With Hanukkah under way and Christmas around the corner, this doesn’t seem a time to write about deserts. But when my wife of 50 years withdrew from this world last week, I found myself left in an abandoned place.
But is the desert such a poor place to be?
For Jesus, the desert was sanctuary: “Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed.”
Several years ago Jo Anne and I visited the Sinai, where Moses discovered the bush that burns but is not turned to ash, where the soul can burst into flame with the fire of the Spirit and not be consumed—but cleansed.
In that desert, as medieval monk William of Saint-Thierry wrote, “The soul attains to the holy place where none may stand or take another step, except he be bare-footed, having loosed the shoestrings of all fleshly hindrances.”
It is the desert, too, where writers and artists come to contend with the unseen.
Thomas Merton, for example. Although this Trappist monk and prolific writer would not see an actual desert until shortly before his death, he knew the desert as a symbolic landscape and had studied the fourth-century hermits known today as the desert fathers.
In the years before Merton's literary flowering in the 1960s, he underwent a personal desert experience of anguish, anxiety and depression. Merton scholar David D. Cooper noted that this period of withdrawal, solitude, alienation and despair resulted in Merton’s discovery of his "true self."
Merton, says Cooper, struggled to reconcile his vocation as a monk with his calling as a writer. He did not give up the desert struggle, and the result was that he "began to speak with the voice of prophetic and eschatological protest."
Gabriel García Márquez, the recently deceased Colombian author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, comments on the writer’s need to slough off the immaterial: “To be a good writer you have to be absolutely lucid at every moment of writing.” How better to find lucidity than in solitude?
From Moses to Merton to Márquez, the searing recognition of self and our place in the cosmos comes in solitude, in the purging cauldron of silence.
We might reside in a metropolis of millions, yet feel alone. Or, perhaps worse, we might dole out our days in a soulless relationship. In my case, with the “soul of the house” gone—alma de casa as the Spanish say—a quiet monotony threatens, like a creeping fog on a chill Cape Cod night.
But I remember that each of us carries poetry in our breast, and I write with increased industriousness, taking heart in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s lyric, “A poet is a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds."
In doing so, I discover that the unfamiliar darkness left by my wife’s departure has become yet another of her gifts to me.
Read my newest book, Fat Guy in a Fat Boat, in print or Kindle from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Fat-Guy-Boat-Peter-Yaremko/dp/0990905012/
Also available is my e-book, A Light from Within, about the small moments of our lives that seem commonplace until they are examined under a creative lens.
- Amazon (Kindle): http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00R3SF200
- iBooks (iPad): https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/a-light-from-within/id950880424?mt=11
- Barnes & Noble (Nook): http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/a-light-from-within-peter-w-yaremko/1120862902?ean=9780990905004
And my weekly reflection on each Sunday of the Jubilee Year of Mercy can be found at: http://www.peterwyaremko.com/mercy