He wouldn’t say he liked the desert. It was more an issue of acclimatization than anything else. He had spent so much of his adult life in the desert, both in the waking world and here, that it almost seemed wrong not to be in the wastes. Abundant vegetation, laughter and rain—they often felt like the place that wasn’t real; the false world. Hadn’t he felt that way in the other place- in his waking life—when he got home from that world’s deserts? Seeing the prosperity and the plenty, the ease and the sheeplike security, all the while knowing that in the real world, blood was spilled and water was sparse and killing over power and women and food seemed not just the right thing to do, but sometimes the only thing?
Yeah, he had. But that was before waking up—the spiritual awakening, that is. Now he realized, as he stood in that familiar place, that the desert was far larger and more expansive than its appearance in the physical world. The wastes didn’t stop at borders or climates here. It stretched endlessly across time and space, spreading across the distance between souls and winding deeply into the crevices of each human heart.
The world was a wasteland; a great endless track of no-life, sorrow and suffering, only broken by brief oases of love where the master had dug his wells and planted water. He was at home in the desert, that one, moving from heart to heart like a nomad. The master had once been a gardener—is a gardener, the man corrected himself—but mankind had chosen the desert of misery over the incensed gardens of joy. So the master had put up his banquet clothes and put on the robes of a wanderer.
He became a desert God, as full of power and as incomprehensible as a sandstorm. And even when he began bringing light and life to the dead places, he did not cease to claim the wilderness as his own, but instead made it his temple, his classroom. In the midday gloom he taught man faith. In the dead expanses he preached that there was no life apart from him. In the sting of parched throats he proclaimed living water.
The Israelites… John the Baptist… Paul… Christ Himself. In the wilderness they were led to test themselves against the rugged wilds, to learn what the world really looked like. And sometimes still, the master led modern men into the desert to teach them his ways. The man shifted onto one foot, and thought about his desert journeys. One test he failed, from weakness as much as failure to realize the test. The second one was ongoing, and even as he struggled, he knew this place would be an inseparable part of him—that he would look back on this wilderness of the soul as a time where he gained the strength to face… whatever it was that future him was facing.
Others, he knew, were in the desert. But they were mad with the delusion. They lay out in the deadly sun, thanking a non-existent tree for the shade; They chewed upon the rocks and the sand declaring it the feast of life itself. All the world was waste, and they cursed the tiny islands of green they encountered as if by cursing they could burn those oases to the ground on command. It was a matter of perception, but it was also a matter of reality. The master wanted to dig a well for them, but they insisted from between cratered lips and with croaking speech that they were not thirsty. So he would move on. He would return, again and again, until they died. And then he would bury them in tears, bathing their graves with the precious liquid they refused to let him give them in life.
The man waited as a figure topped a nearby dune and came towards him. The figure was clothed in tatters and robes, the ever-pervasive dust dyeing once-white cloth into the sandy tints of the place which he had chosen to dwell. He had a waterskin and a bag tied on him, and dangling at his side was a rude shovel, the cord at its handle’s end looped over one shoulder. A hood shielded his head from the sun. He approached the waiting man and smiled. His face was leathery, and sand was crusted in the creases of his face.
“Hello,” The newcomer said, his tone that of greeting an old friend. “Come here to think?” The waiting man nodded. “Yes. I think I’ve grown used to it. The desert, I mean.” The wanderer shook his head. “That’s a dangerous thing to say. I’ve been here from the very beginning, and I’ve never gotten used to it. This is not where man is supposed to be. But I understand what you mean. And as long as you recognize the danger of this place, you should be fine.” The waiting man looked off into the distance. “There’s a clarity here I can’t quite get while I’m awake,” he began, and stopped. After a moment, he continued, “I think I come here because this is where you taught me so much. And I want to be near that, to feel that security.” He hung his head. “I don’t want to fail you again.” The wanderer dropped his tools and reached up to touch him on the shoulder. “You know I don’t count that against you. Not anymore. And you need to remember that it isn’t a “points” game. I don’t care how many times you’ve failed in the past. I only care that you succeed—now, and in the future. You keep to me, and you will. I’ve given you everything you need.”
The waiting man looked at the wanderer and smiled. “Thanks. Sorry for wasting your time.” The wanderer stopped in the midst of gathering up his things. “It’s never a waste of my time.” His robes flapped in the hot wind. “None of you ever are.” The wanderer turned to leave, then stopped and called back over his shoulder. “Was there something else?” The waiting man realized as tears filled his eyes that there was. “Father, I have friends out there in the desert. I want them back,” he blurted, even as he realized it was selfish of him to say that. The master looked back, tears smearing the dirt into tracks of salty mud on his cheeks. “So do I,” he said, then smiled and patted the shovel. He walked back into the wasteland, leaving the man to return to his waking life, but not alone.