Tonight a friend of mine mentioned her struggles with not being able to “do enough” in the face of suffering in the world. She also spoke of the exhaustion she is experiencing from work, family, her church life and her volunteer work. She is still in her twenties and already feeling worn out. She is even attending Sunday evening service instead of the main service to be spared contact with all the hubbub and offers to expand her ministry in more parish volunteer work, because when the word gets out you are one who says “yes”, everyone comes asking for more. She had become to feel guilty about saying “no”.
Is there anyone who can’t relate to these feelings? How many times in my life have I felt at once overwhelmed by events, demands of commitments to people, promises and causes? How many times after giving time, money and energy to any number of projects, when after all is said and done, that one ends up thinking that little has been done to answer the big problem? Sometimes it does just feel like we’re plugging the leaking levee with fingers and toes, that I’m out of fingers and toes and the storm surge is bearing down. These could be signs of being a bit too engaged beyond our means, it could be time to back away for a bit. It could mean it’s time for us to do less for a moment and let Spirit do more.
Even the gospels suggest that the fully human Jesus had moments when the fully human Jesus felt the stress. In Luke’s gospel there are times when Jesus sounds downright surly and frustrated by the demands being made upon him relative to his limitations. Yes, his limitations. At some point fully human Jesus must have come to the place all humans come to: too many demands, too many needs, too little time and energy, and too little me to go around! At some point, fully human Jesus, had the very earthly mortal realization, “I can’t save everybody!”
I can’t save everybody: a fully human and true realization, a mature realization recognizing our need for help beyond ourselves.
At some point even Jesus had to back away. At very least he had to eat. He had to sleep. He had to have more time for basic human requirements, time for a bath, even time to go in the bushes (Jesus peeking from behind the bushes might be an instructive icon?). Jesus was even known to unwind at parties from time to time.
He needed more though. Sometimes he had to get away, to go to “a private place”. At times he sent everyone away, even his closest friends. Sometimes he returned to the desert. He needed some time and some space to go away “and pray”, to let Spirit do more. There is no mention of Jesus experiencing guilt in saying “no” and going away to care for himself, so why should my friend or anyone else feel guilty by saying “no” when we need to?
At first the desert may seem simply harsh, uninviting, dangerous and even ugly. The desert seems absent of life, a great empty expanse of space. The desert seems the place where all things simply whither and die. Yet as all these descriptions of the desert are true, so are their opposites true. The desert would seem to be the last place to find beauty, to find life, renewal and restoration.
I find the desert to be deeply beautiful and alluring, a place where Mother Earth is stripped bare of all lush adornment to rest before me as naked, raw and stunning in all her flawed glory. In the desert I can find myself enchanted and seduced by beauty of simplicity. I find my senses elevated to a natural intoxication, at once threatened by the danger, and also overwhelmed, as though lying down for the first time in the passionate naked embrace of the beloved.
Everything is more intense in the desert, the heat of the day, the chill of the night, the stark strands of shadow and light at noon, the depth and swirling numbers of stars at midnight, the clarity of light at dawn, and the thick light draping of colors in the cascade of dusk. Dusk is my favorite time, watching the colors of the desert, the infinite varieties of reds, yellows, browns, greens and grays, all shifting forms and depths of light and color as the sun settles its light in deepening shades of gold, orange and red. Then there follows the infinite change of color in the twilight sky, the blues and pinks of atmosphere dissolving into purples and indigo as stars, planets and galaxies emerge from behind the vanished veil of light.
I leave the desert refreshed and revived, energized from a place very deep within, a place very elemental and spiritual. I often feel this way remembering the desert, the place of raw elemental workings of life and spirit, and amazing beauty. While most of the desert life remains hidden from the casual glance, the desert does teem with life, which is never more apparent then during a desert bloom. I am fortunate to have seen a desert bloom which followed a hundred year rain event. It is amazing, beyond words, to see expanses of desert covered in flowers, and the bright garden greens replace the usual muted brown grey green of scrub brush. Richly colored blossoms of yellow and red replaced the expected desolation of desert space. The internal blooming of time in the desert is harmonized with the external flowering of desert time.
Most often the desert experience of restoration is something gained through eventuality, born in the tensions of the desert’s absolutes, found in bearing its heat and desolation, bearing its thirst and sense of desperation, found in overcoming the fear of the desert’s lethal power to arrive to a point of appreciation realized at the end of a day survived, exposed to its elemental powers of heat, wind and sand. It is no wonder that prophets, monks and everyday saints find themselves in the desert and return to the desert to search again, when again feeling them selves depleted and lost.
There is another desert to be found when reaching the place of spiritual depletion like my friend described to me last night. There is a desert to be found and restored in when feeling empty and desolate despite one’s best efforts. This is the desert inside, the place in the heart, soul, mind and even body, where we have emptied ourselves out in our prayers and efforts to work good works. This is a glorious desert of great beauty, the heart and soul of a person, your person, emptied out. This is a desert to enter and return to.
This is not a desert to be feared, but respected and appreciated for the beauty it will reveal to the earnest seeker. This is a desert to be explored, ravines and crannies, hills, dunes and flats, canyons and caves. This is a desert within which to pray. Pray your prayers, as in this desert your prayers are all you have. You may pray the office, until you can no longer stand seeing the ink on paper. You may pray for others passionately, you may pray humbly for yourself too until your voice goes hoarse and then fails in silence. Then you learn to pray the desert prayer.
Silence. The prayer of the desert is silence. This prayer is the prayer of all energy spent in the burning sun of desolation, where all vitality is sapped, too tired to even thirst, too tired to even feel desperation, too tired to do anything but listen. Listen in the silence of the empty heart. All other voices are exhausted. There is only One Voice to hear, the first and only voice in the heart of our being. In this place, there is only one voice to hear.
Listen to the wind now moving across the singing dunes in the distance; hear the Spirit wind blowing low whistles across the mouths of caves. See the Spirit wind gather sand and dust, hear the howl of Spirit as it covers the hill where you sit, feel its power knock you down, its power tears your tattered clothes of experience, until you are balled up, naked and clinging to naked desert like an infant to its mother’s breast.
Howl into the wind. Howl after the wind and hear your cry echo through the barren desert canyons and ravines. Know the deep elemental power found remaining from your very depths sounded in your howl, hear it echo back to you and know you remain, and smile knowing you are stronger now, hearing your desert heart call back to you. Know the sound of your voice echoing the voice heard in your absolute silence. Hear the power of your voice in the strength of Spirit wind. And cry if you will. Flood your desert heart like a hundred year flood and be awed by the desert bloom.