"I will lead you into the desert, and there I will speak to your heart." –Hosea 2:16
I've come to the desert seeking silence, or seeking to enter into it more fully. I practice contemplative prayer but, if as Thomas Keating says, twenty minutes of silence is "a brief vacation from oneself," I need an extended stay! I've been restless, anxious, caught up in the busyness of activity for too long. Like many people, I juggle half-commitments, leaving early from one event to arrive late to the next, then wonder why life feels unsatisfying.
"The desert offers timeless space to discover, engage, and wrestle with restlessness," says Father Tom Picton, director of the Desert House of Prayer in Tucson where I am retreating; "The discovery of what is on the other side of the restlessness is the quest! It requires silence, stillness, waiting, and the suffering of ‘not knowing'." This rings true for me; I long for this stillness, yet the prospect of having so much of it brings its own anxiety: "What will I do with all this time?" "What will God say to me?" "What if I discover things I don't want to know?" Worries have become my constant companions. As with guests who have overstayed their welcome, it becomes more and more awkward to ask them to leave. Or perhaps they are like old clothes I've outgrown but not yet replaced. What will be my new gear, my new habit? I can't very well walk around naked!
Some guidelines provided by the retreat center are reassuring: "Trust how you are being led. Your journey will likely open up to you as you listen for what is inviting your attention." It is about being open, aware, and receptive. The daily schedule of silent prayer periods provides the structure and practice to support this awareness. I've also brought Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal to guide me on my journey. Though they never visited the desert that we know of, I feel their contemplative spirits at home here. Francis reminds me to get out of the way: "While I am seeking to find out what is God's desire, I am not employed in keeping myself close to Him in peace and in calm repose, which is certainly His present desire, since He has set me nothing else to do." Francis also gives very practical advice to gently redirect my intention (and attention) toward God throughout the day. He would have agreed with the last sentence of the guidelines in the retreat center's brochure: "Be gentle with yourself, relax, and enjoy your time away."
Jody Johnson is an oblate and formation director at Visitation Monastery in Minneapolis. She wrote her "In The Desert" series while on a two week study and prayer sabbatical. Jody also teaches contemplative practice and spiritual formation at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. This article is cross-posted from Jody's blog, with her permission.
For In the Desert, Part 2: Out of the Stillness, click here.