I was no longer sure if I had embarked on this journey out of a desire to find truth or to know a freedom beyond the stifling atmosphere of life in the village. The excitement of the road and the thrill of the unknown were so great it was all I could do to resist packing my belongings and leaving the city for good. What stopped me was the doubt which often kept me awake at night, worming its way into my thoughts and sowing seeds of loneliness: How could I feel so free yet so far from the things I loved? Even as my head savoured the foreignness of everything around me, my heart longed to return to the desert and the shadow of the mountains.
With such contradictory impulses inside me I wondered if I had been too long on my own. When a man sits for hours staring at bare walls or listening to the conversation of strangers, he soon begins to doubt himself and dwell on the things he has left behind. That was when visions of the desert would appear like characters from a dream: twilight in the mountains, the first sun against the rock, seasonal rains that turned parched canyons into raging rivers. In these moments I would gladly have sold everything I owned to be back there, even for an hour. But, just when the pain in my heart could not get any worse, I would lose myself again in the distractions of the city and think myself fortunate indeed – an adventurer in a land of opportunity.
Perhaps the past is never so present than when we are surrounded by what is new and unfamiliar. Often, I would turn a corner and find myself confronted by some scene that reminded me of home. Then, I would become like one who walks in two worlds at the same time. Even as I navigated my way through Alexandria’s crowded streets, my imagination led me back to the desert. I would see myself as I was all those years before: a young boy collecting animal bones to use as arrowheads or hunting for scorpions half-buried in the sand. The memories came so vividly and in such detail it was as if they had taken place only yesterday. I was able to recall again that same fascination with nature which had inspired so many childhood adventures.
As an only child I was both blessed and cursed: blessed with a boundless imagination born from time spent in my own company, and cursed with so many questions that could never find satisfactory answers. My father was a practical man whose temperament was like the soil of the desert: hard-worn, blasted by wind and burned by the sun. In his world there was no room for questions; time spent deep in thought was time wasted. My mother, like myself, was more sensitive, but her sensitivity always seemed choked by the duties of life and the grim determination of my father. Neither of them had the time or patience to help satisfy my thirst for knowledge.
When a boy reaches a certain age he becomes, in the eyes of his elders, no longer a child but a man in the making. The childish games which once absorbed him are put aside as he takes up his studies in the synagogue. His teachers are no longer the olive groves or the wind which rifles the wheat in the fields, but holy men who recite the words of the prophets. This is a time when the mysteries of the earth retreat back into the shadows and all the dreams which once spoke to him keep silent.
For me, learning Scripture was an exercise in memory more than a lesson of the heart. I was expected to recite the passages, word for word, as if each one were a part of me and all I had to do was reach inside and pull it out. This was not difficult for me – my young mind was more than able to commit words to memory. However, I found it so dull it became something I did while my imagination roamed the desert, lingering over this creature or that formation of rock.
As I grew older the nature of the lessons changed. Rather than learning by memory we were expected to interpret the meaning of Scripture and apply its wisdom to our daily lives. Each morning the boys of the village would sit on mats on the floor of the synagogue while our teacher unravelled the parchment containing the words of God. As he did so we held our breath, as if those words might at any moment spill out into the room and take form. He read each passage slowly and deliberately, often pausing over a word or phrase to emphasise its importance. When he finished he would look up from the manuscript and cast his gaze around the room, searching the face of every child before asking his question. If we did not have an answer or our attention had wandered, he would scratch his beard slowly or tug on the sleeve of his tunic. This was a sign of his disapproval, as though our failings were not only an insult to his patience but an insult to God.
Our teacher’s questions were chosen to confuse and confound us, to trick us into a rash statement or ill-considered remark: If a man is born of a woman and if, in service to his family or community, he spends his days tilling the earth to provide food for his children, what part of him belongs to God? Each boy would then stand up and attempt to unpick the question, looking for clues in the old man’s face. If an answer pleased him he gave one nod and moved to the next question. If it did not meet his approval the beard would be scratched or the sleeve tugged, and the child would silently curse his own stupidity. So it was that, while our parents and elder siblings spun wool for garments or harvested grain in the heat of the sun, we were kept to the darkness of the synagogue, listening to the soft drone of the teacher’s voice.
