Revisiting the Desert

Matt and I went on a little vacation to Las Vegas over the weekend to rest and try snowboarding (my first time).  It was a nice getaway, other than people smoking on the no-smoking floor of our hotel and Matt’s getting altitude sickness from our little snowboarding adventure on Saturday.  As we drove through the desert on our way back home yesterday, I was struck again and again by the unvarying ugliness of the landscape, the repetitive monotony of the drive, and the stark contrast between the barrenness of our desert vacation and the beautiful tranquility of our beach-side home.

Our drive home reminded me of the contrast between the spiritual wilderness I endured for several years since moving to California and the rest and growth I’ve begun to enjoy in the last few months.  Here’s a little taste of my spiritual “desert vacation,” an excerpt from a piece I wrote and posted two years ago:

There is something haunting about the barrenness of the desert. The dry, cracked earth produces little more plant life than bristles, thistles, and thorns. I am sitting on the hillside overlooking St. Andrew’s Abbey in Valyermo, California. The cemetery rests behind me, just up the winding dirt path. The sun is unmerciful, but I shiver, defenseless against the wind. It is Ash Wednesday. I have never been to a monastery before. I envy this rhythm of life so firmly established here, so deeply rooted in history, tradition, and meaning. I envy the unrushed movement of the brothers as they go about their daily tasks with studied patience. Mostly, I envy the cultivated attitude of reverence toward solitude and stillness. Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season, is marked by fasting, prayer, and quiet. I have hiked up this hill, away from the monks and visitors, in order to break the silence with my sad song.   Read the rest here.

What I noticed as we drove back toward California was something I had never been able to imagine while I was stuck in my spiritual wilderness: we were leaving the desert.  We had stayed in the desert for a time, but we weren’t living there.  Now we were going back home, back to where we live, back to the mountains and the ocean.  I was in the desert for so long, it felt like I was living there, like I was going to live there forever. Now I see moving to our home by the beach as a physical representation of the spiritual move I was making from the wilderness to the ocean, from barrenness to new life, from anguish to peace.

When we arrived home yesterday afternoon, we unpacked the car and made a bee-line for the beach to catch the sunset.  Every time I watch the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, I marvel that I live here now. I can see this every day if I want to.  I’m no longer surrounded by noise, rushing cars, flying helicopters, and smog.  Now I’m surrounded by vacationing families, retirees, quiet days, and quieter nights.  And, oh yes, the sunset.  Here’s what I see every day as the sun goes down:

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“Yearly” Examine, Elephants, and Psalm 131

Image: Salvatore Vuono /

Welcome to the year 2012.  Today I decided to begin the new year by reviewing the old one, using the Daily Examination of Consciousness as a guide.  Some of what came up was expected, and some surprised me, but overall it was a fruitful time.  I used a journal my brother brought back for me from China when he came to visit me in June 2010. I had only written in the first couple of pages, recording spiritual exercises from September and October 2010 before I got engaged in November and my life was completely taken over by planning a wedding, getting married, moving several times, working overtime, and becoming overwhelmed by fatigue.  2011 was a crazy year.  Now in 2012, I hope to fill the pages of this journal with my encounters with God through various spiritual exercises.

my elephant journal

As I closed the journal after my prayer this morning, I noticed there is an elephant on the front.  Out of curiosity, I looked up the meaning of elephants and came across these adjectives in my web research: grace, prosperity, power, loyalty, wisdom, luck, solitude, intelligence, honor, stability, patience, temperance, chastity, reliability, dignity, royalty, pride, determination, responsibility, sensitivity and social connection.  Specific to China, the elephant represents happiness, longevity, and good luck.  Wow, that’s a lot to live up to.  In any case, I like that the elephant is a symbol of so many positive traits and that 2012 is the year of writing in my elephant journal.

I also had my Bible out in case I needed some inspiration during my “yearly” examine, and I happened to flip through the Psalms and come to one I’ve never really noticed before: Psalm 131.

1 My heart is not proud, O LORD,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
2 But I have stilled and quieted my soul;
like a weaned child with its mother,
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

3 O Israel, put your hope in the LORD
both now and forevermore.

Over the past two years, God has used a lot of imagery about babies to teach me about dependence on and trust in God to take care of the the things that burden me as well as to take care of me.  Now, as I move into a new season, I believe God is using this psalm to show me I have grown enough to become the weaned child–older and more content with the waiting and patience that come with seeking God.  Now that life isn’t so crazy and I have more free time to invest, my soul has become still and quiet, hoping in and waiting on the Lord as King David modeled.

I will take Psalm 131 into 2012 to remind me to wait on God with the patience of a toddler (however little that might be), confident that I have tried God and found God indeed dependable and trustworthy.  Welcome, 2012!