A lot of people seem to find spiritual solace while walking in the desert. It makes them feel closer to god, or something. This has always confused me. If god is anything he must surely be omnipresent, so the nearest shopping mall must be as spiritual and godly as the desert. Other people, of course, see the desert as a kind of hell, which creates a whole different set of problems.
Maybe St Jerome would have understood. In the middle of the fourth century, in order to become more godly, he headed out for “the remotest part of a wild and stony desert burnt up with the heat of the sun, so scorching that it frightens even the monks who live there … this exile and prison to which through fear of Hell I had voluntarily condemned myself, with no other company but scorpions and wild beasts.” He assumed this mortification would be good for the soul. but when he got there he found himself thinking about the dancing girls of Rome, and that was obviously no good whatsoever for his spiritual ambitions, and so he decided to learn Hebrew to take his mind off things, and that apparently did the job. St Jerome is also the patron saint of librarians
I’ve often wondered, in an “idea for novel” kind of way, what would happen if a true blue agnostic, not entirely unlike me, was walking in the desert and heard the voice of god. Would that make him a believer or would it make him think he’d gone insane? Or both?
Probably it’s only a short story, though one perhaps suitable for adaptation into a short film. In which case the Desert Christ Park in Yucca Valley would be a very fine location for at least part of it. I went there, not for the first time, at the weekend.
Desert Christ Park is, for want of a better term, a kind of Christian theme park, built on a hillside overlooking the town, a patch of high desert scattered with white statues, many of them arranged in tableaux depicting scenes from the life of Jesus.
The park dates back to 1951, though it’s changed location over the years, and it was conceived by one Eddie Garver, known as the Desert Parson. The sculptures themselves were made by Frank Antone Martin, an engineer from Inglewood. They’re made of reinforced concrete and not all of them are in the very best condition, as you can see from the rebar poking through here and there, but that doesn’t really matter. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of desert ruin.
Walking there is an interesting experience. You go there thinking it’s going to be a bit of a joke, and certainly the place is not without its elements of absurdity, but as you walk around you realize it’s rather a decent, honest attempt to express a genuine religious faith, and regardless of whether you share that faith, it’s hard not to be moved and impressed by the effort and belief that went into making it.
If you drive down to Palm Springs and walk around the downtown there, you’ll find on the wall of the Union Bank a kind of bas relief tile mural containing the rather dubious headline – “The Desert is the test of the worth of your spirit.” Well again, surely the worth of your spirit is tested every day wherever you are, even in a bank in Palm Springs.
The best thing about the mural – it shows an image of a man taking a photograph of a cactus. Being a cactus enthusiast myself, I took a photograph of the man taking the photograph. And I rather wished there could have been somebody there taking a photograph of me taking a photograph of the man taking a photograph; but you can’t have everything.
And for those of you who like a good map (and I know some do), here's rather low res one of the Desert Christ Park.