When I was younger, these two words confused me. Sometimes, I misspelled them. And I see this same confusion among students today. I know that many faculty claim students are not what they used to be. My guess is the same thing was being said of my generation. Spelling may be one of those things we all are sure current students don’t do as well as the older ones remember they once did!
What I do remember is not being clear, which was to spell the arid land devoid of water and the food served at the end of a meal. Do I use one “s” or two? And why does English have to be so confusing was the question? I can only imagine what learning English as a second language might mean.
I thought it would be fun to explore both words---desert and dessert---as words that can have a spiritual meaning. In this way perhaps we can have a handle on how to remember them. And as we will see, they are opposite ends of the spiritual perspective.
We can start with the first word, desert. Perhaps we can say that it is simpler, if only because it has one “s.” When we say it, we put the emphasis on the front syllable. One says “desert” by making a hard “d” sound. When you pronounce it, it feels like you are forcing the word out of your mouth.
When I examine the spiritual aspect of the word, desert, I realize it is also associated with my sense of simplicity. We all know that a desert literally is an inhospitable area. It is an area devoid of water. In my imagination a desert is a sandy, hot, foreboding place. I imagine huge stretches of land where all we see is sand and, perhaps, sand dunes. I imagine it to be scorching hot. Typically it might induce some sense of wariness, if not fear itself. The desert can easily be seen as a dangerous place---a place to be very careful.
Biblically speaking, the desert is also wilderness. It becomes a place of testing and, often, temptation. The desert is the place where we may have to be for some period of time. But the desert is not the kind of place where you want to stay and, certainly, not to build a home. The desert is not home; it is a place to endure, a place to pass through, if we can.
Inevitably, we will all have times and seasons of “desert spirituality.” My own Quaker tradition talks about “dry places.” I realize this is desert language. A dry place is a time when one has no sense that the Spirit is present. One can continue spiritual disciplines like prayer and meditation, but have no sense that there is any engagement or meaning. If we stay on the spiritual journey long enough, we will experience desert times.
When we add that second “s,” the desert is transformed! It becomes the sweetest experience possible. Dessert typically signals good stuff and good times. There is even a hint of luxury and plenty with this good thing called dessert. Dessert can be seen as a gift. It is not a necessary part of a daily meal. It is an add on---a bonus. It feels like saving the best till last.
When I lived in England, I liked the way they talked about dessert. Often it was called “sweets.” I think that can apply to a certain aspect of spirituality. In classical spiritual tradition, the good stuff of spirituality was called consolations. Consolations were the sweet things God gave to people: neat experiences, grace, etc. Consolations “console” the soul. They are never guaranteed, but they are sweet when given.
Consolations are not merit-based. People do not deserve to be given dessert after every meal, nor do spiritual folks merit consolations based on our good works. Dessert and consolations are always add ons---gifts to enjoy. And that is precisely the appropriate human response to dessert: enjoy. If it is a gift, offer your appreciation and enjoy. But do not become expectant or take it for granted.
Desert and dessert are not simply confusing words for third-graders to keep separate and be able to spell correctly. They are important descriptions of two key aspects of the spiritual journey. As we travel our spiritual journey, there likely will be times we find the path has led straight into the desert. In this spiritual desert there may not literally be sand and scorching sun. But there will be trials, temptations and tests. It may be a place of hardship and suffering. We will be asked to endure and make do. Persevere is the attitude.
At some point---unexpectedly and graciously---we will be led out of the desert. Often we come out of the desert into our normal spiritual time and place. But sometimes, like the ending of a good meal, the host offers dessert. We may be blessed with consolations that seem out-of-this-world good. They might even seem like heaven on earth. However, the caution is not to get used to it. Simply enjoy it.
On the spiritual journey we never know whether there will be one “s” or two “ss.” It makes a difference: desolation or consolation, heaven or hell? On the spiritual journey it does not matter. Stay true. Keep going and keep growing. My best guess is at the end it will be dessert!