Lessons in the Desert – Choosing to Cultivate Silence
Whether you’ve dived into your spiritual desert or have barely wet your feet this Lenten Season, here are some meditations that I hope will be of help (to you and me both!). I’ll post a reflection with a new desert image each Monday for the next 5 weeks leading up to Holy Week, so check back each week or subscribe (in the top right corner) for email notifications to be sure you get them.
I realize that I started with a water themed figure of speech for a desert reflection, and that was intentional. So often we think of the desert as a dry, barren wasteland where people can die of thirst. Or, in other words, a place to avoid rather than a place to actually long for and look forward to jumping into with both feet so as to be refreshed and renewed. The desert really is the ideal place to shed all excess baggage, both interior and exterior, and go on a quest to reorder our life and find the spiritual living water that brings us to authentic living. Whether it’s learning how to rely on the basic necessities, so as to not be weighed down by unnecessary supplies, or simply to learn what those basic necessities are to begin with, the desert landscape offers us much to ponder in the spiritual life.
About 4 years ago I was in Las Vegas at a photographers conference (which in and of itself was not bad, just the setting was out of this world). I so badly needed to get away from all the noise and crazy overstimulation of lights, constant slot machine sounds, and the thumping trance of Gaga’s Poker Face song that played over and over and over again, everywhere I went. It was loud and nonstop and I was convinced that this must be what hell would feel like: no escape of the constant, draining, noise. So, the day I rented a car and drove off to nearby Red Rock Canyon felt like an incredible release of freedom and peace.
Most of us don’t normally have the noise level of a Vegas casino hotel constantly ringing in our brain, but the old tale of the slowly boiling frog who doesn’t realize he’s boiling to death, because the heat was turned up ever so gradually, comes to mind.
The point being: noise creeps into our lives slowly and can increase so much to eventually overpower and drown out any pockets of silence. Noise has become like a serious addiction to some, so much so that some people actually become uncomfortable or hate being in silent, stimulant free places. Not only does noise drown out the ability for a person to think basic things, let alone contemplate the higher goods, but it drowns out the gentle voice of God who normally only speaks to us in profound stillness and silence.
Something I try to do each Lent is turn off all unnecessary sound, or background noise and try to cultivate as much silence as possible. The first few days are always the worst and it’s a good reminder just how addictive noise can be.
In case you’ve never heard of it, I’d like to introduce you to the concept behind the Dominican Nine Ways of Prayer, that has some relevance here. It’s a practice of using specific prayer postures, believing that the body’s exterior posture induces an interior corresponding disposition, (for example, a deep bow = humbling oneself). Walking, climbing, sitting, drinking, are all postures or physical activities we would do on a desert journey that help induce a corresponding spiritual reality of a journey towards God, such as reaching to grasp His Word, resting in His healing Spirit, drinking in His living water, bathing in His Sanctifying Grace.
By externally ridding ourselves of all non-essential extras for even a pocket of time, (distractions like phones, music, internet, tv, food, parties, toxic relationships…) we allow ourselves interiorly to be cleansed and more ready to distinguish between our true needs and false comforts. No point in guessing, by the way, who would be invested in tripping us up with distractions in false comforts… [Mt 4:3] Better always not to engage temptations or you’ll end up justifying something you didn’t intend to do. One thing I’ve noticed so far is just how hard it’s been to give up even the smallest, simplest trifles! It shows me just how spoiled and spiritually weak I really am and how much there is to learn on my desert journey.
This week’s image was the beginning of a path I took at Red Rock Canyon.
I pause here to invite you to place yourself in front of that image with me and make a choice to leave behind all unnecessary baggage, worries, fears, anxieties and enter a spiritual desert for the next 5 weeks. Imagine the busy, noisy, or cluttered life you are in and then imagine stepping out of that and diving wholeheartedly in the desert. Try sensing how much lighter you’d feel to drop the dead weight of [insert your distractions] and enter the open space of the desert. Take some time to do that visualization with the help of the posted image.
Then make a commitment to do whatever it takes to try and create large periods, or at least small pockets, of silence, (as best you can given your vocation or state in life), so as to be at home in that desert and learn to hear the silence.
The interesting thing about a desert is that you can almost hear its vast openness or its silence by how the air moves with the smallest breath of wind. That is the spiritual muscle that we need to develop: to learn to love the silence so as to hear the breath of God that speaks gently to our hearts. The Lenten desert journey is such a great time for that.
I’ll leave you this week with the following Scripture. Read it gently while looking at the image and allow yourself to step into the scene, leaving the world behind to follow God’s voice into the wilderness.
“Therefore, I will allure her,
I will lead her into the desert
and speak to her heart.
From there I will give her the vineyards she had,
and the valley of Achor as a door of hope.
She shall respond there as in the days of her youth,
when she came up from the land of Egypt.”
Since most of us live in a city or suburban sprawl, do feel free to share tips for your own ways to cultivate silence and enter a spiritual desert or comment on your experience with this reflection. Happy journeying!