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Reflection: Of deserts and listening for God

August 14, 2013

The desert tradition of spirituality holds much attraction to me.  On my own spiritual journey, certain aspects of this rich tradition have been especially important, while other aspects are foreign and unwelcome to me.  There is, then, both a pull and a push that I feel toward those ancient desert Christians and the way they lived, thought, and devoted themselves to God.

For me, many of the reasons that drove these ancient Christians to the desert are foreign.  From very early in my life, I understood the role of my life as a Christian to be in the world.  So leaving the world, either in protest, in avoidance, or in exile, would take me away from the very thing I understood to be important – to be salt, light, leaven.  For a long time, I viewed the monastic life, especially the life of the desert Christians, as a bit of a cop out, and in extreme cases perhaps even as heretical in its failure to live into the call of Christ.  Sure, I thought, it’s easy to find peace and harmony and live without sin if you live away from everyone and everything.  I see now, having actually read and meditated on so many of the sayings, that I was wrong.  The challenge of desert spirituality is in becoming open to God, in focusing on God and one’s relationship with God, in confronting our own humanity, with all its frailty and fear and wonder and beauty.

Evagrius’ stages of the spiritual journey are intriguing.  Purgation by praktike is the surface level, the place most people, myself included, tend to avoid.  Ascetic practices seem to be the hard part, and often I have never gotten past them or I have tried to jump over them, hoping to get to the inner work without the pain, without the suffering, without confronting my demons.  Illumination, that’s where it’s at.  Of course, real illumination doesn’t happen separate from the purgation, from the reality of life and of myself.  Still, in my own spiritual journey, illumination — that glimpse of the Divine, the liminal, thin space when I come near to God, when I have eyes to see what is always there but so often hidden to me — has kept me going, is what drives my willingness to even consider what may be keeping me from God and thus willing to engage hard practices to help me journey closer to God.  Not surprisingly, I tend to get it backwards.

I have had some powerful glimpses which verge on union with God.  Such is one experience I had while on a silent retreat at Lebh Shomea in Sarita, Texas.  Here is the description written while there of a particular experience, a visitation from Mary while we were receiving some teaching from Sister Marie, a hermit at Lebh Shomea.

Upon entering the Roncalli room I was immediately filled with a sense of peace that had eluded me throughout the day.  As I listened to Sister Marie, I glanced and saw the picture of Mary behind her.  And as her words soaked in, an incredible lightness came upon me, a comfort and illumination.  It was palpable and physical.  My heart opened and Mary poured herself into me.  Words fail.  She was full of life, sustaining, generative.  I felt aglow and the room seemed to fade in the brightness.  And yet I was present and wholly there as well.  I was then drawn to Sister Marie and felt sure I was to learn from her in some special way.  Each time I looked at Mary, the light returned and she was with me.  When I left the Roncalli building, the certainty faded and I was filled with doubt and self-loathing.  This experience was amazing, and while it faded quickly, I even now am moved to remember it and, for a moment, to dwell with Mary and her grace.  This happened when we first arrived, so as I moved through the rest of the day today, I struggled to understand.  I felt unworthy.  I was unable to mirror the external silence with any kind of internal silence.  Never, it felt like, had my mind been so loud, just shouting and busy and never stopping.  So I wrestled with why the Blessed Virgin had visited me.  What did it mean?  What was I supposed to do with her?  Anything?  Nothing?with her? Anything

The eremitic life has some appeal.  The offer of living into the image of God, the imago dei that exists within me, calls to me.  Throughout my life, I have always felt an inner restlessness.  Augustine’s saying “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee” has been a touchstone for me, a reminder that my restlessness is leading me someplace, is leading me to God.  At Lebh Shomea, as my second day dawned and spread out before me, my inner self settled.  My spirit began to be quiet; I also began to be open to so much:  to Mary and her visitation; to the presence of God in creation all around me; to the sound of God speaking through the lapping waters of the bay as I walked along the sand; to the inner landscape of my soul, sometimes so distant and yet always yearning for God.  Part of my reflection on the heremitic life while on the retreat:

Sister Marie talked about her journey and discernment to the eremitic life.  So much resonated with my own life and call – restlessness, inner conviction, Merton, prayer, solitude.  The quote from Merton was powerful – the birthing image, and the womb of the world.  Inner workings all churning.  The idea of solitude and silence as escape versus as a means to enter into community & life – powerful.  I feel like my heart is breaking.  I fear the quiet, again.  I don’t want to face the hurt I feel.  The reality of facing all that is inside me, of facing my demons, constantly pushes me away from myself.

