NOTES FROM THE SAHARA DESERT: The Victory of Love


“Come away to some lonely place all by yourselves!”

(Mark 6:31)

Dawn

I sit on a dune in the cold dark before dawn, facing east where the sun will rise, contemplating the beauty of God to the restful rhythm of ruminating camels. God is in this place to be adored, honoured and praised. And when I pray “Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit” – a prayer without me in it - it seems as if all of heaven responds “Amen!” and the sands of this desert respond “Amen! Glory be!”

The rising of the sun will be beautiful, awe-inspiring, but it is not the sun that I am waiting for. I wait for Jesus who comes once more from east and west, north and south. He comes anew each day to tell us of the Father’s Love. The sun is a reminder of this reality and even as we wait, He is already present in our waiting.

This is the most silent, still and solitary part of the day – precious as water in this Sahara. I drink about four litres of water here each day. May I drink in even more of the Holy Spirit into my soul and may this time of prayer give due honour to the Most Holy Trinity.

We sing the Divine Office of Lauds (Morning Prayer) after the sun has risen and then go to gather up our belongings before having breakfast which our guides have laid out for us on mats. One of the miracles of the desert is porridge which I seldom eat at home but here somehow my body tells me that this is what it needs. Here I find myself eating food I don’t normally like and I eat it simply because my body asks for it. All of the food is fabulous and we are astounded every day by what Brahim produces. Meals are very happy occasions, true to Psalm 133 that says “how good and how pleasant it is when brothers live in unity!”




We are twelve priests – four are from the community of St. John, two of us are Pallottines and the other six are diocesan. Most of us didn’t know each other before coming here and most of us live in England. John and I have been companions for almost 48 years and it is a blessing for us to be together on this part of life’s journey, to be present to each other without having to say much. All twelve of us here blend very well, are at home with each other and help each other to keep going. Laughter is very much the tonic of our down times, especially in the evenings. And though I am used to much more silence at home, I recognize the importance and necessity of these times of joy.

Once we have finished breakfast and are ready to set out, we have a very valuable presentation of the theme of the day from our leader Father Luc - leaving things behind, letting go, praying unceasingly, gratitude, attentiveness.

There is one young camel who protests long and loud against the burden he has to bear. As soon as he sees the herdsman coming with the saddle, he begins to wail with an anguish that I identify with – though someone said he is only messing. Whatever he’s at, it resonates with something inside me. One morning I said to those standing near, “he doesn’t realize he has another week of this!” to which His Grace responded, “don’t be projecting your own feelings onto that poor camel!” Indeed!



Morning

We are led away each day by our young guide Hussein while Hassan takes up the rear to make sure no one gets lost. We don’t talk at all during these morning hours of walking, the mornings being mostly about silence. It is then that one can hear God speak most quietly, delicately.

The first day out was like a piece of cake, being mostly on flat hard ground where my stride is fairly good and I can keep going for a long time but the second day saw us climbing impossibly high dunes along narrow ridges that literally took my breath away. The last time I gasped and panted so much was going up Mount Longonot in Kenya with Mike O’Sullivan but that was just a few hours of a day. This now became an all-day, everyday thing and, on the second day, I struggled very badly both with my breathing and the height which caused something in my head to wobble and my knees to tremble. It was humbling to be so exposed, to be the weak one of the group. Weak and in need in the physical sense but my hope too is that this testing in the desert, the testing of my breath to its very limits is somehow an expression of the Holy Spirit praying, gasping within me beyond the utterance of words.

The desert has its own rhythm that demands that I adapt to its way of walking, forcing me to struggle with it as Jacob wrestled with God at Penniel, prepared for both blessing and injury in the encounter. Both Luc and Philip Thomas told me that there was no need for me to try to keep up with the others, to go at my own pace and this helped me greatly, giving me space to look beyond the struggle to see the utter majesty of God’s Garden. That’s what they say the desert is – it belongs to God and it is His Garden, a quiet lonely place that speaks to my inner loneliness. Not loneliness in a negative sense but in the sense of my deepest desire and yearning, though it may also encounter aspects of human loneliness.


