Parched air. Unquenchable thirst. Isolation. No, it’s not the Sahara. It’s your spiritual life. It’s the desert of the soul when you’ve been scorched by life and your communication with God has dried up. You don’t know how you got there but you feel stuck.
You’re not alone. Some 1600 years ago brave men and women went searching for something more than the norm. Inspired by Jesus journey into the wilderness, they decided to give up everything and devote themselves to prayer. By faith they moved into the silence and solitude of the Egyptian desert. They became known as the Desert Fathers and Mothers.
Most of us are not called to be hermits but at times we do find ourselves alone and isolated. We might as well be camped out in the middle of nowhere because that’s how we feel. Church is boring. Scripture is meaningless. We can’t pray. We wonder if we’re just pretending to believe anymore. Take heart. The desert believers are still speaking. Here is how we can listen.
Our full lives echo back to these ancient Christian’s. Before their pilgrimage, they too faced daily busyness and burnout. So they reduced distractions. Determined to depend on God for everything, they gave all they had to the poor and entered the desert. Silence and Scripture became their only teachers. While this may not be practical for the rest of us we can identify what distracts us and make better use of the time we’re given. Running errands for instance. We can transform that time into quiet for ourselves. Let silence surround us while we drive. Once we’re parked, sit and breathe deeply for a moment. Enjoy being still. “If we seek God, he will show himself to us, “ said one desert father, “and if we keep him, he will remain close to us.”
Admitting how defeated we feel can loosen life’s grip. We live in a world that’s all about appearances so being real about struggles is tough. One place to start is the bathroom mirror. Close the door, look at your reflection and tell yourself exactly how you’re feeling. Be totally honest. For example, “I am overwhelmed by life and have no idea what to do.” Telling the truth is the practice of confession. “I am so angry that my wife died of cancer.” “I’m scared to death. I can’t find a job.” Confession is an art of the soul. It’s the free gift of being honest with what’s going on inside of us. “Teach your mouth to speak what is in your heart,” an astute elder advised. His wisdom is still relevant today.
We all get lonely and spiritual loneliness can be painful. When prayer and meditation are no longer consoling, it can be particularly dark. It may sound crazy but scheduling time to be alone with our pain in order to listen to it can help. The desert fathers bathed themselves in deep silence. In it, they found their true identities totally centered in their spirituality. One of them captured the essence of his journey this way. “If a man does not say in his heart, in the world there is only myself and God, then he will not gain peace.” Sometimes our pain comes from expecting others to give us purpose. We lose our true selves along the way. Learning how to be alone allows us to get back in touch with what’s happening inside. This is critical for finding God in new ways.
Though making a change has its place, there is much to be said for standing still and waiting. We live in a revolving-door world but we don’t have to get caught in the momentum. In fact, waiting can be very beneficial. Through it we develop patience, perseverance, and even contentment. One of the most famous sayings of the Desert Father’s is, “Sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” A cell is where you go to spend time in prayer and meditation. Go there regularly despite your mood and trust God to do the work. Let go of expectations. Practice acceptance of yourself and your circumstances. Wait there and see what happens.
It’s hard to believe that beauty can come from barrenness but the desert does just that. Dry, difficult days give rise to new life in unexpected ways. This is true in the sands of desert terrain. Lifeless ground suddenly blossoms into a spectacular display. This is also true in our spiritual lives. One of the desert mothers said, “Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock turned into spring water.” If we learn to embrace the difficult elements in our lives, we will find ourselves being transformed through the process. We cannot control how it happens but only trust that it will. It’s the mystery and wonder of God’s ways in the desert.