Hancock Homestead, Montana, 1910, Bureau of Reclamation
Home is right here!
Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.
Robert Frost, The Death of the Hired Man.
More than anything else, we long for home. Our deep ache for intimacy, security, and comfort is, in the end, a longing for home, nothing more. We are forever restlessly searching for someone or something to take us home.
“Home—the Place from Which to Understand”, Ron Rolheiser, OMI
“Home is where one starts from”
T. S. Eliot
The huge, orange October moon rises above the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, streaming soft light through the window of our travel trailer onto the face of our sleeping son Erik. Gusts of gentle wind rustle pinyon pine branches in the dense forest surrounding us, five miles east of Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This childlike face of our 31 years old disabled son Erik reflects peace and serenity. I sleep on a sofa bed next to him, because sometime during this night he will have a seizure, not as bad as many years ago, but strong enough to wake my protective presence to keep him from falling out of bed. My wife Janice and I surround Erik in a circle of love, in this mobile home in which we have traveled these past three weeks.
In the morning after breakfast, I walk with Erik on a forest trail. I have to hold on to his hand, as he can easily trip. Nevertheless, he does like to walk and the morning mist is perfumed with pinyon pine scent. We walk around a bend in the path and I can see our trailer in the distance.
“Erik, where is our home? Is home our house in Laguna Niguel, California or is our home that trailer over there?”
Without missing a beat, Erik points to the ground of the space between us, responding, “Home is right here.”
Home is right here, in this place where we stand, hand in hand, in the circle of love and care. Home is right here!
Home is right here.
Sears Catalogue Homes, Model 115, 1908-1914
On another day, I am driving alone on the 210 Freeway passing through Arcadia, California, toward my hometown of Pasadena. As the freeway off ramp passes over the site of our first family home, I drive three blocks north, toward the Sierra Madre Mountains, to the site of our second family home. There is a warm visceral feeling that hits me as I drive these familiar streets imbedded with deep memories. At Mayfair Drive, I turn left. Halfway down the street I pull over under a gnarled, bent linden tree to catch sight of our old family home. Here was home.
My father, now 96, sold the home years ago after the death of my mother and moved to a mobile home village in Huntington Beach. Other families now call this place home.
I have dreamed of this old home over the years since my father moved. At first, the vivid dreams brought me to the house. I would use my key, open the side door, and walk in, as I did in the past when I visited my dad. Suddenly, I see strange faces and I chastise myself for disturbing the family. I had this dream for many years.
Now that my dad is nearing the end of life, the dream has changed. In the last year, at least twice a month, I dream that I visit the old home. My dad still owns it, but doesn’t live here. In the dream, I visit the home with my dad and there are squatters living there, in the quasi-abandoned building. The plumbing does not work, paint peels from the walls. However, it is still home. Frequently, my deceased mother appears in the dream and we hug and talk as if she has been away somewhere. In each dream, I now experience more deterioration of the house, more damage; the roof is beginning to fall in. How strange the journeys our unconscious take us on. One friend suggested that I am going through some early grief about the end of life for my father. Nonetheless, when I go to the old house in my dream or in an actual drive by sighting, I feel I have arrived at home.
In all the twists and turns of my life up to the first years of marriage, travels in and out of state and in and out of the country, this house on Mayfair Drive was home. It was where I experienced unconditional love and I always felt that no matter how many mistakes I made in life, I had a welcome there.
I know that as you read this, you are remembering your own experiences of home and for many people those are not pleasant memories. One priest colleague with whom I worked for many years had to move every two years, because her father was an Army chaplain.
Where do you and I find home?
There is a deep longing within each of us for something, some place, some one where we will experience, love, joy, peace and hope. Some will believe they can create that place through success, accomplishment, and money. However, the Buddha warns us that all such “homes,” even if we are fortunate to arrive at that place at some point in our life, are illusionary and temporary. All that we hold dear will eventually pass from us. Home is in this present moment, this present breath. As Erik reminds me, home is right here.
There is another answer:
“Home is a place in the heart, not a bloodline, building, city, or ethnicity. Home is that deep, fragile place where we hold and guard what’s most precious to us. It’s that place where, in some dark way, we remember that once, before we came to awareness, we were caressed by hands far gentler than any we’ve met in this life and where we were once kissed by a truth and a beauty so perfect that they are now the unconscious standard by which we measure everything. Home is where things “ring true,” where what’s most precious to us is cherished, the place of tender conscience, of intimacy.”
Ron Rolheiser OMI, “Home— the Place From Which to Understand”
That foundational, innate memory of God’s loving embrace and kiss is our homing beacon.
For the past two years, Janice, our son Erik and I have been attending St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic Church two blocks from our home in Laguna Niguel. I have been an Episcopal priest for 44 years and not a Roman Catholic, but our family began to attend the Sunday evening youth mass. The pastor, Monsignor John Urell, is a good friend. That friendship and the proximity guided us to the church.
For 43 years, I have worked hard as a full time pastor, most of those years within the challenges of a Latino barrio congregation in Santa Ana. Three masses every Sunday, incredible multitasking. Now in retirement, in this contemplative period of my life, I have experienced a sense of spiritual homecoming at St. Timothy’s. How would I describe it? The words and music that draw the soul deeper into communion with God; Monsignor John’s contemplative homilies full of his own honest walk with the Lord and hope and encouragement. At the time of communion, I am often brought to tears with a powerful embrace of the Holy Spirit. I look around and the voice within me says, “I am home.” We only receive a blessing from the priest at communion, but still Janice and I agree, this is home. Not necessarily the building or the congregation, but in the words, music, aesthetics of liturgy, a doorway opens into a place in our heart. I am grateful for this grace and gift.
Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2013, Vivaverde
I walk in desert space somewhere in New Mexico near sunset. There is a unique way the sun sets there: the sky above the horizon tinted yellow, crimson and finally purple. The air is still and dry, perfumed with sage, juniper and pine. There is stillness in nature before darkness covers the landscape. My skin prickles, not a cold wind, but some invisible touch, God’s enveloping embrace. I feel it and I am home.
“The man who fears to be alone will never be anything but lonely, no matter how much he may surround himself with people. But the man who learns, in solitude and recollection, to be at peace with his own loneliness, and to prefer its reality to the illusion of merely natural companionship, comes to know the invisible companionship of God. Such a one is alone with God in all places, and he alone truly enjoys the companionship of other men, because he loves them in God in Whom their presence is not tiresome, and because of Whom his own love for them can never know satiety.”
June 2016. I am traveling the Autobahn toward Berlin with our daughter Katie. We left our hotel in Braunschweig this morning after a five-day reunion with Ernst Heimbs, Jr. and his family. After traveling thirty miles, I see the familiar sign “Helmstedt/Marionborn.” A visceral discomfort rises from my gut as I remember that I passed through here several times in 1966, transporting Heimbs Coffee to West Berlin.
This was Checkpoint Alpha. I remember passing the welcoming sight of American and British soldiers. The freight truck entered an intimidating space of high fences, watch towers with flood lights and East German soldiers with machine guns. We stopped the delivery truck beside the inspection yard. Guards opened the back of the truck to inspect the coffee, as I entered the building to present invoices and my passport.
Border Crossing Alpha into East Germany
After the guard gave the OK sign, we proceeded on the Autobahn through the German Democratic Republic, 115 miles to West Berlin. There would be a rest stop halfway to Berlin, where we stopped for coffee and a snack and to relieve ourselves in the woods. That is where the Communist East German tick embedded itself in my leg. I removed most of it when I arrived in West Berlin, but the bug would become an ongoing source for night fevers.
As Katie and I passed the still standing guard towers into Unified and Free Germany, I saw another sign designating the old check point Alpha as a memorial to those dark days of division and the Wall.
Fifty years ago, June 1966, I arrived in Braunschweig. A family friend secured a summer job for me with her cousin Herr Carl Heimbs, as a way of enhancing my study of German.
When I arrived on June 24th, I was enshrouded within a cloud of deep despair. My application for postulancy to begin the process toward priesthood in the Episcopal Church had been denied. I had been dismissed from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles for misconduct: I had stolen books from the University library. I lost my full-tuition scholarship. This trip had been planned for the past six months. I arrived in a north German town where I seemed to be the only one around who spoke English. Twenty years previously, October 15, 1944, British RAF Bomber Group Five destroyed ninety percent of the medieval historic heart of Braunschweig. The city was still in ruins with the scars of a violent war. My life was in ruins.
Herr Heimbs reserved a room for me at the local YMCA (CVJMGesamtverband), a tiny space with a bed, card table, chair, and a wash basin sink. It reminded me of the monastic cells at Mount Calvary Monastery in Santa Barbara. I had rarely been alone like this. I usually had a roommate, at home with my brother or in the dormitory at USC.
My return ticket was for mid-September, three months distant. In this town I had never heard of, I had no access to TV, radio, or telephone. I was planted in this strange place. The Dark Spirit was strongest at night, reminding me of the damage I had done, the hurt I had caused, and the possibility that when I returned, I could be prosecuted and sent to jail.
I woke up at 6am every weekday for work, walking downstairs to the dining room. White jacketed waiters brought a soft-boiled egg, wonderful fresh brotchen, Heimbs Kaffee and juice.
Every morning seemed to be misty and dark, as I walked toward the Oker River, which surrounded the medieval center of the city as a protective moat. Walking past the ancient water mill, I strolled up a path through the park, near the burned-out ruins of Alfred Löbbecke’s mansion. The city was coming to life, with clouds of diesel smoke from delivery trucks and Mercedes automobiles. To this day, when I smell diesel exhaust, I am walking through the morning mist in Braunschweig.
Arriving at the loading dock of the coffee factory, I found a blue work apron, climbed three flights of stairs, and opened the heavy metal door into the coffee roasting room. The minute I opened that door, warm air heavily scented with the smell of freshly roasted coffee brought my senses alive.
Within a pile of hundred-pound burlap sacks of green coffee beans, I looked for chalk numerals, codes for the type of beans. I had to learn the European numerals for 1, 4 and 7. I found the right sack, and dragged it toward a large steel grate in the floor. Ripping open the sack, I carefully poured the green beans down into the grate.
I rushed downstairs with the empty burlap bag to the next floor, where I managed eight machines. I attached the bag to a machine. The beans were guided into the machine, where a photo-electric cell image of a “perfect bean” matched the beans flowing through that machine. An occasional rush of air ejected a bean of poor quality, which flowed into a big red bucket. I had to keep a close eye on the eight machines so that each sack of processed beans did not spill over on to the floor. That did happen and the Kapitan/floor manager blasted me with his anger. I emptied the rejected beans from the buckets into a large steel barrel. These beans were sold every Friday to the U S Army of Occupation.
I checked the numerical markings on the sack of processed beans, tied it off securely. Soon, another worker carried the heavy sack to another steel grate. There was a recipe for which type of beans mixed with other beans, effecting the market grade of the final product.
A rush of hot air grabbed the beans and moved them through an extensive network of steel pipes hanging from the ceiling throughout this floor of the factory. This was the unique Aeotherm roasting system invented by Herr Heimbs in 1954. The green beans circulated through an indirect heating air stream, roasted gently, avoiding the hot metal parts. Floating in this hot air, the beans roasted evenly from the outside in. The normal roasting process in the USA involved heating the beans on a hot steel plate. “You Americans burn your beans on those hot steel plates,” remarked Herr Heimbs. The Aeotherm process continues to this day, which is why Heimbs Kaffee is the gourmet coffee of Germany and I believe to be the “world’s best cup of coffee.”
If you were drinking coffee in America in 1966, the best taste you could have might be canned Yuban brewed in a cone filter. 1966 was when Peet’s Coffee opened its first store in Berkeley. Peets would tutor the founders of Starbucks in the art of making fine, European style coffee.
On the other side of my machines were large tables, where more green beans were hand-sorted. All the people seated there, working carefully and chatting, were persons disabled from the violence of the war. Herr Heimbs was intentional about hiring as many disabled persons as he could.
10 am. A friendly waiter in a white service coat brought me a silver platter with a kannchen of fresh coffee, a cup, and a brown paper bag, which had a sandwich of German rye bread with thick local butter and liverwurst, made for me by Herr Heimb’s housekeeper. Coffee was also delivered to my workmates sorting the coffee beans. My supervisor was Herr Schmidt, about six-feet-four, erect, blond, blue eyes. He must have been a soldier in the Wehrmacht because he shouted orders to us like a military officer.
At noon, all the machines stopped, and we all walked downstairs to the huge dining hall. As I walked toward lunch, everyone was saying to one another “mahlzeit”, which is “have a good lunch.” This was my main meal of the day: always a soup or salad, main dish of meat, vegetables, potatoes and dessert. I found myself sitting most often with students from the Technical University, who received free lunches. They would not speak much English with me as everyone was intent on improving my German. A colorful mural filled the main wall of the dining room depicting a Prussian calvary charge in the Franco-Prussian War.
Tuesday and Thursday afternoons there was a solemn procession of some of the company management toward the Probzimmer, where coffee beans would be tasted, and orders made. One day, Herr Heimbs invited me to join them. I walked into a long, narrow room with glass windows and doors. Small envelopes of coffee samples from plantations in South America and Africa lay on the table. Each was opened and individually poured into a small roasting machine, ground, placed in a small beaker with filter, and lukewarm water poured through. A cup of coffee for each sample formed a line on the table. We dipped our spoons into each cup, sucked in the liquid with some air, and let it roll around in our mouth. We spit the sample liquid into a large spittoon in the middle of the room. No one spoke. Each person had a note pad to record reactions to what they tasted. At some point, with consensus, decisions about future orders were made, which could be an order of many hundreds of pounds. All the raw coffee came in through Bremen.
After a few weeks, I felt more at home here. It was a friendly place, where the workers seemed to be well paid and valued.
I walked home through more drizzling rain and dark clouds. As I walked away from the factory, the heavy feelings of loneliness and despair returned.
Instead of returning to my room/cell at the CVJM, I made a habit of visiting St. Andreas Church, a thousand-year-old Romanesque Basilica next door.
St. Andreas Church before the War
As I approached the side door, I looked up to see ancient gargoyles that spit out rainwater from the gutters high above. Delicately carved images decorated the high outside walls: the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the crucifixion of Jesus, and the martyrdom of St. Andreas. Construction of the thousand-year old basilica was funded by affluent, disabled local merchants. Two high bell towers marked the west entrance. One tower was the highest church tower in Germany for centuries.
Braunschweig after the Bombing
Visiting the church dozens of times in the weekday afternoons, I never saw another person inside. I walked up toward the high altar and sat for an hour every day. In 1944, all that remained of this church after the Allied bombing were charred walls. The roof and interior were gutted; the colorful medieval stained-glass windows exploded. By 1966, the church had been restored with new roof and plain glass windows, but most of the interior decoration built up over a thousand years was gone. There was a strong smell of new cement and a hint of burnt wood.
