Retreating to the Desert

I’ve always prayed a lot. Mostly because no one else wants to talk to me much. And I can only talk to myself so much. So I pray. And if you spend a lot of time praying, after a while you decide that maybe you should stop just chattering and try to listen. And if you let the Spirit lead you as you try to listen, it will show you to a place of still and quiet where the Spirit in you hangs out. I’ve described it before like finding a faint channel on the radio dial that if you can be quiet and sit still and get the antenna just so, you can tune into. Sometimes if you sit and listen, you can tune into God. Other times, there’s just a sense of something meant for you – an image, a song, a feeling. For a long time there was this joy waiting for me there. In the middle of everything, if I could just get my mind to quiet and my feelings to settle, it was like opening a spring-loaded door that let in this golden light of joy. It was hard to hold onto and once my mind wandered or my feelings intruded, it was gone. But I could get there if I tried and just bask in it for a moment or two. (Yes, I know I sound crazy. So what? If people knew what went on in your head, they’d probably think you were crazy too!) But then the joy went away. And was replaced by . . . nothing.

For a while, I would quiet and settle and reach this nothing and be so upset to find that my joy was gone and God wasn’t there and there was just nothing waiting there to comfort or sustain me that I would quickly withdraw in anger and frustration. Sometimes I would try and sit and wait, wait, wait and look, look, look for something – anything to hold onto. But it was just so, so empty. This is what has been fueling most of my crabby, woe-is-me anger the last couple of months. Everything else that’s going on, I’ve mostly let go of. I can’t make everything I own quit breaking and I can’t make money appear and I can’t make people like me or fix everyone’s issues, so whatever. I’d be quite happy to just draw from that inner place where God’s joy and peace and hope are placed and live off of that. But it’s empty. I’m just SOL.

A few times, I decided to stop looking for something in that place and just sit in the place. See what it was like. It’s empty, as I had already observed. And bright. (I know it sounds odd to describe an inner place in your mind as bright, but it is. Deal with it.) The light, if you will, is a harsh, ugly light – no hints of gold or blue or greens in this light. Not even a pure white. Just bright, empty light like light that has nothing to reflect off of but dingy dust. And it occurred to me recently that this sounds an awful lot like a desert. You know, like the desert that the Israelites and Jesus and many of the church mothers and fathers spent time in. How novel – my own desert place, right inside me. No sunscreen needed. Except I don’t recall answering a call to wander into the desert. I need water and produce and furry friends to cuddle right now – not empty desert where there’s NOTHING! Yeesh.

But recently the desert has proven irresistable. Many times a day – most minutes that aren’t taken up with something that requires my full concentration in fact – I say, “breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe” over and over and retreat there. Where it’s quiet. And I don’t like it, but it’s a safe haven from the toxic muck of my brain. There is nothing good going on in there. Every thought – even my prayers – just leads me into frustration and discouragement and anger. I kept waiting and working for my life to get better and I’ve been frustrated at every turn. But at least I could find my own comfort and hope and solace in my faith and my own head. But I don’t have any of that left either. So, now the best I can do for myself is just be empty. Go to the desert place and breathe. Over and over and over.

Last night I sat next to my toddler’s bed, rubbing her back as she struggled to breathe through a bad summer cold that seems intent on suffocating her in her sleep. In my head I willed both of us: breathe, breathe, breathe, breathe. She sleepily reached for my hand and rubbed it softly. Back and forth. Breathe, breathe, breathe. She rubs my arm now. Breathe, breathe breathe. A small voice in the emptiness says, “hold onto that. She’s comforted by you. She’s glad your here. There’s goodness in this moment. Hold onto it.” So I did. And today I find there’s a little comfort in my desert when I retreat there to breathe.

16 thoughts on “Retreating to the Desert

    1. I got through labor and many other excruciating times by telling myself, “All you have to do is take a breath. And another. And another.” It does wonders, doesn’t it. If you can remember to do it, that is! 😉 I love your blog, btw.

  1. This showed up almost as a response to an online conversation I’ve been having, re “What would the ‘science’ of the Kingdom look like?” Which started me groping towards, “Okay, what’s ‘prayer’ about?”

    Your experience, as you certainly must know, is typical of many people, some of them being ‘saints’ and the like… Also reminds me a little of ‘Jesus being tempted in the desert’, now that I think of it. The temptation, of course, being to treat sentience or spiritual power as ‘things to be used’ rather than ‘ongoing life to manifest’.

    Alan Lew mentioned times he’d gone to visit relatives and other favorite people in the hospital, when they were in comas. Since his practice at that point was pure Zen, he’d meditate. They weren’t supposed to come out of those comas — but did. They told him, afterwards: “I saw you sitting there.”

    1. Hmmm . . . I do think there’s a “science” to prayer. I know that over the centuries various people have written about it, but it’s usually so clouded in mystery and metaphore as to be pretty inaccessible. I’ve been trying to make a series of vlogs with pretty simple, easy to follow ideas for learning how to pray. I’ve probably recorded the first episode 20 times and each time something has gone wrong. The video was jerky or the sound didn’t take or the upload failed or the software started crashing or erased itself. True story. It’s just one of the roadblocks I keep running into. I don’t think I’m meant to do it right now.

