by Orlando Hernández
The first time I saw a desert thirty-nine years ago, I was in no way religious, but I remember that I was struck in a way that can only be described as “spiritual”. It was dawn; the clouds had golden hues, and so did the stark Mohave landscape. The absence of any trees, the rockiness of the hills, made me feel I was surrounded by the very bones of the Earth. But what struck me with most power was the silence. It was so intense that in a strange way it felt like a scream, a loud cry that could not be heard with my ears, but with a part of me that I had never known existed. It’s really impossible to explain, but I have always had this mysterious reaction to the many different deserts that I have visited since. The Judean desert of Palestine, where I stood four weeks ago, was no exception.
Our tour guide had directed our bus driver to exit the Jericho-Jerusalem highway, and take us up a winding dirt road to the top of one of the countless beige-colored hills that covered this wilderness. I saw no living thing from the window except some antelopes running across the opposite slopes. We parked at a precarious spot and our group of pilgrims walked gingerly towards the very summit. And there was that quiet. Even the constant wind was silent.
On a level spot, we walked past a group of Bedouin men who tried to sell us rosaries, bracelets, and other items. Among them was a boy, about twelve years old, who followed us up without saying a word.
I thought of Gypsy children and all the stereotypes about them. On the highway from Jerusalem we had passed a number of Bedouin settlements dotted with their strange, flat-roofed tents, surrounded by pens for their sheep and goats, along with all kinds of debris, including numerous cars in different stages of disrepair. Bedouins are considered one of the traditional ethnic groups of Israel, and are entitled to all the services that the government provides, but many of them choose to live in the wilderness, following what remains of their traditional customs. I wondered whether this boy went to school.
At the top of the hill we looked into the deep canyon of the Wadi Kelt, winding and twisting its way across the desolate landscape. There were so many hills , so many winding trails disappearing into the distance. And the incredible screaming silence. I thought of the passage from Isaiah 40: 3-4 :
“A voice cries out : In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. “
I smiled and actually wondered why our God would want to change anything about this incredibly beautiful landscape! But then, a pilgrim in Biblical times, under 130-degree heat, making his/her way to the Holy City, might think otherwise.
We peered across the canyon at the Ancient Greek Orthodox Monastery of St. George, clinging to the side of the cliff like a Pueblo dwelling, and I thought of the silence and peace that 5th Century Syrian monks had been seeking here in this mysterious place, where the Holy Spirit flowed invisibly. Legend says that this deep ravine, which extends all the way up to Jerusalem, is the actual “Valley of the Shadow of Death.” They say that Elijah was fed by ravens (1 Kings 17 : 5-6) in one of the caves that the monastery covers, and centuries later, St. Joaquin came to pray and grieve over St Anne’s barrenness . Here we were in the wilderness where the Baptist preached, and my Lord Jesus fasted for 40 days! On the other side of the canyon along the ridge of the farthest hills the setting sun illuminated the jagged outlines of the city of Jerusalem, some 15 miles away. I realized was standing on the ground where our beloved Bible came to life. It was a dizzying feeling. The presence of the living God was as palpable here as in the holiest churches and sites up there in Jerusalem.
Fr. Charles asked us to come together and pray, except that there were to be no words, just to let God come to each of our souls in the silence. I don’t know how long we stood there. I can’t even put into words what I experienced, but I can say these are the blessed moments when our Lord comes and strengthens our faith.
Slowly, a little sound crept into my mind, a rhythmic sound, as of babies’ rattles. I opened my eyes and saw that some 20 feet from our group, the Bedouin boy was sitting on top of a large piece of metal, with his head down, as if he was praying with us, jiggling the little beaded bracelets and necklaces that he had brought up. I imagined a young Jesus looking just like this. I felt such tenderness for this poorly clad little man. He seemed to be covered with the very dust of the desert .
I was not the only one who had noticed him, for as soon as our prayer ended, all the women in our group, including my wife, went up to him and bought everything he was selling. He did not say a word. He indicated the prices with his fingers. They gladly overpaid him. Some of the women had tears in their eyes. One lamented about the state of his teeth. There was such concern and love. The silent voice of our Lord had touched their hearts.
I smiled ruefully as I wondered whether this was the routine that this boy followed with each busload of people that would come up to this place. The men would send the boy up alone and he would get the salesman’s job done. It really did not matter. This child was an instrument of God, and He was teaching us to love. On the way back to the hotel, as we rode in the darkness of the desert, everyone was silent in the bus. I felt the Peace of the Prince all around us. Thank You Beloved.
“ Cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!” (Isaiah 40: 9)