The Desert

On a recent trip I drove through desert in Nevada and southern California, including the Mojave Desert.  An unfamiliar landscape, it appeared dry and barren, especially compared to the lush green of an eastern spring in which there has been plenty of rain.  Disconcerting and maybe even dull at first, this vast space of flat land surrounded by high and rugged mountains, with undulating sands in some areas and big boulders in others, gradually revealed its beauty. Each cactus, shrub, or patch of grass had its own place and was easily appreciated one bit at a time—a stark contrast with North Carolina weeds, grass, flowers, shrubs, and trees all in the same area.

After the time in the desert it occurs to me that my life at home is more like the eastern landscape in which I live, with an abundance of activities, relationships, responsibilities, and riches. So many that I can easily go from one thing to the next to the next, with no space in between.  What would life look like with the spaciousness of the desert?

While there I did one thing at a time.  I was truly present in the moment.  I wasn’t overwhelmed with stimuli.  I had time to absorb each new thing.  At the same time there is in the desert the vastness, openness, and vulnerability that one experiences—with no close boundaries and no place to hide.  And the uncertainty about where, if anywhere, there might be life-giving water, and with nothing but sun and stars to give one direction.

These experiences seem like invitations—to value and not fear emptiness, to take time to absorb the gifts of the day, to find opportunities to let go the busyness and jumble of ordinary life, to find spaciousness.  And with the invitations come the challenges of vulnerability, uncertainty about where to find the basics of life, and the need for a guide.

Queries:

What kind of external, physical landscape speaks most to your soul?  What does that tell you?

What invitations are you hearing?  Are you in touch with your Guide?

Prayer:

Practice a prayer of letting go, being with God in spaciousness.  You may want to use a mantra (a phrase, perhaps from scripture) to repeat, or you may use a sacred word symbolizing your intent to be open to the divine. When you notice yourself thinking, simply let go and return to repeating that word.

For further reflection:

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert”. . . (Isaiah 43:19).

“Jesus said to her, ‘Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty’” (see John 4: 1-42).

Boredom

As a child I occasionally got bored.  I would go whining to my mother, who would give me some ideas about what to do that seldom suited me.  Nevertheless, it got me thinking and opening to what it was that I wanted to do and what it would take to get to do it.  The period of boredom let creativity and new ideas arise.

Today many of us live lives so full of work, family needs, electronic stimuli, and distractions that we never have time to be bored.  We may miss the chance to get out of the rut or off the gerbil wheel and hear a word of new direction or grace.  I remember suggesting to a clergyperson with whom I met in spiritual direction that he might want to reserve some unplanned time in his sabbatical.  Getting bored would give him time to empty out and be refilled.

Some years ago I attended a one-day centering prayer retreat, with three periods of centering prayer.  In my typical experience, I have a busy mind and return often to the sacred word I have chosen as a symbol of my intent to be open to the presence and action of God in my life.  That afternoon, in the final period of centering prayer, I wasn’t aware of that busyness.  In fact, as I reflected afterwards on the experience, I felt completely empty.  And that experience felt boring and uncomfortable.

Although I have continued to practice centering prayer, I haven’t wanted to try an extended retreat for fear I might encounter that emptiness and boredom again.  Only recently have I been enabled to see that what I received in that experience of centering prayer was “a gift of time that did not have to be filled.”  As Father Carl Arico of Contemplative Outreach told me, I was “already in God’s presence.”  I had in me “the emptiness that leads to spaciousness.”  When I experience boredom again, I will look for God’s presence and gift.

Queries:

What is your experience of boredom?

How might you find in your life that kind of emptiness that leads to spaciousness?  (Remember that it can come in moments as well as in hours and days.)

Prayer:

Set aside ten minutes.  Write or record one thing after another that concerns you until you run out of steam or out of time.  Place those concerns, literally or figuratively, in a sacred place (eg., under a rock, on a table, in your Bible), and let them go to the One who can carry them.

For further reflection:

“O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (See Isaiah 40: 3-5).

Daily Prayer

It matters to me to have time for prayer daily. I recommend the practice to you. The prayer can take many forms and when and how it happens can vary as individual circumstances vary.

I particularly like morning prayer—since I am most likely to take the time because it happens before much else does. It also means that I start my day remembering that all is in God, maybe remembering to walk with Jesus. I practice Centering Prayer. Some people may want simply a time of stillness or a brief period of meditation, or even just a morning ritual stretch—maybe a reaching up “Good morning, God” and a bowing “Thank you for this day.” Or maybe a daily time of intercessory prayer on the commute to work, with a planned different category of persons or things to pray for and about each day.

The morning prayer could also be a devotional reading. There are plenty of books, monthly guides, and websites that can direct your content—readings from C.S. Lewis, Richard Rohr, Joan Chittister, poetry selections; Sacred Space; denominational guides such as Give Us This Day or Moravian Daily Texts. Sharing this time is especially sweet—with a person who shares your living space or by having a partner at a distance who is reading the same thing (or just praying at the same time). Bible reading can provide rich food—reading one Psalm a day or one each day for a week, praying slowly through a gospel one small passage at a time, or following a daily lectionary.

