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.