Singing Sand Dunes of Death Valley


Eureka Dunes, G. Thomas 2006

The feeling of it may at times come sweeping like a gentle tide pervading the mind with a tranquil mood of deepest worship. It may pass over into a more set and lasting attitude of the soul, continuing, as it were, thrillingly vibrant and resonant, until at last it dies away and the soul resumes its “profane,” non-religious mood of everyday experience. […] It has its crude, barbaric antecedents and early manifestations, and again it may be developed into something beautiful and pure and glorious. It may become the hushed, trembling, and speechless humility of the creature in the presence of—whom or what? In the presence of that which is a Mystery inexpressible and above all creatures.”

Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational.

 What is the meaning of the enticing allure I feel in my gut, as I gaze at the rippled, curving waves of endless sand dunes, ever changing, that spread out before me?

I stand at the edge of the parking lot for the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes off Highway 190, the main road through Death Valley National Park, about a mile east of Stovepipe Wells.

For the past two hours I have driven eighty miles from my base in Lone Pine, over two mountain ranges, with hair-pin turns, watching for reckless motorcyclists, who sometimes veer off the road to their death. Fighter pilots from China Lake fly low overhead, buzzing the highway, their afterburners shake my car. It took intense concentration to make it here safely as I wait for my soul to catch up with my body. Busy, numbed mind. Dry mouth. Fatigue.

At 4 pm, at the Mesquite Flat parking lot, most tourists are leaving the area. No wind, clear skies, 75 degrees on a spring day in March, two hours before the sun begins to set behind the Sierra Nevada to the west.  I cannot resist any longer as I walk toward the highest dune.


Eureka Dunes, G. Thomas 2006

The ground is hard, cracked clay or playa, which retains the pools of winter rain until the radiant sun evaporates the water, and the dried mud creates a mosaic of cracked clay, reminding me that the floor of the dunes is an ancient lake bed.   The loose, deep sand comes quickly as I climb into the dunes.

Here and there are spots of green: creosote and mesquite, whose dried pods were a life staple for the resident Indians.  Water has seeped deep into the sand, creating occasional pockets of life. Small burrows emanate out the sides of the brush, home to kit fox, scorpions, snakes and jack rabbits. When summer sun heats the dunes in the morning, a lounge of lizards dart about, including the whitish-gray foot-long Desert Iguana.

I follow a well-traveled trail to the highest dune, from the top of which I see a vast sea of undulating sand.  I carefully walk the rim of the high dune to the left for a good distance and notice that there has been no recent foot traffic.

I must take my mind off the highway and focus awareness right now to what is in front of me, the steep edge of dune, like walking on a tightrope. My body wants to lean to the side, which means tumbling down the sandy slope. Focus on this step, now the next one. I let go of that last step and focus on this one. I look around me at the expansive mountains of sand, and begin to slip and slide down the dune, falling to my knees, losing control and tumble down. I press down harder with my hiking boots, trying to climb back up the steep slope. “Pause and regroup.” I remember that from Bobbi Patterson’s ten-day journey in the Sinai Desert in Egypt:


Sand Dunes, G. Thomas 2006

’Pause and Regroup,” become aware of where you are and what’s happening. That reset of my awareness helped me discern the angles of approach I needed to slowly make my way back to the group at the top. But each step brought its own tipsiness. ….Like riding a rip-tide. I learned to go with the line of fall on the dune rather than fight it.”

Bobbi Patterson, Building Resilience through Contemplative Practice.

As I focused intently my awareness of each step, I arrived again at the crest of the dune.  Moving westward for several hundred yards, I descend slowly down into a deep hollow, a high circle of dunes surround me.  The intense exertion, the adrenalin of focusing each step, has purged my busy mind.

“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince.

Silence. No wind. My wobbly, fatigued legs pull me down upon the soft, cool sand. No Mind.

Awe, vast emptiness, silence. The Lord seems very close to me now, as this circle of sand surrounds me, God’s love enfolds me. The busy mind, following map directions, listening to music on the car radio, thoughts about yesterday and tomorrow, that busy mind now rests. Awe, emptiness and silence.


Mesquite Flat Dunes, Wing Chi Poon

Empty desert landscape like this heighten my senses, focusing on Now. I remember what pulls me out into these desert spaces.  For many years, during Erik’s health crises, retreats like this were a respite from the intense daily routine of his care. Now that his health has stabilized to some extent, the feelings of anxiety and fear about his future have changed to gratitude for how the Lord has been with us all along.

Visitors to desert spaces like this have various perspectives as they walk and contemplate.  Sitting here on cool sand, a warm winter day, protected from wind by the encircling dunes, the foggy veil of consciousness fades. The gracious, loving Presence is beside me. As I write these words, many months after this experience, this foundational remembering enlivens my sense of God’s care and love.

I lose a sense of time, but time has passed, as the sun is now just above the crest of the Sierra Nevada, darkness is less than an hour away.

A thought arises: a memory from the world religions class I taught for 45 years: the haunting insight from Rudolf Otto of the Numinous, the deeply sensed encounter with the Holy that is beyond words. Mysterium tremendum et fascinans. Unique life encounters with awe and wonder can evoke a sense of a merciful and gracious Presence.  We do not conjure this, it just happens. We are drawn into the gracious Presence by an innate holy longing, and at the same time, aware that this Presence has great power, and in our awareness, we step back in fear and dread.  Drawn forward in awe and holy longing, stepping back in fear and dread, Otto’s classic insight describes the ineffable encounter with the Sacred.

Landscape like this endless sand does evoke an inviting awe.

But sand dunes are also deadly, as recent events remind me.

Visitor attendance in Death Valley peaks in the summer, the most brutal season, when temperatures range from 115 F to 125 F.

Recently on an early June afternoon, a tour bus stopped at the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes for the passengers to step out and take photos.  The dry 115-degree heat would have taken their breath away, as they exited the air-conditioned bus.  The driver warned the patrons that they must return to the bus within ten minutes.

French tourist, Guy Brossart, must have become captivated by the allure of the sand dunes.  The bus driver waited for an hour, then called the Death Valley Park rangers, who began the search. Brossart’s body was found four hundred yards from the parking lot, succumbing to heat exhaustion.

Mammoth Times.


Mesquite Flat Dunes, Tuxyso

In August, when Death Valley has broken world heat index records, a Japanese tourist exited the bus and walked into the dunes to take photographs.  You only have a few minutes in this intense heat before the sun fries your body, sucking out every bit of moisture, leaving you quickly fatigued, disoriented and unable to walk.  The hypnotic draw of the dunes has power to pull you further and further in: “just a few more steps and I will turn around.” But the brain stops working as the sun beats down upon you.  The body of the Japanese tourist was found at sunset a mile away from the parking lot.

The shifting sands! Slowly they move, wave upon wave, drift upon drift; but by day and by night they gather, gather, gather. They overwhelm, they bury, they destroy, and then a spirit of restlessness seizes them, and they move off elsewhere, swirl upon swirl, line upon line, in serpentine windings that enfold some new growth or fill in some new valley in the waste. So, it happens that the surface of the desert is far from being a permanent affair.”

The Desert, John C. Van Dyke, p. 28.

Of the five sand dunes within Death Valley National Park, the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes are the easiest to visit. Cottonwood Mountains to the north are the likely source for the grains of quartz and feldspar that have created these dunes.

The dramatic fluctuation between freezing winter snow and melting summer heat wear down the rocky heights of the mountains. Monsoonal summer storms beat upon the barren slopes of the mountains, creating violent flash floods, breaking loose the rocks, grinding them into sand, dumping the debris into alluvial fans, which spread out from the narrow canyons unto the valley floor.

It doesn’t take much of a breeze to move the sand particles. But the wind is often intense, creating blinding sandstorms.

Once sand begins to pile up, ripples and dunes can form. Wind continues to move sand up to the top of the pile until the piles is so steep that it collapses under its own weight. The collapsing sand comes to rest when it reaches just the right steepness to keep the dune stable. This angle, usually about 30-34 degrees, is called the angle of repose.  Every pile of loose particles has a unique angle of repose, depending upon the properties of the material it’s made of.”

“The repeating cycle of sand inching up the windward side to the dune crest, then slipping down the dune’s slip face allows the dune to inch forward migrating in the direction the wind blows. As you might guess, all of this climbing then slipping leaves its mark on the internal structure of the dune.”

  1. S. Department of the Interior, U. S. Geological Survey.

Sand avalanches moved by compressed air can cause the sand to sing! Yes, the sand dune can produce singing or booming sounds.

Here is the sound of a singing sand dune:

Conditions must be just right: sand grains 0.1 to 0.5 mm in diameter, silica within the sand, and the right humidity and heat. Researchers have found that the best chance for hearing singing sand dunes in Death Valley is with intense heat, the most dangerous time to walk in the dunes.  The sound can be started by wind or a person walking on the crest of a high dune. While the dunes of Mesquite Flat don’t sing because of the water that is present, the Eureka Dunes, at the far eastern end of the Park can sing.

“Since at least the time of Marco Polo, desert travelers have heard the songs of the dunes, a loud — up to 115 decibels — deep hum that can last several minutes.

Scientists already knew that the sounds were generated by avalanches but were not sure how. One thought had been that the force of an avalanche could cause an entire dune to resonate like a flute or a violin. But if that were true, dunes of different sizes and shapes should produce a cacophony of notes instead of one characteristic tone.”

