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  • The Revelatory Tide: Desert Spirituality and Contemporary Water Crises
  • Rachel Wheeler (bio)

The work of scholars in the discipline of Christian spirituality is to engage Scripture, other spiritual ‘classics’ in the tradition, and the tradition itself in pursuit of their own and their readers’ ongoing transformation. Sandra Schneiders’ fundamental exposition of method within Christian spirituality scholarship, The Revelatory Text, draws on thinkers Gadamer and Ricoeur to demonstrate a hermeneutic that draws together the worlds behind and of the text with the world created by the reader herself in front of the text to effect transformation.1 Though Schneiders takes the New Testament as her classic text, she models an incisive hermeneutic for scholars of non-biblical texts. Indeed, a plethora of ‘texts’ abound for modern researchers of spirituality, including the natural world—the setting in which the researcher finds herself.2

Biblical scholars have already begun to elaborate on an ecological hermeneutic for interpreting Scripture. This hermeneutic involves attending primarily to how the natural world is or is not represented by or given voice in the biblical text.3 The interpretive process also attends to how the scholar’s relationship with the natural world influences interpretation.4 Movements toward an ecohermeneutic in spirituality studies have begun with Douglas Christie’s contemplative ecology and Lisa Dahill’s rewilding of Christian spirituality.5 This paper draws on ecological hermeneutics to demonstrate how a contemporary scholar may approach a ‘classic’ in the Christian spiritual tradition—in this case, the sayings of the so-called fourth-century desert fathers and mothers.6 It is my contention that desert spirituality of the kind advanced by the sayings of the desert Christians provides contemporary readers with wisdom to address water crises, and to reconfigure modern relationships with water.

Certainly, water crises loom large in the opening decades of our century, and these crises must inform contemporary scholarship across disciplines. Even popular culture displays recognition of the importance of water when, for instance, the James Bond film Quantum of Solace7 took as its plot device a typical struggle between good and evil, though atypically representing its villain as an ironically-named Mr. Greene aiming to gain control of an aquifer and capitalize on people’s essential need for water. A crucial scene of poetic justice in the film is Bond’s abandonment of Mr. Greene in the middle of a [End Page 176] desert with a single plastic bottle of water. The film conveys a striking spiritual message about unnatural ‘thirsts’ for power, control, and wealth in contrast to natural thirsts for not only (literal) water, but also for love, peace, and balanced relationships with others.

Adventure films may be unlikely places to find water crises addressed; yet, as time goes on, there will be more public awareness of water’s importance. For instance, since 2015 Cape Town, South Africa has attracted global attention during its ongoing water crises. During this time, residents of many other cities became educated about the sources of their own water systems and often recognized their own dependency on fragile systems. Perhaps attracting even more global attention was the Cape Town residents’ resilience during fairly severe rationing of water. If we were not aware of it before, Cape Town’s experience reveals water’s importance to us; water is, after all, the main resource of our time that, imperiled, may hasten humanity’s demise. In this paper, I reflect on the importance of the imagery of the natural world in desert sayings and in our response to these sayings necessarily being affected by our experience of ecosystems in crisis.


Desert spirituality draws on biblical precedent, especially expressions involving thirst. The desert is characteristically a dry, barren, sparsely inhabited space. The biblical world is peopled with characters traversing such places, experiencing their longing for an established dwelling and for God as thirst. Thus, a ‘Promised Land’ is depicted as a place of flowing waters to quench the wandering Israelites’ thirst (Deut 8:7 NSRV), and the psalmists rhapsodize about a desire for God in thirst-quenching terms (e.g., Ps 42:1–2; Ps 63). Thus, John the evangelist portrays Jesus as the ultimate thirst-quencher who invites all...