“However, (Thomas Merton said), the usual road to contemplation is through the desert, a barren land with no trees, beauty or water. This prospect is so frightening that we are afraid to enter. In that desert God is nowhere to be found. Yet some people sense that peace is to be found in the heart of darkness, so they keep still, they stop trying to force prayer and meditation and other spiritual exercises, and they patiently trust in God. In the midst of darkness and emptiness, God leads them to the promised land.”
William O. Paulsell, Rules for Prayer.
The heavy feeling hit the pit of my stomach as I walked through the portal into the House of Prayer for the last time. Another June heat wave descended over southern California and these dry foothills of Orange Park Acres, but the desert plants surrounding the complex of Santa Fe style adobe casitas radiated resurgent life. On my left, I admired a thirty-foot high agave century plant in full glory, the thick green stem topped with a huge vanilla colored flower. Soon it will wither and collapse unto itself. But I can see baby agaves emerging around the mother plant. This is a fertile place for desert plants and desert souls.
I have come to my last spiritual direction session with Father Gordon Moreland, SJ, before he departs to a new pastoral assignment. I first came to this priests’ retreat center for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 1992, five years after Father Gordon arrived and only six years after our son Erik’s catastrophic health crisis.
I walk about the desert garden planted along the walkway leading to individual retreatant rooms and the chapel. I take photographs to help me remember this place.
Father Gordon greets me as I enter his office. I sit in a chair facing him and the windows behind him frame images of more desert plants outside, more agave and cactus. We often shared information about growing and caring for desert plants. Too much water will kill them.
For twenty-five years I sat in this old chair once a month facing Gordon and the desert outside. This has been a sacred place as I have passed through spiritual deserts.
Walter Bruggemann writes:
“Place is space which has historical meanings, where some things have happened which are now remembered and which provide continuity and identity across generations. Place is space in which important words have been spoken which have established identity, defined vocation and envisioned destiny. Place is space in which vows have been exchanged, promises have been made, and demands have been issued.”
(The Land p. 5)
As I look about Gordon’s office for the last time, I gaze at a large portrait of St. Ignatius Loyola. Behind me hangs a calligraphed Chinese poem flanked by two Chinese figures. Father Gordon has visited China every autumn over the last few years, connecting with his Jesuit missionary roots. My attention returns to Gordon. Behind him a coyote dashes through the garden.
In this last visit, I reminisce about my life before coming to the House of Prayer. In 1990, after Janice and I returned from Massachusetts General Hospital, where Erik had hospitalization for a month as he fought the raging brain fever of encephalitis, I visited Sister Jeanne Fallon of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange at their Spirituality Center. My initial motivation was help in dealing with the aftermath of Erik’s return home and our daily routine of care for a severely disabled child. But deeper down, it was my life of hidden secrets that compelled me to seek Sister Jeanne’s counsel. As I look back, this was a grace of God that was compelling me.
Sister Jeanne saw the inner turmoil gnawing at me and urged me to begin the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius with her. For one year we met weekly. I followed this five-hundred-year-old curriculum of daily contemplation of a Bible passage, leading me through the events of the life of Jesus and his resurrection. We focused on becoming more aware of God’s presence and the movements of grace in my life.
After more than fifteen years of ministry as an Episcopal priest, you would think that at this point in my life I had my spiritual life moving along at a good pace. However, in these weekly sessions with Sister Jeanne, I came to know Jesus again for the first time. Scriptures upon which I meditated each day had been in the past lessons upon which I preached sermons at Sunday mass. But in my contemplation, the words seemed as if they were written today.
Sister Jeanne warned me that the Spiritual Exercises were a process not a program to calm and sedate me in the stresses of life. She warned me that there are no secrets with God and the invitation for me was to be real and honest with God.
