In order to learn who we really are, we must have a place in our lives where we are removed from the materialism, entertainment, diversion, and busyness that the Vanity Fair of our society and culture immerse us in. The things sold at the booths in the Fair are tranquilizers that separate us, and protect us, from the emptiness and need of our heart. As we leave these less-wild lovers behind and enter into solitude and silence in our own desert place, the first thing we encounter is not rest, but fear, and a compulsion to return to activity.
In The Ascent to Truth, Thomas Merton says: "We look for rest and if we find it, it becomes intolerable. Incapable of the divine activity which alone can satisfy [rest] ... fallen man flings himself upon exterior things, not so much for their own sake as for the sake of agitation which keeps his spirit pleasantly numb ... [The distraction] diverts us aside from the one thing that can help us to begin our ascent to truth ... the sense of our own emptiness."
Our emptiness is often the first thing we find when we face honestly the story going on in our heart. It is the desert’s gift to us. George MacDonald encourages us to embrace it as a friend by “leaving the heart an empty cup,” and proceeding. But what do we do with our emptiness if we stay with our heart? If we try to pray, our minds fill with busy, disconnected petitions that start with the words, “God, help me to do this or that better, have more faith, read the Bible more.” The busy petitions of our minds seem to leave something inside our chest cavity unexpressed, something that is trying to tell us about the way things are.