The Australian Outback has always had a great attraction for me. To the early white settlers it was the great unknown. Many theories abounded…one, that there was an inland sea. Discovering the truth of what lay beyond the mountains of the Great Divide obsessed the minds of a considerable number of people in the 19th century and stimulated a period of intense exploration. There are many fascinating accounts of the journeys of these intrepid adventurers…perhaps the most famous being of the ill-fated expedition Burke and Wills. However the first great explorer was Sturt who was the first white man to set foot in the Lake Eyre Basin and the Desert that now bears his name… Sturt’s Stony Desert.
The Outback is tough country, hard and dry…an unrelenting wilderness. To venture into the outback is dangerous…and to cross the Stony Desert alone on foot is virtually impossible… no signposts… or roads, or buildings.. no trace of mankind… and without a compass it is all too easy to walk around in circles. In summer it is unbearably hot…reputedly reaching temperatures of 75 degrees Celsius. There is a sense of timelessness if there is such a thing…. nothing changes in this desert… no events except the rising and setting of the sun.
And one imagines that nothing will ever change as without regular rain no crops can be grown and no animal can live… a big empty garden with no flowers…yet on saying that…every so often there is rain and Lake Eyre which is not far away (well a few hundred miles…but such a distance is “next door” in Australia) if there is enough… the whole place may be covered in flowers. Yet that is rare. The desert is relentless… and devastating and terrifying…vast stretches of red sand, crumbling and blistering hills that look like great waves and bare jagged rocks shimmering and glowing with heat as intense as a furnace, and vast stretches of gibber… small rocks or stones…that extend as far as the eye can see…
Yet because of the uneventful feeling of the place it is a great comfort… perhaps because whilst everything else in our world is constantly changing it is a comfort to think that here it is always the same. What is the purpose of a desert? Why does God create deserts when other parts of creation are teeming with life??
In the desert there is silence…no voices, no radios, no cars, no trace of civilization… none of the props and distractions of society. In the desert one must confront the deep questions of life. Why are we here? Where did we come from? Where are we going?
For the Christian Contemplative “the Desert” has particular significance …it is a metaphor for the “dark night of the soul”, which is a phrase taken from Saint John of the Cross a great Spanish Carmelite Saint of the 16th century, a friend of Saint Theresa of Avila, indicating a period when one is feeling bereft, alone, or confused’, abandoned even by God. Stripped of the usual comforts…or the usual comforts no longer offering any solace. The sincere Christian is always seeking God. He knows that ultimate happiness and joy is found in God alone. Yet on the journey towards God there are times when he feels that he has not made any progress…that this quest to find God…to become united with Him is a waste of time…that it is an illusion. In the Carmelite tradition it is deemed necessary to traverse this interior desert in order to grow spiritually.