The following is Part One of my three-part workshop, “One the Road: A Spirituality Series for Men”, which I presented on Saturday 3 August 2019 at the Emmaus Spiritual Ministries Center, sponsored by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Orange, Orange, California.
Welcome to this second session of On the Road: A Spirituality Series for Men. I will be building on the insights on spirituality with men that we enjoyed with Father Jim Clarke a few weeks ago. He shared with us characteristics and challenges of spirituality for men.
In our time together this morning I will share some of my personal story and offer to you some tools and guidance in your own journey with the Lord.
I do not want to present myself as some model for male spirituality; rather, I hope that what I say and our time together will do will trigger your own desire to know the Lord Jesus more closely and will trigger your own memories of God’s presence in your life.
An outline that Steve and I developed is:
In each part I will share for 15-20 minutes. You will have opportunity to share and reflect at your table group for 15-20 minutes, followed by a dialogue between Steve and myself. We will take a short break after each portion.
I begin with this passage from Ron Rolheiser’s Holy Longing.
“Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest.”
“We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living lives of quiet desperation, only occasionally experiencing peace. Desire is the straw that stirs the drink.”
Spirituality is about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings. Augustine says, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Spirituality is about what we do with our unrest.”
Our innate Holy Longing is for experiences of communion and connection with the Lord Jesus.
While I carry the words of this passage deep within my heart, (because today they truly resonate with me), I can tell you that there was a time that if you had read to me this passage, I would not have understand what it was saying.
During my first twenty years as a priest, I hope I was communicating the Gospel of Jesus, but it was more in my head than in my heart.
Being here in this place is a powerful homecoming for me, because I first came here to the old Center for Spiritual Development about 30 years ago to begin the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius with Sister Jeanne Fallon CSJ.
Several years earlier, our family life was turned upside town.
Father’s Day 1987. My wife Janice, 10-year-old daughter Katie and 4-year-old son Erik were on an American Airlines flight from LAX to Logan Airport, Boston.
We were on the way to our annual vacation in a small New England town for a month with Jan’s parents. Now I could begin to let go of that caffeine and adrenaline driven life of intense multitasking and enjoy this time with family.
Halfway there, our son began to shake violently. My RN nurse wife recognized an intense seizure. We could see that it would relax for a few seconds and then continue. Status epilepticus. The airplane secured priority landing at Logan after an hour of this, paramedics rushed Erik off to Mass General Hospital. For the entire month of that vacation we were back and forth to the hospital and Erik came in and out of coma and several near-death events. Erik had had encephalitis………., the cause at that point unknown. When we left the hospital, he could not walk or talk or recognize us.
For the next dozen years, we were in and out of hospitals, trying to tame the tiger of his horrible seizures. We could be at the dinner table, all seemed ok, then he could begin to cough, which would begin two weeks of nausea, not eating, until we went back to hospital. Sudden seizures would seem like his body would break, and when they would not stop, we would call the paramedics again to take him to the ER. Ten years, searching for right combination of medications.
In that time, my carefully organized life with my Franklin Planner, numbered priorities for each day, jam packed agenda of meetings and events no longer were driving my life. At a moment’s notice, like an earthquake, we would have to drop it all, and focus on care for Erik.
I was working with psychiatrist Dr. Bob Phillips for help with the depression that was pulling me down, a deep grief and ache for the suffering of our son. He recommended spiritual direction as additional help for me, which was just across Batavia from where his office.
Early on, I remember him saying: “you know, Brad, I can see that you are trying to manage and control your life and the life of your wife and family, with no room for God to intervene. When you wake up, and let go of this frantic need to control, maybe God can help you.”
I read somewhere that 80% of marriages break up over the death or disability of a child; most of the time it is men who leave the marriage.
So, Dr Bob sent me across the street from his office on Batavia to here to Sister Jeanne and I began the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, which went on for a year. Each day contemplative meditation on a scripture passage, moving through the key events of the life of Jesus, journaling, and weekly meetings with Sr. Jeanne.
I remember Jeanne saying “You know Brad; this will not be a program of spiritual sedation for you. Hidden parts of your life will come into the light where you need difficult work with the Lord.”
It was Jeanne who recommended the start of my retreats in the desert.
Where can I find time and a place for silence and solitude?
For many years I had traveled the Mojave Desert, hunting old mining camps and Native American sites.
Advent was coming up. Perhaps I could go off for a few days… I calendared four weekdays, got permission from the parish and my wife.
Because I used to visit the Owens Valley of the eastern sierra, I began some reading on the area. A mysterious site came to light: Rose Springs. My mental self needed a real place in the desert landscape to focus on. With some research, I found that Rose Springs was an old stagecoach stop on the way to the silver mines and an ancient Paiute camp.