            The Way, the Gate, the Door

The other day as I was pondering during the 10-hour drive from Marrakesh to the desert, it seemed like Jesus said to me, “I am the Way, I am the Gate, I am the Door!” And in my mind’s eye I saw the Way like the highway on which we were driven, a direct and simple route to Jesus, a Way along which I am escorted by Our Lady. The Gate led into a beautiful garden at the other end of which was the Door that led into the House of the Lord and the Table of the Most Holy Trinity where a place is reserved for me. All very neat, simple and direct. And now the desert presents me with a very different kind of Way and Gate and Door but I feel that the purpose of this struggle with God’s Garden will lead to greater simplicity within myself. The desert is the outer expression of what is taking place in the interior of my soul.

When I would see Hussein leading the group up yet another dune I would groan out loud and say, “Oh God no!” but I learned very quickly to follow up with “thank you Lord!” and on reaching the top would find myself praying Psalm 117 “O Praise the Lord all you nations, acclaim Him all you peoples. Strong is His love for us. He is faithful forever!”

And when we came face to face with Abid Lia, that seems as great as Croagh Patrick, I was with Jacob again, realizing with delight “How awesome this place is; this is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven…” (Genesis 28:17). It was appropriate for me that we had adoration in the tent in this place. The Tent of meeting.

On the second day I asked the desert how far we had walked, how much further we had to go, how high was that dune and what time of day it was. Of course, the desert remained silent and it soon became clear to me that it does not matter how far, how high or what time. It is what it is. We are where we are. There’s no need to know anything more. We had abandoned our watches and mobile phones which were being carried by the camels in our luggage. We got used to not knowing. The only time it challenged me was when I woke up in the morning – not knowing if it was time to get up or not.


Afternoon

On our morning walk there were a couple of short breaks when we would sit or lay down in silence, eating nuts and dates. It seemed to me that it was early afternoon when we would reach the shade of a Tamarisk tree where the Berber had mats laid out and a table ready for us to celebrate Mass. I loved the fact that, by the Eucharist, we were bringing the Sacramental Presence of Jesus into a land where He is largely absent, a land from which He has long been expulsed. This absence of Jesus is a great mystery that bothers me, a mystery to which only God can give the answer.

I got to lead Mass on February 8th, feast of St. Josephine Bakhita who was sold as a slave at the age of nine. Her day is dedicated to all who are modern day slaves, those trafficked and forced to live unimaginably appalling lives. We offered Mass for them. Much of the prayer of our desert is intercession for those whom we carry in our hearts and for each other. This Pilgrimage would be impossible without the others - the twelve and our seven Berber companions.

While we prayed, they cooked and after lunch we would stretch out in the shade before taking up our trek into the early evening. This was the hottest part of the day, most draining and most difficult and, though talking was permitted during this stretch, I found I had no energy for it and remained mostly silent.

Along the way one of the early days I asked God what I was supposed to get from this retreat, what is its purpose in my life and the reply came swiftly, like He said, “What more do you need?” and then the words of St. John came to me, “we know that we already possess whatever we have asked of him.” (1 John 5:15). So, I returned to Psalm 73:23-26 that was with me before coming on this retreat and it became the centre of my prayer for the remainder:

I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

“You hold me…” Many times along the way one of the brothers – Matthew or Rajiv - would stretch out his hand to hold me steady on a high, narrow ridge or take me by the hand to lead me down the descent. This was particularly true of young Brother Sharbel who would quietly come up beside me and take hold of my hand. And there was Brother Philip Thomas who carried my two litre bottles of water every day. It meant that their own walking was somewhat restricted by their attentiveness to me. They are the hand of God and God bearing the burden.


Others of the twelve kept pace with Hussein - the two Johns, Angelus, Thomas, Joe - and I would look at them with admiration from my distance for they were fleet of foot and agile in spirit, like gazelles bounding up the heights. When Hassan was not with us Luc lingered at the rear keeping us in view like a shepherd his flock. Abram kept his eye on the wonders of the desert, seeing the beauty in the very least of things, the miracle of the tiniest flower, taking the photos that I would like to take myself. The battery in my camera died in the early days because I forgot to turn in off! It was meant to be. Each of us is honoured in the place and pace given us, in this is our glory and I felt at peace in mine.