      Buddhism is so interesting. I don’t know an enormous amount about it, but it seems to me almost as if they have found the “science” of how our brains are meant to work spiritually. Some of their more esoteric teachings have a surprising resonance with Christian thought as well. Right after I put up my previous post about “Suffering and Sacrifice”, I came across this article on Bodhisattvas in the Buddhist tradition which is very much in line with my own concepts on suffering that I shared there:

      1. I see a lot of truth in your link… especially: “It is significant that the Bodhisattva does not vow to liberate only the good sentient beings, the righteous sentient beings, or the chosen sentient beings. There is no qualification or limitation: The Bodhisattva vows to liberate them all—good and bad, saints and sinners. In particular, the evil are not left out. In fact, they are explicitly included…”

        But the part about welcoming suffering as an occasion to practice liberating all us poorsouls — sounds iffy to me. I think my wife has a better fix on the concept: “Suffering is called ‘suffering’ because it’s unpleasant.” I don’t try to eliminate suffering, for example, by putting my foot a lawnmower — but by turning lawnmowers off, where possible, before anyone gets their feet stuck in them.

        Is “redemptive suffering” any less an illusion than “redemptive violence”?

      2. To me it’s about how to deal with the suffering that comes your way. And as a Christian, I do accept that God may put my on paths which pretty predictably involve suffering – a call to serve those who are suffering themselves, for example. I agree that when possible, turn off the lawnmower. But even then, you still have the pain, disfigurement and emotional trauma to deal with. Are you familiar with the Korean concept of “han” that Andrew Sung Park talks about in his book “The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin”? IMO, it is for this reason – the persistance of the harm done when one suffers – that it is important to learn to deal with suffering in a positive, growth-oriented way. That – rather than the avoidance of suffering – is the real way to end suffering, imo. The welcoming of suffering makes sense in the context of playing a part in removing suffering from the cycle of human relationships, imo.

  2. Thank you, Rebecca!

    And I want to second your comments on suffering. Presuming that one is initially talking about unavoidable suffering (which we all have)…. I am struck that if you felt differently about suffering and tried to avoid it, you would never have found this place of (alternating) silence, joy, or desert within…and wouldn’t have this experience to tell us about. There is a lot of suffering in just sitting with all that. Not for the faint of heart.

    You said “For a long time there was this joy waiting for me there. In the middle of everything, if I could just get my mind to quiet and my feelings to settle, it was like opening a spring-loaded door that let in this golden light of joy.” I remember having that experience as well. A sense that “no one ever told me that our default is JOY!” That all I had to do was sit through the muck and the joy always came. I don’t remember the desert except as a step on the way to the joy. But that said, I have also stopped meditating like that — and I’m sure it is because the whole process remained so unpleasant. I lost my nerve for it. Thanks for the motivation to continue.

    1. I wrote in another post that John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul has been a real comfort to me on the journey. One thing in particular that he says is that the soul which has entered into this dim contemplation is worthy of all compassion because the journey is so hard and dark.
      I’ve gone through dry times before, but never anything so – empty. I just don’t have another word for it. I like what you say about our default is joy – I never thought of it like that. It always seemed like a favor, but I suppose you are right. God’s desire for all of us is joy.
      I have a funny ( as in odd) story about my youngest daughter and joy. I wrote about it here:
      I’m still waiting for the joy, but I do take comfort that it has been promised to me.

  3. I can relate to this a lot. I went through 5 years of ‘desert’. I had prophetic words from people whom I trust that said, “you are in a desert season” and “your time is coming”. It was messy and I was really frustrated. I stopped dreaming because dreaming only made me discontent. I tried to reduce what I wanted so I wouldn’t be disappointed. It reminds me of what you put so well: the light is just light, and it feels like there’s no answers in it. It doesn’t leave behind ‘trail markers’ or useful guidance. You would try to hang on to it, but it was fleeting. I would have to remind myself that desert seasons lead to something and that I didn’t want to miss what I needed to get from it. I had to remind myself to breathe.

    When I began to notice preparation for change in my life, I received a word that said, “you need to start dreaming again”. It made me really upset because it felt like I had and God kept saying no to everything. I didn’t want to dream. It hurt too much.

    I can offer this simple word of encouragement: Seasons change. And when they do, you will have ‘tools’ from your desert season that you need to have for the next one. I couldn’t have gotten them any other way. It may sound like you’ve heard this all before, but I can tell you that it’s true. I was fortunate enough to be completely aware of the change of seasons in my life. It was literally and figuratively monsoon rain. Now, I’m in for it once again, possibly going on the mission field. I needed those years of ‘wilderness training’ to change things about my thinking and personality, the way I listened to God and the way I do ministry. Now, I’m on to bigger and scarier things, but I could have never done this before my desert season. I do look back and see it.

    I pray that when you hit your monsoon, that you feel the change. And when you do, I pray that you turn around and say, “That sucked, but it was useful.”

    1. Thank you for sharing. Especially about the dreaming part. It’s something I’m struggling with and you’re right – it’s quite painful. I can see the good work God is doing, but it’s so hard. So I get mad at God, but if I’m honest, I know that the problem lies with the reality of the gap between us humans and God. And that was never God’s doing. It’s just part of our inheritance as humans.
      I’m glad that you time of restoration has come and will say a prayer for your missions work.

  4. Simply beautiful. Our three month daughter, Eliose, is also fighting her first flu in this sad Dannish summer. One thing I knew in the day she could hardly not breathe and could not sleep is that if God is with her, nothing can stand against.

    She is God’s just as Lea and I am. I always pray that we go through everything in Christ, for we are simply His and He ours.

    Thank you for a wonderful share.

    In Christ,

  5. And the sleepy child reminded you that your life is good and to focus on the good stuff. The bad stuff is just temporary distractions. Some of my friends would say the “Enemy” is the author of all the bad and distracting stuff. I don’t go that far but I think it’s a helpful thought. And this is beautifully written.

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