The Dark Spirit spoke frequently: “You are a thief, a liar, a complete disappointment to your parents. You lost your scholarship. You have been kicked out of the University, and even the church does not want you. This is who you really are, do not fool yourself otherwise. Your life as you wanted it to be is over.”
Another Spirit urged me to look around for a prayer book to center myself. I found one, opened it to the psalms. The text was in the old, formal German, “thee” and “thou” of Martin Luther’s translation. I found some psalms that I already knew, used some of the German words to get me on the right track. This is what I found:
Psalm 51 from Luther Bible 1545
Schaffe in mir, Gott, ein rein Herz und gib mir einen neuen, gewissen Geist.
Verbirg dein Antlitz von meinen Sünden und tilge alle meine Missetat.
Laß mich hören Freude und Wonne, daß die Gebeine fröhlich werden, die du zerschlagen hast.
Psalm 51 NIV
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
As I read the German words out loud, the distance between the original composer and my own soul collapsed. This was my psalm crying out from this empty place.
Frequent night fevers began a week after the East German tick infected me and lasted for several months. The fever would rage at night, soaking the bed sheets. I was in my Purgatory; I yielded to the painful muscle aches. This was my punishment. I did not have the sense to seek a doctor.
As I look back on this difficult time fifty-five years ago, I can see God’s benevolent presence. My life had crashed, and I had come to a unfamiliar, foreign land. Communication back home could only be through letter writing: very thin onion paper that folded into an envelope for air mail. But in Braunschweig I would find seeds of hope and consolation that would set my heart in openness to whatever awaited me when I returned to California.
Within these summer months that I spent working and living in Braunschweig, most of the time I felt like a zombie, with Novocain injected in my brain. But there were two times when I did come alive for a while. One was my work in the factory among friendly people and that wonderful incense of roasting coffee.
St. Katherine Church
I was also revived on Sundays. I met Herr Heimbs at his home parish, St. Katherines, for the 10am Gottesdienst. I waited for him outside of the church. When he arrived, he was treated like a revered patriarch. We sat together in his pew as we prayed the liturgy. So many of the hymns were songs I remembered from the Episcopal Church, but we were singing the original German setting, composed for example by Bach.
After Church, Herr Heimbs drove me to his home, a mansion on Fallersleber Tor beside the Oker River. There was a splendid Sunday dinner with wine. I had to learn to pray the Grace in German from my heart.
Herr Heimbs always took a nap after this mitagessen. His son Ernst Heimbs, Senior, brought me to the local airport with his wife and daughter. We drank a curious but refreshing German summer drink: Berliner Weisse mit Shuss, Weissbier mixed with raspberry juice. Weissbier on its own is very bitter and dry. We watched wide-winged gliders take off and land. Underneath the wings of each glider was the bright red and black logo for Heimbs Kaffee.
Friedrichstrasse, East Berlin
One Friday morning, Herr Schmidt and I drove a freight truck load of coffee to West Berlin and spent the weekend. On Sunday morning, I walked up Friedrichstrasse to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous Cold War crossover point into East Berlin. If you saw the 1963 film The Spy WhoCame in from the Cold, with Richard Burton, the East Berlin I was visiting looked like the backdrop to that movie. I left West Berlin, which seemed like a lively, Technicolored world, walked through the intimidating gauntlet of East German border guards, into a stark black and white world of war ruins and empty streets. I walked up Friendrichstrasse, before the war a densely populated, busy urban neighborhood. It was now a street devoid of buildings. As I came closer to Unter den Linden, I saw the spire of St. Mary’s Church, my destination for the 10am Gottesdienst. I entered the church to an organ prelude, found one of the last empty seats at the very back. The church was packed. The people sang the hymns with fervent, energetic voices. I knew I was in an East Berlin Church in a Communist Country where religious participation was discouraged. Remembering worship at St. Catherine’s Church in Braunschweig, the hymns were slow and ponderous. Most of the parishioners were senior citizens. But here at St. Mary’s, faith and worship were lively, the congregation multigenerational. After the service, I spoke with the pastor.
“Why is it that a church in East Berlin is packed and alive with worshippers, while churches in West Germany are half-empty?”
The pastor responded, “One reason, I think, is that most of the churches here in Berlin were destroyed in the war. The East German government is not interested in restoring churches. So, the ones that remain are indeed packed with people.”
A young man seemed to be waiting for someone outside of the church. He saw me, walked up and began talking right away. He noticed my accented German, asking if I was English or American, then continued in his own, clear English. He was very friendly and walked with me, offering information about the area. We walked down Unter den Linden, just in time to witness the changing of the guard at the Neue Wache, the Memorial to the Victims of Fascism and Militarism. The Friedrich Engels Guard Regiment goose-stepped to music from a military band, reminding me of old newsreel films of marching Nazi soldiers.
I asked my new friend
“The soldiers seem very much like the soldiers of the old German Wehrmacht.”
“Yes, that is true. Here in the GDR we kept a style of uniforms like the old German uniforms and some of the Prussian military traditions continue. This is a highly disciplined army.”
I was being careful in my questions and responses, as he could be a plant from the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security, one of the most repressive secret police organizations to have ever existed. If he asked me to exchange my Deutschmarks for a generous ratio of East German marks, which is highly illegal, I knew it was a trap. But he did not.
Berlin Cathedral Ruins
I wanted to see the famous Dom/Cathedral. He guided me to the location. We entered the main door, walking into a ruin. The high domed ceiling over the altar had collapsed in the war bombings. Pigeons flew in and out; a huge heap of debris lay where the high altar would have been.
Ishtar Gate, Babylon c. 500 BCE, Pergamon Museum, Berlin
My guide brought me to the Pergamon Museum nearby. We entered a vast collection of middle eastern antiquities. One encounter took my breath away: a three-story high colorful blue and gold ceramic tiled ceremonial Ishtar Gate from Babylon of the 5th century BC.
We had lunch in the cellar of the East Berlin Rathaus. My friend said he was a university student and he told me about his childhood in the ruins of postwar Berlin. He hoped to visit the West some day.
At the end of our time, he walked back with me to Checkpoint Charlie. It was sad to say goodbye, with an awareness of that Wall that separated us. He gave me his address but cautioned me to be careful what I said in a letter, because all mail is inspected and read by the Stasi. I did write to him soon after, but never heard from him again.
Saturdays were a break from work, as I spent the day walking the city. Founded in 861, Braunschweig was ruled by the powerful Henry the Lion, married to the daughter of King Henry II of England. During the Middle Ages, Braunschweig was an important trade center and a member of the Hanseatic League.
The center of the city, surrounded by the Oker River, was a picturesque, quintessential Medieval German town, with narrow streets lined with the largest ensemble of half-timbered (fachwerk) buildings in Germany until 1944. The bombing gutted much of the physical history of the town, but I could still discover stunning survivors of the firestorm.
Historic Fachwerk Houses c. 1500
I visited the five sectors of the medieval town: Altstadtmarkt, coal market, wool market, Hagen Market and the St. Magnus Quarter. The latter still had a few remaining fachwerk buildings from the sixteenth century. Each quarter had a specialty market and a thousand-year-old central church.
Braunschweig was an early supporter of National Socialism. A coalition of local merchants and politicians facilitated Austrian Adolf Hitler’s qualification for German citizenship, giving him a civil service appointment. As a German citizen, he became a candidate for German Chancellor. The Dom/Cathedral was turned into a National Nazi Shrine and the former Ducal Palace became a SS officers training school.
When I worked on genealogy recently, I discovered a family connection to Braunschweig. All my relatives come from Sweden. My mother’s father, Abel Burman, was a graduate of the Swedish Royal School of Music, piano construction. He came to Braunschweig to work for Steinweg Pianos, later moving to New York City to build pianos for their sister company, Steinway.
I also discovered that my 19th generation cousin was Magnus II “Torquatus”, Duke of Braunschweig-Luneburg-Wolfenbüttel (1328-1373).
I made several bicycle trips to Riddarshausen, a Cistercian monastery five km. out of town. The Imperial Abbey was founded in 1145. The architecture is simple and utilitarian, with limited iconography. That austerity must have changed after the Reformation because the pulpit and baptistry are outstanding examples of ornate woodwork.
Surrounding the monastery are ponds that support a bird sanctuary.
The monks left after the Reformation; the Abbey is now a Lutheran parish church. Side chapels have the names of dozens of local citizens who died in the bombing of 1944. Herman Goering had a hunting lodge here.
After six weeks I noticed that the night fevers were going away as well as the haunting voice of the Dark Spirit. One afternoon in Riddarshausen, sitting on a bench shaded by ancient elm trees, beside a lagoon where hundreds of birds took off and landed on the green-blue waters, a deep feeling of solace and peace settled within me. I realized that after the catharsis of these weeks, Braunschweig had become a foundational spiritual home to me, preparing me to walk into the future of God’s grace.
The weeks went by as work in the factory and visits with the Heimbs family lifted my spirits. On my last day of work, I visited Herr Carl Heimbs in his large corner office. As I entered, I noticed an elderly woman in a silver suit sitting in a far corner. I sat in a chair facing Herr Heimbs at his desk, presenting to him a set of Kennedy silver coins. Tears came to his eyes and he held my hand in a lingering handshake.
He stood up, in that erect perfect Prussian posture, guiding me toward the lady sitting in the corner. She stood up and smiled.
Herzogin Viktoria Luise von Preussen, 1913, painting by George Reinacker
Herr Heimbs said, “I want you to meet my dear friend, Ihre Konigliche Hochheit, (Her Royal Highness) Herzogin (Duchess) Viktoria Luise von Preussen.
I bowed, kissed her hand, as was the protocol, and these words blurted out of me;
“Ich habe viel uber Ihre Vater gestudiert.” I studied a lot about your father.
I had never heard of the Herzogin/Dutchess until that moment. But to help me, she gave me a thick copy of her new book, My Life as theDaughter of the Kaiser, telling her life story as the only daughter of Kaiser Wilhelm II.
Princess Viktoria Luise, 1903. as Honorary Colonel, Prussian Life Hussars
She married Herzog Ernst August of Braunschweig in 1913 in Berlin, the last royal event in Europe before World War I, which began a year later. In the book are several pictures of that royal wedding. Princess Viktoria Luise was the Princess Diana of her time. At the wedding dinner, I could see in the photograph the Czar of Russia seated next to her and the King of Great Britain across the table: the Kaiser’s cousins and grandchildren of Queen Victoria.
For the next fifteen years, I sent birthday cards to the Herzogin every September and she always sent me a new photograph and personal letter. Her husband had died ten years before we met. In 1966, Herr Heimbs was her protector and close friend.
After a side trip to visit family in Stockholm, Sweden, I returned to California. USC confirmed that I could not return to school but decided not to prosecute me. I sold my car to pay for damages. A week later, my Uncle Dr. John Trever, got me in the back door of Baldwin-Wallace College, Berea, Ohio, my final year of college, and a new life chapter.
I returned to Braunschweig again in 1975 with Janice, in 1980 to research an article for the Jesuit Magazine America, and 1981.
The trip to Germany and Braunschweig with daughter Katie in 2016 was a fiftieth-year reunion for me at Heimbs Kaffee and with the Heimbs family. I never thought I would return. With great joy I embraced Herr Carl’s grandson, Ernst Heimbs, Jr, his colleague Grete Wallner, his sons Heiner and Peter, and several of his grandchildren. I visited the coffee factory again, which the family had sold. I walked with Katie, Ernst, and Grete through the modern factory. The wonderful smell of freshly ground coffee still filled the space. The eight machines I managed in 1966 had been replaced by one computerized automatic machine.
Ernst had a medical issue at the time and could not drive. Katie and I took him to his favorite country inns outside of Braunschweig. We passed through a farming village where Ernst lived as a youth during the war. It was here that he witnessed the bombing of the city in 1944 and the horrific firestorm.
Katie and I continued on the Autobahn to Berlin, this time to experience a unified city. I brought her to the Cathedral, which had been in ruins when I visited in 1966 and 1975. The majestic building was now completely restored in golden splendor.
Restored Berlin Cathedral, 2016
As I sat in a pew in the Cathedral, remembering my journeys in Germany over the past fifty years, I opened another prayer book to Psalm 116:
Psalm 116 (NIV)
1 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
he heard my cry for mercy. 2 Because he turned his ear to me,
I will call on him as long as I live.
3 The cords of death entangled me,
the anguish of the grave came over me;
I was overcome by distress and sorrow. 4 Then I called on the name of the Lord:
“Lord, save me!”
5 The Lord is gracious and righteous;
our God is full of compassion. 6 The Lord protects the unwary;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
7 Return to your rest, my soul,
for the Lord has been good to you.
8 For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,
my eyes from tears,
my feet from stumbling, 9 that I may walk before the Lord
in the land of the living.
10 I trusted in the Lord when I said,
“I am greatly afflicted”; 11 in my alarm I said,
“Everyone is a liar.”
12 What shall I return to the Lord
for all his goodness to me?
13 I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the Lord. 14 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful servants. 16 Truly I am your servant, Lord;
I serve you just as my mother did;
you have freed me from my chains.
17 I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
and call on the name of the Lord. 18 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
in the presence of all his people, 19 in the courts of the house of the Lord—
in your midst, Jerusalem.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Thomas Merton (2009). “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”
Rain beats against the bathroom window, as I brush my teeth before going to bed. The bathroom mirror reflects the crucifix hanging over our bed. I stare into my own eyes in the mirror’s reflection, goose bumps cover my body. A deep feeling of gratitude flows from my heart, gratitude for almost fifty years as a priest, gratitude for staying on the right path, whatever that was, through many twists and turns, dense thickets of despair. Gratitude for Grace, for the unearned, undeserved, out of left field gift of God’s subtle nudges; gratitude for one man’s mentoring of an immature, clueless twenty-five-year old new priest.
I remember his penetrating eyes through thick glasses, handsome, thirty-four-years old, jet black hair that matched his priest’s cassock. I first met Father Bob Cornelison on the sidewalk in front of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Altadena, California in 1962. Little was I to know that this man would change my life and shape my ministry as a priest.
I was visiting the church with members of the Pasadena High School Key Club, a boy’s honorary society, as part of our monthly house of worship visits. Last month we visited an Orthodox Jewish Temple.
Fr. Bob expressed a smiling welcome and quickly made one of his joking remarks that sets strangers chuckling and relaxes the formalities. We entered the church before the service and sat in the front pew. Do not do this if you are visiting a Roman Catholic, Episcopal or Lutheran Church for the first time. Do not do this! The liturgical calisthenics will throw you off, as you will not know when to stand (to praise), sit (to learn) and kneel (to pray). Gratefully, I was seated next to my high school English Classics teacher, Mr. John Stewart, a rather stern Episcopalian, who coached us through the service.
