The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created as supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.
Thomas Merton: Thoughts in Solitude, pp. 4-5, with thanks to Gabrielle
I love the word, wilderness. I remember hearing it first from my mother, describing patches of waste ground near our home by the sea at Felpham, in West Sussex. I know the Judean Wilderness is not by the sea (unless you count the bit along the Dead Sea, which is pretty unlike the English Channel anyway!) but the phrase always takes me back there, to the dunes and the marram grass, and the salt wind off the grey sea. Somehow it still has that sandy, salty tang to me, fifty-odd years later. and when I read the word in the Gospels, my heart aches for those lonely places along the Sussex coast.
This old photograph I found at the South Downs Shoreline Management site gives something of the feel of the place when I was growing up: