At any age, often without warning, we might suddenly find ourselves in the ‘desert’, a state of extreme emotional and/or physical hardship. I was in this place following the death of my twin sister. I don’t remember the details; it was simply a long, weary, grayness. I wandered through my life on autopilot, scarcely caring about my responsibilities. If I appeared to be coping it was a mirage because my heart felt arid, my feelings numbed and the future a bleak continuation of present misery. I could not find the energy to pray. Indeed, I didn’t recognize God at all in this experience. For years I was angry with God for perceived injury and persistent inattention.
Desert times often accompany chronic illness or the death of a loved one. Sometimes we have lost a job or an important relationship. Each of these circumstances cause great (and some may say necessary), grief. If we’re lucky, we will grieve in a supportive environment and eventually find our way out. However sometimes, through no fault of our own, we become stuck in a place of lifelessness and pain – a desert of the soul. By the grace of God, I eventually emerged from my ‘desert’. Life still has sorrows in every season but now I don’t feel as stranded as I did before. Curiously, what helped me is learning more about Nature’s deserts.
In nature the desert is not lifeless. It’s filled with plants and animals which have adapted to the harsh conditions. These remarkable creations not only survive but thrive. I’m particularly struck by the coping strategies of plants. Here are some of those methods which might translate into spiritual strategies to survive our own desert times.
Vast root systems
Mesquite plants can have tap roots 80-100 feet long, reaching deep into the soil to find water. Cactuses have shallow but extensive root mats which extend far beyond their stems so that they can absorb every drop of rain when it falls.
By going deep and wide in our prayer life, we will be more likely to receive the comfort of the Holy Spirit. So when our daily Scripture reading becomes rote, keep reading. When our prayers become stale, keep praying. When we don’t feel the least bit holy, keep coming for the Eucharist. Staying accessible to God increases the likelihood that eventually we’ll feel his presence.
Small leaf surfaces
Cacti have leaves so narrow that they resemble spines. This is to reduce the loss of water to the environment.
When we’re hurting it’s OK to withdraw from the world. Well-meant comments can feel overwhelming so reduce contacts and commitments if you need to. But don’t isolate entirely. Keeping even a sporadic connection to our community or parish ensures the fraternity we may not even realize we need.
Succulents have evolved to store water in their leaves, stems and even in tubers underground.
In our driest times we might find hidden reserves in places we never expected. I discovered peace at silent retreats which I’d previously avoided. A woman I know found meaning in writing a book about her husband’s terminal illness.
Ephemerals are short-lived desert plants which bloom and die in one season leaving hardy seeds which can lie dormant for years until it rains again.
Even in the midst of sadness, there can be moments of surprising joy. I can recall a milestone birthday, filled with light-hearted teasing, shortly after my sister died. I was glad to be alive that day but so sad afterwards that my twin couldn’t celebrate her milestone too. Nevertheless, the memory of having been happy gave me hope that I could feel that way again.
Desert times are difficult and nobody chooses them willingly. But if they come we need not fear them. We can trust God to help us survive until we experience the joy He has in store for us, beyond the desert.
The upcoming season of Lent mirrors the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert. Traditionally this is a time of sacrifice and increased prayer. It is an opportunity to feel some discomfort in solidarity with Jesus who spent his desert time with no sustenance and being harassed by the devil. Most of us will not feel that level of deprivation at Lent but we can remember and pray for those who do.
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers