Desert Times

Life Among The Shadows

It is 4:30 am and, unless you are in the car before 5:15, the chance of making your 6:45 time at the gym will be slim to none. Instead of an unhurried date with your own soul, you listen to a podcast through your car speakers while sitting in morning traffic. The gym is packed with others just like you, hoping to fool their bodies into thinking they have an active lifestyle and that the scale might just indicate as much. Hair still wet from the post-workout shower you swear and honk your way to work, barely squeezing into the last available spot at the last available pay parking lot at the last available pre-late moment before being driven into the wilderness that is your day at a desk.

9:30 pm. Children are wrestled away from pixel-glow and sound byte stew and chased to their rooms. You’d make love but the idea of finding yet more energy is repugnant to people already half asleep, already planning the next day, even before you can catch up with this one. You kiss your partner, roll the other way, and, in what seems like moments later, hear your phone alarm telling you it’s time to start all over again.

* * *

Abba Antony sat in his cell. The day was shimmering hot and the desert air was punctuated by a concoction of dust, bugs, and the generally parched life that survives among the softly breathing stones of a lazy earth. In his cell it is dark and smells putrid, like too many days without even a fresh breeze to drive out the stale desert. It is the aroma of thought.

He sits with his back against the wall on a stone shaped perfectly to his buttocks, where he spends countless hours simply being Antony. On the other wall is a small ledge built of stray stone and debris that acts as an altar. To one side are the last fragments of his meager meal, unleavened bread, now hard and brittle, like the hands that broke it.

He owns a shredded, tattered copy of the Gospels, a few small candles, an embarrassingly threadbare cloak and the deep ecstasies afforded an old mystic of silent prayer. He had not seen another soul for over two weeks, not since the last colloquy of seekers had come from the towns for spiritual counsel, a service he rendered as often as was needed.

The rest of the time, he prayed in the broad, spacious silence of the Egyptian desert.

* * *

If you are like me, your life is the former but your soul longs for the latter. And, unless your name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, you have not lived much of your life alone. Nor have you experienced much in the way of solitude. None of us have in fact.

When the sun sinks low in the evening sky is the time shadows are most insistent, pronounced, surprising. It gives the impression that the world is somehow larger than the sum of its parts. We are the solid matter behind the suggestions of our own shadows. Without our physical presence, nothing appears. Yet, conversely, without shadows we are but ghosts. There is no substance from which is cast forward any proof of our existence.

We live among ghosts and shadows. Before our structures of commerce, built of hollow bones and the featureless droning of our money-lust, lived taller souls. Antony of Egypt. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Julian of Norwich. Bernard de Clairvaux. Mechthild of Magdeburg. John of the Cross. Thomas Merton. They were those whose smallness cast forward agreatness – holy mustard seeds dwarfing the hungry world around them. And their shadows have not been silent. Nor have they been still.

If we are to become greater than our shadows would suggest, we would be wise to envelope ourselves in the calming grey shade of saints who have soaked up enough light that they shield us from God’s glory that would immolate us in our tepid, backward lives. These luminaries shine out “like shook foil” (thank you Gerard Manley Hopkins) even as Moses’ face shone after gazing into the great abyss that is the face of I Am. We, too, can do the same.

* * *

How? How do two scenarios so utterly different find commonality? How do the prismic lives of these great saints enter our own ashen experience of contemporary chaos? Is it possible for the ascetic, unitive consciousness of Antony to become our own? Can he who had no wife and children, no mortgage or debt, no rush hour anxiety or job insecurities to deal with speak into our lives? How do such ancient voices, so removed from the modern experience of shameless hurry, find their place within us?

Right, neither do I.

Instead, I offer a frightening consideration: those who long for the nourishing desert silence must be willing to live there first. For, in the desert is found the abundant life, the a priori life, of those least satisfied with anything less; with nothing more. In other words, what Antony and his ilk would tell us is that, to be as still and unshakably unified as they, we cannot simply use them as therapeutic platitudes to shield us from the worst of our game.

We change our game to find their life.

* * *

Louise and Warren used to own two cars, one each for work. They generally parked their camper truck and small boat on one side of their triple-car driveway that fronted a 3500 square foot Tudor style home in the gentrified, shiny part of town. His work with a large software company, combined with her consulting business typically brought in a healthy six figures.

