Spring 1992, Vol.44 No. 1, pp. 48-61

Stephen Hatch:
      Desert Faith

The Colorado desert, its plants and animals are metaphors for interior deserts and desire.

Stephen K. Hatch is a Master's student in theology and Christian mysticism at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, CO. He was trained by Father Thomas Keating and Contemplative Outreach as a centering prayer presenter. He spends his free time hiking, thinking and writing in the Rocky Mountains.

IN the Judeo-Christian tradition, the desert has always been regarded as a powerful place of encounter with the ultimate loving Mystery. The early Israelites spent forty years traversing miles of sand and rock in the deserts of Sinai, Edom and Moab. It was here that their faith in Yahweh was developed and tested. A later desert-dweller, John the Baptist, received his message of repentance in the solitude of the Judean desert. If people wanted to hear him, they too had to go out into the desert where he was preaching. Jesus himself developed confidence in his divinely inspired ministry by spending over a month in desert places, where he was tested and tried. During the height of his ministry, he returned often to the arid hills to commune with Mystery. And in the fourth century, hundreds of Christians flocked to the deserts of Egypt and Syria, to practice inner stillness, mental discipline and prayer.

We can conclude that the desert possesses qualities which make it especially conducive to spiritual transformation. There must be some trait inherent within the external landscape which mirrors a process that occurs in the psyche. Let us explore both the external qualities of the desert and the internal processes which they mirror in the heart of the spiritual seeker.


I live on the edge of the Great Plains at the foot of the Colorado Rockies where the first set of foothills rises up above the surrounding terrain. Some of these "hogbacks," as they are nicknamed locally, exhibit desert conditions. Composed of alternating layers of red, lavender and white sandstone eroded into canyons and buttes, they hold very little water. As a result, all but the hardiest life forms are discouraged from making a living here. But those which do, actually manage to thrive in this harsh microclimate. Impressive is the creative inner resources displayed by these desert plants and animals in an environment where little water is available.

Bushes of leathery-leaved mountain mahogany manage to scrounge what little moisture there is from the barely decomposed and easily drained sandstone soils. In late summer, every bush produces hundreds of sharply-pointed seeds, each attached to a feathery plume. When backlit by late afternoon sun, a hillside of mountain mahogany plants shines like silver, each plume contributing its delicate glow. When the dart-like seeds fall to the ground, the plumes coil and uncoil with changing humidity and so twist the seed back and forth, allowing it to burrow into the sandy soil where it will be sheltered from the desiccating rays of the intense Colorado sun.

Another scrappy inhabitant of these desert hogbacks is the Opuntia cactus or prickly-pear. This spiny pioneer can seemingly squeeze moisture out of bare rock. Often it finds some narrow crevice into which it inserts tenacious roots. But sometimes, a mere tablespoon of soil collected in a slight depression on a seamless slab of rock is enough to sustain this desert hermit. Opuntia produce large and lavish yellow blooms which seemingly announce to all who pass that they are just as content with their harsh environment as buttercups growing in a moist meadow are with theirs. Plant taxonomists often tell of opening their filing cabinets of pressed plant specimens and there finding a flattened prickly-pear glued to its labeled cardboard in full bloom!

How does this cactus manage to thrive with so little water? Like other desert plants, Opuntia manifests some amazingly creative adaptations to its arid environment. The pads of this cactus grow vertically rather than horizontally, thus exposing a minimum area of leaf surface to the desiccating rays of sunlight. But botanists have discovered an even more amazing adaptation which enables prickly-pear to conserve water. Like all plants, it must open its stomates or leaf pores to absorb the atmospheric carbon dioxide necessary for photosynthesis to occur. However, these same stomates are also the cause of massive water loss during the daylight hours. For not only do they serve to absorb carbon dioxide from the air, but their opening also allows water molecules to pass in the opposite direction, out of the plant and into the surrounding air. This water loss is significant in desert environments where water is so scarce.