The Timbisha Shoshone Indians have lived in Death Valley for a thousand years.  It is hard to imagine how a people could survive here, but they worked intently as hunters and gathers, moving to the cooler, higher elevations in the summer heat.  The mild winters gave time to store up pine nuts and mesquite beans, their main staples. Mule deer, bighorn sheep, jackrabbits and chuckwalla lizards provided meat. Death Valley to them has been a land of abundance, until outsiders invaded during the 1849 Gold Rush and Borax was discovered. This changed everything. Moved off their land, survival has been a struggle. It was not until 2000, when President Clinton signed the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act, that 7.500 acres would be returned to the tribe.

In my writings on desert spirituality, my life has been enriched by connections to scholars and others who have found meaning in desert explorations.  I have a new friend in Fred Mercadante, campus minister at the University of Scranton, a Jesuit University in Pennsylvania.

I discovered recently that for several years Fred has led desert retreat experiences for students in Death Valley during December.  Inspired by the school’s Jesuit foundation, the students spend five days practicing contemplation while they explore different desert landscapes, including the Eureka Sand Dunes.

In the Christian tradition of Desert Spirituality, the desert is a place of discernment and prayer. Fred offers this retreat experience to help the students not be complacent on their faith journey but “go to deeper places, perhaps even places that feel uncomfortable at first.”

This desert retreat guides students to pray in nature, build community among one another and fosters personal growth. As Jesus experienced his deepening connection with the Father in his forty days in the desert, these students come closer to their true selves, their Christ selves.

One participant, Bryan Gorczyca, shared: “The week spent in Death Valley tested every member of our group physically, mentally and spiritually through many tasks and challenges which brought us all to a new outlook on ourselves, others and Mother Nature. At no time in my life have I experienced such peace with the world as I did in the silence of reflection on this retreat….I have come out a better version of myself”

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2018.

“The sand dunes again! Clear, soft, blown clean by the wind, rippled as by shore waves, rising from the desert in long smooth rounded slopes, climbing and swelling and mounting, curved, scalloped, knife-edged, lacy, exquisitely silver, on and up, alluring steps toward the infinite blue!”

Zane Grey, Stairs of Sand: A Western Story.

Death Valley National Park has five sand dune locations.

Mesquite Flat Dunes are the easiest to visit. You can access from parking lot off Highway 190, near Stovepipe Wells.  Covering a vast area, the highest dune is about 100 feet.

Eureka Dunes is accessed from Big Pine, off Highway 395, via 28 miles of paved road and 21 miles graded dirt. Most autos can travel this road, but avoid stormy weather

Saline Valley Dunes have infrequent visitors as the area is remote. The dunes cover a large area.

Panamint Dunes are off Highway 190, five miles down an unmarked dirt road, followed by a three-mile hike. Because of the slope of the dunes, there are dramatic views of the valley.

Ibex Springs are near Saratoga Springs but hidden behind desert hills. About one-mile hike.

The best time to visit the dunes is between November and April. Avoid summer and other hot days. Carry two liters of water per person for short hikes; one gallon for longer.


Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-rational Factor in the idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational.

 Bobbi Patterson, Building Resilience through Contemplative Practice: A Field Manual for Helping Professionals and Volunteers., p. 52. New York: Routledge, 2020.

 Death Valley National Park: Sand Dunes.


Loc 2728, Stairs of Sand: A Western Story, Zane Grey. 1928, renewed 1954, New York: Skyhorse Publishing.




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Vinterresa/Winter Journey: Lima, Sweden to Roros Norway


“From 1854 onward a yearly market shall be held in Roros, commencing the second to last Tuesday in the month of February, and lasting until the following Friday.”

Oscar I, King of Sweden and Norway.

In May 2019, when my daughter Katie and I were visiting my grandfather’s hometown of Lima, Sweden, near the Norwegian border, we traveled narrow country roads, passing two-hundred-year-old log farm buildings. We could see within the buildings old wooden sleds. Surrounding the area of Darlarna are many lakes and rivers.

For several years, in February I have seen on Facebook curious videos of rustic, fur-clad men and women driving wooden sleighs in deep winter snow.  Now I have discovered how all of this has come together.

Dalarnafemund2In February every year, the Dalarna Femund Drivers Association makes a traditional, historic reenactment of the ten-day journey to Rorosmartnan, the market in Roros, Norway, 165 miles away.  They pass through the towns of Salen, Sorsjon, Drosbacken, Lomviken, Sorken, Storbekken, Tufsingdalen, Korssjoen to the Roros Market.

DalarnaFemund1Dalarna Femund Drivers’ Association is a Swedish/Norwegian Association that preserves the Nordic driving culture. Before there were roads, it was only in winter that good could be shipped. Frozen lakes and marshes were utilized to reach markets and cities. Their major annual activity is the trip to the Roros Market in February.

In the town of Flotningen, the association has a historic farm where they keep the sleds and care for the horses.

This week, the annual trip to Rorosmartnan begans on 9 February at Vastagarden, Torgas, Lima, Sweden. This is the location of the Lima Local Historical Society at a unique farm owned by the same family since the 1780s. They camp at Salen.

Monday 10 February, Lake Sorjson.