I returned to St. Mark’s more frequently, as my new high school girl friend was an Episcopalian and member of the parish. I could spend more time with her if I went to the church.
1962 was a completely different church experience from today. My old friend, Father Richard Parker of Saint Cross Parish, Hermosa Beach, wistfully remembered: “Back in those days, you just opened the front door of the church, and people poured in.” That was true at St. Marks: the church was always filled on Sundays and lots of children were at Sunday School classes. But there were other notable differences from today. The altar was pressed up against the east facing wall, the priest did almost all the speaking, women wore hats and gloves to church, and only men held leadership on the church council/vestry/parish council. In the Episcopal Church the language of worship was thee and thou, based on the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Spirituality at that time was more about duty and tradition.
As a Presbyterian, these Episcopal liturgical calisthenics were strange but intriguing. Previously, at Trinity Presbyterian Church, in Hastings Ranch, I sat in the pew most of the time. Communion was handed out in trays with grape juice. Body movement in the Episcopal Church made you pay attention. But I could not take communion as I was not (yet) confirmed.
Mount Calvary Monastery
I remember a men’s retreat at Mount Calvary Monastery, the Anglican Benedictine community in the mountains high above Montecito and Santa Barbara. The place was packed with men and boys, the monks presenting long lectures on spirituality. But the setting was incredible, with expansive views of the California coast. A gold, seventeenth century Spanish reredos framed the high altar, enshrouded with a dense cloud of incense, as the monks chanted the Magnificat at Vespers. Some deep longing within me awakened, as the priest elevated the Host in the early morning mass.
Bloody Sunday, FBI
My life was never the same after one Sunday experience. We had been following the Civil Rights Movement in my social psychology class at USC. On March 7, 1965, in a voting rights march in Alabama, State troopers and county posse men violently attacked the marchers with billy clubs and tear gas, to become known as Bloody Sunday. I can still recall the video images of the violence depicted on Walter Cronkite CBS News: a wounded woman lying helplessly on the Edmund Pettus Bridge.
March on Selma
Another march to Selma, Alabama was organized, and a call went out to religious leaders throughout the country. The following Sunday, Fr. Bob announced to the congregation that he was going to Selma to march with Dr. King. This was very dangerous, as I knew that there were deaths resulting from the previous marches. I imagined Fr. Bob implanted within the violent TV images I had already seen. I was afraid for him. The empathy within the congregation was mixed. I remember some red-faced men huddled together on the patio outside the church at coffee hour, animated in their anger and disapproval of Fr. Bob. But off he went. Two weeks later he returned and shared his experience of marching with Dr. King, and his own visceral feelings of fear and dread, as they marched through taunting, rock throwing crowds.
My life changed forever, because something stirred deep within me: I want to live my life like Fr. Bob. Vocation as a priest was unformed; my family had tutored me all these years to become a pediatrician.
I immersed myself into the life of the parish, teaching Sunday School to a wild bunch of third graders. I momentarily turned my back from the children, and before I knew it most of the boys would escape through the open back window. The choir became family to me, as my quivering tenor voice attempted to blend in the anthem.
Fr. Bob’s curate, Fr. Pat Tomter, was right out of seminary. I still can’t believe it to this day, but most Sundays I would go to his home after the Sunday Services and hang out with him and his wife. From my own experience later in life, this was deep fatigue time for a priest after a busy week of ministry and several Sunday services. But there I was, on the Tomter’s couch, asking probing theological questions. The approachable clergy at St. Mark’s fostered my nascent faith.
I applied for Postulancy, the beginning step toward seminary and ordination. But I was rejected, as my life was in turmoil. I spent my last year of college at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea, Ohio. My uncle, Dr. John Trever, was my Old Testament professor. He was notable as the scholar who first identified the Dead Sea Scrolls as authentic, when they were discovered in caves by the Dead Sea. He urged me to apply for seminary without the Bishop’s approval and to go to Pacific School of Religion, the Interdenominational seminary in Berkeley, California.
The Summer of Love
“There had to be a whole new scene, they said, and the only way to do it was to make the big move — either figuratively or literally — from Berkeley to the Haight-Ashbury, from pragmatism to mysticism, from politics to dope… The thrust is no longer for “change” or “progress” or “revolution,” but merely to escape, to live on the far perimeter of a world that might have been.”
I was not on the normal, approved track to ordination, but I began seminary August 1967, the Summer of Love! Berkeley was exotic with flower children parading along Telegraph Avenue, past head shops, bookstores and coffee houses. San Francisco across the bay was the locus of the counter cultural movement.
I arrived at the seminary dorm, opened the front door and Marty Murdock was rushing out the door. He gave me a quick welcome, asking:
“Want to come to a party in San Francisco?”
Off we went in his rusty grey VW, arriving at the exact corner of Haight and Ashbury. A live band blasted music from Golden Gate Park across the street. My heart was pounding. What was happening?
We walked upstairs to the second floor of an apartment building. The door opened to a lovely, long-haired women with a bright smile.
“Hi Marty. Come on in.”
I entered the expansive living room, filled with young ladies and young men. A bearded, blond fellow sat in the corner playing the guitar.
As I now remember, all the young ladies there were former Immaculate Heart of Mary nuns who had left the Order in Los Angeles after conflict with Cardinal Macintyre. They now worked as nurses at the University of California Medical Center. And the young men: novices in the Christian Brothers, a Roman Catholic monastic community. At the geographic center of the Summer of Love, at Haight and Ashbury, I was probably at the most G rated party in America.
The first year of seminary involved field work out in the community. Pacific School of Religion (PSR) was a progressive school, wanting us to do secular field work. Some worked at the Black Panthers’ food bank and community center at St. Augustine’s Church in Oakland. I was assigned to the Urban League in Berkeley, working as an employment counselor with other young African American community organizers, some of whom became city council members in Berkeley and Oakland. I remember meeting many African American residents of the neighborhood, seeking work, trying to survive with dignity and support a family. That milieu of desperation pushed me to work long hours to secure interviews for the clients.
There were frequent demonstrations against the Viet Nam War at U C Berkeley, a few blocks south of the seminary. My fellow students participated in the demonstrations there and at the Oakland Induction Center. Several times at breakfast, I would hear about students who had been arrested the previous day and spent the night at Santa Rita Jail.
I spent another semester in the Clinical Pastoral Education program, requiring full-time work as a hospital chaplain. My first day I was assigned to ICU, where I helped zip up the body of a patient who had died. Shortly after, I went to the waiting room with the doctor, who spoke with the family about the death. I wore a crucifix around my neck. I remember the man who died was a postal worker. His wife walked up to me, saw the cross around my neck, and began to angrily pound my chest, crying “Why? Why? Why?”
As I entered Herrick Memorial Hospital every morning through the ER, I took a deep breath and prayed for God’s grace. No textbook or class lecture was going to help me here. I made the rounds to the different units, never knowing what I would encounter when I entered a patient’s room. I floated on grace: to be a listening presence and learned to pray from deep within my heart without a prayer book.
The CPE hospital program was enough evidence to show that my life had stabilized. I reapplied for Postulancy. Fr. Bob secured quick support from the Vestry to get the paperwork going. He went with me to the Diocesan Office for an interview with the Standing Committee. His gravitas with all those male priests, the Old Boys’ Network, carried the day.