Opuntia and some other desert plants, however, have created a unique solution to this problem. Employing a metabolic pathway termed crassulacean acid metabolism (CAM), plants of these species are adapted in such a way that they open their stomates only at night, when the chances of water loss to the atmosphere are the least. By manufacturing an enzyme whose affinity for holding carbon dioxide is much greater than the enzyme employed by non-CAM plant species, Opuntia are able to absorb large quantities of carbon dioxide at night, to compensate for the fact that their stomates must remain closed during the day. However, a potential problem arises here. In non-CAM plants, this carbon dioxide is prevented from diffusing back out of the stomates because it is immediately delivered to and incorporated into the sunlight-driven process of photosynthesis. But in CAM plants such as Opuntia, carbon dioxide is gathered only at night when no photosynthesis can occur. In theory then, much of the needed carbon dioxide would be lost back into the atmosphere since there would be nothing in the leaf to "hold onto" it.

Amazingly, Opuntia and others CAM plants have created a method for dealing with this problem. They employ a chemical process which converts the carbon dioxide into several acids. These acids in turn store the C02 until daytime, when they release it to the sunlight-driven photosynthetic process, which in turn uses it to make the carbohydrates that nourish the plant. This complex mechanism thus enables the prickly-pear to avoid the massive water loss which would occur if its stomates were open during the desiccating daylight hours. Moreover, the nighttime process is isolated within a structure of the leaf which is separate from that wherein the daytime photosynthesis occurs, thus avoiding the confusion which would result if the two chemical reactions occurred in the same leaf space.

The upshot of all of this is that Opuntia is able to collect the needed carbon dioxide without at the same time losing precious water. This whole series of adaptations manifests incredible creativity on the part of Opuntia. Surely the passive process of genetic mutation alone cannot explain the creative force which enabled this plant to create such intricate adaptations to a lifedefying desert environment.

Biblical and early Christian desert-dwellers surely must have been impressed by the tenacity of plants they encountered similar to Opuntia. Subconsciously perhaps, this must have inspired them to enter within their own interior deserts, there to find spiritual water. We, however, heirs as we are to the fruits of biological research, are inspired even more so by our knowledge of the amazing ways in which a desert plant such as Opuntia is able to thrive against all odds.


The animals living on this desert hogback exhibit their rich inner resources also. For example, desert rodents become active only at night, spending the daylight hours in the underground burrows whose entrances are visible under lichen-encrusted rocks. This nocturnal habit cuts down on water-stress. But desert rodents possess other adaptations as well. Biologists have discovered that kangaroo rats, native to the deserts of Colorado and other southwestern states, store foraged seeds in underground burrows which have an elevated humidity level due to the rodents' own respiration. After a few weeks of storage, the water content of these seeds increases from around five to forty or fifty percent by absorbing this humidity. When the kangaroo rat eats these seeds, it thereby increases its water intake without having to rely upon sources of free water. Biologists have also discovered another adaptation in the kangaroo rat. The presence of an unusually elongated Henle's loop in the kidneys of this rodent allows the urine to concentrate, leading to a greater reabsorption of water from the urine by the surrounding cells. The combination of these two adaptations allows kangaroo rats to recycle their own metabolic water. They are thus able to dispense with the necessity for outside water sources.


Another inhabitant of this arid environment is the lizard. In scurrying about on the baked rock, this reptile uses the stifling heat to its own advantage. Its cold-blooded metabolism suits it perfectly for life in its sun-scorched home. The hotter the air temperature, the more lively lizards seem. Lizard's don't spend their time trying merely to survive. They actually seem to enjoy the desert. Ever-curious, a lizard can always spare a few moments to engage in a staring contest, its head cocked to one side. I once played this game for ten minutes. The lizard won.


In addition to showcasing the creative adaptability of its inhabitants and so inspiring spiritual creativity in the human traveler, the desert landscape itself manifests a beauty in its utter simplicity; this quickens and recollects the senses and thoughts from their usual distracted and flighty ways. Like a skilled quiltmaker, the landscape endlessly repeats its simple visual pattern of reddish rock and grey-green vegetation, adding just a touch of purple larkspur blooms here, or black lichen there to accent its handiwork. There is just enough variation in pattern to keep the mind interested, yet there is adequate visual repetition and simplicity to keep it sober and centered.

Desert scents also contribute to a sense of simplicity. The sparseness of life here combined with the dry air intensify those few scents which are present. Thus, there is no multiplicity of odors to overload and confuse the sense of smell. Like pungent spices, the cedary aroma of juniper and camphor-like essence of sagebrush sprinkle through the dry air as breezes rub the foliage, thus sharpening the attention.

The desert landscape further reinforces this theme of simplicity by registering on the tactile sense also. It presents only two extremes to the touch: either spiny cactus, gritting sandstone and rough-barked juniper; or powdery sand, fuzzy foliage and polished pebble. This simplicity carries over into the mind, whose concentration is thereby enhanced.