Saturday 15 February, Sorken Vestre, Femundsenden.

Monday 17 February, Tufsingdalen


Sled crossing bridge toward crowd gathered at Roros Market

Tuesday 18 February, Roros.  More than 60,000 tourists will visit the market and participate in the gathering of other Nordic drivers associations.

That is a ten-day journey across frozen lakes and rivers. Winter can be brutal here. At each campsite participants share stories and song with visitors.


Roros, Norway, Winter Storm

The destination of Roros, Norway, is a city of 6,000, with eighty 17th-18th century wooden houses: a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Roros was historically used by the Southern Sami People (the indigenous people of Sweden) for reindeer herding. Silver and copper were discovered here, creating a flourishing mining community. Author Johan Falkenberget captures the difficult life for the copper miners in his novels.




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Desert Angels of Dunmovin


Dunmovin Cafe, 1960s

Bleak, stripped, burned-out shells of rock-walled buildings present skeletal remains of the desert ghost town of Dunmovin, California, on the west side of Highway 395, between Little Lake and Olancha, in the shadows of Mountain Whitney and the Sierra Nevada.

Campers and skiers rush past this forlorn scene as they head toward the livelier destinations of Lone Pine, Bishop and Mammoth Lakes. But this was once home to a village of desert dwellers, whose owners, Ruth and Les Cooper, were the desert angels of Dunmovin.

In 2011, after my first book on desert spirituality, The Spirit in the Desert: Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley, appeared in local bookstores, I received a surprising phone call from Ruth Cooper, the owner of Dunmovin.  She had read a chapter in my book on Dunmovin and the brief religious community established there by Father Enrico Molnar.

dunmovincafeAs she shared some of her personal story with me from her new home in Ridgecrest, California, my imagination began to place muscle, sinew and skin over the dry, dead bones of old Dunmovin.

I recalled Ezekiel’s Vision of Dry Bones:

So I prophesied as I was commanded; and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and suddenly a rattling; and the bones came together, bone to bone. Indeed, as I looked, the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath in them.

(Ezekiel 37:7-8).

With a slight Southern accent, Ruth began to reveal the story of Dunmovin.  As she spoke, I could feel the animated energy in her voice as she reimagined her town once again alive and thriving.

In the early 1900s, the place was known as Cowan Station, named after pioneer James Cowan.  It served as a freight station for the silver ingots being transported from Cerro Gordo, high in the Inyo Mountains, to Los Angeles.  Water was piped in from Talus Canyon. In 1936, Charles and Hilda King bought the property and changed the name to Dunmovin. There was a post office here from 1938-1941.  Ruth and her husband bought the town in 1961.

There would be several more telephone conversations with Ruth. Each time I could sense that she was reviving her memories of Dunmovin and her beloved husband Les.

Les grew up on a South Dakota cattle ranch, played football at the University of Minnesota, studying mining. He went on to be a professional boxer, hunter, storyteller and a Hollywood stuntman in western film, including the classic film, Stagecoach, and Gunsmoke.  When he broke his back, he became an attorney in 1943.

Ruth and Les married in 1949, settling in the desert town of Ridgecrest in 1952. They had a special heart for mentoring young people. Ruth went to law school herself and became Ridgecrest’s first woman lawyer.

In 1961, they purchased 160 acres at Dunmovin.

Former monastic hermitages

Why did they make the move to this isolated little desert village? Ruth suggested there was something spiritual about that windswept place at the foot of the majestic, jagged Sierra Nevada mountains.

In between our telephone conversations, I continued to make retreats to the Owens Valley. I no longer rushed past Dunmovin.  I would stop and walk about the ruins. Some people still lived there, toward the back, in rusting mobile homes.  The frontage property presented the shell of a restaurant and several rock cabins that served as hermitages for Father Enrico Molnar’s religious community.


Dunmovin Cactus Garden

As I stood there, highway traffic rushed by on the now divided highway 395. There is always wind here, sometimes so strong as to blow 18-wheeler trucks on to their sides. Violent summer rainstorms create flash floods that rush out of the desert canyons and across the highway.  There are very few services within 100 miles. 110-degree summer heat and hot winds feel like a blowtorch to the skin.

Ruth’s unfolding memories gave a haunting, melancholy feeling within me of vibrant life that had now passed.

Although I promised to visit her at her home in Ridgecrest, I missed the opportunity. Ruth died this year. However, Dunmovin still has life in the fond memories of her family.

Another grace for me was a letter from her nephew, Steve Lupardo.  As he was managing her estate after her death, he found my contact information in her address book, sent me her obituary, and we met for lunch.

Steve breathed more life into the dusty desert bones of Dunmovin and revealed the special ministry of Ruth and Les Cooper to desert travelers and troubled youth, sheltering the lost and abandoned.