Now, Louise hosts whomever comes to the door of their communal home, bracing their days with warm fire and hot soup, a blanket and conversation. It is Warren’s turn to act as community vicar and offer morning prayers. Filling the simple living room, looking not unlike the common area of a large hermitage, were a host of icons, a candled prayer station, four kneelers, and a prominent Communion table that doubled as a dinner board.

They invested all they had in this new little community. Once they sought to find a faith sufficient to uphold their life. Now, they seek a life sufficient to indemnify their deepening faith. They live their lives hidden in the safety of holy shadows, cast long and still by those whose silent voices speak the loudest.

Forced Desert Retreats

We often think of retreats as times of refreshment, as times when we choose to get away from our normal activities of daily living in order that we might behold God and also examine ourselves and our ways. And that is what retreats usually are.

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The Daily Desert
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I have often quoted a priest who said that his daily experience with God more often than not is “like being with a stranger in a very dark room and the only way you know they are there is because they occasionally clear their throat”.

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Weathering the Winter
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I am captured each time I visit a World War II cemetery in Europe. My very first visit was to the American Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands where 8301 white crosses, set in perfect symmetry across an expansive, manicured lawn, mark the graves of those who sacrificed their lives to purchase Europe’s freedom. In the memorial which greets you as you enter its gates, 1722 names are engraved along two long walls to commemorate the American soldiers who lie in unknown graves. Engraved tributes inspire gratitude to these fallen heroes and urge a new generation to walk in their stead. A verse from Flanders Fields is my favourite of these: To you from failing hands we throw the torch; be yours to hold it high.

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Soul Balast

I think I shall always remember this black period with a kind of joy,

with a pride and a faith and deep affection

 that I could not at the time have believed possible,

for it was during this time

that somehow I survived defeat and lived my life

through to a first completion,

and through the struggle, suffering,

and labor of my own life

came to share some of those qualities

in the lives of people all around me.


Thomas Wolfe, The Autobiography of an American Novelist


I crave comfort. My idea of “roughing it” is waiting for room service to deliver my filet mignon and hot fudge sundae.  Therefore, I didn’t naturally “take” to the notion of desert time. Yet, God is the creator of lush, bountiful gardens as well as parched, barren deserts. And God calls me, both to “come and see” what brings me consolation and to “come and die” in desolation. In the desert, like a paring knife, God sometimes cuts me to the core, exposing my lack of faith. God uses desert time to work in my life like a solvent, stripping away the hardened veneer.  In the desert God empties me of the toxic cargo I carry, opening space for the Holy Spirit to fill, like ballast, in order to keep my life upright.

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Wilderness Cell

My painful childhood experiences drove me to immerse myself in scripture. In fifth through seventh grades, I cloistered myself away in my closet of a room for up to three hours a day  in our flimsy-walled green trailer. In my room, I’d lay down with my Bible and soak in visions of God elicited from my Bible reading. I was like Jacob at Bethel with visions of angels ascending and descending on the ladder to heaven. Only he was outside with a stone for a pillow.

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Not Alone In The Desert
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“I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss. Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this: The faithful love of the Lord never ends!His mercies never cease. Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning. I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance; therefore, I will hope in him!” The Lord is good to those who depend on him, to those who search for him. So it is good to wait quietly for salvation from the Lord. For no one is abandoned by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he also shows compassion because of the greatness of his unfailing love. For he does not enjoy hurting people or causing them sorrow.” Lamentations 3:20-26, 31-33.

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Life Without The Desert
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The time of “really going thru”, feeling isolated from God, from the familiar comforts of life—whether it be a state of contentment or familiarity of a “ normal” routine—the  desert time is often as though you’ve turned off onto a road that you’ve never encountered. Now all the senses are on alert and there are no familiar icons pointing out the right direction. The desert times are often disorienting and can easily stir up, just beneath the skin, anxieties that seem to lie dormant until times like these. These are the times when illusion and reality seem equally illusive.

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Glory and Heartache

God created lands filled with water as a place for man to live;

and the desert so that he can discover his soul. ~ Rene Wadlow

From reading and listening to those much further along than myself, I’ve picked up the idea that all earthly saints are slowly marching toward the desert, and if we’ve already been to the desert we are most likely going to return.

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A Rocking Chair in the Desert
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Most of my experiences of the spiritual desert – feeling that God has abandoned me or that I have abandoned God – have been in times of depression. In the past, these times of depression have gone on for weeks, even years. In this season of my life depression is “crouching at the door,” always there, but usually outside of my soul. The times when I am most prone to depression are the times when I am very, very tired.

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