February 18, 2016
+ A brother in scetis went to ask for a word from abba Moses and the old man said to him, “Go and sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.”
I remember the first time I felt the awesomeness of the physical desert. I was driving my family to California from Texas. Although I was impressed with the incredible size of Texas – it took us 13 hours to drive from Dallas to El Paso – I was not prepared for the silence and heat of California’s Sonoran Desert. We were passing through in mid-August where the temperature is among the highest on the planet, soaring in the day time to 120 degrees up to 130s. The city gateway into the desert El Centro shares in this desert climate and is the southernmost desert city below sea level in the continental United States. Boy was I grateful that we filled up in El Centro, Ca. Looking in our rear view mirror at the reclaimed desert farmland we had no idea what lay ahead of us. The vast and forbidding desert with its huge shifting sand dunes that looked like mountains was anything but welcoming. I had never seen anything like it before or since. There was no one else on the road. The wind was blowing sand across the road. Visibility was impaired by sand whipping across my windshield. At spots I had to slow down to make certain we were still on the road. Once, one of the children turned down a window. The heat was stifling and oppressive. The children’s fear was palpable. It looked like any moment we would see Moses leading the Hebrews over a dune. For almost three hours we prayed we were going in the right direction. We certainly did not want to get caught after dark in this forbidding and great barren expanse of brown shifting sand and penetrating silence. And suddenly we could see Palm Spring with its incredible green lush landscape. Our odometer showed that we had only traveled 108 miles.
And then there was a desert of another kind, a time of anger, loneliness, sadness, following a split up of that same family and a year-long sense of abandonment, despite many hours in prayer, most of which was “pitty-pat.” You get the picture. And suddenly after giving up and putting my situation in the hands of God there was that phone-call that took me to Austin, then to Houston, and eventually new beginnings.
As I get older I am being drawn to a very different desert. The everyday noises of life grate upon me. My nerves get jangled more easily. Loud music becomes less and less attractive. Instead of wanting to rev up, I seek ways to calm down. I value silence more. But I suspect the search for real silence goes deeper than just a desire to relax. It’s no accident that many religious orders have vows of silence. Only in silence can the soul unburden itself and then listen out for subtler signs, from unknown inner regions. It is to this desert that I come away from my comfortable and secure surroundings to embrace the unknown.
One such desert is a retreat in a monastery or similar environment where I experience the arid or dry aspects of my spiritual life, feel the frigid and terrifying winds of evil thoughts and temptation as did Jesus, and suffer the hostility or confusing bewilderment of knowing that I simply don’t understand who I am or what I am. Nor do I know why I or where I am. Here in this place I feel a strange loneliness and fear. At times it feels like I have fallen into a bottomless pit which I suspect is a Hell of my own making. I am unable to give words to this fear. All I can muster is “God Help Me! Over and over again. Somewhere in me I know that he does hear me and he is leading me into a period of renewal or metanoia, testing and nurturing my faith and resolve, just as he did with our forebearers in the Sinai Dessert. It is in this desert where God speaks: “I am going to seduce her and lead her into the desert and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:16). In the desert, far from the noise and distraction of the city, I slow down and rest in the moment, that I might hear him and draw into a closer and deeper relationship with him. In the desert I can hear him better. This is a good place. Here I am alone in solitude with myself and God. I am alone, with the Alone in silence. Only after I leave the monastery do I remember that the silence in my cell was deafening in its roar.
Milton Lopes is a Spiritual Director and Dream Group Leader in the Jungian Tradition. He is also the author of Lenten Reflections From the Desert to the Resurrection, published by Westbow Press, www.westbowpress.com. This title is also available through www.Amazon.com your local bookseller or preferred on-line retailer. Milton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.thyspirt.com