Ruth and Les were desert saints at Dunmovin because they provided a radical hospitality to desert travelers.  Highway 395 is a deadly road, where fatigue or alcohol/drugs cause drivers to drift off the highway into horrific rollovers in the rock-strewn landscape. Ruth and Les rescued the injured and helped stranded travelers with food and lodging.  But it was their heart for vulnerable young people that stood out.

They sheltered abused children and youth.  You may remember that the psychotic cult leader Charles Manson, lived with his followers at the Barker Ranch, about 100 miles from Dunmovin.

Manson had a particular attraction to underage, vulnerable girls. He would bring them into his cult.  If a girl ran away, she could be killed. One young girl did escape and found herself on Highway 395, dropped off by a trucker at Dunmovin. Ruth and Les took her in and secreted her, as Manson’s followers would be searching for her.

Ironically, Les was assisting Frank Fowles, District Attorney for Inyo County, when Manson was arrested and brought to the County Courthouse in Independence.

The radical desert hospitality that Ruth and Les Cooper provided at remote Dunmovin has powerful roots in Judeo-Christian-Islamic spirituality.

As nephew Steven Lupardo remembered the compassion of Ruth and Les Cooper, I called the patriarch Abraham.

St. Theodoros, one of the early Desert Fathers, wrote:

“Accepting the task of hospitality, the patriarch (Abraham) used to sit at the entrance to his tent (cf. Gen. 18:1), inviting all who passed by, and his table was laden for all comers including the impious and barbarians, without distinction. Hence, he was found worthy of that wonderful banquet when he received angels and the Master of all as guests. We too, then, should actively and eagerly cultivate hospitality, so that we may receive not only angels, but also God Himself. ‘For inasmuch,’ says the Lord, ‘as you have done it to one of the least of these My brethren, you have done it unto Me’ (Matt. 25:40). It is good to be generous to all, especially to those who cannot repay you.”

 Abraham, patriarch to Jews, Christians and Muslims, modeled the foundational virtue of desert hospitality.

For Muslims, hospitality is a basic virtue in the Islamic ethical system. Its roots are in the Bedouin value of welcome and care for the stranger in the deadly desert. In the Arabic word “Dayafa”, Mohammed said, “There is no good in one who is not hospitable.”

The Quran emphasizes “karam”, providing food to the needy stranger.

Miriam Shulman and Amal Barkourki Winter explain:
The virtue seems an ineluctable product of the landscape….to refuse a man refreshment in such a place is to let him die, to threaten the openhandedness nomadic peoples must depend on to survive.”

 Snjezana Akpinar reveals:
“Hospitality was considered as an act of unconditional surrender to the needs of others.”

August 2010.

A knock on my office door. The door opens and there is parishioner Evangelina. Her normally bright, smiling face is solemn, her voice quiet. She speaks in Spanish: “Padre, I met someone outside the church, and she needs to speak with you. She was sitting on the bench at the bus stop and she was crying a lot. It frightened me. She is crying about her son Jesus.  I do not know her, but I know it would help if she could talk with you.”

The sad lady appears, tears welling up in her eyes, her face flushed.  She is an older Latina, perhaps fifty, with a bent back. She cautiously enters my office and I invite her to sit on the sofa.

She releases a deep sigh; her body shakes as she sobs.

I am fluent in Spanish, but at times like this, with someone I do not know, I need a context to understand what is being said. Give me a subject, verb and direct object.  Why is she grieving?

Evangelina sits beside her, stroking the woman’s back and speaking softly. Her name is Luz Maria. Something has happened to her son Jesus.

Last month, in July, Jesus was trying to cross the border from Mexico with his uncle Luis.  They had found a remote area on the Mexican/Arizona border, a desolate, dry desert. At this time of year, it would frequently be 110 degrees.


Immigrant Desert Grave, photo by The Guardian

Luis and Jesus had been chased by bandits and hid in the dense desert brush, filled with cholla, mesquite, and other thorny cacti. But they become separated. After hiding for several hours, believing that the bandits had moved on, Luis called out for his nephew. For several hours, Luis moved about the landscape calling for Jesus. No response. Travel had to be by night, because the scorching heat would return in the morning. They lost water and supplies as they ran to escape from the bandits.

Jesus could not be found.

Luis continued on, coming into California.  A family member picked him up in El Centro and he came to Santa Ana, without Jesus.

Luz Maria had been waiting for her son for several weeks. Every night she had the same dream: her son was wandering in the desert crying for help. Her maternal instinct to help and protect her son made the dream a horrible nightmare.

I could identify with her fear and terror at this dream, as I sometimes have the nightmare that our disabled son Erik is lost somewhere, and we can’t find him.

Luz Maria said that last week the nightmares became more intense: she could see her son lying dead under a desert tree.

Luis convinced two cousins, who are documented and legal, to go to Arizona, to the general area where he was with Jesus, and search for him. By this time two weeks had passed. The Arizona desert heat was 115.

