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In the Desert

“O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
    my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
    beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
    my lips will praise you.” Ps. 63:1-3

Venture very far into the wilderness, and life, it seems, becomes suddenly elemental—when the few things necessary for living are the only things worthy of attention—air to breathe, water to drink, a form of shelter. The demands of survival in the wild separate need from want with startling austerity, and it’s the ideal environment, as Thoreau wrote, to “witness our limits transgressed.”

Psalm 63 was written when David found himself in the wilderness of Judah at a time when his exterior and interior landscape coalesced, and his words reflect his focus, narrowed quickly to the essential. The desert, it seems, is often a place of reduction.

Originally, the late Middle English word reduce came from Latin stems meaning “to bring back,” or “lead back.” A restoration, a return to centrality. Our own wilderness experience, which we would often rather forego, can bring about a sacred return to the reality that to breathe is a gift, and the Giver of that breathing is nearer still, offering himself.

For in the desert, there is no accidental life. Paradoxically, perhaps those who survive in the wilderness, like David, are both tenacious and graced. We look above the dusty landscape, praying to be tenacious in our seeking, while graced by the Lord, who is already there.