The Judaean desert that Jesus knew and where John the Baptist baptised is not far from the ever-ancient modern city of Jerusalem. It is located on a plateau 800 metres above sea level between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean, two bodies of water as far apart in nature and personality as one could imagine. Israel is a small land of big extremes and polarities, including its geography.
We persuaded our guide and driver to take us to the desert which meant a high quiet spot where we looked over hills that, as it has been a wet winter, had an unusual slight wash of green. You can still feel the aridity and bareness which the sun would soon parch. We sat and looked down at the monastery of St George, clinging to the walls of a steep valley. Like Skellig Michael and other remote monastic sites, one wonders why the search for God in the heart of the self and in creation so often calls some people to such odd and even dangerous extremes.
One thing is certain, that the search for God is not for tourists. It turns us into pilgrims. It is an inner pilgrimage that in the end ‘demands not less than everything’. This isn’t such a bad deal as we get everything – called the kingdom. We may go our own natural pace – even take time off – without getting punished for it. But it still requires us eventually to see all aspects of our life as relentless revelations of the sacred, whether through a joy that dissolves our being into the universe or suffering that drives a bolt of iron through the soul. The life of Jesus retraced in the Holy Land leads the pilgrim from the green hills of Galilee where, among birdsong and the lilies of the field, he delivered his version of universal wisdom, the sermon on the Mount, to sweating blood in Gethsemane, abused and tortured and executed in Golgotha.
Package tourists enjoying idyllic resorts may also go through dark nights of the soul, but this is not how the tour operators advertise them – a ‘wonderful holiday on the beach where you will touch the heights and depths of human experience.’ I am not saying that suffering is desirable but inevitable and always meaningful. Hotel guests at a hotel complain when they don’t get everything they want. But life is not so much about complaint as interpretation.
To see the meaning of the spectrum of experience we need to hold the ends together so the unity can be felt. We then see and feel the harmony between our own nature – the personal and inner sense of self – with external nature, the world as it is.
Except, learning how to wait in pain without fantasy in the desert and how to dance on the boat in the silent Lake of Galilee, is more than harmony. It is being one. ‘When you make the two into one, and the inner as the outer… then you will enter the kingdom’, says the Gospel of Thomas (22).
When what we are going through interiorly is not integrated with the people and nature around us, we have an ecological emergency. When they are one, we are peace and beauty, the sign of God’s presence, bathes everything in itself.