The intense thirst which desert heat causes is an additional support to this theme of simplicity. In arid regions it is easy to become obsessed with getting enough water. Although the dry air absorbs all of one's sweat even before one has the chance to feel it, a parched throat and salty hat-brim are sufficient reminders that it is time to unzip the water bottle from a dusty backpack. But a few gulps of the sun-heated water bring on the realization that true refreshment is rare in the desert. Indeed, the desert has a way of simplifying one's desires.

If we relate these desert characteristics of simplicity and creativity in the face of hardship to the spiritual life, we find that the traits of the external desert mirror and cultivate the same traits as developed within the internal desert of the heart. Accordingly, the simplicity of the landscape leads the thoughts to recollect themselves from their dispersion among the trivial and so to focus upon the unquenchable thirst of the heart for the water of God's Presence. With the twelfth-century Cistercian William of St. Thierry, the longing heart asks,

You do indeed send me at times as it were mouthfuls of your consolation; but what is that for hunger such as mine? O you, Salvation of my soul, tell her, please tell her, why you have inbreathed this longing into her; surely it is not merely to torment and rend and slay! . . . Forgive, O Lord, forgive my boldness and my importunity; we dare so much, only because we are consumed with longing, because your fire drives us . . . Yield something to my quest, and tell my soul what she desires when she seeks your face. For so blind is she, so vexed within herself, that she is growing feeble even in her longing, and does not know just what it is she longs for. Does she desire to see you as you are? (104-105).
As long as the heart looks for some spiritual experience that answers to desire and so puts an end to it, the refreshment of the Divine Presence will not be found. The heart perseveres in a continuous prayer of longing for God, looking for some sign of spiritual water. But as in the physical desert, none appears.

However, the resourcefulness of desert plants and animals can inspire one to realize that if spiritual water is ever to be found and experienced, it must be constructed out of the heart's own inner resources. Like the kangaroo rat who needs no outside water, the creativity of faith is able to find the Divine Presence residing within its own interior riches. Following the criteria which the eternal Christ or Sophia suggests interiorly to it, the psyche is able to produce insights that refresh the thirsting heart. What are some of these criteria?


First, an insight must transform consciousness to its very ground and not merely add new information to a collection of already held beliefs stored on the surface of consciousness. A shallow pool of water dries up quickly in the desert, but a deep well is able to refresh continuously. According to this criterion, the Divine Presence needs to be viewed as relativizing the desiring heart. That is, the presence of Divine Mystery is to be experienced not merely as one content among others residing within conscious awareness, but as a reality which grasps consciousness itself at its very roots. The Divine Presence will not give itself to a desire which takes itself for granted. Rather, it will relativize the desiring heart, allowing it to be filled with wonder that it even exists at all. Each instance of desire will then be viewed with surprise. In wonderment we will ask why human longing endures at all. For it will be seen as having its origin in the desire of another.

While the first criterion guarantees that one aspect of the person is relativized, the second criterion reveals that another aspect is humanized. That is, there exists an aspect of the person which delights the Divine Presence, an aspect which contributes meaning to the Godhead. Something within us is infinitely valued and treasured for its own unique worth. Awareness of this will totally revolutionize our consciousness.

Christ reveals to us a third criterion, the experience of paradox. That is, the spiritual life consists in the tension or dynamic movement back and forth between the experience of being relativized and that of being humanized. Or rather, both aspects occur within one and the same experience. This tensive oscillation between the two may be termed the "Spirit"; the relativizing reality is the "Father" and the humanizing one is our union with the "Son," the eternal Christ.

Finally, any spiritual insight must be able to face up to the fact that life contains suffering, objective meaninglessness and death, and to realize that faith is able, indeed must create meaning out of this suffering. In fact, suffering will be seen to be resisting the quest for objective meaning in such a way that it actually begs faith to create meaning for the world and for the life of the Godhead. Thus, the resistance which suffering puts up and the meaning which faith creates will be able to coexist.


What follows is my attempt, following the four criteria just set forth, to construct spiritual meaning within the internal desert experience of desire. The attempt remains tentative and open to further adaptation. But I hope that it mirrors in some small way the creativity manifested by desert plants and animals in adapting to their environment. It seems to me that if theology is the closest science to God's heart, then it is here that creativity should be most in evidence.

