This blog was originally posted at Courage International's Truth and Love website.
Zion, Mojave, Red Rock. I’ve been to these deserts, walked their canyons, seen their contours. I’ve stood at the Grand Canyon and Sedona, and driven the long, lonely interstate through Utah. And it was beautiful.
The experience of same-sex attraction can often land you in this desert place. For many, vulnerable community seems sparse, friendships are difficult to navigate, and God doesn’t seem entirely fair.. For the Christian, we use words like “dry” or “barren” to describe spiritual difficulty. When we’re in that wild and desolate place, the words of the medieval mystic Angelus Silesius may well be our own:
“The abyss of my spirit calls forever with a cry
To the abyss of God; Tell me, which is deeper?”
In the struggle, an easy option is to fill your life, blocking out the deepest cries of the heart. When our schedule is packed or distractions expand to fill time, our inner life can be like a city at night, tall buildings obscuring the horizon and light pollution blocking out the stars. But regardless of our coping strategy, all of us - no matter our attractions - at some point face down the spiritual and emotional desert.
But therein lies an opportunity. In Scripture, the desert is the place of testing and spiritual growth. In the desert, there’s less to hide behind. In the desert, you’re necessarily aware of the essentials. In the desert, miles away from civilization, when night falls the sky dances with light. Environmentalist Paul Shepard had this to say about the deserts of nature: “The desert is the environment of revelation … the desert sky is encircling, majestic, terrible … to the desert go prophets and hermits; through deserts go pilgrims and exiles … not to escape but to find reality.”
Lent has only just begun! Below are five practical approaches to life in the spiritual desert.
Step Into the Barren Place
This is easier said then done. In reflecting on emptiness in The Reed of God, Caryll Houselander observes, “those who complain … of the emptiness of their lives are usually afraid to allow space or silence or pause in their lives. They dread space. They want material things crowded together, so there will always be something to lean on for support … they are afraid to be alone with their unrelated hearts.” Yet - somehow - it’s in the desert spaces that God wants to meet us. In Advent we hear the proclamation of John the Baptist, that God is preparing His way in the desert. If we keep our hearts cluttered and occupied, we’ll lose touch with His invitation to growth and new life. Be honest before God about the spaces of absence and longing.
Seek God First
Daily prayer is absolutely essential in the desert. It’s not enough to have a vague sense of “doing God’s will” or to limit our communication with God to the Sunday sacraments. In speaking of prayer, the Catechism says: “Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment. But we tend to forget him who is our life and our all … we cannot ‘pray at all times’ if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it” (CCC 2697). If you hike too long without consistent water consumption, you’ll be miserable, uncomfortable, and - quite frankly - in danger. Dehydration causes harm to the body and to one’s state of mind. Similarly, seeking and receiving the “living water” of Christ is necessary for our survival in the spiritual desert.
Avoid Tarrying on the Way
The longer we experience a “dry spell,” the easier it can be to pause in our journey - lonely, angry, or merely tired - and indulge in self-satisfying behavior. Healthy leisure matters, but lingering too long can become consuming. Enjoying a good story is one thing. Being sucked into hours of television to avoid negative emotions is another matter entirely. Sometimes our lingering is less innocent. Co-dependency. Manipulative behaviors. Romantic fantasy. Pornography. Masturbation. Excessive alcohol consumption. Theologian Henri de Lubac in The Discovery of God describes this struggle of the human heart: “The soul in search of God … never passes from one stage of its ascension to the next except by a series of rejections and denials, for the beings which it questions on the road all reply: ‘We are not the God you are seeking.’” As enticing as these distractions can appear, none of them bring the joy for which we were made.
Keep Your Eyes Open
The sun on the rocks at the golden hour. A hidden waterfall. A blossom on a cactus. The desert is filled with unexpected life and beauty. In the struggle with loneliness, it can be easy to keep our eyes fixed on our smartphone or to indulge instead in the comparison game. If we’re focused too much on ourselves or other’s imagined lives, we’ll miss the goodness all around us. The setting sun, a full moon, freshly falling snow - all of these can be an opportunity of gratitude to God. Someone at your office could benefit from a conversation in which you are genuinely interested about their life. The desert can be a lot richer when you’re alert to beauty in the unexpected.
Welcome Fellow Travelers
The experience of the desert tends to be one of solitude, but community can be created when we meet honestly in the barren places, speaking truly of difficult things and stripped of the non-essentials. L’Arche founder Jean Vanier writes of this phenomenon in his work Community and Growth: “The wound in all of us, and which we are trying to flee, can become the place of meeting with God and with brothers and sisters; it can become the place of ecstasy and of the eternal wedding feast. The loneliness and feelings of inferiority which we are running away from become the place of liberation and salvation.”
Navigating our spiritual deserts is not an impossibility, but an opportunity. As night falls, the question for all of us - whatever our barren place - is this: will I allow myself to be there? Will I allow the desolate space to stretch out in me and feel, even now as in Genesis 2, the breath of God stealing across the dust?