“…where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.” (Joseph Campbell)
The Judean Desert has long been a sacred destination for prophets, sages, mystics and hermits. John the Baptist, Elijah the prophet, and the esoteric Essenes made it their home. Jesus Christ wandered through it for 40 days and nights. It was chosen by John of Thebes and his solitude-loving monks for the spectacular cliff-hanging monastery of St George. For Moses, who gazed out over it from a vantage point far across the Dead Sea, it was a distant dream, never to be realized.
Today, centuries later, it is still a draw, and not just for the odd hermit. People from all over the world visit each year to experience this ancient sanctuary of physical and spiritual healing.
But why? What is it about the desert, and this desert in particular, that calls to people of all faiths?
The desert is a powerful psychological symbol: It represents hardships and obstacles that stand between people and their dreams. Difficult to navigate and providing no food, shade, or shelter, it is a perfect setting for those who seek the classic hero’s journey. Here, in this immense, threatening place, the individual can venture forth to face an epic battle with his or her own demons, embarking on a quest to discover vast unrealized potential and untapped reservoirs of inner strength.
Of all the deserts in the world, none is more quest-worthy than the Judean Desert. With its maze of twisting canyons and bizarre, human-like rock formations, deep caverns filled with brilliant salt stalagmites that sparkle like glazed crystal, and of course, that wondrous marvel of nature, the Dead Sea, is it any any wonder that Lot’s wife turned back for one last glimpse?
Like many special places, this small desert formed slowly, patiently, over hundreds of thousands of years. Mount Sodom (the fateful object of the affections of Lot’s wife) appeared between two and three million years ago, at a time when the Mediterranean Sea extended into what is now the desert. The region’s high temperature and low altitude made the seawater evaporate rapidly as it deposited many layers of salt. Eventually, when the sea’s retreat was complete, Mount Sodom emerged. As water continued to dissolve through cracks in the salt layers over thousands of years, it created deep chimneys and caves on its slow march outward toward what is known today as the Dead Sea.
The strange beauty of this astonishing place is punctuated by a preternatural silence. It is not the kind of silence that comes from shutting a door or window; it is a place that was never polluted with noise in the first place. Pure, crystaline, nothingness. Even the most distracted, tortured mind can find stillness in this place of quiet, patient, emerging.
And therein lies its secret as a meditation retreat: The Judean Desert seems to have a special power to stop a racing mind in its tracks (much like Lot’s wife come to think of it). It is the ultimate classroom for a course on going within.
Isn’t it ironic that we spend most of our lives learning how to think, and yet no one has ever taught us how to stop thinking? Humanity needs such a classroom now, more than ever.