As soon as I was old enough to write my name I learned that God speaks to us only through His prophets and the elders who interpret His will. This was how it had always been. It was a sign of God’s covenant with His people, and a tradition as ancient as the hills. Who was I to question this wisdom? Obedience to religious law was strictly observed in the village, unlike some of the larger cities with their foreign gods and Roman tastes. To question any aspect of that tradition would not only have angered my parents but undermined the authority of the teachings themselves. Still, it did not seem right to me that my relationship with God was confined to old parchment scrolls and classroom instruction.
It was not until I was older, spending more time in the desert and less in the synagogue, that God spoke to me Himself. It was harvest time and the entire village was out working in the fields. I had spent several days carrying sacks of grain into the stable behind our house, ready to be sifted, sorted and weighed. But on this day the force of the sun was relentless and I had been excused from the day’s labour. Of course, rather than bide my time indoors, I immediately fled the house for the caves about an hour’s walk from the village. Of all the destinations I could have chosen, this was my favourite. What fascinated me was the sheer variety of creatures that lived underground. On a good day I would spot three or four species of bat, lizards sheltering from the desert heat, and winged insects which gave off a luminous green light that filled the darkness with an eerie glow. If I was really lucky I might glimpse a wildcat with its litter of young. There was always something to discover and, for a boy in awe of the natural world, the caves were an extension of my imagination – filled with the raw material of dreams.
That particular morning I felt a familiar rush of excitement, not only of being released from my chores but of being alive and responsive to all around me. A journey that would normally have taken an hour, on this day took nearly two as there were so many sights to distract me along the way. By the time I reached the caves the sun had almost risen to its highest point and a gusting wind was gathering force in the East. It was too early to tell if this was the beginning of a storm, but at least I could find shelter underground. The caves here were numerous, occurring naturally in the limestone rock within a landscape of gulleys, canyons and ravines. Their contours were so dramatic I often envied the birds their view: from high up it must have looked as if the wind itself had turned to rock.
These caves had been my playground since I was old enough to leave the village alone, and were as familiar to me as the fields and vineyards at home. Each had its own identity, its character in some way described by the rock itself. Some were smooth and pitted with gentle scars, others appeared as if twisted by giant hands and wrung out with a violence that must have shaken the core of the earth. These marks of history became the stories which shaped my inner reality, much as the elements shaped the land. This world was my world, and when I was here there was not a single reason to be lonely or sad. It was a land I knew I would never leave behind, no matter how far I roamed or how distant my horizons.
After visiting some of my secret hideaways, and inspecting a pigeon’s nest tucked delicately into the folds of a rocky recess, I came again into the brightness of day. I sat on a ledge by the cave entrance, overhanging a rock face which fell away steeply beneath me. Some hours had passed since I first arrived at the caves, and that fierce easterly wind now looked to be making good its promise. From my perch some thirty feet above the desert floor, I observed the gusts as they whipped up ribbons of sand and flung them miles across the plateau to the foothills of the mountains in the distance. For some time I watched the scene from above, mesmerised by the movements of nature and the spectacle of the desert turned to a writhing ocean.
I could not say whether it was a contrast between the dark intimacy of the caves and the light outside, or the force and vigour of the storm, but somehow that moment seemed altogether timeless. It stripped away my awareness of a world I thought I knew and transformed it into something elemental – so vital and full of the essence of life there was no part of me that did not rejoice at this strange new sensation. As I sat on the ledge my heart seemed to open and soar. I felt God’s presence within me and around me as surely as I felt the wind against my face. My spirit was lifted up. I became the caves, the wind, the mountains. No longer contained by the limits of my body or the thoughts in my head, I knew what it was to flow like the river and be washed into the ocean, to be pounded on rocks and to mingle once more with the air before falling as rain on the desert floor. This knowledge flashed through me like lightening. In that brief second, illuminated by the light of some inner source, I understood the language of God – not as a passage in a manuscript, or adherence to any teaching or law, but as a pulse inside me, connecting me to all the things for which my heart yearned.