Locusts & Wild Honey: Finding Nourishment in the Desert
Updated: Apr 1, 2018
When my health collapsed in my late twenties, it was as if I’d been air-dropped – SAS style – into a wilderness survival course. I found myself in the metaphorical desert without a map or instruction manual. In the two years leading up to this, I had been dragging myself around, bewildered as to why a short walk or dinner with friends would leave me exhausted. Then one day I came home from work, lay down on the couch, and found myself unable to get back up again. This was the start of many years of being bed-bound and then house-bound. As a previously active young woman with a career in community development and activism, not being able to speak above a whisper or lift a spoon was life-altering. I had developed severe Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) otherwise known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS).
Like most people, my initial encounter with the wilderness was the result of circumstances beyond my control. But whether it’s due to unemployment, illness, death or, for many, simply not knowing what your life’s purpose is, once you land in the wilderness, your survival instincts kick in. You grab whatever you can to stay alive, and you frantically search for the exit. In my case, I wanted desperately to go back to my normal life.
In Matthew 3:1-6, John the Baptist does the complete opposite: he voluntarily chooses to enter the desert. There, in that inhospitable environment, he finds nourishment in the form of locusts and wild honey – the first, high in protein, the second filled with sweetness, energy and healing properties. Unvaried a diet as it is, John is more than amply provided for. What’s more, he doesn’t bring any food from home. His nourishment originates in that wild, unfamiliar place.
When back-to-back bugs (adult Chicken Pox, Glandular Fever and Tick Typhus) damaged my immune system, I too had to find sustenance. Cards and flowers from friends and family lifted my spirits, health advice from medical practitioners reassured me there was a way forward, and words of support from fellow ME/CFS sufferers helped me maintain hope. A complete stranger from a local church even came to my house each day to cook me breakfast in accordance with my complex dietary requirements. During my time of great need, I, like John, had wild honey in abundance.
But not all gifts of the desert are obvious or desirable.
Much like my ambivalence towards eating locusts, some desert gifts are not palatable. I couldn’t work anymore, I couldn’t volunteer, and I couldn’t socialise. I was utterly dependent on others, and my identity, my purpose in life, had evaporated overnight. I used to see myself as a hard worker, activist, extravert, host, leader, helper, maker of gifts, listening ear, and, most significant of all, doer. Now that I was none of those things, what was my reason for being? If there was a gift buried among all that loss, what was it?
In due course, the greatest, though most unlikely, of gifts revealed itself to be my lack of choice in the matter. I was too ill to run away. I had to encounter the dreadfulness of it all, and I had to encounter myself. Pema Chödrön refers to this as the ‘wisdom of no escape’. With no choice but to lie flat on my back and heal, I was granted the gift of time: time to reflect on what mattered, time to find out what had been driving my frenetic activity, and time to venture deeper into the wilderness to discover my true purpose.
It fascinates me that John the Baptist issues the call to be transformed from within the desert. In so doing, he calls people out of the Known and into the Unknown. When he offers to baptise them, he explains (or quite likely shouts, judging by his words) that they must first repent. Repentance is a word that sits uncomfortably with a progressive Christian such as myself. It conjures up images of street preachers in sandwich boards raging at passersby. But the word simply means to turn away from that which is not God, and turn towards God.
In my own desert experience, I had to examine the direction I’d been going in, then figure out what it would mean to change course. What would I have to let go of to do that? The illusion that I had any control over my life was the first to go. My profound resistance to receiving help from others was another. And then there was my tendency to base my sense of self-worth on my achievements. One by one, my illusions dropped away as I came to know myself more fully. But turning around is a life-long process and, like everyone, I’ve still a long way to go. The main thing, I’ve found, is to keep my eyes fixed on the lamp at my feet illuminating the next step.
All of us are invited to make the long, scary, and often painful journey into the desert. To go on this journey, we must discard who we think we are in order to encounter God and become who we actually are. The intention of this blog is to explore the ways we find our locusts and wild honey – our nourishment – along the way.