How do you navigate from place to place around Britain? Probably by roads – hard-surfaced, man-made thoroughfares which get you efficiently from A to B. You can pick your roads easily with a road atlas, or be told where to go by Sat Nav. It’s unlikely that you choose your route by thinking which valley to follow, which path through the hills to take. The landscapes your road passes through become irrelevant.
Is there some analogy here with your spiritual life? Do you choose your way forward with the well-defined routes, the maps and software that seem to know it all? Do you ever go back to the landscape and find your own way?
Physical navigation in the desert is very different: there are no roads, and very few features you can put on a map. If you go into the desert with native Bedouin guides, as I have done many times, they never use a map or compass. They navigate the desert as their forebears did in Old Testament times. They literally know the desert like the back of their hand: every dune and contour, every stump of palm or odd shaped rock, they can distinguish and steer by.
The spiritual counterpart to this could be called desert wisdom: the early teachings of what are now major religions like Christianity and Islam were inspired by the desert, and grew from the culture of desert people. These early teachings are more like the inspiring flow and beauty of the desert, whereas current approaches may be more habitual, more limited in range, more like the fixity of trunk highways.
In the desert, political boundaries look meaningless: the Bedouin and their camels move freely between Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. In the same way, there is striking overlap of key concepts and language in the early forms of Christianity, Islam and other desert faiths, which would astonish modern fundamentalists.
Naming the deity is a prime example of this. The word Jesus used in his native Aramaic, Alaha, is near-identical to the word Mohammed uses, Allah. Neither of them coined these terms: you can find much the same word in far earlier faiths in this region. In essence, this word means divine unity, the everything and nothing of all existence, and this is the way the untamed vastness of the desert makes one feel about the divine. It is so different from the term God, which try as we may evokes images of a grey haired, authoritarian, often punitive patriarch.
Another feature of desert wisdom is the strong physical imagery used to convey the meaning. Both Jesus and Mohammed teach the importance of compassion, both using the same word: Rahm. This also means womb or belly, giving a sense that this quality must arise from deep inside us. The first line of the Koran, which is often said to contain the essence of the whole book, uses this word in two forms: Bismillah er-rahman er-rahim. These are the active and receptive qualities of mercy and compassion, sometimes called the sun and moon of love.
My insights in this field come partly from leading ten Sahara retreats with Bedouin guides, but mostly from the wonderful book Desert Wisdom by Dr Neil Douglas-Klotz. Neil is both a leading scholar and a wonderfully human teacher. Because Middle Eastern languages have multiple layers of meaning which are often lost in the usual translations, Neil’s book provides extended renderings, brings out the sound-meanings of words and the similarities across spiritual paths, and offers a range of practices to help readers feel and embody the full meaning of the texts.
In the fifth Beatitude, Jesus uses the word Rahm twice, bringing in the spiritual and physical sense of the word. In Desert Wisdom, Neil Douglas-Klotz gives five different renderings to bring out the full meaning. Here are two of them:
Ripe are those who from their inner wombs birth mercy;they shall sense the relief of all prayers answered.
Ripe are those who from their inner wombs birth radiance;upon them shall be the rays of divine warmth and heat.
It is ironic that in these era when there is so much technology to tell us where we are and how to get anywhere, so many people feel lost. Perhaps this is a time to ask if we are over-using the well-trodden religious highways. If we want to find the deeper, unformed truths of the spiritual landscape around us and within us, desert wisdom is a wonderful place to start.
For more details on Neil Douglas-Klotz’s books and workshops, see www.abwoon.org.