Step by step, we worked our way on Sunday towards St. George's Monastery in the Judean desert outside of Jericho.
Our steps did not actually begin until after a fairly challenging van ride up the mountain to where the walking path begins.
"Don't buckle belts," our driver said, using the few English words he knew. No need to. The belts were all broken. Not that we didn't feel a need to, what with dodging Bedouins on donkeys, tractor loaders and steep mountain cliffs that could give us a fast trip into the valley of the shadow of death.
But then the walk began. We had intended it to be a reflective walk along the winding, hilly path overlooking the valley whose image lives on in Psalm 23. We had not counted on the four Bedouins on donkeys who thought we might like to ride up the monastery with them. When it was clear we wanted to walk, they suggested maybe we could pay them to go away. Real life was intruding on our spiritual quest.
Keep in mind the four of us -- Bonnie, Nancy, Petra and me -- were all alone in the wilderness at this point. Our non-English speaking driver was far behind us. There were no other pilgrims on this path. But finally, we shook the "helpful" donkey riders. And then the sight of the valley was ours to behold in peace.
When we reached the monastery perched on the side of one mountain, we found the only monk still living there. When you learn in Christian history about the 'Desert Fathers," this is what it was like for them.
Now the chapels were adorned with ancient icons. One cave above the monastery is said to be the place the Prophet Elijah sought refuge and heard the small, still voice of God. There is a sense of solitude and austerity in this place. It is a place where one comes to know God in the struggle with the harshness and the beauty of the elements.
I thought back to our visit a few days earlier in Hebron with Hani, the man who faces constant harassment from his neighbors, the Israeli settlers. Yet he is trying to carve out a path of creativity and non-violence for his children and the other children in his neighborhood. (See earlier post.)
For Hani, every day is a struggle. He is in an urban wilderness -- not in solitude, not exposed to the elements of nature, but his spirituality has grown here as well. He is rooted in Islam, not Christianity. He hopes that someday the children of his Jewish neighbors will find their own path to peace.
Spirituality can be shaped in so many different ways. A mountainous desert. An urban cauldron. Yet somewhere in the mix, there is the facing of life's struggles and finding God's presence in the midst of them.