Returning to seminary, I discovered a few weeks later that Fr. Bob had resigned from St. Mark’s to become Rector of St. Mary’s Parish, Laguna Beach. He moved with his five children, LeighB, Nina, Katie, Bobby and Eve and wife Nancy, to a beach cottage overlooking the Pacific Ocean
LSD Capital of the Universe
“He used to hang out with a group called the Brotherhood of Eternal Love,” he said. “They’d get loaded, go up to those caves and maybe spend a couple of nights up there chanting to the moon. Whoever wanted to could follow Leary up.”
Neal Purcell quoted in article L A Times
y DAVID HALDANE
MARCH 31, 2003
Laguna Beach 2020
To any young person growing up in southern California, especially my hometown of Pasadena, Laguna Beach was the idyllic beach town. It was where many of us went for spring break and in the summer, to escape the brutal heat of the San Gabriel Valley. Secluded coves and expansive beaches inspired California Impressionist Frank Cuprien, Edgar Payne and William Wendt.
At the time, St. Mary’s was a traditional village church. Father John Houser had been pastor for many years. The expectation of ministry was that the rector would be in the church office for drop ins, counseling for sacraments, and make pastoral calls at the hospital. It was a tranquil world. “You just opened the church door on Sunday, and the people poured in.”
How did Fr. Bob break into this introverted, conservative culture?
“When I came to my interview, I wore my Brooks Brothers suit and Florsheim shoes and I got them to laugh a lot.”
Timothy Leary, by Phillips H Baile, 1989
But this was 1968 and America was in cultural upheaval. Under the surface of this village of beaches, art festivals and expensive homes was a dark world. Laguna Beach was the home of LSD evangelist Timothy Leary. His cohorts were the Brotherhood of Eternal Love. They would all load up on LSD and hole up in the caves off Laguna Canyon Road and chant far into the night. Followers of Leary hung out at the infamous Mystic Arts head shop on PCH.
The year Fr. Bob began ministry at St. Mary’s, rookie Laguna Beach Police Officer Neal Purcell was patrolling late at night, turning into Woodland Drive, just off Laguna Canyon Road. A car with motor running was stopped in the middle of the road. Purcell investigated, encountering Leary, his wife Rosemary and teen-aged son John. The car was full of marijuana and hashish. Purcell’s arrest made him nationally famous. Leary received a ten-year prison sentence. The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, “the Hippie Mafia,” hired the radical Weather Underground organization for $25,000 to help Leary escape from prison and go to Algeria.
Laguna Beach needed the ministry of Fr. Bob. He spent more time out of the church office than in it, on the boardwalk talking with surfers and at Mystic Arts with hippie youth. As a licensed marriage and family counselor, he established easy rapport with troubled youth, many from the old money families of Emerald Bay and Three Arch Bay. He was one of the founders of the Laguna Beach Free Clinic. Preach the Gospel at all times, when necessary use words. Fr. Bob was living out his Gospel in the community. As his reputation grew, so did the parish, attracting medical professionals, therapists and professors at University of California at Irvine. But seeds of dissent were being sowed, soon to yield a harvest of anger and hate.
I graduated from seminary June 1970. There were no jobs in the Diocese of Los Angeles for newly ordained priests. I found some day jobs working construction and in restaurants. By August, Fr. Bob wanted me to work with him full time, but there was little money. Dr. Neal and Meredith Amsden, in Emerald Bay, invited me to live with them and their four children. I would also receive $200 a month for my VW car payment. I started full time August 1970.
Fr. Bob said that a new priest needed to know his parish. I should make as many home visits as I could to establish relationships. From that time on, I made home visits a priority for the next fifty years. In those early visits I began to hear the voices of dissent:
“He wasn’t in the church office when I dropped in last Tuesday.”
“He’s spending too much time out in the community and not on church business. Someone saw him hanging out at Mystic Arts!”
As these families welcomed me, there was a clear temptation: for me to save the parish from Fr. Bob.
My seminary church music professor Fr. Norm Mealy warned me:
“Brad, when you go to a parish, people will tempt you to be a critic of the Rector. Remember, you are not the Messiah who has been sent by God to save the parish from the Rector.”
I never forgot those words and the core virtue of professional loyalty. That which was not shared with me in Private Confession I would openly share with Fr. Bob. I never criticized him to others. I was direct with him about any differences between us.
The seeds of dissent came into full flowering October 1970. A parish meeting was called. The Bishop’s representative Dean Gary Adams, a former Nevada Congressman, presided. The Traditionalists were well organized, led by a local estate attorney. Shrill, angry voices cried out a litany of indictments, mostly about Fr. Bob’s ministry in the community.
Dean Adams let these furious voices beat their drum for an hour. Then he asked to hear from those who found hope in Fr. Bob’s ministry. Articulate, thoughtful, calm voices from many community leaders shared anecdotes about Fr. Bob’s help and effectiveness. Without seeking a direct vote, Dean Adams asked: “Is there anyone who feels the current situation in the parish is hopeless?” The estate attorney stood up, made a last angry statement, and stomped out of the church with a cluster of his minions. The Dean invited the congregation to stand and pray for the parish and Fr. Bob’s ministry.
From that day on, St. Mary’s grew as a beacon of service to the community and a congregation practicing Christ’s inclusive love for all.
Reflecting on Fr. Bob’s innate leadership in ministry and his mentoring of this young priest, I find understanding in Chris Lowney’s book Heroic Leadership. Lowney shares Jesuit leadership secrets that include ingenuity, love and heroism.
Ingenuity: “Leaders make themselves and others comfortable in a changing world. They eagerly explore new ideas, approaches, and cultures rather than shrink defensively from what lurks around life’s next corner.”
Fr. Bob encountered an introverted, sleepy village church imbedded in a milieu of significant cultural change, including dark elements of drug and alcohol addiction, poverty among the immigrant hotel and restaurant service community, mental health issues and homelessness. Fr. Bob adapted his counseling skills, fostering relationships in the Laguna community. He taught me that the church must be flexible and adaptable to different community needs.
I worked with Fr. Bob in developing the resource of the extensive parish property to serve the community and generate innovate programs, which included:
*Human Options: a comprehensive program for abused women.
*A day labor center.
*HUD Senior Housing
*Friendship Shelter housing for the homeless.
*alternative school for creative high school students.
*settlement housing for two Vietnamese refugee families
*Drug and alcohol recovery programs
Fr. Bob and I tried to involve some of the more traditional Laguna Beach churches in these community programs, but we were told, “First, we want people to be immersed in the Word of God. After they know the Word, then we can work with the community.”
However, I am reminded of St. Pachomius, the third century founder of cenobitic communal monasticism. He was a prisoner of war in Egypt. The early church’s core ministry was working in the slums and prisons. Christians brought Pachomius food and healed his wounds. After several visits, he asked, “Why are you doing this for me?” They responded, “We are Christians. This is what we do.” “Tell me about who you are.” And so, the witnessing and teaching began.
Many unchurched people joined the church and grew into deep faith in Jesus Christ because of the witness of Fr. Bob and St. Mary’s parish.
Love: “Leaders face the world with a confident, healthy sense of themselves as endowed with talent, dignity, and the potential to lead. They find exactly these same attributes in others and passionately commit to honoring and unlocking the potential they find in themselves and in others. They create environments bound and energized by loyalty, affection and mutual support.”
Fr. Bob shared many aspects of ministry with me equally; he did not pigeonhole me into being only a youth minister or curate. He empowered me to act on his behalf. He is someone I came to love and with whom I honestly shared my struggles. It was not difficult to be loyal and trust his leadership.
Heroism: “Leaders imagine an inspiring future and strive to shape it rather than passively watching the future happen around them. Heroes extract gold from the opportunities at hand rather than waiting for golden opportunities to be handed to me.”
In the 1970s, Holy Week, between Palm Sunday and Easter Day, was the traditional Spring Break, when hundreds of young people and college students flooded Laguna Beach. The musical Jesus Christ Superstar was on Broadway. The soundtrack to the music was a popular LP Album. Fr. Jim Friedrich, an inspired genius with visual media, developed a slide show of classical art and contemporary images integrated into the entire soundtrack of the musical. The movie had not yet been made. On Good Friday night, a 12 by 12 projection screen was positioned in the sanctuary. Jim had two slide projectors with filters. Word was spread throughout the town and the local head shops. The church was filled to overflowing with hippies with long hair fragrant with incense and jingling beads. Most of these folks hadn’t been in church for years. And here they were, thoroughly enjoying a presentation of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ on Good Friday via a Broadway musical.
Every Good Friday evening through the 1970s, we presented a different film based on the Gospel of Jesus, including Godspell, Pasolini’s Gospel ofMatthew, and the Greatest Story Ever Told.
I married Janice Ellen Breed in 1971 who worked in Emergency Medicine at South Coast Community Hospital. Her own health ministry complimented our work with the homeless and addicted, as these persons were also her patients.
There are no Outcasts
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Galatians 3:28 NIV
Two experiences at St. Mary’s Church changed my perspective of the Episcopal Church forever.
On July 29, 1974, eleven women were “illegally” ordained priests by three bishops in Philadelphia, PA., two years before the Episcopal Church would officially authorized ordination of women.
A month later, while Fr. Bob was on vacation, one of the new priests, The Rev. Carter Hayward, visited friends in Laguna Beach. Some women approached me to ask if she could celebrate Eucharist at the Thursday healing service. Looking back, it’s hard to engage with whatever hesitation I had about that. I needed some time to think about it. I said yes and attended the service, but The Rev. Hayward celebrated the full liturgy. It was not up to me to think or feel this way, but I remember experiencing her competency and priestly authority at that service. The Anglican Communion continues to painfully struggle with this movement of the Holy Spirit.
Later, when I became Rector at Messiah Parish, Santa Ana, I made it my mission to recruit and empower other women priests to work with me as equal colleagues. I know that the successful growth and enrichment of that parish was greatly due to the ministry of those six women, all of whom became rectors on their own, including one bishop.
A year later, 1975, a young man called me and asked if I would do some couples’ counseling. I agreed. A few days later the young man appeared in the church office with another man, his partner. Laguna Beach had been a welcoming community to the LGBT community for decades. But this counseling was a deeper engagement for me with two gay men.
We had several sessions together, working on conflict management. What has stayed with me ever since is my impression of their long-time commitment, care and love for one another. Surely, God was working and present within the love between these two men.
By 1975, Fr. Bob had been rector for seven years. Remarkably, many of the conservative traditionalists who stomped out of the church October 1970, had returned. The estate attorney become the clerk of the Vestry/Parish Council. The parish welcomed this diversity of voices and values.
A few years later, one of the matriarchs of Emerald Bay, a vocal opponent of Fr. Bob’s ministry with troubled youth, drug addicts and mentally ill, would herself graduate with a marriage and family degree. For many years, she led a wonderful non-profit that provided services to the very population that previously had been outcasts to her.
These experiences crystalized a vision I had of what the church must be: an inclusive community in Christ, where there are no outcasts.
Jesus gives us a radical vision of the Kingdom of God: there should be no liberal or conservative, anglo or person of color, new or traditional, feminist or antifeminist, pro-life or pro-choice, Democrat or Republican or any other ideological pocket that should matter in terms of who is welcome and who can be part of the Church.
John Shea wrote “The heavenly banquet is open to all who are willing to sit down with all.”
“The task of church is to stand toe to toe, shoulder to shoulder, and heart to heart with people absolutely different from ourselves—but who, with us, share one faith, one Lord, one baptism, and one God who is Father and Mother of all. To live and worship beyond differences is what it means to have a bosom that is not a ghetto.
The Holy Longing, Ron Rolheiser, p 131.
I shared ministry with Fr. Bob for eleven years. Many people told me that was too long; I should have moved on to my own parish before that. I was very choosy about where I wanted to go; the Spirit hadn’t grabbed me yet. But the physics of human relationship took their natural path. For mentor and mentee that often means a fracture in the relationship. I felt that tension building up for the past two years. It got nasty sometimes. But the Spirit did speak, and I was led to a declining parish in downtown Santa Ana, fifteen miles away. What had once been an affluent supply town for surrounding cattle ranches had become a densely populated, Latino dominant urban center. The church was on the verge of becoming a mission. The leadership knew that they had to engage with the surrounding community if the parish was to have a future: a perfect fit for my education with Fr. Bob about becoming a spiritual lighthouse to the city and a church where there are no outcasts.
Fr. Bob and I had little contact for several years. In his retirement, he entered an alcohol recovery program. The Twelve Steps became an essential compliment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Fr. Bob ran a sober living home that guided and supported many persons into recovery.
A week before he died, I visited Fr. Bob at his home. I stood at the side of his bed. That beautiful smile was there and the penetrating eyes within a frail thin body. I held his hand, reminding him that I loved him. It was brief, as I kissed him and said, “Bob, I will see you again on the other side.”
Chris Lowney, Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Yeard-Old Company that Changed the World.
Neal Purcell quoted in article L A Times
y DAVID HALDANE
MARCH 31, 2003
Thomas Merton (2009). “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”.
“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 etfascinans. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
In 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.
Dalarna 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.
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.
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 theDesert: 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.
As 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:
7 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. 8 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.
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.”
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:
“The Desert Fathers believed that the wilderness had been created supremely valuable in the eyes of God precisely because it had no value to men. The wasteland was the land that could never be wasted by men because it offered them nothing. There was nothing to attract them. There was nothing to exploit. The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered for forty years, cared for by God alone.” They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had traveled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back on their life with Him alone. The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else.”
There is a reason that the prophets and sages of the Bible and the desert fathers and mothers of monastic tradition had foundational experiences of the Holy in the desert. The desert reveals and nurtures the True Self.
The True Self is God’s gift of awareness to us that we are God’s beloved. There is nothing to do to earn or possess that affirming love; God’s desire is for communion with us.
But in the silence and solitude of our desert journey, the False Self speaks loudly. I found it amazing that hiking on desert trails and resting for long periods in craggy shadows among huge granite boulders, not seeing or speaking to anyone all day, how much chatter goes on in my head.
Anxious thoughts about my work at church and at the college: Life seemed like a house of cards, ready to fall with a sudden gust of wind. I had so much to do to hold things together.
This was a core issue that Dr. Phillips, my psychiatrist identified as the probable source of the tormenting panic attacks that would seize me on Saturday nights before a busy Sunday and rob me of sleep and energy.
I asked my long-time friend and a child psychiatrist Dr. Larry Budner, how the False Self begins in one’s life. He told me:
“During the first months of an infant’s life, the mother’s devoted care and responsiveness gives the infant the sense that the world is safe, reliable, and loving. Misunderstandings between them are quickly corrected. However, at some point, the infant expresses a wish or an impulse and gets a response that hurts: anger, frustration, or being ignored. The infant learns that there are some parts of himself or herself that can’t be expressed, because it threatens that secure relationship with the mother. This is the beginning of the False Self: dividing wishes, preferences, and impulses into acceptable and unacceptable categories, only showingthe 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 theapprobation 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?
I am breathless as I climb, the altitude is getting to me. I must stop and catch my breath, heart is pounding, lungs burning; got to wait for that beating heart to slow down. Over several hours of hiking and climbing (I lose all sense of time out here) the brain shifts into neutral, the nagging voice of that dark spirit vanishes, only the sound of wind whistling through the creosote and sagebrush and the rushing creek. The spine of California, the Sierra Nevada, looms closer and closer now, blanketed with thick snow. I begin truly to see the colors around and ahead of me; late afternoon sun reflects rose and amber in the mountains, a golden sheen on the rocks ahead. Such beauty! Stop, stop and take this all in! The sun is like a gentle heat lamp enveloping me with warmth. My empty, quieted mind opens to phrases bubbling up from—Where?
“The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who trust in his constant love.” (Psalm 147). A gospel song from mass last Sunday: “Leaning On the Everlasting Arms.”
“Thank you, God, for the doctors and nurses who cared for Erik. Thank you for the medicine. Thank you for Jan, who is my teammate in this battle for Erik’s life. I know we are well past the predictions of his lifespan, but he is with us now. Every day is a gift. Thank you, Lord. Thank you for this beautiful place, for your love for me.”
Walking in this desert place, I have holy help in shaking off the dark voices of despair and confusion and ruthless judgment and in opening my heart to the eternal, loving Presence that is always with me and you—-even though we forget.
Deep within you and me is a place where God has touched us and held us very close.
Father Rolheiser helps as he writes:
“Long before memory, long before we ever remember touching or loving or kissing anyone or anything, or being touched by anything or anybody in this world, there is adifferent kind of memory, the memory of being gently touched by loving hands. When our ear is pressed to God’s heart—-to the breast of all that is good, true and beautiful—-we hear a certain heartbeat and we remember, remember in some inchoate place, at a level beyond thought that we were once kissed by God.”
Is this what happens to me when the desert quiets my mind and that busy mental computer winds down to a faint hum? Am I remembering this primal embrace of the Holy before I was born? I forgot, but when all is quiet and still, in solitude, my heart warms in this desert space and I remember.
Grateful remembrance is my ballast against the assaults of the dark spirit.
At the end of the day, I return to my motel room at the Dow Villa in Lone Pine. Lights are out. I hear the wind rattling the motel sign outside, a howling, cold moan in the dark night.
I begin the Examen of Conscience given by Ignatius Loyola 500 years ago. There are a few easy steps, and this is how I practice them:
I gaze up into the dark ceiling and reflect on this day. I begin by inviting God to be present with me.
Gratitude: I try to recall the good things that happened during the day, the little blessings for which I want to give thanks. I am not doing a self-assessment here, or a fantasy trip through the day that is past; rather I want to anchor myself in the place of thanksgiving. Perhaps there is good news, or an encounter with God in creation that bubbles up. Some of these experiences can be powerful and I want to savor them rather than rush through a vague memory and brush it aside. Savoring an experience for which I am thankful slows down the whole experience and I am blessed by that event.
I ask for the grace to see where I have turned away form my True Self, the deepest part of myself. I allow myself to see those times when I was not at my best. Maybe I was hard on someone, insensitive. The point is not to beat up on myself, but to let the voice of conscience remind me of a better way. Maybe tomorrow I need to go back to that person and make amends. As I pay attention to this voice of conscience, God is helping me to be more loving.
I review the day as though I am watching a video. I begin from the moment I awoke and go through every event. I pay attention to what made me happy, what helped me relax when I felt stressed, confused, frustrated. I try to recreate with all my senses the past day. The surprise is that when you make this a daily practice, you find that events and people otherwise forgotten often have something very important connected to them.
I ask God to pardon what I may have done that was not loving.
I ask for God’s help in the coming day.
I close with a prayer.
During the night (when I must make those middle-aged male visits to the bathroom) I am sometimes astonished by moments of great clarity. A phrase comes forth in answer to a problem I have been praying about. Regular meditation opens the mind’s filters to the flow of intuitive consciousness. Some of my most creative ideas or answers to conflict have come from these 3 a.m. Aha’s.
What wells up in my heart through this prayer are gratitude and thanksgiving to God for God’s amazing grace today. That gratitude is foundational to my hope for Erik, myself and our family. Because hope, without this gratitude to God, becomes only wishful thinking.
I hope this time together has stimulated an interest in trying some of these desert paths yourself. Make it three good days. You are not creating a spiritual travelogue, collecting close encounters with the holy. The remembering can be a way for you to invite the Lord’s presence to be with you now. The remembering is the antidote to the dark spirit’s work of forgetting.
I close with these final thoughts from Father Rolheiser that summarizes the process of transformation offered by the desert:
“The desert…..empties you. Hence it is not a place wherein you can decide how you want to grow and change, but is a place that you undergo, expose yourself to, and have the courage to face. The idea is not so much that you do things there, but that things happen to you while there—-silent, unseen, transforming things. The desert purifies you, almost against your will, through God’s efforts. In the desert, what really occurs is a cosmic confrontation between God and the devil; though this happens within and through you. Your job is only to have the courage to be there. The idea is that God does the work, providing you have the courage to show up.”
Fr. Ron Rolheiser, OMI
From your experience this morning, how can you imagine making a retreat into the desert? What difficulties or resistance do you see?
Does your home parish have a men’s spirituality group? How might your experience this morning complement that ministry?
If you do not have a men’s spirituality group, in what ways might you encourage and help the pastor begin that ministry?
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, behindme, 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.
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
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.”
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 withpictures 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.
Whom do you carry right now in your heart, praying for God’s healing touch?
How have you experienced for yourself the healing presence of God?
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 SpiritualitySeries for Men. I will be building on the insights on spirituality with men that we enjoyed with Father Jim Clarke a few weeks ago. He shared with us characteristics and challenges of spirituality for men.
In our time together this morning I will share some of my personal story and offer to you some tools and guidance in your own journey with the Lord.
I do not want to present myself as some model for male spirituality; rather, I hope that what I say and our time together will do will trigger your own desire to know the Lord Jesus more closely and will trigger your own memories of God’s presence in your life.
An outline that Steve and I developed is:
In each part I will share for 15-20 minutes. You will have opportunity to share and reflect at your table group for 15-20 minutes, followed by a dialogue between Steve and myself. We will take a short break after each portion.
I begin with this passage from Ron Rolheiser’s Holy Longing.
“Inside of us, it would seem, something is at odds with the very rhythm of things and we are forever restless, dissatisfied, frustrated, and aching. We are so overcharged with desire that it is hard to come to simple rest.”
“We are driven persons, forever obsessed, congenitally dis-eased, living lives of quiet desperation, only occasionally experiencing peace. Desire is the straw that stirs the drink.”
Spirituality is about what we do with that desire. What we do with our longings. Augustine says, “You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Spirituality is about what we do with our unrest.”
Our innate Holy Longing is for experiences of communion and connection with the Lord Jesus.
While I carry the words of this passage deep within my heart, (because today they truly resonate with me), I can tell you that there was a time that if you had read to me this passage, I would not have understand what it was saying.
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:
What does the desert mean to you?
Has a memory of the presence of God been triggered for you this morning?