In October of 2019, my husband and I moved to Meridian, Idaho, from Alexandria, Virginia, where we had lived for over 31 years. Due to family living here, we were already quite familiar with the area – we knew where grocery and home improvement stores were located. We had been to Boise State football and basketball games; we had enjoyed the Boise Symphony and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. We had camped at Redfish Lake and fly fished in the Snake and Salmon Rivers. Although moving is a challenge, we felt we were ready for this cross-country odyssey.
But there was one thing for which I was not quite prepared – the everyday presence of the foothills (mountains to me) and the high desert. Every morning when I got up, I would have to look out of the windows to make sure that the mountains were still there. I did not have to drive far to be surrounded by the austere but breathtaking high desert. What is it about these rugged, yet so beautiful, landscapes that speak to me – and to so many others?
In July, one of the Lectionary readings included Isaiah 55:12, in which we read that “you shall go out with joy, be led forth in peace – the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing and all the trees shall clap their hands.” What a powerful message that all of creation, including the rugged hills and mountains, rejoice when God’s people are brought forth from danger. In Psalm 72, the mountains and hills bring prosperity and righteousness to the one who has been entrusted with leadership. When I look to the mountains every morning, I am assured that whatever help I need “comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Psalm 121:2
The hills, in addition to reminding us that God is with us at all times, are also places to pray and seek refuge. On numerous occasions, Jesus went into the mountains to pray. At times, this may have been a way to distance himself from the crowds; at other times, the mountains offered a place where Jesus could find solitude as he needed to pray alone. Luke 6:12 – 16; Matthew 14:23. The mountains and the desert filter out all of the day to day distractions. In order to come safely through them, attention must be focused on only that which is essential.
In addition to the dangers and hardships in the mountains, it is also in the desert – the wilderness – that intense experiences occur. Jesus was led by the Spirit to the wilderness where he fasted and was tempted by the devil. For forty days and nights, he endured thirst and hunger; when tempted by the devil, he withstood the promises of food and earthly power. Matthew 4:1 – 11. The Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years until reaching the promised land. They went through times of extreme poverty, certainly in terms of material things but more importantly, through the testing of their belief in being God’s chosen people.
Recently, I have become acquainted with the writings of Dr. Belden Lane, who prior to his retirement was Professor of Theological Studies and American Studies at St. Louis University. There is little doubt that he finds the greatest testing of his faith, as well as the strongest affirmation of it, while in the harsh landscapes of the mountain west, particularly New Mexico. His “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes – Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” is a masterful interweaving of the spiritual journey he took while in the Western deserts and mountains and in the desert of his mother’s nursing home room as she slowly died from a long and debilitating illness.
The desert has long drawn people of faith to it. The Desert Mothers and Fathers, although withdrawn from the population centers of the Middle East, were still accessible to the early Christians. Out of the contemplative solitude of arid lands, they gained wisdom which they could impart to pilgrims who came searching to find a closer relationship with God.
It is no accident that today, so many retreat centers are in “fierce” landscapes –places where all of the unnecessary trappings of life are stripped away. One quickly comes face to face with oneself in the search for God’s healing presence. And then, whether in a retreat center or alone in one’s own wilderness, in the words of Dr. Lane, “the desert has to lead us, at last, from aloneness with God (in a moment of great and silent emptiness) to community with others, from the loss of the fragile self to the discovery of a new identity binding us to the world.” The desert and the mountain are not ends in themselves; instead, they reorient our lives to greater service to all of God’s children.
Have I found a physical place of retreat yet in the nearby mountains or high desert? No, and perhaps I never will. But I only need to look east every morning or to the west every evening to know that my place of solace is already right here.
Let us pray...
Dear Lord, whether our fierce landscape is a stream high in the Sawtooth Mountains, a single room in the house because of being quarantined due covid-19, or a spiritual mountain or desert that we have created in our own minds, help us in those moments of aloneness to seek You. Let us, through Your Word, become ever more mindful of the needs of those around us so that we can be your hands and feet in this world. We ask this in Your Holy Name, Amen.