Inspired by Richard Rohr, Ronald Rolheiser, Belden Lane, and Thomas Merton, Desert Spirituality for Men reveals the transformative and healing power of the desert—for men who actively seek God. Blending a memoir of his son’s fight for life, reflections on his own desert retreats and response to the Lord’s persistent desire for relationship, Brad Karelius offers guidance to men in their holy longing for God. An Episcopal priest for fifty years, Professor of Philosophy for forty-five years, husband, and father, Karelius also tells about the power of his friendship with six remarkable men, and he describes some of their well-founded prayer practices which will sustain and nurture any man in his quest. This book will encourage men of all callings and stages in life to plan their own retreats to the desert—where God lives and gives life.
Brad Karelius is associate professor of philosophy at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California, and an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Los Angeles. He is author of The Spirit in the Desert: Pilgrimages to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley (2009), Encounters with the World’s Religions: The Numinous on Highway 395 (2015), and Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest (2018).
Interview with Brad Karelius
Why did you write this book?
I had three goals in minds. First, to help men to admit their deep longing for God and to discern the tension between their true self and false self. Second, to encourage men to journey into a desert wilderness for silence and solitude as a gateway to contemplation. Third, to encourage men to seek the support and friendship of other men in their spiritual journey
What is the one thing you hope that men will find to help them in their life with God?
God may be merciful to me, but I have to accept God’s forgiveness in order to become sanctifying grace. In the twists and turns of my own life journey, I came to know that I am beloved by God. I hope that readers of this book will awaken to see themselves as also beloved.
How is the desert connected with spirituality?
The desert has been the crucible of formation for major world religions: Judaism, Christian and Islam. The health crises of our son Erik drove me out into the desert for long, solitary retreats. I had foundational encounters there and want to share with others whose lives may also be on the edge.
What prayer forms are especially suited for men?
Daily prayer should be familiar and repetitious, clearly defined and time limited. I present three forms: the Breviary or Daily Office, which are prayers scheduled at different times of the day; the Examen prayer, a reflection on the day that has passed with a focus on gratitude; and contemplative prayer, sitting in silence within the loving presence of the Lord.
Why do American men struggle with spirituality?
We have inherited the values of critical thinking and science from the European Enlightenment, and we live in an increasingly secular culture that is skeptical of religious experience. Yet, there is a fire and passion within us for communion with God that conflicts with the pursuit of success in the world.
Who are the Desert Fathers and Mothers?
They were Christian mystics who left the cities at a time when Christianity became established in the Roman Empire. They sought a purer experience of the way of Jesus in the remote, barren lands of Egypt, Palestine and Syria, establishing the foundations for Western and Eastern Christian monasticism.
Are women more spiritual than men?
Several Pew Research Center studies concluded, “women are generally more religious than men, particularly among Christians.” Scholars of religion suggest that possible reasons for this gender gap could be biology, psychology, family environment, social status and that a woman’s center in home life may have lessened the effects of secularization.
How have women affected your life with God?
Contemporary writers on men’s spirituality seem to be motivated by the diminished self-identity of men caused by the women’s movement. I believe the way forward for men in rediscovery of their spiritual selves will found in opportunities for connection with the spiritual lives of women. I have experienced this is two ways: I have shared several ministries over the past forty years with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, California. Also, I have shared ministry with five women priest associates, finding a complementarity as a male priest working with women clergy.
What is spiritual direction?
Working with someone who is trained in this ministry, spiritual direction can help you to explore your experience of God, discern important decisions, heal trauma from the past, and grow into God’s deepest desire for you.
Where is your son Erik in all of this?
For 35 years Erik has struggled with a life-threatening seizure disorder. He has been near death many times. For Janice and me, this has stripped our life down to helping Erik to survive. I have had to disconnect from the drive for success in my vocation and be present to the family when another health crisis arises.