And yet.  There is always a longing within me for solitude, a desire to embrace silence, a need for stillness.  These impulses – to run from myself or to embrace something deep inside me – always are fighting.  Patience, that virtue we always say we need and never really want, is what I lack so often.  I am forever living elsewhere – in the past or the future, seldom grounded to the present moment.  So in my journey, this is a goal, something I work at daily:  to be present to the now.  More reflection from the retreat:

Went to the beach with a friend; kept the silence.  It’s amazing that there is this little slice of the bay, so close and yet so very distant.  The water was brown & murky, always moving, never the same, yet constant.  Such is the way I feel – murky, dark, moving, shifting.  And God’s Spirit in me is the constancy in the midst of perpetual change.  The eremitic life, Sister Marie said, requires stability.  Now, that really struck me.  What if I had stability in my life?  Maybe that is what I’m avoiding. Maybe constant change is my interior self resisting the inner work that calls. 

As a child, I had a very rich and real spiritual life.  I was a solitary child, for the most part, and I took life quite seriously but also joyfully.  I felt bound by everything I observed and experienced, and I was very earnest in my desire to follow God.  In some ways, I had a desert-like life in those early days, and it shaped me to listen, to be still, to pay attention to the world around me.  Still, I had a lurking sense of something dark in the world and in me.  My child’s mind didn’t know what it was or how to confront it.  I did know that God was very present, very real, very necessary to my young heart.

I remember taking Philosophy in my first semester of college.   The professor, Jack Knight, asked us which we would want, freedom to or freedom from.  Only one other student and I said freedom from.  What would it look like, I wondered?  To be free from the weight of the world, free from the darkness that lurked.  So part of my journey has always been a longing for such a freedom of all that pulls at my soul.  Perhaps this is what the desert Christians found through apatheia; maybe this is what detachment really gives us.  Again, Lebh Shomea led me to reflect on this.

I was struck by the freedom that Sister Marie has in her life, freedom which I don’t have, freedom that calls out to me but is elusive.  Freedom from the reality of my deeply flawed self; freedom from the stress of money; freedom from the constant lure of material things; freedom from the news cycle, the deadline, the worry de jur; freedom to be, freedom to love, freedom to listen and think and play and walk.  Freedom to lay a weary head on the pillow and sleep with ease. I long for that freedom.  There is always something waiting, always more on my to do list, always that thing that paralyzes me.  Fear is killing my soul.  Come, Lord Jesus.  Lift this darkness.  Give me your peace.

External silence is useless if the heart is still babbling.*  This is the truth that drives me to prayer every morning, that keeps me praying in every moment.  Prayer keeps me grounded; prayer keeps me humble.  That restlessness that is so present with me is also what drives me to return, again and again, every new day, to prayer.  For me, the desert is the place where God gets my attention.  And while I don’t live anywhere near the literal life of those desert Christians from so long ago, I do believe that living into the spirituality of the desert is important to my formation.  My heart tends to babble; God calls me to be silent, be still.  As I move into my ministry, this is so very important.  Life often challenges me, sometimes throws me off kilter with the tyranny of the urgent.  That false reality is an ongoing battle, and I try very hard to find balance.  Embracing the desert in the midst of my life is one main way to find that balance.  Silent, in stillness, in solitude:  in this posture, the demands around me take on the proper perspective.  I am free to confront demons, to listen for God and to God.  My final thoughts from the retreat reflect what happens, over and over, when the babbling heart stops and I am present before God.

A peaceful night, restful sleep.  Woke up feeling at peace – a blessing.  The quiet is so welcome, and it has seeped into me slowly.  Really, these days are such a short time away.  Over breakfast my worries return.  I give these to God, knowing God is greater than my worries.  I am ready to go, to celebrate the feast of our Lord and greet the world anew.  It is with a heart overflowing with gratitude that I leave today.  I know I will return to Lebh Shomea.


* One of the desert saying which I read while at Lebh Shomea and wrote it down, but I didn’t note the source and can’t seem to find it.

From → On Faith

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