The Desert, Cláudio Carvalhaes

I have been to the Sonora desert in Arizona and now I am venturing into the mountains of Northern New Mexico. Nothing like it, since my experience with Sonora desert was with trails made by immigrants wandering, running away from police, thieves, draught, hunger and fear, trying to find ways to survive in US and feed their families back in their countries. A piercing experience I will never forget. I keep the shoes of a 7 year old boy I found there in order to remind myself of the lives of people who like Jesus went through the desert in order to find life.

Here at Ghost Ranch, the trail is a very safe one, one with an open gate and marks along the way. Nonetheless, the desert does something to you when you are alone…

On the airplane I saw from above what looked like drawings on the desert sand, something like what the artist Michael Heizer would definitely do. So unexpected, so beautiful.

To go into the desert, as safe as it can be, it can scare you. Some moments the path offers you a double entrance and you don’t know where to go. Its inhabitants, birds, geckos, wild rabbits and snakes, when they appear, they express their surprise with the strangeness of our being there. The presence of the unknown takes force as the view keeps changing at every move of the path and new horizons show up.

When I get to the top I rest. I look around and the view is breathtaking. I am sitting on a rock that is very close to a precipice. I venture into recording myself going next to the precipice to scream an alleluia! I think that screaming an alleluia from the top of my longs in a desert, next to a precipice, might be an act of faith! When I do it, I hear the echo bringing it back to me and going other places… But after I do that, I still think it is too safe, too contained, too prepared… nothing like to say an alleluia with homeless people on the streets… Nonetheless, an alleluia is something we should carry in our hearts and mouths for every moment. For an alleluia is always a song of praise, of defiance, an affirmation of trust that there is something beyond ourselves to which we are honored to belong.

While seated, I try to listen to what was around. The silence started to take over and it takes every other sound, even my own. After a while the silence starts to resonate with my own sounds, reverberating myself I guess in different silent tones. Images take over my mind and heart and I start to feel strange, perhaps too stranger to myself…. The little boy inside of me starts to get uneasy and aggitated and I have to calm him down with my slow breathing…

After this disturbing moment, I remember some words of Edmond Jabès that I can quote now: “You don’t go to the desert to find identity but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous. You make yourself the void. You become silence. It is very hard to live in the desert. You must become more silent than the silent around you. And then something extraordinary happens: you hear silence speak.”

Yes, when silence started to speak the strangeness of myself somewhat finds a place inside and along with what I guess I know about myself. I thank the God of life for that moment and I usher a prayer of thanksgiving! I also pray for something I dream and open my heart for it to come…

When I think about God in the desert I remember a French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy who troubled me when he said:  “Our experience of the divine is our experience of its desertion. It is no longer a question of meeting God in the desert: but of this-and this is the desert- we do no encounter God, God has deserted all encounter.” I remember that Heidegger had said that the gods have flown away and left us wanting…

But when I think of “this,” the desert of encounters, a bird passes me flapping its wings so forcefully that I almost faint with its noise. After I calm myself down from that unexpected visit, I look at the precipice, at that dry terrain, and at (what I believe is) myself… From behind my head a butterfly appears, out of the nowhere of the desert, just like in a movie scene. It flies away in front of me and then decides to come back. She gets closer to me, makes a pause and fly away. I can’t find her anymore. The desertion of myself might become the coming of a God…

Perhaps this “this” that I cannot name, might have the sound and appearance of the feathered flapping wings of this bird, bringing a rush of the wind to visit me unexpectedly. This encounter makes me shiver and brings my heart to my mouth.

Perhaps this “this” that I cannot name, might also have appeared in front of me in the uncanny presence of that butterfly, assuring me of something else… Perhaps of life, of movement, of desire, of a life opened up to something I am yet to discover. So, God in the desert encountering me? Perhaps this encounter with a God that meets us might indeed be “this” possible event that we thought it wasn’t.

I run back out of fear, trembling, unspeakable joy and excitement. The desert is scary and like God, it does something to you!



** I  am at Ghost Ranch for the Peacemaking Conference “Restores of the Streets” of the Presbyterian Church, USA. A great crowd of people and I am very excited to be with them all!

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