“The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created 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 traveled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back on their life with Him alone. The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else.”
There is a reason that the prophets and sages of the Bible and the desert fathers and mothers of monastic tradition had foundational experiences of the Holy in the desert. The desert reveals and nurtures the True Self.
The True Self is God’s gift of awareness to us that we are God’s beloved. There is nothing to do to earn or possess that affirming love; God’s desire is for communion with us.
But in the silence and solitude of our desert journey, the False Self speaks loudly. I found it amazing that hiking on desert trails and resting for long periods in craggy shadows among huge granite boulders, not seeing or speaking to anyone all day, how much chatter goes on in my head.
Anxious thoughts about my work at church and at the college: Life seemed like a house of cards, ready to fall with a sudden gust of wind. I had so much to do to hold things together.
This was a core issue that Dr. Phillips, my psychiatrist identified as the probable source of the tormenting panic attacks that would seize me on Saturday nights before a busy Sunday and rob me of sleep and energy.
I asked my long-time friend and a child psychiatrist Dr. Larry Budner, how the False Self begins in one’s life. He told me:
“During the first months of an infant’s life, the mother’s devoted care and responsiveness gives the infant the sense that the world is safe, reliable, and loving. Misunderstandings between them are quickly corrected. However, at some point, the infant expresses a wish or an impulse and gets a response that hurts: anger, frustration, or being ignored. The infant learns that there are some parts of himself or herself that can’t be expressed, because it threatens that secure relationship with the mother. This is the beginning of the False Self: dividing wishes, preferences, and impulses into acceptable and unacceptable categories, only showing the acceptable ones to the world, and forgetting that the unacceptable ones are still very much present.”
While the False Self defines us as: this is who I am, what I do, what I have, whom I know, what others think of me, it was a fearful place to live. I had to be ever on the defensive. I needed constant approval. I wanted to please and be a successful pastor. I couldn’t let anyone get too close, including Janice, my wife. I was in that lonely place discerned by Basil Pennington:
“Down beneath all that we have and all that we do is that little one who is all need and is ever trying to win the approbation of others in the hope that it might ultimately assure us that we are worth something.”
The desert fathers and mothers wrestled earnestly with this False Self, who could take on a demonic persona in their long desert isolation. But they teach us that the prescription for liberation from the False Self, from restless desire and endless dissatisfaction, is some form of meditation.
Contemplative meditation is the resource that I learned here in this place that awakened my True Self as beloved of God. The desert journeys opened that awareness of the Presence of God more deeply.
Why do you have to go out into the desert, Brad? God’s presence is everywhere.
Yes, but I am different out there.
Spindly creosote branches brush against my jeans and a sweet-sage scented autumn breeze caresses me as I walk in the morning light. My soul becomes like an old bed sheet strung between two pines trees. The gentle wind of the Spirit blows through me.
And then the voice of that dark spirit creeps up and takes over:
“What do you think you are doing here? Is this some romantic spiritual trip you are on? You should not be here. You should be home with your family. Erik just got out of the hospital ten days ago. Can’t you imagine his fragile body now and how Jan must work double time, when you are not there? This is selfish of you to be taking this desert retreat. Turn around and go home!”
I had planned this Advent retreat for several months, but I really should have cancelled the whole thing. The more I am thinking about it, the more I miss my family. I want to hold Erik on my lap and love him. I am at the end of my emotional rope again. This horror movie is stuck on replay. Where can I find a hope to hang on to?
I am breathless as I climb, the altitude is getting to me. I must stop and catch my breath, heart is pounding, lungs burning; got to wait for that beating heart to slow down. Over several hours of hiking and climbing (I lose all sense of time out here) the brain shifts into neutral, the nagging voice of that dark spirit vanishes, only the sound of wind whistling through the creosote and sagebrush and the rushing creek. The spine of California, the Sierra Nevada, looms closer and closer now, blanketed with thick snow. I begin truly to see the colors around and ahead of me; late afternoon sun reflects rose and amber in the mountains, a golden sheen on the rocks ahead. Such beauty! Stop, stop and take this all in! The sun is like a gentle heat lamp enveloping me with warmth. My empty, quieted mind opens to phrases bubbling up from—Where?
“The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who trust in his constant love.” (Psalm 147). A gospel song from mass last Sunday: “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms.”
