Hesychia: Day 2, Week 1

In case you’re wondering, yes, I did go off in the wrong direction again this morning.  This time it took me about 10 minutes to figure it out.  But it’s not my fault.  My navigator app made me do it.

I’ve been thinking all day about why God sent me to the desert, of all places.  Couldn’t I learn to grow spiritually in a more conducive environment?  Couldn’t I have a retreat in a place with more, I don’t know, water? Greenery? Life? Anything?

The desert is an unfriendly place.  It’s prickly.  It’s dangerous.  Everything about the desert says STAY AWAY.  In my own spiritual journey, the desert has represented suffering, pain, drought, darkness, disappointment, desolation, distance from God…pretty much everything terrible you can think of, that’s what the desert represents for me.

And yet, hesychia is desert spirituality.  It’s spirituality specially shaped and informed by the Desert Mothers and Fathers who fled to the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria in 200-400 AD.  Yep, I took notes!  Hesychia spirituality represents everything my soul is longing for, everything the Holy Spirit within me is drawing me to: rest, stillness, peace, solitude, contemplative prayer.

But why does it have to be in the desert?

As I walked along the paths meandering through the desert behind the retreat center, I kept thinking, I am like the desert.  I can be prickly. I keep people at arm’s length until I feel safe.  In college I was labeled anti-social, although I was really more like un-social.  As much as I love spending time one-on-one with people and having heart-deep conversations over tea or dinner or on a walk, being around groups of people exhausts me.  I often want to retreat. I often want to be alone.  I am extreme, all or nothing.  Even my humor is dry! I am like the desert, but I want to be like the rainforest. I want to be lush and green, warm and inviting, saturated with refreshing water.  I want to be a tree, not a cactus!

So why does this program have to be in the desert? Why does hesychia have to be the spirituality that most resonates within me?

Today as I wandered in the desert, sat on a bench, journaled, wandered some more, I sensed an invitation to receive the ministry of the desert.  The desert has something to teach me, if I am willing to be open to it.  The desert has something that I need, something that my soul is longing for, something that God has prepared before me.

So I have decided to learn to appreciate the desert.  After living in a desert climate for five years, you’d think I’d have adjusted, but I am one stubborn lady!  I still miss the quiet beauty, peace, and comfort of the Appalachian foothills.  Arizona is even more desert-y than California.  If I can’t learn it here, I never will.

Here is what I notice about the desert (positive only):

  • serenity
  • self-sufficiency
  • necessity
  • survival
  • surprise
  • adaptability
  • hidden
  • store
  • away
  • protection
  • boundaries
  • unique
  • unchanging
  • basic
  • rock-solid
  • sand (dust to dust, finite)
  • extreme (hot and cold)
  • dry (notice your thirst)
  • confrontational
  • strong
  • stable
  • fully itself
  • unknowable (air of mystery)
  • teacher
  • slow
  • silent
  • alive
  • simple
  • solitary
  • subtle
  • balanced
  • complex
  • persistent
  • enduring
  • serious
  • counter-cultural

The desert ministers through suffering.  It both mirrors and shapes our inner experience.  It offers empathy, understanding our pain.  It only gives and expects/needs nothing in return.  The desert does not need people to survive.  This is the ministry I must learn to receive while I am here, this ministry of empathy and reflection.

Lord, help me!



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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