The Anza-Borego Desert
Written by: Anne Wilson
In early March, the Anza-Borrego desert is in bloom. That is when a miracle of the season occurs. I have always been fascinated with Scriptural references to the desert experience, for many of these allude to the fact that the desert (both materially and metaphysically) prepares us to listen to God’s voice in the emptiness of our own souls.
Certain scriptural references alluding to this have always been among my favorites, including the one that goes, “I shall lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her there” (Hosea 21: 16-17). At times, I feel sorely in need of God’s “tender speech” when life becomes most challenging. Even finding the time to appreciate and marvel at God’s gifts on earth is not always easy to do. My soul had become hungry for beauty—the kind that nurtures us, renews us, and imparts special insightsand a sense of the sacred. I knew that I needed to revel in this beauty, and realized that to love God’s creation is in itself a way of offering thanksgiving and praise.
Years of an exhausting work schedule after my husband’s death made me thirst for God’s tenderness and Christ’s promise of water that would quench our thirst forever (John 4:7). Still, I was unprepared to happen upon the miracle of the Anza-Borrego Desert in early March after a month of soggy Southern California rain—even more welcome after a wildfire had swept through the region the year before, mingling ash with mud, choking the waterways. Then, suddenly rain brought life back to our hills, revived mossy trunks that had been blackened, and birthed vibrant leaves. One weekend, a friend and I planned a drive to the Anza-Borrego Desert, only an hour’s drive from San Diego. As we descended the slopes of the Laguna Mountains, we could see the hazy pastels of the desert floor in the distance. Coming into the desert itself, flowers formed a fragrant sea of textured color that stretched from one horizon to the next.
The desert ablaze with wildflowers was a sight to behold: sand verbenas in pink and lavender; scarlet milkweed; yellow daisies, and golden desert dandelions; wild blue Canterbury bells and lupines, and white-fringed desert chicory. Hadn’t Jesus spoken the words to “Consider the lilies of the fields? (Luke 12:27). Who could fail to feel renewed and inspired by such awesome splendor? As far as the desert stretches toward the Lagunas, the Cuyamacas, and the Vallecito Mountains, the landscape bursts with blooms in a cosmic hymn of praise, and in the desert the wind, the drone of far-off motorcycles on the highway, the nearer hum of bees – all of these call us to inner stillness. As Psalm 46 exhorts us, we are reminded to “Be still and know that [He is] God.”
“If you love listening, you will learn.” That is what Ecclesiastes tells us (6:33), and I believe that if we can still our busy minds and open our hearts to God’s lessons, we will allow ourselves to be nurtured by this abundance. Poet Mary Oliver tells us that “to pay attention is our endless and proper work.” In the present moment, we experience sacraments of dawn and twilight, hymns of the hawks gliding above, credos of the Western Meadowlark, incense of sage and creosote, and glories that burst from blossoms without ceasing.
Poet Jessica Powers (Sr. Miriam of the Holy Spirit, O.C.D.) speaks to me through her beautiful poetry in a little volume called Mountain Sparrow (1974) which my mother purchased for me many years ago at the Carmelite monastery in Reno. I think of Powers’ words that “everything in creation rushes, rushes toward God.” These have become words to live by, and I reaffirm them every time I go out into the desert either physically or spiritually. And while all of life is a “rushing/rushing toward God” it becomes especially apparent here in the desert, for each living thing must respond at once to whatever is offered it.
The desert continues to be for me a place of sudden unexpected streams and life-giving springs. The oasis that I discover here is an aspect of Christ himself. I have realized that giving thanks, even in moments of apparent desolation, is one of the most powerful affirmations that we can make, and perhaps we can even change the world by changing ourselves. As one Buddhist monk put it, “If you can only pray ONE prayer today, let it be a prayer of thanksgiving,” and I heartily concur. These mysteries inspire me to utter the age-old prayer of Samuel, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening,” (I Samuel 3:10) for that is what any desert—spiritual, physical, or emotional calls us to understand. That is what poets, mystics, and God himself exhort us to do. To listen and open wide the doors of our souls, to let love enter in and flood us with abundance—that is our essential and most important business.