“Thank you, God, for the doctors and nurses who cared for Erik. Thank you for the medicine. Thank you for Jan, who is my teammate in this battle for Erik’s life. I know we are well past the predictions of his lifespan, but he is with us now. Every day is a gift. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for this beautiful place, for your love for me.”
Walking in this desert place, I have holy help in shaking off the dark voices of despair and confusion and ruthless judgment and in opening my heart to the eternal, loving Presence that is always with me and you—-even though we forget.
Deep within you and me is a place where God has touched us and held us very close.
Father Rolheiser helps as he writes:
“Long before memory, long before we ever remember touching or loving or kissing anyone or anything, or being touched by anything or anybody in this world, there is a different kind of memory, the memory of being gently touched by loving hands. When our ear is pressed to God’s heart—-to the breast of all that is good, true and beautiful—-we hear a certain heartbeat and we remember, remember in some inchoate place, at a level beyond thought that we were once kissed by God.”
Is this what happens to me when the desert quiets my mind and that busy mental computer winds down to a faint hum? Am I remembering this primal embrace of the Holy before I was born? I forgot, but when all is quiet and still, in solitude, my heart warms in this desert space and I remember.
Grateful remembrance is my ballast against the assaults of the dark spirit.
At the end of the day, I return to my motel room at the Dow Villa in Lone Pine. Lights are out. I hear the wind rattling the motel sign outside, a howling, cold moan in the dark night.
I begin the Examen of Conscience given by Ignatius Loyola 500 years ago. There are a few easy steps, and this is how I practice them:
I gaze up into the dark ceiling and reflect on this day. I begin by inviting God to be present with me.
Gratitude: I try to recall the good things that happened during the day, the little blessings for which I want to give thanks. I am not doing a self-assessment here, or a fantasy trip through the day that is past; rather I want to anchor myself in the place of thanksgiving. Perhaps there is good news, or an encounter with God in creation that bubbles up. Some of these experiences can be powerful and I want to savor them rather than rush through a vague memory and brush it aside. Savoring an experience for which I am thankful slows down the whole experience and I am blessed by that event.
I ask for the grace to see where I have turned away form my True Self, the deepest part of myself. I allow myself to see those times when I was not at my best. Maybe I was hard on someone, insensitive. The point is not to beat up on myself, but to let the voice of conscience remind me of a better way. Maybe tomorrow I need to go back to that person and make amends. As I pay attention to this voice of conscience, God is helping me to be more loving.
I review the day as though I am watching a video. I begin from the moment I awoke and go through every event. I pay attention to what made me happy, what helped me relax when I felt stressed, confused, frustrated. I try to recreate with all my senses the past day. The surprise is that when you make this a daily practice, you find that events and people otherwise forgotten often have something very important connected to them.
I ask God to pardon what I may have done that was not loving.
I ask for God’s help in the coming day.
I close with a prayer.
During the night (when I must make those middle-aged male visits to the bathroom) I am sometimes astonished by moments of great clarity. A phrase comes forth in answer to a problem I have been praying about. Regular meditation opens the mind’s filters to the flow of intuitive consciousness. Some of my most creative ideas or answers to conflict have come from these 3 a.m. Aha’s.
What wells up in my heart through this prayer are gratitude and thanksgiving to God for God’s amazing grace today. That gratitude is foundational to my hope for Erik, myself and our family. Because hope, without this gratitude to God, becomes only wishful thinking.
I hope this time together has stimulated an interest in trying some of these desert paths yourself. Make it three good days. You are not creating a spiritual travelogue, collecting close encounters with the holy. The remembering can be a way for you to invite the Lord’s presence to be with you now. The remembering is the antidote to the dark spirit’s work of forgetting.
I close with these final thoughts from Father Rolheiser that summarizes the process of transformation offered by the desert:
“The desert…..empties you. Hence it is not a place wherein you can decide how you want to grow and change, but is a place that you undergo, expose yourself to, and have the courage to face. The idea is not so much that you do things there, but that things happen to you while there—-silent, unseen, transforming things. The desert purifies you, almost against your will, through God’s efforts. In the desert, what really occurs is a cosmic confrontation between God and the devil; though this happens within and through you. Your job is only to have the courage to be there. The idea is that God does the work, providing you have the courage to show up.”
Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI
- From your experience this morning, how can you imagine making a retreat into the desert? What difficulties or resistance do you see?
- Does your home parish have a men’s spirituality group? How might your experience this morning complement that ministry?
- If you do not have a men’s spirituality group, in what ways might you encourage and help the pastor begin that ministry?