They followed a well-worn trail leading up from the border. They found Jesus. He was indeed dead, propped up with his back to the trunk of a mesquite tree. In the intense dry heat, his body was partly mummified. His shoes were missing. There was no water to be found in the hellish heat.

As I listened intently, Luz Maria forced herself to focus and complete the narrative. Evangelina continued to massage her back.

And then the sobs returned, as she repeatedly cried “Mi Hijo, Mi Hijo.” “My child, my child.”

I invited her into the church sanctuary. I held her hand as we walked to the dark corner of the Lady Chapel. She knelt before the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. I lit a blue votive candle and knelt beside her, opening the Prayer Book to the Litany, I prayed in Spanish:

Deliver your servant, Jesus, O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil, and set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I continued praying in Spanish, but my own body was absorbing her grief and I had to read the prayer slowly, as my own tears flowed:

Almighty God, look with pity upon the sorrows of Luz Maria. Remember her, Lord, in mercy; nourish her with patience; comfort her with a sense of your goodness; lift up your countenance upon her; and give her peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Saguaro National Park, photo by Joe Parks

At that time of year, the Arizona desert landscape seems blow-torched by the incredible heat. Dozens of immigrants die each year for lack of water, as they struggle through the desolate landscape.

If only some compassionate souls would bring water out there.

Less than five miles from the place where the body of Jesus was found, a building known as “The Barn” offered food and water to undocumented persons crossing the border from Mexico.  Since this place of assistance for desperate desert travelers was well-known to immigrants, it is possible that Luis and Jesus were trying to locate it before they ran into the bandits and had to run off.

For many years, concerned volunteers from “No More Deaths” in southern Arizona have been planting caches of food and water as a help to people walking through this desolate desert wilderness.

Recently, Scott Daniel Warren, who teaches at Arizona State University, was at the Barn aiding two lost undocumented immigrants.  The U. S Border Patrol had been observing activities at the Barn. When they saw Scott helping the two other men, the U. S. Border Patrol moved in and arrested Scott for harboring two illegal Immigrants, providing them with “Food, water, beds and clean clothes.”

Scott’s attorney, William Walker, said that there has always been an understanding between No More Deaths and law enforcement:

“We have always had an understanding here with both the U. S. Attorney’s Office and the Border Patrol and also the wilderness area managers that we are a neutral party. We don’t smuggle people; we don’t violate the law—-what we do is help to save lives and they’ve recognized that for years.”

When Border Patrol agents find these rescue caches of food and water in the desert, they pour out the water on the ground.

In a press release, the group No More Deaths reported:

We document how Border Patrol agents engage in widespread vandalism of gallons of water left for border crossers and routinely interfere with other humanitarian-aid efforts in rugged and remote areas of the borderlands.”

Officer Carlos Diaz of The Border Patrol office responded after viewing videos of the destruction of the water and food:

Our agents are briefed frequently and are advised frequently to leave those resources alone. If anybody sees any activities like the ones in the videos, they need to inform us so we can take the corrective action because it is not acceptable.”

At a court hearing, the judge dismissed the charges against Scott Daniel Warren.

For many years, I have been writing about the spiritual potency of the desert landscape. But in the story about Luis and Jesus, we learn that for hundreds of desperate undocumented persons, this is a life-threatening journey through a hellish furnace.

Two contending voices: compassionate volunteers from “No More Death”, moved by the ancient desert ethics of hospitality; dedicated Border Patrol officers protecting our desert wilderness borders. Toward which voice is your own heart drawn?


If you wish to donate to “No More Deaths”, here is their contact information:

Donate Money

Ridgecrest Daily Independent, April 26, 2019, “Ruth E. Cooper, Obituary.”

Philokalia, Vol II, p. 32 #84.





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On The Road: Part III

Carmelite Nun Meditation

“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.”

Thomas Merton

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.

EmmausDesert 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.”


Saint Pachomius of the Desert

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?

EmmausDune3I 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.”

I pray:

“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


  1. From your experience this morning, how can you imagine making a retreat into the desert? What difficulties or resistance do you see?
  2. Does your home parish have a men’s spirituality group? How might your experience this morning complement that ministry?
  3. If you do not have a men’s spirituality group, in what ways might you encourage and help the pastor begin that ministry?









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On the Road: Part II


Anasazi Ruin, Mystery Valley UT, c. 1000

This is Part II from the workshop on Spirituality for Men, which I presented at the Emmaus Spiritual Ministries Center of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, Saturday, 4 August 2019, in Orange, California.

This recording was made within a marvelous sandstone arch and a tour given by my Navajo friend Don Mose, who is a hatali, a medicine man. He was singing a portion of the Blessing Way, a healing song and ritual spreading out over several days and has been used for Navajo soldiers returning after military service in the Middle East.

Don Mose ended with a translation: May Beauty be before me, behind me, above me, below me and in all that I do.

Reminds us of the Christian blessing of St. Patrick’s Breastplate.

