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The Desert, That Arduous Paradise for Spiritual Exercise


Deserts are the symbolic dominions whose apparent emptiness feeds the search for spirituality and enlightenment.

Oh! that the Desert were my dwelling place,
With one fair Spirit for my minister,
That I might all forget the human race,
And, hating no one, love but only her!

-Lord Byron, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, A Romance”.

Deserts, those landscapes that overflow with emptiness, have, since the times of ancient cultures, been the ideal places for spiritual experiences and enlightenment. Does their emptiness not lead us to an introspective search?

Perhaps those lands owe their transcendental fruitfulness to the fact that their materialization flirts with nothingness, with infinite repetition until the corporeal dissolves – if silence could choose a body it would perhaps dress with the infinity of grains of sand.

In deserts there extends an untamable, virginal nature, rarely disturbed by humankind. As such we could affirm that they are both pristine and wild, primitive territories. Their colors, that meekly transmute with the movement of the sun, and their forms and components offer a physical challenge at first sight, only to become a mental and emotional challenge.

Those places house a galaxy of symbols: a metaphor for the void, for infertility, death, a primitive past or a desolate future. But at the same time, or perhaps as a result of the foregoing, they also act as a limitless mirror, their open vistas and their interminable clarity create a need in humans, and even an obligation, to look inwardly. Perhaps for that reason they exalt the sacred and, especially, the ascetic. We should remember that in numerous traditions, physical exhaustion of the body, a symptom that is almost implicit in the desert ecosystem, is a way of purifying the soul.

It is far from a coincidence that it was in the desert that the devil tried to tempt Jesus, and it was there that Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting. In addition, there are numerous cases of visionaries, pilgrims, spiritual guides, prophets and enlightened individuals who sooner of later passed through a sea of sand. And here it is worth recalling the ‘fathers of the desert’, a group of monks or anchorites who, in the third century AD, found in this habitat the ideal place to find hésykia, or internal peace.

The desert reveals the paradox between simplicity and complexity. Both visually and symbolically, it exalts clarity, honesty and cleanliness in all its manifestations. It is maximum freedom and at the same time the impenetrable maze. The void that it projects works as a complete mirror that shows us, reflected, as a synthesis of what we are. In the desert, the exterior void obliges us to look inwardly, making it plain what poets, philosophers and scholars have been saying for centuries: that which is outside of us reflects us.

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