“Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast…”
This opening line of the poem “Desert Places,” by Robert Frost, has been haunting me lately. We are already beginning the fourth and final week of Advent, hurrying on not only towards Christmas but towards the longest night of the year. And towards the end of a difficult year, with much trepidation for what the new year will bring.
Desert images have also dominated the past few weeks and my sense of Advent in general. The “voice crying in the wilderness,” the desert and wastelands longing to bloom … dry places, and barren. I’ve never been particularly drawn to deserts. Woods and gardens, mountains, the sea – these are the places that feel like home. Deserts make me think of sand, heat and sand, without any water.
It’s that last detail that defines a desert – lack of water, or rather, lack of certain levels of rainfall. While most of us (myself included) think immediately of sun-baked cactus lands, deserts can be made of many things. There are frozen deserts, like the Antarctic, or like Frost’s “blanker whiteness of benighted snow” which descends upon a field in New England, creating a kind of desert where you’d hardly expect to find one.
Of course, the poet isn’t primarily using desert in the ecological sense, but as an adjective … as in deserted. We get the word desert from Latin’s deserere – to abandon or forsake – to undo (de) that which has been joined together (serere, as in series). The speaker in the poem feels the desertedness of the place, likening it to the purported loneliness out among the stars but bringing the emptiness much closer: the loneliest “desert places” are not Out There, but inside of us.
Ironically, it’s the stars which have been drawing me closer to the beauty of the desert this advent. I’ve started imagining the desert as it is at night, far from the city, far from all the busyness that comes together in a city under the glare of too many artificial lights. Out in the desert, in the darkness, in the silence, is where the stars are revealed.
Silence is one of the cornerstones of Advent, and one which often proves quite elusive. At least when you have children, or a demanding job, or other responsibilities which make it more difficult to find than it used to be. I know that silence doesn’t feel penitential to me – it feels like a relief. Silence, good silence, gives you the peace and the space to listen. To listen and to be. Like the exodus of the Desert Fathers, like the “original solitude” of Adam, our moments in the desert silence offer us a place to encounter God and learn the meanings of our lives before Him.
These past weeks, I’ve been trying to seek out little deserts of silence, and to give thanks for them when they find me. I haven’t done terribly well on either count, but I’m learning. With two boisterous little boys, there isn’t much quiet during the day; but I’ve found much of my silence, paradoxically, in music. Advent music or just peaceful music to bring a certain stillness to mind and heart in the midst of action. Thank God for the gift of music.
We’ve also been practicing a kind of rhythmic silence of the home, finding ways to keep things tidy, or at least tidier. This was inspired by my four-year-old son, who was in turn inspired by the line, “Make your house fair as you are able.” The silence of preparation for the coming of the Christ Child is not just silence of the ears but of the eyes, of the mind, and of the heart.
And yet’s its still the silence of a desert. Not a calm sea; not the garden. It’s the silence of a thirsty place, a forsaken place, a place where life struggles and cries and looks heavenward for relief. The desert is happening all over the world today. In the dramatic ways we see in the news, and in the quieter suffering which may be much closer to home. While the malls and grocery stores shout out a steady stream of cheer, many people encounter the holidays from a place of suffering. They may be aching over the loss of a loved one, enduring hard illness or injury, struggling through the breakup of their family, hunting for work in vain. The desert may well feel more congenial than all the city rejoicing, Advent feel closer than the dawn it anticipates.
The desert is there; the desert is here. We need to acknowledge it and not just brush past it in a rush to the joy of Christmas morning. We need to find ways to go out, not just into the silence, but into the forsakenness of the desert, and to do it as an act of solidarity with others. We all do this from the depth of our own wealth and from the depth of our own poverty. Until the end of time and its final transformation, there will always be an Advent dimension even to Christmas – Christmas is powerless without it – just as there will always already be Christmas hidden in Advent.
The desert is always waiting for its chance to bloom. If you’ve never seen what that looks like, you can watch it in a segment from Planet Earth (BBC News). Or visit a cactus garden at just the right time.
This is what I see when I read Isaiah. This is the flowering, after long dryness, of hope. This is, in the end, what the desert places are made for.