An Excerpt from Desert Spirituality for Men
This is the third day of a retreat at Mount Calvary Monastery, the Episcopal Benedictine retreat center in the foothills above Montecito, California. I have prayed several of the monastic offices with the monks, and have been to early morning Mass. In the late afternoon, before Vespers, I sit on a wooden bench in a garden, overlooking Rattlesnake Canyon. The shimmering Pacific Ocean is in the distance. The sun will set soon. A gentle breeze carries the scents of sage and juniper up from the canyon below. Creatures scurry about in the underbrush.
My mind is emptied of all the voices that chattered in my head as I drove one-hundred-fifty miles north to this retreat. Those voices are now mostly silent. I am listening to nature rustling around me, speaking in the rhythm of a day turning into night.
There is a warmth penetrating my body that is not of the sun. It fills my body with welcome heat, gentleness, sweetness. Is this what God’s embrace of love and peace feels like? I let go of it, closing my eyes.
I do not fall asleep, but this encounter holds me tight to the bench in the garden. A bell rings in the distance; faint at first, then it becomes louder and clearer: the bell calling the monks to Vespers. I have been sitting for over an hour, but it seems like five minutes.
Hours later, lying on my bed in the monastic cell before sleeping, I remember this embrace of God. It was a visitation unconjured, unexpected and unmanipulated. The feeling of peace and love stayed with me in my sleeping hours.
Jesuit mystic Augustin Poulain writes about the prayer of quiet:
This comes abruptly and unexpectedly. You are suddenly possessed by an unusual state of recollection which you cannot help but notice. You are overtaken by a divine wave that fills you through and through. You remain motionless beneath the influence of this sweet impression. And then it all disappears with the same suddenness. Beginners are surprised at this, for they find that they are overtaken by something that they cannot completely understand. But they surrender themselves to this inclination because they realize at once that it is something holy. They postpone to a later date the task of examining it more closely.
Today, as I remember that experience on the prayer bench at the monastery, an image came to me: I had been on a bench at a bus stop waiting for the Holy Spirit to arrive. There is no schedule, therefore no expectation. But I had to show up for this encounter to happen.
I shared this experience with a friend. She asked me an important question: “How do you know you are really praying with God or just talking to yourself?” It is common when we pray to talk to ourselves instead of to God.
I have tried to approach my prayer with God in this way: I want to pray as if I am having an encounter with an actual person, which I am. I am speaking with God. I begin my prayers by asking God to be with me, to touch my heart, not just my mind. I ask God to remind me again that God loves and forgives me, as I love God. The fifteenth-century Spanish Carmelite and mystic, Saint Teresa of Avila said, “A prayer in which a person is not aware of whom he/she is speaking to . . . I do not call prayer, however much the lips move.”
Praise for Desert Spirituality for Men
“The buoyant narrative style of Brad Karelius carries us along. His mode of writing permits him to give us his passion as a priest, his deep embrace of the desert, and the specificity of his rich lived encounters. . .. In his compassion, Brad is wise; more than that, he offers transformative vision and transformative practice. As with all his work, this book is a gift to be treasured.”
—Walter Brueggemann, Columbia University
“Thanks so much to Brad Karelius for the wealth of material from his wonderful explorations of prayer.”
—Benedicta Ward, Oxford University
“Brad Karelius is a compelling storyteller, weaving tales of men’s spiritual experience with the challenges of desert terrain.”
—Belden Lane, Saint Louis University
“Equal parts travelogue and diary, confession and acknowledgment of the many people who helped him along the way, Desert Spirituality for Men speaks eloquently of one man’s journey as scholar and teacher, priest and human person marked by God’s grace in the ups and downs of his life. There is indeed wisdom here for men, but also for all of us discerning vocation and life’s meaning in our uncertain times.”
—Francis X. Clooney, SJ, Harvard University
“In this book, visits to the desert alternate antiphonally with vivid sketches of some of the very different men who through the course of Karelius’s long life have shaped and disciplined and tutored and kindled his spirit. . .. This modest but moving book . . . belongs as much in the cab of a pickup truck as on any library shelf. Got a lonely trip ahead of you? Take it along. You’ll be glad you did.”
—Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography