Life’s Desert Experience

Yesterday, my desert was a jungle at the Brevard Zoo. c. J. P. Mahon, 2013

Yesterday, my desert was a jungle at the Brevard Zoo.
c. J. P. Mahon, 2013

Our rector, Father Rob, gave a powerful homily last Sunday on finding our way to our desert place during Lent. Painful as it may be at times, it is a blessing for the Spirit to lead us into a desert place as She led Christ. Desert places help us to find out who we are and where we need to be going when we return from the desert. Christ came back charged up to proclaim his mission of liberation and sight-giving.

Many of you who read these reflections are in or fast approaching the so-called Golden Years. Perhaps, retirement has already been a desert place for you. What do you do after UPS comes? The prestige and rewards of job and career have vanished. You now have time. Sometimes retirement simply means more time to go to the doctors (notice how the number of specialist doctors increases) and go to the funerals of friends. Sometimes, if you are fortunate, you can turn your energy toward volunteering (working without pay).

In the readings for the first Wednesday, Job and Jesus call us to repentance. They call us to a desert place so we can turn our lives around. We have an opportunity to redefine ourselves. The first half of life container which focused on work and raising a family is long gone.

We are now on the path of descent as aging takes its toll. I am going to have a long conversation with the Creator about the fact that the body parts wear out before we do. Be that as it may, we are called to turn our lives around, to turn in new directions.

In a moment when my desert experience turned to lament, Otis Redding’s On the Dock of the Bay kept echoing in my mind. Like Job, it is all right for us to lament. I paraphrased Redding’s lyrics to characterize my lament:

Sittin’ in the dreary dawn

I’ll be sittin’ when the evening comes
Watching the dung roll in
Then I watch it roll away again, yeah
I’m sittin’ on the dung heap of Job
Watchin’ my life roll away, ooh
I’m just sittin’ on the dung heap of Job

Arguing with God
I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Florida Coast
Cuz I’ve had nothing to live for
And look like nothing’s gonna come my way
So, I’m just gon’ sit on the dung heap of Job
Watchin’ more dung roll on in, ooh
I’m sittin’ on the dung heap of Job

Arguing with God

Looks like nothing’s gonna change
Everything still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, listen
Sittin’ here resting my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone, listen
Two thousand miles I roam
Just to make this dungheap my home, now
I’m just gon’ sit at the dung heap of Job
Watchin’ more dungt roll in, ooh
Sittin’ on the dung heap of Job

Arguing with God


Descent means letting go. The desert experience of aging and worn out body parts may be accompanied by a sagging spirit. Where do we find meaning when what we used to do all night takes all night to do, if we can do it at all? Where do we find solace in the pre-dawn hours of darkness before the day dawns? Where do we find meaning on long rainy dreary winter day?

The only way out is to take the downward path into the recesses of our soul—out real self which is the very image of God within, the spark of the divine waiting to flare forth. This is repentance. Turning around. Letting go. Realizing that we are not in control or charge. Coming to realize in essence that we are being led to a place where greater fulfillment lies. I am not talking about heaven up there and out there in the future. I am talking about the reality of eternal life here and now!

The path of descent in Merton’s words:

The greatest need of our time is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see. Unless we see, we cannot think. — Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (New York: Image) p 77.

We now have time to do this.

Like Merton’s tree, we give glory to God by being what we are. Given the power of the Spirit, we can age and sage—grow in wisdom. If we follow the path of descent, wisdom is the mark of the person fully alive.

When I read this selection from the Tao yesterday, I was amazed at how it resonated with Merton’s tree giving glory to God:

Trees in winter lose their leaves. Some trees may even fall during storms, but most stand patiently and bear their fortune. . . .
Theirs is the forbearance of being true to their inner natures. It is with this power that they withstand both the vicissitudes and adornment of life, for neither bad fortune nor good fortune will alter what they are.
– Deng Ming-Dao, 365 Tao: Daily Meditations

We are losing our leaves but we can be true to the spark of divinity within us. We can be true to our inner natures.

Compare this with Merton’s poem—both poems contain wisdom for the Golden Years:

A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.

The more a tree is like itself, the more it is like Him. If it tried to be like something else which it was never intended to be, it would be less like God and therefore it would give Him less glory. Merton, Thomas (2007-10-18). New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 31). Norton. Kindle Edition.

. . .

BUT what about you? What about me? Unlike the animals and the trees, it is not enough for us to be what our nature intends. It is not enough for us to be individual men. For us, holiness is more than humanity. If we are never anything but men, never anything but people, we will not be saints and we will not be able to offer to God the worship of our imitation, which is sanctity. It is true to say that for me sanctity consists in being myself and for you sanctity consists in being your self and that, in the last analysis, your sanctity will never be mine and mine will never be yours, except in the communism of charity and grace. FOR me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self. Trees and animals have no problem. God makes them what they are without consulting them, and they are perfectly satisfied. With us it is different. God leaves us free to be whatever we like. We can be ourselves or not, as we please. We are at liberty to be real, or to be unreal. We may be true or false, the choice is ours. We may wear now one mask and now another, and never, if we so desire, appear with our own true face. But we cannot make these choices with impunity. Causes have effects, and if we lie to ourselves and to others, then we cannot expect to find.

OUR vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. (Merton, Thomas (2007-10-18). New Seeds of Contemplation (p. 34). Norton. Kindle Edition.)

As we age and sage, we have the opportunity to create our own destiny. Our final destiny  is to become fully human which means fully divine. We give glory to God by become what God wants us to be—our true selves fully alive in God.

I put photographs in these reflections because my photography connects me with the Creator and creation. Find ways to enjoy and reap the rich rewards which lie hidden in your Lenten desert experience.

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