Evening prayer—remembering the day and noticing the gifts and learnings in the day, embodied prayer like praying the rosary, or simply taking time to commune with God—is just as valuable.

I find such prayer is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. When I start a new puzzle and the pieces are dumped chaotically out on the table, I like to find the edge pieces and put them together, forming a frame that begins to suggest some order for all the other pieces. A daily time of prayer creates a frame around all my day.

Queries:

What resistance do you have to drawing inward in prayer, stillness, or meditation, and especially to a daily practice of it?

What name do you use for that One who brings life– God, Higher Power, Jesus, Mary, Light, Love, Inward Teacher—and what does that name mean to you?

Prayer:

See suggestions above.

For further reflection:

“In the morning, while it was still very dark, [Jesus] got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (see Mark 1:32-35).

“And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight” (see Philippians 1: 3-11).

Practice, Practice, Practice

As a child I took piano lessons, but I never developed a routine of practicing. When I did practice—when I felt like it or got around to it in the midst of all the other things I was doing—I was more likely to play what I wanted to than to do the exercises that my teacher had given me. After a few years the lessons ended. I learned a few things that still serve me today, but I lost many of the gifts I could have been given, in particular the joy of being able to share piano music with others.

Spiritual practices, for example centering prayer, are also hard to practice and maintain. We are drawn by so many other good things (to say nothing of those not so good). Spiritual disciplines may be viewed as obligations, something we should do, which makes practice seem burdensome. We may be into costs and benefits and not be sure what the benefit might be or whether it is something we really care about. And to make a practice routine takes commitment and months of daily choosing to do it.

The good news is that any spiritual practice that we do, whenever we do it, has value because God is present. Regular doing of the practice may make us experienced in the discipline and more likely to recognize and cherish the riches we are being given. Perhaps in our very being, the joy we have received through our practice will be shared. A deep longing for relationship with God opens the door.

Queries:

What spiritual practice do you do, or might you be drawn to, individually or in a community—for example, centering prayer, praying for others, journaling, meditation, Bible reading and reflection, fasting, quiet time; participation in liturgy or Eucharist, expectant waiting worship, service?

What might help you establish a routine of doing the practice? What is the desire of your heart?

Prayer:

“Most High, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me true faith, certain hope and perfect charity, sense and knowledge, Lord, that I may carry out Your holy and true command.” (The Prayer Before the Crucifix at San Damiano, St. Francis of Assisi, www.ofm.org/francesco/pray/pray01.php)

For further reflection:

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so longs my soul for you, O God” (See Psalm 42:1-2).

“Nothing that anyone says [about prayer] will be that important. The great thing is prayer. Prayer itself. If you want a life of prayer, the way to get to it is by praying.” (Notes from Brother David Steindl-Rast with Thomas Merton) www.gratefulness.org/resource/recollections-of-thomas-mertons-last-days-in-the-west/

“Trust in the Lord”

When I began the practice of Centering Prayer, the teacher explained that the prayer reflects an intention to consent to the presence and action of God in one’s life. To further explain what we were doing he used the words of Mary when she is told that she is to give birth to a child conceived by the Holy Spirit—“Let it be to me according to Your will.” To say those words—what trust!

They immediately kicked up my distrust. What might God ask of me? What might God do to me? How can I give up control of my life, and why would I want to? Who is God? I thought I believed that God is love. After all, I was taking time to learn to pray in this new way, wasn’t I? And yet . . . I wasn’t certain. I wrestled.

What does it mean to trust in God? It certainly isn’t being passive and letting whatever happens happen. What is God like? I already know that sickness, diminishments, and death are coming. Can I trust God with my life? But if I’m not trusting in God, in whom am I trusting? If I’m trusting in me, how good a bet is that? If I’m trusting in someone else, how safe is that? We are always letting one another down, even those we love the most.

Over the years I have been enabled to trust God at deeper and deeper levels. I do know a felt sense of living in that trust and the peace that comes with it. And yet, even so I find myself over and over acting as if the story depends only on me. “Trust in the Lord, rest in the Lord, abide in the Lord” is a beautiful, chant-like song that Conservative Friend Deborah Shaw taught to a group of which I was a part. The song was simple, but what it invites us to do doesn’t come easy.

Queries:

Where do you place your trust? What stories can you tell of your trust being betrayed or upheld?

What are your questions?

Prayer:

God, hear our prayer. Lord, have mercy.

For further reflection:

Read the story of the healing of Namaan the leper in II Kings 5: 1-14.

“My strength fails because of my misery, and my bones waste away . . . But I trust in you, O Lord.” (See Psalm 31: 9-24.)