The Desert Wilderness in the Bible and in Monotheistic Tradition
I have been to Israel several times; however, on one of my last Holy Land tours, Elisa Moed, CEO of Travelujah, suggested that we include Saint George’s Monastery on our itinerary. The site was an unforgettable adventure which I am including on all my future tours. Why is the desert experience such an integral part of a visit to Israel, particularly for those making a spiritual journey, a pilgrimage, to the Holy Land?
The Middle East is comprised of 80% desert. Israel, by comparison, has only 60%. Of course, that’s a lot. The desert is the geographical character of much of the region, and that has its advantages. In the spiritual heritage of monotheism, the desert has played a significant role in shaping the stories and images, as well as the themes and the spiritual climate of the three great monotheistic faiths. Many Christian traditions are inspired by the desert/wilderness theme: retreats, Lent, penitential traditions, monasticism.
In the Bible notable stories involving desert ‘life and treks’ are Abraham’s journeys, the forty-year wandering of the Hebrews on their paused journey to the Promised Land. Indeed, it is at a mountain in the desert that God reveals himself to the Israelites, initiates an eternal covenant with them, and gives to them his laws of life, liberty, and justice.
The prophet Hosea uses that desert imagery to describe God’s efforts to draw the people to covenantal fidelity: “[Thus says the LORD] Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead [Israel] into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14). And another prophet, Isaiah, expresses the prophetic summons: “A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
And in the New Testament, the story of the mission of Jesus begins in the desert wilderness of the Jordan where John the Baptist has gone to “prepare the way of the LORD.” It is this desert experience of baptism and subsequent forty-day period of desert-dwelling where Jesus is transformed from a resident of the village of Nazareth to the intrepid leader of a movement for bursting forth the reign of God in hearts and world.
For a time prior to the birth of Jesus, the sectarian community of Essenes had been using a desert communal center to live, in the most detailed way possible, the purity regulations of the Temple so as to usher in a religious renewal in Israel. Centuries later Christian monasticism would flourish in the deserts of the Middle East, particularly in Egypt and in the Holy Land. In the Judean desert alone there were over 70 monasteries where monks and hermits would commit to the austere lifestyle of demanded by desert environments.
The Deeper Meanings of the Desert
So how does the desert contribute to spiritual life? Perhaps it is its awesome expanse, its enchanting silence, its mix of beauty and danger, the limitations it imposes on prized creature comforts and how it challenges the deeper human potentials of resilience. Perhaps it is its invitation to a life of simplicity, of renunciation of worldly promises, pleasures, and ambitions. The desert could be both a place of death, due to its scarcity of water, food, and resources, as well as its extreme climates of hot and cold; but it is also a place of life, where life adapts and thrives in its harsh conditions, including communities of Bedouins who hack out a living and preserve their dwindling ancient way of life and culture.
Perhaps it is the desert’s invitation toward solitude, and of honest confrontation with oneself; its freedom from endless distractions, of more availability to think and reflect, and, yes, to pray and depend on God. It is a place of listening and responding to the divine voice that so often resounds in silences. It is thus a place of ‘dying to oneself’ in order to ‘life for something greater than oneself’. Ironically, the desert can be an oasis. It is transformative. The desert is not merely a ‘location’; it is, in this sense, is ‘a place’ when it is imbued with such meaning.
Visiting Saint George’s Monastery
It is this meaning that lures me to the desert whenever I visit Israel, and one that I invite those I bring to the Holy Land with Travelujah to experience themselves. Several landmarks dot the Judean landscape: Jericho and the Mount of the Temptation, Qumran and Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea, Qsar al Yahud (Jordan River baptismal site) and several monasteries, such as Mar Saba, Saint Gerasimus, and Saint George.
Driving off the beaten path, we were first treated by our tour guide to an overlook to see the impressive cliff-side monastery from above. Driving further we stopped to visit the monastery itself. Greeted by local vendors excited to greet tourists and escort them on donkeys, we descended to the brook in the Wadi Qelt between crevasses in an experience that could only be described as magical. Then rising toward from the brook’s bridge to the beautifully domed fifth century Greek Orthodox monastery, entering its precincts, meeting the monks, visiting its chapels with relics of saints, visiting a cave having a legendary association with Elijah and the parents of the Virgin Mary, and enjoying its ‘breath-giving’ views, was an experience to inspire anyone’s imagination and life of faith.
Named after the martyr Saint George, like many sites of this ancient land, the monastery has a history of being attacked, destroyed and rebuilt. Today’s structures offer a maze of chapels with beautiful Greek iconography, the original cave dwelling, domes, a bell tower, dwellings for the monks, as well as modern facilities. Enjoying the views of the ridges between which the monastery is located, and the wadi below, from the bell tower offers a multisensory experience that touches the soul.
During the summer months it is best to visit in the early morning or, for just a view in the later afternoon to experience the desert sky’s pastel colors of purple, pink, and blue, which mixes with the sandy tones of the desert itself. This makes an indelible impression that will journey with you along the deserts pathways of faith and life.
Journeying in the footsteps of the prophets like Elijah, of David as he fled into the desert, of John and Baptist and Jesus, in the beauty of this rugged but majestic terrain is one of the great highlights of my visits to Israel. Saint George’s Monastery for me is now a must. As I bring pilgrim groups to Israel, I consider this an experience that not only complements but enlarges the Holy Land biblical, mystical, and spiritual experience. If you are seeking solitude and respite, healing and renewal, a new perspective and new horizons, or simply if you love adventure and nature, visit the Judean desert.
George Rodriguez, D. Min. is the chair of the theology at the Msgr. Edward Pace High School in Miami, Florida.