Advent came, I headed out early in the morning up highway 395, past volcanic cliffs and along the craggy Sierra Nevada mountains. A tiny road leading to a power plant took me to a hidden notch canyon. I stepped out into the cold November morning, walking down into clumps of prickly sagebrush, with that sweet sage smell from morning dew, toward a stone structure, that I could see was a cistern collecting water from the seep of Rose Springs. A little further was a concrete watering trough for stagecoach horses and a big pile of bricks and stones, which must have been the stagecoach station for the Mojave and Keeler Stage Line, burned in 1868 in a Paiute Indian attack. All of this less than one mile off Highway 395.
To my right was a looming basalt cliff and from photos of the 1950s I could guess that this was where UC Berkeley did their archaeological excavation, finding the bones of a 14-year-old Paiute boy. All around me were broken bits of black obsidian arrowheads.
I looked up the basalt cliff and saw a large cave. I climbed up a shelf of rock debris to the entrance of the cave and as I began to enter. I was almost thrown back down the cliff by a huge white owl that flew out of the cave: in some traditions a sign of an impending death. I entered the cave, which was not deep, and found a large flat rock, sat down, looked out into the vast desert landscape.
I sat on the rock in the cave and the spiritual numbness I had been feeling all these months with Erik’s sickness welled up in me. God sparked a memory from the scriptures.
The prophet Elijah entered a cave like this at a terrible low point of inward fear and doubt. He fled to the cave while Queen Jezebel’s soldiers were hunting for him. Elijah holds up within the protective enclosure of the cave in his depression and panic.
The Lord God says to Elijah: “What are you doing here.”
“Nothing at all,” is the reply.
Elijah was living the hard lesson that failure often was the price of earlier success. Now he was learning a second lesson: being in God rather than doing for God is the ultimate sign of faithfulness.
Here again is the spiritual challenge for men. We often see the call to spiritual life with God as a work project and task. We can become self-critical about praying right and lists of spiritual disciplines. We read books about spirituality (or like me, we write them). When we are tired, sufficiently exhausted, emotionally numb, or at the end of our rope, we stop doing and we can be. We can rest in the Lord. I can rest in the Lord on this rock in this cave within this vast desert landscape.
We may seek God in the flash of notable events, sparkling and insightful wisdom, peak experiences, but Elijah’s witness in the cave is for us. It is in the heart, in the stillness, silence and solitude that we hear the soft voice of God. That is the presence of Abba Father that Jesus himself met in the desert. And Jesus wants us to know this Presence to be closer than our own breathing.
I stand at the mouth of the cave, astonished at the vista before me, and wondering why I must drive this far into the wilderness in order to quiet the priest’s mental jungle of projects and to do lists for God. I am grateful that God’s voice invites me to listen to the loving sounds of sweetness: wind, bird songs, and more silence.
There is this Hasidic Jewish story about a Rebbe’s son who began to leave the synagogue during morning prayers to wander in the woods. The boy loved being alone in the forest. His father was concerned that his son was neglecting his prayers and went into the wild woods and dangerous Carpathian Mountains.
“Why do you go out there alone in the forest? I notice you have been doing that a lot lately.”
“I go into the woods to find God.”
“I am glad you are searching for God, but you don’t have to go anywhere special to find the Holy One. God is the same everywhere.”
“Yes, but I am not.”
Stripped of things familiar, the boy was more vulnerable, more open and receptive.
Over three days of that first desert retreat, walking in silence and solitude in the desert landscape, I could see and hear what had been speaking to me all along. A voice of loving kindness and enfolding love.
The soul feeds on what takes us to the edge. But we don’t go there willingly.
Belden Lane writes
“This is what the desert does best—taking us to the end of ourselves, physically, culturally, spiritually. It alternately tricks and teases us into reaching for what lies beyond, for what’s entirely too much for us to handle. Losing control is the POINT> You’ll only be satisfied, the desert says, by what you give up trying to comprehend.”
Abraham plunges into the desert from his home in Haran, not knowing where he was going.
Moses leads a complaining people into the Sinai wilderness, where they become totally dependent on God’s care.
Elijah endures a season of drought, fed by ravens in a desert waste.
John the Baptist survives in the wilderness on locusts and honey.
Jesus awakens to his true self in desert encounters with the Evil One.
The cave at Rose Springs continues to be a foundational experience in my journey with God. I present this not as a spiritual tourist, collecting peak experiences or sharing this as something to be duplicated. It is a foundational memory of God’s close and loving presence that I can recall, as I do this morning, as a prelude to inviting the Lord’s presence again with me.
Here are some discussion questions on which to reflect at your table:
- What does the desert mean to you?
- Has a memory of the presence of God been triggered for you this morning?
3.What are you asking of God today, this morning?
One of the revelations to me as I listened to you was that ‘unexpected guests’ show up in the desert. One of them invites me to ‘linger’. Another of them asks me ‘don’t you have better things to do?’ I try to make friends with all of them.