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Crossing the Desert

Crossing the Desert: Learning to Let Go, See Clearly, and Live Simply
by Robert J. Wicks
Notre Dame, IN: Sorin Books, 2007
186 pages
Reviewed by Karen Frank

Crossing the Desert is a valuable book whether one lives in a physical desert or a lush valley. The inner landscape is what is of importance. Divided into two sections, Robert J. Wicks first asserts that each seeker has to pass through three psycho-spiritual gates in order to learn from his or her desert experiences. The seeker must possess passion, true knowledge, and the humility to recognize his or her gifts and growing edges. Humility is essential because it under girds thekenosis, or self-emptying that creates space for growth in inner freedom and love.

Central to the second part of Wicks’ book are four questions the seeker needs to answer in order to discover what the desert ammas and abbas sought in “an uncluttered life of deep meaning, peace and joy, radical honesty and true simplicity” (p. 125). As seekers, first we must ask: “What am I filled with now?” (p. 84). Next we examine the reasons we have trouble letting go, and we learn ways to empty ourselves. Thirdly, we are led to seeking silence and solitude, in order to “set the stage for greater clarity and the freedom to love God and neighbor” (p. 101). The fourth desert question Wicks asks is complex: “What will satisfy me, yet leave me open to more?” (p. 105). This same question is also presented as: “Once I am empty, what do I fill myself with?” (p. 105).

Wicks recommends feeding our souls through gratitude, simplicity, or a listening spirit. These practices enable us to be both full and open to receive more gifts of the Spirit. More than anything, Wicks’ discussion of gratitude in chapter 5 moved me. While recently grieving the death of my father, I became restless, reaching out for something new to distract myself from pain and to restore my lost sense of security and happiness. In “Be Grateful” Wicks reminds us to enjoy the life set before us—what we already have—rather than search for the perfect and ever illusive fantasy life. He asks: “Am I taking enough risks to fully enjoy what I already have?” (p. 66).

This surprising question is countercultural, because our western culture tries to convince us that we are deprived. We assume there is something more we need to make us happy and whole. Thus our happiness and security are always displaced to some time in the future. If we nurture the desert virtue of humility, however, we learn to enjoy the gifts we’ve already received from the “source of all.” We avoid spending “our entire lives in the paradoxical process of seeking more in the future while failing to enjoy what is already present” (p. 69).

Wicks also advises us to become desert apprentices, seeking mentors (spiritual directors or guides) with qualities similar to the ammas and abbas. Reading Wick’s list, I thought that the traits or gifts prescribed are important ones to embody. They include greater transparency, un-self-consciousness, presence in the now, creation of an accepting space for seekers, and developing an encouraging holiness.

As we all move through our own desert times, Wicks reminds us that there is always possibility for transformation and transcendence of self, allowing a life of spontaneity and single heartedness that best expresses the word(s) of Spirit.

Karen Frank, MTS, received her education and spiritual direction formation from Seattle University, Seattle, Washington, USA. She is a writer, photographer, and spiritual director in Port Townsend, Washington. Engrossed in nature, fascinated by transforming the language of the spirit, and welcoming companions on the journey..

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