Many, maybe most, Americans are sun loving folk and when we think ‘vacation’ we think ‘sun.’ We go to rest and relax in sunny climes and are greatly disappointed if we encounter clouds let alone rain. On the other hand, often the locals in these sun-worshiping locations are praying for rain. There is an old Arab saying: “All sun? Makes a desert.” It means not that sunny skies always will create desert conditions, but if all you ever have is sun and never any rain, you will end up with a drought and then a desert.
If we go back to the desert fathers, who lived in a climate of constant sun, they saw the sun as something other than a smiling yellow disc in the sky under which they vacationed and got a golden tan. They certainly understood how the sun can relentlessly punish the careless soul. And they resided in the desert and saw exactly what the desert is:
“Life in the desert meant something totally opposite of what we are inclined to think it was. The desert was a place of death, testing, repentance, and spiritual warfare. It was not a place of escape as much as a place of countercultural engagement. It was not a retreat but the frontlines of spiritual warfare. It is a place where the victory of Christ over sin, death, and the devil was proclaimed, fought, and won. Under the power of the risen Lord, it is where the heart was purified, the passions conquered, sin destroyed, and humanity renewed.” (Gary M. Burge and Brad Nassif, Bringing Jesus to the Desert, Kindle 262-65)
So keeping in mind what the desert represented to the monastics who fled there, and also how they experienced the desert sun, we might begin to understand their reading of verses like “the sun will smite/burn you by day” in Psalm 121:6.
“The Psalm says of those who are tempted by thoughts of pleasure, anger, love of praise and the like, that the sun burns them by day and the moon by night (cf. Ps. 121:6). Pray, then, to be sheltered by the cool and refreshing cloud of God’s grace, so that you may escape the scorching heat of the enemy.” (St. John of Karpathos, The Philokalia, Kindle Loc. 9260-63)
How many of us moderns would use the metaphor of a “cool and refreshing cloud” for God’s grace? Though perhaps those of us who have been baked and burned by this summer’s relentless heat wave – and certainly the farmers whose crops are being destroyed by the drought – can appreciate the beauty of a cloud, and welcome it as a metaphor for a blessing. In general we associate clouds with gloom, depression and darkness. The desert though can teach us to offer thanksgiving for the clouds that move over us in life.