
Never go alone
Take only what you can carry
Wait upon the Lord.
And the God of Jesus Christ will surely bless us.
Canon Dr. Richard LeSueur was formerly the director of the Desert Program at St. George’s College in Jerusalem. He has continued a ministry of teaching and pilgrimage in the biblical lands for 25 years. His programs can be viewed at PilgrimRoutes.ca.