I am writing in a little white house off a truck road on the border between two Gulf States. Over the garden wall, tips of palm branches reach up towards a cloudless sky. The house is monastically bare – shipping is delayed – just a few sticks of second-hand furniture, no familiar comforts. And No Car. And just beyond this landscaped compound, through a wire fence, stretching for mile after mile, is desert. Sand, sand, and more sand.
But oh, the miracle of modern communications! The internet reaches to the desert, so with little adjustment, it is business as usual.
I am working, as it happens, on a manuscript on communications technology, full of alarming statistics about surveillance and internet addiction and the damaging effects on education and relationships. Until today. My tenuous link with the outside world, my feeder of Facebook and twitter, my deliverer of email, my opener of windows, has snapped. Snuffed it. The Internet is down. I stab my keyboard, but a tiny red exclamation shouts: cut off!
All is not lost. Last time we did this move I learned: the absolute priority for my 30kgs had to be books. Each chosen with prayer, the deliberation of a Desert Island Disks interviewee, and only after consulting trusted reading friends, reviews … and a patient local bookseller.
I savour them one by one. At week eleven I have two left.
Have you noticed how some books come alive in certain situations, how the right book for the right place is so important? I love matching fiction to holiday destinations, reading Perfume on a trip to Paris, but sometimes there is more to this connection. It is as if the Lord chooses the right book for you at a particular point on your journey.
So I have found myself soaking up Henri Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart, as I look out over palm trees and sand. This slim volume explains the spiritual disciplines of the desert fathers: solitude, stillness and prayer, so simply, like the words of a wise friend.
Living in the desert has helped me understand the imagery of the Bible. Alone you are vulnerable; water is utterly precious; trees so unusual they become landmarks, meeting points. And it is still.
The desert is spectacularly still. On camping trips I wander away from the chatter around the campfire. The stillness is unutterably, breathtakingly beautiful. Not a branch for the wind to whisper through. More silent than anywhere I have ever been.
The stillness silences you, until you can only listen to the still small voice.
Today the internet, my virtual lifeline is down. But I have my books to savour and study. And these friends, with solitude and stillness, lead me back to dependence on him, and to my actual lifeline, to prayer.
Stephanie [of the desert].
This article originally featured in the March – April 2016 edition of Together Magazine.