In a dream, the Desert landscape may symbolize a cessation of psychological or emotional growth. The difficulty of desert travel, replete with intense heat, uneven terrain and lack of water are key signs of emotional stagnation. We may feel dry and incomplete in a one-sided relationship where our sentiments of love (heat) are not reciprocated. In the psychological sense, we may feel lost in the vastness of the desert plain which fails to reveal the best path to the ‘better world’ outside its limits. Yet, in another sense, the desert may imply ardent spiritual sacrifice experienced upon the entry into a new and moral way of life. What is our aim in the desert? Do we seek an oasis which may not exist?
There are two essential symbolical meanings to the word ‘desert’. It is the primordial undifferentiated state; or it is a superficially sterile crust under which Reality must be sought.
It is hardly surprising that this symbolism should be employed by Islam, but generally, it would seem, in the latter sense. Thus Abd al-Qadir al-Jllanl wrote: ‘Outside His abode the flock wanders in the desert. What impassable barriers stretch before the caravan which moves towards It.’ It will be noticed how this search for the Essence is reminiscent of the search for the Promised Land by the Children of Israel across the Sinai Desert and the Quest of the Holy GRAIL.
In Ismaili esotericism the ‘desert’ is the external being, the body, the world, the letter, blindly traversed in oblivion of the divine Being concealed beneath these outward appearances. According to St Matthew (12: 43) the desert is the abode of unclean spirits. The opposite view is taken by Richard of St Victor: the desert is the heart, the place where the ascetic life may be interiorized. The contradiction is more apparent than real, since Christ was tempted in the wilderness and such Desert Fathers as St Anthony underwent the attacks of demons there. Nor are the heart’s Desert Fathers more likely to escape: their desert is that of lusts and diabolical imaginings exorcized.
Shankara used the symbolism of the desert (maru) rather in the first sense, to mean primordial and undifferentiated uniformity beyond which nothing exists except as illusion, rather like a mirage. For Master Eckhart ‘the desert where God alone is king’ is an undifferentiated state, rediscovered by spiritual effort, identical in this respect with the ‘sea’ of Buddhist symbolism. Angelus Silesius says ‘the Deity is the desert’ and even T must rise still higher above God in a desert’, in other words, until I attain the undifferentiated state of the First Cause.
At the risk of seeming paradoxical, the symbol of the desert is one of the most fertile to be found in the Bible.
Nevertheless, the writers of the Bible could not conceive of circumstances mightier than their God. That is why, if we go back to the passages quoted above, the sojourn of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness was regarded by the prophets (for example Hosea 2: 16; 13: 5ff.) as a time when the people had to place themselves completely in the grace of God (see manna). Even Jesus, when he had overcome temptation, had angels to minister to him in the desert (Mark 1: 13).
This is why, in the primitive Church, monks retired to the desert as hermits (the Greek for ‘solitary’ is eremos), there to confront their own nature and that of the world with the help of God alone. The symbolic undertones of the word are particularly appropriate in this context, because it was not long before it was no longer believed essential to retire to an actual desert in order to lead an eremitical life.
Because the passage of the Children of Israel through the Wilderness had been a striking manifestation of the power of God, the Jews ardently awaited the time when similar circumstances would herald their final salvation. Thus the historian Flavius Josephus (Jewish Wars 2: 259-61) records how a prophet drew enthusiastic crowds into the desert in clear anticipation of God’s final intervention in human affairs (Acts 21: 38). After the capture of Jerusalem, when the destruction of the Temple visibly ended the hopes of Jewish nationalism, a mass movement made one plea to the Roman invaders - the vanquished asked leave to withdraw to the wilderness. There, no doubt, they would be better placed to await final salvation from their God. Such currents of contemporary thought must be seen behind the warning of the Evangelist: ‘Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold he [the Messiah] is in the desert; go not forth’ (Matthew 24: 26). Finally, it was clearly not due to chance that St John the Baptist preached the imminent coming of the long-awaited Messiah in the desert (Matthew 3: 1; and parallels). Since the wilderness is made for revelation, it favours the endeavours of false as strongly as that of true prophets.
Revelation 12: 10, 14 must be understood within the context of a second Exodus which duplicates the conditions of the first. The Woman, that is the People of God, is persecuted by the Dragon and flees to the wilderness where God provides her with miraculous food.
The opposing aspects of the symbol are particularly striking. Setting aside its image of solitude, the desert, without God, is barrenness: with God it is fruitfulness, but fruitfulness due to God alone. The desert displays the supremacy of grace. In the spiritual order nothing exists without it: all exists through it and through it alone.