At the heart of Navajo desert spirituality is Hozho: the interconnectedness between beauty, harmony and goodness in all things physical and spiritual that results in health and well-being for all things and beings.

Dis-ease is when Hozho is out of sync, and when dark spirits invade.


Fr. Brad with Don Mose at Skull Rock

So, the intense spiritual work of the Dine/Navajo is through conscious living, speaking, action, praying to shore up Hozho.

The desert wilderness is a place of suffering, out on the edge. It is a place of letting go, a place for dying, and yet also a place for coming alive. The desert is where things fall apart and where things come together for us in an unanticipated way. Why do fierce landscapes intrigue us and take us to the edge of ourselves? We yearn for silence and solitude, the vast expanse of emptiness in which we can escape the noise and clutter of our culture. There we can release the anxious concerns of an ego overly absorbed in itself. The desert is also a place of love, where we meet God in the eternity of our despair.”

Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes

Dust Devil. NASA photo.

Dust Devil. NASA photo.

It all began with a peaceful morning walk on a sandy desert trail.  Suddenly looming up ahead of me, a smudgy brown swirling cloud, a dust devil.  I have seen these things from a distance, but now there is nowhere to hide. I kneel down on the trail, tug my shirt over my head and nose, take a deep breath and wait.

The wind rushes in my ears. I am pelted by thousands of sand granules. Now I am enveloped by a heavy, suffocating blanket of sand. I can’t avoid breathing the dust. After a couple of minutes, it dances on its capricious way. I feel as if my skin had been rubbed down with course sandpaper.

My Latino parishioners use the name romolinos. The twisting clouds are to be respected by making the Sign of the Cross in their direction.

Carmen Villa shares

“My dad always said dust devils came up because the devil was moving around down underground, causing a commotion. That’s why they formed the cross.”

Sickness has a spiritual cause.

Among the Navajo, dust devils can be the chindi, or the ominous presence of dead Dine. It is a good spirit if it spins clockwise; an evil spirit if it spins counterclockwise. But when you are caught in the midst of one, there is no way of knowing.

Two months later, I became increasingly fatigued, felt weaker and weaker, my joints ached, nights sweats set in, I could hardly lift my head from the pillow. It felt like someone was trying to choke me all the time.

I went to my internist, who after many tests, and remembering another similar case recently, determined that I had coccidioidomycosis, Valley Fever. A fungal disease common in desert climates. Microscopic spores in the dusty soil are stirred up by the wind and land in moist lung tissue. About 150 people die of it every year. Untreated it possesses the body with debilitating consequences.  A simple but long treatment with Diflucan is effective. After two days of that, I was back to mowing the lawn.

Possession by angry desert spirits or a clinical case of fungal disease?

Into our desert journey we bring our buffered and our porous selves.

We enter Southwest desert landscapes populated for thousands of years by indigenous tribal people, who live in an “enchanted world” and we who are Euro-American do not. In the enchanted world, spiritual forces, good and bad, can cross a porous boundary and shape psychic and physical lives.

We have been tutored by the Age of Enlightenment and Science, replacing superstition and religious dogma with reason and verifiable proof.  Even religious belief is pressed to be rational. We make a sharp distinction between inner and outer, what is in the mind and what is out there in the world.  Some fungal spore invaded my body in that dust devil; not an evil spirit because I had neglected my prayers or committed a sin.

Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor shares:

“The buffered self is the agent who no longer fears demons, spirits and magic forces. More radically, these no longer impinge; they don’t exist for him; whatever threat or other meaning they proffer doesn’t “get it” from him.”

 “The super buffered self….is not only not “got at” by demons and spirits; he is also unmoved by the aura of desire. In a mechanistic universe, and in a field of functionally understood passion, there is no more room for such an aura. There is nothing it could correspond to. It is just a disturbing, supercharged feeling, which somehow grips us until we can come to our senses, and take on our full, buffered identity.”

Charles Taylor, A Secular Age.

 Our buffered self creates a firewall between our heads and our hearts. And when we encounter traditional cultures as the Navajo and Hopi and their porous receptivity to the sacred in all things, we sense that inner restlessness and gnawing dissatisfaction rummaging around within us.

Father Brad and Erik at Chimayo

Father Brad and Erik at Chimayo

New Mexico is called the Land of Enchantment.  Walking in its desert landscape and engaging with native and Hispano cultures can reconnect our hearts to the spiritual presence of God in all things around us.

A few years ago, as Erik’s health stabilized after a Vegus nerve Implant, Janice, Erik and I traveled to New Mexico to the most frequently visited Roman Catholic Shrine in America, Santuario de Chimayo, located in a little village north of Santa Fe, New Mexico.

On Good Friday, in 1810, Don Bernardo Abeyta was praying the Stations of the Cross near his rancho. He noticed something buried in the dirt, which turned out to be an antique crucifix.  The exact place where the rancher found it is called the Pit of Holy Dirt.


Today, people from all over America come here in hopes of healing.