After searching for years to experience the refreshment of the Divine Presence, I have come to realize that the Presence never arrives as some content within our awareness, never comes as an answer to human questioning because the Presence of God has already been given to us as desire itself, as questioning itself. Whenever we ask to experience God as an answer to our desire, we request far less than God actually gives. For yearning itself contains the Divine Presence already within its very operation. Thomas Merton expresses this faith-construct when he writes:

We ourselves are words of His. But we are words that are meant to respond to Him, to answer to Him, to echo Him, and even in some way to contain Him and signify Him. Contemplation is this echo . . . We ourselves become His echo and His answer. It is as if in creating us God asked a question, and in awakening us to contemplation He answered the question, so that the contemplative is at the same time, question and answer . . . . We awaken, not to find an answer absolutely distinct from the question, but to realize that the question is its own answer. (3-4)
Faith constructs for me the realization that the human desire which asks of God "Where are you?" is actually a mere echo of this very same question as addressed to us by the Divine Presence. This faith-awareness corresponds to the first criterion which holds that the experience of God relativizes us. This insight sees wonder at the very core of desire. Suddenly, we wonder in amazement why human desire even persists at all. For, it is the nature of an echo to exist only as a sort of illusion which passes away as soon as it occurs. Our yearning for God is a mere echo, and yet it does endure. We find that, contrary to the teaching of some schools of Hinduism, our atman does not wake up to find itself as Brahman; the echo of human desire never dies away to leave only the Original Desirer.

Faith begins to see that the human echo of Divine Desire never dies away because the Divine Presence totally gives itself over into the human echo which proceeds from it. Modern theologian Raimundo Panikkar expresses this insight when he writes, "The Father is an I who is totally out-spoken, that saying all that he is in his word, there is nothing left in him" (61). In ecstatic outpouring, the Divine Presence can here be seen as emptying Itself out totally into Its creaturely echo, so that which is at root a sort of illusion, inexplicably becomes the only place where the Divine Presence can exist and so be known. Human desire is a mere echo of Divine Desire, and yet this Divine Desire is emptied out into its echo.

This self-emptying of the Divine Presence remains inexplicable. According to the second criterion, however, we discover with joy that there is something within us which, in union with Christ, "causes" this Divine ecstasy. We are only humanized when we realize that there is something within us which is so valuable, so utterly delightful, that it is able to be the source of Divine ecstasy. This something is such a powerful cause that, in the madness of love, it is able at the same time to collapse the notions of causality and non-causality into one. Faith sees something in the human heart, in union with the eternal Son, as being so incredibly delightful, that it is the "cause" of the Father's being eternally given over in ecstasy to the creaturely echo which forms the other aspect of the human heart.

The human heart possesses a mysterious quality which, although existing only in time, is so delightful that the Divine Presence has eternally been given over in ecstasy before that mysterious quality ever could become manifest. But it is not as though the Divine Presence sees this delightful quality before it actually manifests itself in time. That would denigrate the decisiveness of time and would also take away from the amazing quality of the experience. No, the Divine Presence has eternally lost control of itself in bliss because of something in us that is only now manifest. That the Divine Presence did not have to wait until this delightful something became manifest in time, but instead has eternally been beside itself with joy, is an insight too incredible to conceive. But the madness of love is able to take the notion of non-causality involved in the eternality of God's ecstasy, and the notion of causality implicated in the delightfully pleasing aspect of the human heart, and blur them both into one. Thus, the self-emptying of the Divine Presence into its human echo still remains inexplicable even when explained.

From another perspective, we can say that the Self-emptying ecstasy of God is experienced as resistant to the desire of the human heart to be loved. The heart yearns to commune with the Divine Presence as Other, yet the only evidence that faith can find of this Lover is within human desire itself. Without the creativity of faith, we are left alone with our desire, hard as a sandstone slab, dry as baked sand. It seems as though the Divine Presence (the Father) is too lost to itself in ecstatic joy to be able to care whether or not we even believe in its existence. Thus this ecstasy is experienced as resistant to our attempts to find an already established meaning in the existence of a Divine Lover.