Evening

Worn down by the afternoon heat we looked at the dune ahead, hoping it might be the last of the day, so there was a special feeling of relief when we spotted the peak of one of the big tents in the distance. On arriving we would throw ourselves down in any available shade, take off our boots and rest a while, some tending to their blisters, others reading and others simply chilling and chatting.

We sang vespers in the evening on a dune facing the setting sun and at these times of looking westwards I felt I was facing my own family at home.

The main event of the evening was the reflection on Psalm 23 given by Father Thomas. These were most inspiring – the content and his own person that shone through everything he said. It is a Psalm for calming down, a Psalm of trust leading us from a state of being stressed to blessed; anointing our experiences of worry, hurry and fear.

On a couple of evenings we were joined by our seven Berber guides. The first was a getting to know each other session during which they gave each of us an Arabic name, perhaps so that they might more easily identify us. I was given the name Ali who was a cousin of the Prophet and it means high or exalted. In the car in Marrakesh before leaving for the desert, the driver got in, looked back at me and said with a smile, “Ali Baba!” Our guide Hassan had heard this and so decided that in Marrakesh I would be Ali Baba but in the desert I would be Si Ali. The second time we were joined by the seven Berber was for an evening of singing. The rhythm is beautiful and hypnotic and they even sing sad songs joyfully.

At the end of every day we all stood in a circle to sing the Salve Regina before departing to our tents for a quiet night and a perfect end.

In the future, we Twelve Fathers of the Desert will hold within us an emotional memory of this desert, our bodies will remember it and the lessons it teaches us by its silence, the lessons of God contained within its silence. The seven days that we have walked will be engraved within us. I feel that God has refashioned the landscape of my soul in ways that I cannot express or comprehend. He has reshaped my soul in the glory of Jesus, the victory of Love, a Love most uniquely expressed in Ahmed.

Ahmed


He is of the Berber tribe, the chief camel herdsman, thirty-one years old with a wife and three children whom he hasn’t seen since December because he lives much of his life in the desert with his camels and groups like us. He loves the desert, especially rolled up in his mat at night beside the fire, beneath the splendour of the stars.

And for some reason he took a particular liking to me! He would stride up to me in the morning and evening, his face radiating joy, his right hand in the air and his left hand upon his breast. And he would hug me, uttering something in his own language or in French, words I didn’t understand but in a tone that touched my heart. The first time I saw him approaching me like this, I looked over my shoulder to see who he might be approaching and was surprised to discover that it was me. 

One evening I was stretched out on the sand, waiting for the men to finish setting up our tents, when I heard a voice calling, "Si Ali!" It was Ahmed pointing to the tent he had just completed, telling me it was mine. And I felt the grace of being given something as a gift, rather than  me taking it, the grace of waiting and trusting.

There was a night we gathered around the fire outside to watch him bake bread. He moved the burning timber away from the centre and placed the dough in the pit of the fire, covering it with sand and brought the fire in over that again. After a while he removed the fire and the sand and out comes this perfectly baked loaf which he brushed down with a towel, scraping away the burnt parts with the knife. He broke the bread and passed it around and it was truly beautiful.

I was standing on the far side of the fire when Father Luc came to tell me that Ahmed wanted me to sit beside him. Surprised again, I went and sat there. Ahmed put his arm around my shoulder, drew me to him warmly and tenderly and said, “mon ami!” Then he began to sing. And I sang along as best I could and it pleased him!

Father Thomas told us that the glory of Jesus is the victory of Love. I have walked this retreat in the Love of God, always aware of His Love but in Ahmed I experienced the affectivity of that Love, tasted its victory and its glory. He became the embodiment of the Love of God the Father and he became for me the face of the Sahara Desert. It's as if God said to me through Ahmed, "this is how I feel about you, this is how I love you."

Gratitude fills me for this and for every single thing that has been given in this most amazing journey. And while we have made our way fairly quickly back to our homes by plane, Ahmed and his camels spent four days walking back to his. Unhurried and at peace!



