Desert Times

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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Geography of the Soul
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In his book, The Dark Night of the Soul: A Psychiatrist Explores the Connection Between Darkness and Spiritual Growth, (Harper One, 2005), Dr. Gerald May says that the Dark Night of the Soul (as outlined by St. John of the Cross) is basically a more conscious awareness of the deeper work of God that is always going on in our souls at all times. Based on his observation, I have decided to visualize my soul more like a map of the United States than as a graph showing its highs and lows. For example, I can be having a Mojave Desert experience in one area of my life and yet be on a beach in Hawaii watching the sun set in another area.

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