In this context, my addicted life opened up to the light: how I had been using credit cards to pay for family needs, personal pleasures and parish projects. I owed about $12,000 at this point and my wife Janice did not know this. Yes, I could have rationalized that eventually I would pay the bill off and our tight income necessitated this overspending. But I was barely able to make minimum payments and I was hiding this from Janice. I began to reveal my fears with Sister Jeanne about being discovered. Finally, one day I resolved to tell Janice about the credit card debt. I thought the world was going to end, but her own experience with Al Anon urged me to go to an addiction recovery group. That first night I went to an Open Alcoholic Anonymous Meeting in Dana Point. I was feeling a spiritual high, as the Secret was out. When I came to the door to the AA meeting, greeters were at the door to welcomed me. There was joy in this place. New Life. In the Open Meeting, three persons in recovery shared how they first decided to come to AA. The surprise of the evening was the testimony of one of my current philosophy students at Saddleback Community College. He shared how his life had collapsed. He had been at the verge of suicide because of his long-time addiction to alcohol. But something led him to his first AA meeting and his life changed. This was like hearing the best sermon on Easter Day.
I began to attend Saturday morning meetings of Adult Children of Alcoholics at the psychiatric facility in San Juan Capistrano. I learned that my compulsive spending and secrets were common to many persons coming out of an alcoholic family. The antidote to secrecy is honesty. My life had become disordered and unmanageable. The grace of God and working a program of honesty and transparency will lead me through each day.
Ron Rolheiser writes:
“Sobriety is ultimately not about alcohol or some drug. It’s about honesty and transparency. And, like honesty and transparency, it is not all or nothing, but has degrees. We are all sober according to more or less, according to the degree that our lives are an open book with nothing hidden in the closet.”
Honesty as Sobriety (8-31-2008)
“To live in the light means to live in honesty, pure and simple, to be transparent, to not have part of us hidden as a dark secret.”
“All conversion and recovery programs worthy of the name are based on bringing us to this type of honesty. We move toward spiritual health precisely by flushing out our sickest secrets and bringing them into the light. It’s the hiding of something, the lying, the dishonesty, the deception, the resentment we harbor toward those who stand between us and our addiction, that does the real damage to us and to those we love.”
To Live in the Light, (4-22-2012).
Sister Jeanne sent me to Father Gordon to continue spiritual direction. He is a revered retreat leader and spiritual director. He is not a therapist. He brought me back to the practice of some of the essentials of the Spiritual Exercises, reminding me of God’s deep love for me and the invitation to friendship with Jesus. I practiced the Examen of Conscience each night before sleep, which goes something like this:
- Presence: I invite God’s presence and help.
- Gratitude: I recall two or three things that happened today for which I am grateful. I savor them and thank God.
- Review: I review the day from beginning to ending. I notice where I sensed God’s presence. I try to remember everything from large to small. When did I feel and give love, joy, hope and peace?
- Sorrow: I may have some regrets about today and offenses I may have committed and ask for God’s forgiveness.
- Grace: I ask for God’s grace for the next day.
As I prayed this Daily Examen, it helped me to see my entire day as an ongoing prayer. I could look back to see and remember where God was with me and be grateful.
I walked through many life deserts with Gordon and Jesus. In those first ten years at the House of Prayer, we did not know if Erik would live much longer, because of many ER visits and hospitalizations. Life at my parish was sometimes messy with conflicts with my bishop, parishioners or staff. I had several opportunities to move on to the episcopate or a larger parish. Through all of this Father Gordon helped me with the tools of the Spiritual Exercises for discernment: how to make the decision to which God is guiding me, when spirits of light and darkness pulled at me. I always seemed to have short term memory of the grace events where God brought my family, my parish or myself through a crisis. I could rejoice briefly in amazing grace and then, as a new crisis or challenge arose, I would forget that grace. If there is one gift Father Gordon gave to me that I most treasure, it is his ability to help me remember again those graces that have brought me home.
I contemplate how remembrance of amazing graces and this place, the House of Prayer are connected. As I prepare to leave, the feelings of longing and dis-place were strong, because of the gift of Father Gordon’s friendship.
Memory is embedded in a place, this House of Prayer. The memory is more than my personal story. There is also the narrative flow of all those who have received spiritual direction, stayed here for retreats, participated in support groups and the daily mass in the chapel.
“Each person effectively reshaped (this place) by making his story a thread in the meaning of (this place), and also has to come to terms with the many layers of story that already exists (here at this House of Prayer).”
Phillip Scheldrake, Spaces for the Sacred, p. 16.
I will remember all that God has done for me through these years at the House of Prayer. While I will continue to visit Father Gordon for spiritual direction at his new location, I leave this House of Prayer grateful for the peace, joy and hope that I have found here. I leave some of my own spirit here as a blessing for those yet to come.