BENEATH the towering umber faces of Mount Sinai lies a broad and empty valley, 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 a global pandemic is to occupy a “plain of waiting”. We wait for a vaccine. We wait for the number of active cases to fall. 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 that 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 around 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 an effort 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 the people of 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.
The principal message, however, was that the wilderness, for all its hardships, wanderings, and waiting, became the delivery room of the divine new. Rather than a stagnant and aimless period in Israel’s history, the time in the desert was time spent in 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 a 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 brought nearer to the essence of our being. We hear ourselves. Removed from the bustle 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 had become a spacious, if unsought and unplanned, holiday.
While these many months have been stressful for families, for single people, for students, for the elderly, for the employed, and for the unemployed, this interval in the year 2020 also seems to have stirred a level of connectedness which perhaps did not previously exist.
One of the ways in which the Bedouin manage the scale of the wilderness is to stop periodically, 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 expect a reduction in business travel, as long-distance conferencing is managed remotely. Alternative working-at-home options or employee work clusters in suburbs or rural areas are, for many, introducing a reduction of stress, commuting, and travel while reducing greenhouse gases in urban skies (Comment, 22 January).
The captivation with the inner city is already deflating as we see increased interest in rural property, as urbanites seek healthier lifestyles and a rebalancing of the work-life equation. Many say that they can hardly wait for things to return to what they knew: pleasure travel, commerce, etc. In the desert, however, 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 whether 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 the eucharist, not singing of 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 along the Plain of Waiting is an oasis. It must be how the people of Israel 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 that well can be claimed, defended, and built on.
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 and 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 on them. Much of what we have come to know and love as worshipping Christians will remain, and yet we also know that we ourselves shall have been changed by our desert journey — changed in ways that 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 that we are being prepared to enter.
If this is so, we need to embrace this landscape, to find hope in its quiet spaces,and to believe that a simple bush can light with the fire of God’s presence and call. And, when the time comes that we emerge from this pandemic, we will feel deeply for those who perished in this desert — physically, financially, or psychologically.
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 on the Lord.
And the God of Jesus Christ will surely bless us.
Canon Richard LeSueur was formerly the director of the Desert Programme at St George’s College, Jerusalem, and more recently served as its Acting Dean. He has continued a ministry of teaching and pilgrimage in the biblical lands for 25 years. He resides in Western Canada.
A version of this article was first published in the Anglican Journal.