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 https://www.mariasbookshop.com/

Back from Beyond Bookstore, Moab, Utah http://www.backofbeyondbooks.com/

Between the Covers, Telluride, Colorado  https://www.between-the-covers.com/

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

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Vroman’s Books in Pasadena has my new book!

VromansIf you live near Pasadena, California, one of America’s great bookstores is currently carrying my new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest.  Please consider visiting this Cathedral of Books and buying the book. Future orders depend on your support.

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Desert Spirit Places is Now in Print!

My new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest is now in print. It can be ordered from the publisher at this link or on Amazon/Kindle in 10 days. If you read the book, please post a review.


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My New Book Cover

BookcoverNEWHere is the book cover for my new book Desert Spirit Places: The Sacred Southwest, being published by Wipf and Stock in new couple of weeks.

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