***

The Lord Jesus is our Good Shepherd, my Shepherd

He shepherds me, comes close to me, to every single one of us

Walking ahead He marks out the Way we must follow

I step into His footprints, the footprints of the Brother in front of me

You are with me

You pursue me with Goodness and Mercy

Your hand stretched out to hold me on the uncertain, narrow ridge, escorting me on the descent

You bear the water that will quench my thirst of body and soul

You are the cheche that protects my head from the burning heat, soaked in the cool waters of a surprising desert well 

And in the shade of the Tamarisk tree you spread out the table of the Eucharist,

Your Most Holy, beautiful Body and Blood

The table that will nourish and restore our weary bodies,

Bodies that you make to lie down for a time of rest

In the good, pleasant and joyful gathering of our Brotherhood.

You are the Way, the Gate and the Door leading us into the House of the Lord,

The House of our dwelling, today and forever. Amen!


I AM THE DOOR
Tabernacle at the Church of the Franciscan Martyrs, Marrakesh

HORSE WITH NO NAME: Preparing for the Desert




“…the Lord whom you are seeking will suddenly enter His Temple and the Angel of the covenant whom you are longing for, yes He is coming!” (Malachai 3:1)

The Lord whom you are seeking will suddenly enter His Temple.

He is Himself the Temple and we are His Temple.

It is we who seek Him
We who are longing

It is in our longing that we present ourselves before the Lord so that we are there – present and prepared for when that sudden thing happens.

The healing that we seek will suddenly happen
The conversion we are awaiting will unexpectedly take place
The Love we are longing for will suddenly arrive.

And we will, like Simeon, say, “at last!”
That will be our prayer of relief and gratitude.
But we have to be there in the Way and in the Place where it will happen and we have to seize the opportunity when it presents itself.

I’ve been seeking Jesus all my life, often finding Him, often avoiding Him.

For many years I’ve had this image of Jesus and myself. I’m standing in my own life with all my belongings – personal, material, spiritual – all my comforts and securities.

Standing quite close, facing me is Jesus but where He stands is desert – bright, white, blue and empty. Empty except for Him and he’s asking me to step across the line from my place into His. I’ve always resisted taking that step, afraid that He would not be enough, but always knew that I would have to go there one day. He and I have always been very close but, somehow, also in different places.

And now that I have turned 65 and am almost 40 years ordained, I’m about to go there. Last year I received an invitation to take part in a priest’s retreat in the Sahara Desert and I leave on Monday (February 3rd). There are 12 of us taking the retreat and we will be guided by experts as we spend eight full days walking, praying, eating, sleeping, being silent in the desert. We will walk for five to six hours a day. 40 is a very Biblical and Desert number – 40 years of Israel wandering in the desert; Moses spending 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai; Jesus spending 40 days and nights in the desert after His baptism. So, I feel this is a significant event in my life .

I believe that it will be a blessing for the people of this parish whom I will carry with me in my heart. This is not just for my benefit, it's not only about me but about us as a community. I do not carry the parish as an institution but as a people, as specific people and it’s not so much that this parish as an institution will be any different when I return but my hope is that we will be touched as people by my going and returning. And perhaps something that we have been seeking and longing for will come to us or some of us in a defining way. The defining way might not necessarily be pleasant. It might in fact be challenging and even painful but it will be a moment of new life and salvation.

People in the parish have already been equipping me for this pilgrim journey. The kufiya (desert scarf) given me by a young husband and father, a small rucksack and gaiters. There are ski goggles belonging to a young doctor to protect my eyes in the event of a storm. All these will be physical connections with my beloved Hastings, reminders, symbols of the love given me, tangible instruments of prayer.

Apart from the parish, I will of course carry all whom I hold dear with all their needs and in a special way I will be connected to Katie, niece and God-daughter, who will receive the Sacrament of Confirmation while I am away. She generously gave me permission to go to the desert even though she would want me to be at her Confirmation. So, may the Holy Spirit who fills the air in the distance between us, bind us even more closely and fill her with all of the spiritual blessings of Heaven.

The moment draws ever closer. At last all powerful Master! And the old song from the 1970's goes round in my head and makes me smile - "I've been through the desert on a horse with no name...!"

“At last, all-powerful Master, You give leave to your servant to go in peace, according to your promise. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared for all nations, the light to enlighten the Gentiles, and give glory to Israel, your people.” (Lk 2:29-32; the song of Simeon)