The resistance put up by Divine ecstasy is further intensified by the fact that the echo into which the Divine is emptied is located within the beauty and suffering of the rest of creation as its context. Whenever the beauty of this world -- a lavender desert sunset, a mountain meadow full of paintbrush flowers, an alluring woman or man -- awakens desire within us for meaning without being able to provide that meaning in any lasting sort of way, this is the resistance of Divine ecstasy hiding the awareness that the human desire thus awakened is really only an echo. And whenever the heartache of this world awakens the desire for release from suffering without actually being able to provide this relief, this again is the resistance of Divine ecstasy hiding from us the echoic quality of our desire.

Yet it is precisely this resistance which the creative power of faith is able to use in its quest for meaning. For the resistance set up by Divine ecstasy is precisely the stimulus needed to awaken faith from its usual slumber, wherein it waits to discover some pre-established Divine meaning instead of creating it out of its own resources. Just as desert dryness stimulates the adaptive powers of its inhabitants by its very resistance, so Divine ecstasy, experienced both within the Divine silence and within the desire which the beauty and suffering of the world intensifies, awakens faith into appropriating its role as the creator of meaning. In fact, it is as though this resistance to the quest for meaning begs human faith to wake up and create meaning. If meaning could be found in an objective form within the world, then faith would remain asleep to its capacity to create meaning. Meaning is not found ready-made; it must be reconstructed by faith out of Divine ecstasy and out of the desire which the world awakens. Thus the absence of objective meaning in the world begs faith to reconstruct it. Faith is called upon in its turn to resist divine ecstasy. The medieval mystic John Ruusbroec writes of this resistance:

These are the weapons with which we must do battle against the awesome, immense love of God, which strives to burn up and devour all loving spirits in their very being . . . . God's love arms us with its own gifts, enlightening our reason and commanding, advising and teaching us to defend ourselves in the struggle and to maintain our own rights in love against it as long as we can. (238)
However, in our interpretation, it is not the devouring nature of God's love that is experienced as overpowering; rather, it is the wild ecstasy of God against which we must struggle.

Faith, in union with the eternal Son, is called upon to resist the tendency of Divine Desire to empty itself into its human echo, and so reconstruct the Divine Desire as it is logically prior to its ecstasies. Only faith can discover the Divine Lover as Other within its own reconstructions, just as only faith can discover that in the human heart which gives rise to Divine ecstasy. Faith is needed within the Godhead to reconstruct the Divine in its distinctness, and thus we have here another instance of the second criterion being fulfilled. Moreover, in viewing the suffering and meaninglessness of the world as necessarily coexistent with the creative power of faith, we fulfill the fourth criterion of the spiritual journey.

Finally, in the spiritual vision which we are here setting forth, we have a fulfillment of the third criterion: the importance of paradox in spiritual experience. Accordingly, we become aware of the dynamic poles within the human heart which are mysteriously kept in tension. Human desire is an echo of Divine Desire, and so would in some sense be illusory were it not for the emptying of the Divine Presence into it. At the same time, there exists a mysterious aspect of the human heart which, in union with the Son or Sophia, serves as the source of delight and ecstasy within the Godhead. It also exercises faith in reconstructing the Divine Presence out of its eternal ecstasy. These two aspects Father and Son -- are continually kept in tension by the paradox between the two -- the Spirit. The Divine Presence (the Father) eternally gives itself over for a reason which faith (our participation in the Son) reconstructs and which a mysterious but utterly delightful aspect of the heart (also a participation in the Son) causes. The Spirit maintains the tension between the Father as self-emptied in the eternal past, and the Son as providing the present cause of that ecstasy. This is the meaning of the term "eternal present": to have the identity of two or more realities intertwined with one another, across time, between past and future. As Panikkar writes:

The Spirit is immanent to Father and Son jointly. In some manner the Spirit 'passes' from Father to Son and from Son to Father in the same process . . . . The Spirit is the we between the Father and Son. (60-61)
We have set forth here one possible way in which the creativity of faith is able to construct spiritual water in the very situation where there seems to be none: in unfulfilled human desire.

As long as there are desert landscapes, sincere spiritual seekers will be inspired to mirror within their hearts the centered simplicity and creative resources of the desert.

Works Cited

Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation. New York: New Directions, 1961.

Panikkar, Raimundo. The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man. New York: Orbis Books, 1973.

Ruusbroec, John. The Spiritual Espousals and Other Works. Trans. James Wiseman. Classics of Western Spirituality series. New York: Paulist Press, 1985.

William of St. Thierry. On Contemplating God: Prayer and Meditations. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1970.