My wife, Janice, shares this memory:

“On a lovely autumn day, Brad, Erik, and I drove from Santa Fe in northern New Mexico along a long winding country road to Santuario de Chimayo, called the Place of Holy Sand. It had apparently been a “place of the spirit” to the Native Americans long before the Spanish visited the area, so it had a long spiritual history. A long time ago, a farmer dug up an old Spanish cross in the exact place where the stories of miraculous healing happened, and they built the church next to that place. Chimayo is one of the most visited Roman Catholic pilgrimage sites in North America. In fact, we saw several people with backpacks traveling along the narrow back-country road and we wondered whether they were on a spiritual journey to Chimayo.”

Lillian 100th birthday 2 (9)

Chapel of the Holy Sand, Santuario de Chimayo NM

“We finally arrived at a very old, tiny village with two churches and a few scattered buildings on a dirt road. We drove behind the Santuario de Chimayo to a surprisingly large parking lot near a running stream and walked up a long wheelchair ramp to the front of an old church courtyard containing timeworn gravestones, crosses and a few family monuments. Standing back, looking down on the scene, I was struck by the old church surrounded by equally old trees in full autumn glory of yellow, bright orange, mixed with green. There was a feeling of reverence to the scene, and I noticed the warm smiles from people who passed us, many of whom appeared sick and lame. I spoke to a few people in the courtyard while waiting for Brad and Erik to return from visiting inside the church. Most of the visitors came for healing and to express gratitude for healing.”

“Eventually, Erik and I made our way to a small long, narrow, dark annex beside the church. The passage was filled with various assistive devices; walkers, crutches, canes, even a wheelchair. All over the walls were posters filled with pictures and messages from those who were ill and needed prayers or healing. We slowly walked toward a small room with a low door where we were met by a man with whom I had spoken earlier. At Chimayo he had found relief from serious chronic depression and now he had a sense of purpose to guide others in their experience of this holy place. There were also two other people who warmly greeted Erik and looked at him with deep concern. Erik said hello and shook their hands before we bent our heads to enter a small room filled with ofrendas (ritual objects placed on an altar), the walls were covered with holy medals, rosary beads, small statues, and mementos left by other visitors. In the candlelight, I saw a hole in the center of the room, about two feet around and two feet deep.”

“Erik was directed to step into the hole and I held him steady so he would not trip and fall. The attendant asked me to tell them about Erik, so I said he had suffered an infection in his brain when he was four years old that left him with brain damage and frequent seizures. I explained that during his childhood, he was very ill and close to death many times, but he had survived to be rather healthy and to have a good life, surrounded by loving family and friends. As I talked about the gifts Erik has received, accepting people at face value, living completely in the present moment without fear or anxiety, trusting that he is safe with us, even during difficult medical procedures, the sad concerned faces of the three people became joyful as they rubbed his shoulder or held his hand while I was talking.”

“Erik was listening to the conversation and continued to stand in the hole of sand without moving, giving himself over to the gentle stroking and smiling faces. He looked very peaceful, so I asked him if he liked this quiet place. He replied, “I like it!” smiling at the people around him.”

“We laid hands on him in the little hole of sand while offering prayers for his continued healing, in gratitude for his health and happiness with his family. The feeling of peace and joy in the room was palpable. We continued to stand quietly together for a few minutes in that well- prayed-in-place, until Erik stepped from the hole. Before we left, the attendant took a shovel and filled a plastic bag with some of the sand for me to bring home to share.”

“I still have some of the sand, though over time the amount has diminished as we have given it away to various people who are in need of the healing sand and peace of Chimayo.”

That porous sensitivity to the Sacred, once more present in Christianity, and our longing for the Holy have not entirely left us.  The wonder and gift of experiencing desert spirit places can be like the persistent grains of sand that wear down a boulder of granite. All it takes is a breeze and time and eventually the shape will change. Through time, I believe the Sacred reshapes us. That is the gift of these desert spirit places—a gift for the taking.


  1. Whom do you carry right now in your heart, praying for God’s healing touch?
  2. How have you experienced for yourself the healing presence of God?










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On the Road: Part One


Old Volcano, Inyo Mountains

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:

3 parts.

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.

Fr. Brad at Hatali Hogan

Hitali/Medicine Man Hogan, Gallup NM

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.


Brad and son Erik in Owens Valley

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.


Cottonwood Canyon below the Sierra Nevada

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:

  1. What does the desert mean to you?
  2. Has a memory of the presence of God been triggered for you this morning?

3.What are you asking of God today, this morning?

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Good News about Three Independent Southwestern Bookstores


Fr. Brad with Done Mose at Skull Rock, Utah

I am pleased to share with you the good news that three renowned independent bookstores are now carrying my new book, Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest. 

Maria’s Bookshop, Durango, Colorado

Back from Beyond Bookstore, Moab, Utah

Between the Covers, Telluride, Colorado

If you live nearby, please visit my new literary friends; please share with your friends.

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