My great-grandfather, Mat Roy Thompson, built a castle in a desert. It's very famous--you might have heard of it. It's called Scotty's Castle, and it's a spectacular place, as is the land on which it sits: Death Valley. My great-grandfather was the engineer who oversaw the construction of the castle for the very wealthy couple, named Johnson, who were having it built. This is a story of ill health, thwarted love, dreams unrealized--all desert kind of experiences. And you might have noticed that neither my grandfather nor those Chicagoan millionaires were the Scotty of Scotty's Castle. No, Scotty was the name of the old prospector who'd sold the rights to a non-existent gold mine to these fancy-folks. In the end, even when the gold didn't pan out, so to speak, they found the air amenable to their health and built their home/ castle anyway. But guess who ended up living there? Not my great-grandfather, whose designs had changed the style from a square shapeless structure to a one-of-a-kind desert hacienda that can withstand heat and cold and everything else, and still be beautiful. Not the money bags--they both died before it was actually completed. It was Scotty who lived out his days in the Castle. Scotty, the old prospector, who'd duped the folks once, then somehow outlasted them, and lived to enjoy the spoils. (By the way, I should give a shout out to Mat Roy Thompson's entry on wikapedia for all the helpful information.)
We often think of deserts as hostile places, barren places to barely survive. They're metaphors for the worst of what life throws at us, for the times when God seems far away, when we can neither see, feel nor even know how to reach Him. But long ago, the desert called the most devout of our faith. The desert fathers and mothers, they were called. Those who purposed went out to the harshest terrain to discover God, to strip away all else in order to meet Him and only Him. They made their homes in caves and under rocks, and asked Him to meet them, to see what there was to see. And we have some of the richest, most beautiful words ever written as a result. What we can learn from them--why it's like finding a castle in the desert. Like this one:
If you are praised, be silent. If you are scolded, be silent. If
you incur losses, be silent. If you receive profit, be silent.
If you are satiated, be silent. If you are hungry, also be silent.
And do not be afraid that there will be no fruit when all dies
down; there will be! Not everything will die down. Energy will
appear; and what energy!
St. Feofil, the Fool for Christ
Every day you provide your bodies with good to keep them from
failing. In the same way your good works should be the daily
nourishment of your hearts. Your bodies are fed with food and your
spirits with good works. You aren't to deny your soul, which is
going to live forever, what you grant to your body, which is going to die.
St. Gregory the Great
There are thousands, literally thousands, of these writings that make me realize that maybe we're on the wrong track when we loathe the desert and think it to be avoided at all costs. Instead, perhaps there's something the desert offers that we can't find anywhere else. Something beautiful. So maybe when we find ourselves in the heat of a desert, in a dry and weary land where there is no water--and we all will sooner or later--maybe instead of simply trying to figure out how to get out of there, and praying for rain, we might think of building a a place to seek God. Build a castle so that we can hear God from that barren place that we couldn't hear in our lush garden. What is your desert? Loneliness? Dryness of spirit and desire? Build something there. Lean in, listen. He is God and He is not silent. He also created the desert.