She came, as she journeyed, to a desert. She filled up her pack with all the comforts and survival gear she could stuff into it. Her pack was heavy but she bowed beneath the load and took a step into the sand
“You know,” said her Guide, “You don’t need that pack. I have everything you need, and I’m not going to leave you.”
She smiled. She said she believed him, and she opened up the pack and took out a few things– her extra sweatshirt, her snowshoes. “Hold on,” she said, digging deeper, and pulled out her supply of hot chocolate mix and some hand warmers. She handed them to the Guide.
Yes, her load was definitely lighter now.
So they walked on. And the sun shone hotter and hotter, so she drank from her canteen, and she put on her sun hat out of her pack, and slathered on sunscreen.
“You know,” said her Guide, “You don’t need all of that. I know where to find water. I will provide it for you. I will lead you to it. I will make sure that the sun does not harm you. You are so weary, under that heavy load. Why don’t you leave it behind?”
“Yes, you’re right, of course,” she said. Her Guide was always right, and he knew the best ways through the wilderness. So they stopped, and she took off her pack, and she pulled out her iPod and her cooking pans and her life jacket and her knee pads from junior high volleyball and her second pair of hiking boots and a very small spare bottle of water she found, and she handed it all to her Guide, and he took it, and they trudged on.
The wind came up, and the sand blew around, and sometimes in the sand she couldn’t see the Guide at all. But she knew he was there, and she kept following the path, and struggling under her pack. And every now and then her Guide would bring her to an oasis and she would be refreshed, and drink deeply, and rest. She learned to love her Guide, to trust him. But she had not come to the end of the desert yet, and eventually they would leave and face the sand and wind again.
Now and then the Guide would point out how well he was able to meet her needs, how she didn’t really need her pack, how it was just burdening her, and she would pull something out and hand it to him. But she still clutched her pack to herself. It was her protection. Its contents made her feel safe.
“You are safe with me,” said her Guide.
“I know,” she said. But she could not give up her pack.
And then one day, she tripped and fell. Face down in the desert sand she struggled for air. Her pack– her heavy burden pressed her down. She breathed dirt and dust, shame and fear. She could not get up.
“Help me,” she choked out in a desperate whisper.
And her Guide was there. He lifted her to her feet, and he said to her, “Do you see how this thing you are trusting to help you survive is destroying you?”
And she said “Yes.” And she wept. Because her burden held what she cherished, and though she saw its harm and she hated its ugliness, she loved it too.
The Guide built a fire, an altar, and she shrugged off that ugly burden and heaved it onto the flames and wept. And then she ran free.
But it was still the desert, and now, like a mirage, she would see the beautiful appearances of the contents of her pack, and she would desire them. Her skin cracked in the dry air; the sand stuck to her and rubbed her raw. She was so thirsty. Her Guide gave her water to drink, but sometimes she would see the roadside peddlers, selling packs just like the one she had burned. Some days she found herself shouldering the pack again, burdened under its horrible, comfortable weight.
And so every day the Guide brought her back to the altar and she surrendered the pack to the fire. And he gave her water and bread.
Her clothes became tattered and gray in the constant painful dust of the desert. She pulled them around her, trying to shield herself from the sun and the wind. Her hiking boots wore out, and her feet stung and burned, and she was angry.
“I had new clothes, new boots, in my pack!” she complained to her Guide. “You said you’d lead me out of this desert, but here we still are! And I am nearly naked, and every day we burn another burden and sometimes I can’t even see you! What are we doing here?”
“You know,” the Guide reminded her, “I have new clothes for you, if you want them.”
“Your clothes won’t protect me like mine would!” she accused. “Your clothes don’t shield me from the grief and sorrow and death and pain, from the hunger and thirst of this desert!”
“No, that is true,” the Guide agreed. “But they will clothe you in beauty. And they will protect your heart from bitterness and your mind from lies. You will know me better, if you wear the clothes I prepared for you.”
And so she wept again as she took off her tattered protective gear and stepped into the clothing the Guide provided for her. And she ran in freedom, for awhile, even on the desert pathways, as her love for her Guide grew.
But they came to a valley, a deep ravine where no sunlight came. She was so afraid. She looked for her Guide and could not see him, but he had left her a Light. And so she made her way slowly through the valley where the shadows were. The desert wind blew, and her eyes stung with sand and with tears. She cried out and begged for her pack, but every day there was the altar and enough bread, enough water.
Sometimes caught a glimmer of her Guide, and sometimes he sent a friend to help and to comfort. She learned to listen for the sound of the tiniest trickle of water, a stream in the desert, and to drink deeply, to revel in every drop running down her throat. Some days she could barely move, so her Guide would carry her and give her water and medicine until she could walk again on her own. And daily he promised enough for tomorrow. She began to love her Guide more strongly, to trust his care for her.
And then one morning, she laid her pack– it was smaller now, but it still sometimes reappeared as she walked– on the altar, watched it burn, and turned to go, only to discover she could not move. Her feet were buried in the hot sand, hot though it was dark and shadowed.
“What is happening?” She cried in fear, in frustration. Her Guide came near with a whisper.
“What if I asked you to stay here for awhile?” He asked her, and she was afraid.
“I can’t! I can’t!” she protested, “I’m so thirsty! So weak! I need sunshine and water. I need cool breezes and warm blossoming daylight. I need to climb the mountain, stand on top, see you clearly instead of through this dust and sand and horrible darkness!”
“This is the place you will see me more clearly,” the Guide said. “I have a plan for you, and believe me when I say that it’s a good one. You will be fruitful in this desert.”
“How can anything be fruitful in a desert? Won’t you save me? Please? I know you can get me out of here. You have everything I need to bring me to green pastures and still waters!”
“Yes, but I also have everything you need to bear fruit in the desert, to be a friend to those who walk this way after you. Will you stay? Will you let me plant you here?”
“There’s no rain, no water! No sunlight! Barely even a glimpse of your face! And you took my pack!”
“There is water, deep below the surface. You must trust me. You must seek it, dig for it, right here, by this altar, in this dark desert valley. You will find it. And you will be fruitful, here. I promise it.”
And she bowed her head, and the tears fell in the hot, dark sand, and she said, “I will stay.”
And for one moment the wind stopped and the dust settled and she saw the face of her Guide, and love shone out of his eyes, and she saw her own scars marring his face, and the sight gave her hope.
The wind came back, the stars disappeared, the darkness covered her, but in her mind she could still see that face and it gave her courage. And so she opened her eyes wide and dug down deep for water and for hope, and waited to see it again.
“Yes, I will stay,” she repeated.