I’ve been in the desert the last few days. Literally.
Full confession, the desert generally does not do much for me. It feels…well, like a desert. Abandoned. Barren. Lonely. Even the constant sun gets to me after a while. Does anyone need that bright of a light shining all the dang time?
But if you’re going to go to the desert, a good time to do so is when a long and grey and cold and wet Kentucky February is seeping a little too much into your bones, all the way into your heart, making it almost hard to breathe fully because everything feels so closed in.
Work sent me to the desert, specifically to a retreat center across the way from Camelback Mountain, just outside Phoenix. Franciscans founded and run the center. It’s modest in many ways, and the coffee situation (as in, the lack of good coffee) sometimes makes me wonder if they really believe in God there, but, on the upside, the chef is excellent and the grounds kept beautifully.
Yesterday morning, I had a while before I needed to be anywhere, and so, caffeine headache in full tilt, I threw on leggings and a warm sweatshirt to stumble over to the little nave where coffee is kept, knowing I’d be disappointed, but also desperate (sidenote: I think powdered creamer probably makes baby Jesus cry).
The sun was beginning to creep up over the mountains, the air was cool and dry, and I wasn’t into heading inside again just yet, so, mediocre coffee in hand, I went for a walk, and I did so trying for an open mind about what beauty might await me in the desert.
Turns out the first golden rays of sunlight reflecting off budding cacti is actually quite lovely. So is the moon in a completely clear sky, fading into full transparency up over the mountains as it gives way to daylight. And desert rocks lining a well kept path through desert flora and fauna make for a pretty peaceful morning. Remember, it’s a Franciscan center, and so along the way I found icons, scripture verses embedded on stone there and there, and prayer prompts of various sorts.
And then I stumbled on the labyrinth (a prayer walk, really, in every day language), morning sun shining on it just right, so that all around it there this sort of glow, the edges gilded with sunlight’s gold, all of it drawing you in, inexplicably and determinedly. Whoever plotted that labyrinth either knew exactly what they were doing, or (and perhaps and), something holy was at work in its creation, because it leaves no doubt you are on sacred ground.
I took a deep breath. Forced some stillness and quiet into my being, and entered the labyrinth, doing my best to walk slowly, purposefully, calling to mind as I did the things that are wearing on my soul these days.
Eventually, I came to the center, and found there an altar of sorts. Built up of smooth stone it was covered in talismans of prayer, some of them no more than a name or a hope or a desire written on one of the stones: “a healed heart,” “peace,” “forgiveness,” “Maria,” “James….” I found a chip from Alcoholics Anonymous at this altar, and wondered if it had been offered in thanksgiving for sobriety or as a prayer for someone in need of recovery. I found a little package of Oreos, and thought it perhaps the favorite food of a lost loved one. I found prayers for the Pope, little crosses, rosary beads, smlal toys, even a few loose bills tucked among the stones.
We talk a lot about “falling to our knees in prayer” in the Church. And generally, unless you attend a church with kneeling benches, that is a figurative phrase, but y’all, for the first time in a long time, I literally fell to my knees in the middle of the desert, this odd and wondrous little altar calling me, and though I had no physical talismans of the prayers I left there, left them I did, the sore and weary places inside me joining the prayers laid out before me.
I sat there for a while. Quiet. Breathing. Trying to take in the heartache and joy both expressed among the stones, trying to make sense of why it was speaking to me so clearly.
And in the end, as I reluctantly walked away, all I could really fathom is that what tugged at me was truth that we have, in this world, forgotten our common humanity. We have chosen to believe the lies that some of us are better than others, that some of us matter more than others. We have given in to polarization and division. We have let those who profit off these things tell us how to live our lives, instead of reaching deep inside the holiest parts of who we are and recognizing that the God-shaped hole in my heart is not any different than the God-shaped hole in another’s. We are all, in one way or another, searching frantically for security, for community, for belonging.
Whether we choose to admit it or not, we are all searching frantically to believe the truth that no matter who we are or where we have been we are beloved.
I’ll write that again: No matter who we are or where we have been we are beloved.
Near as I can tell, scattered with careful intention across the stones at the center of that labyrinth were the deepest prayers of human beings just like you and me. The people who laid those prayers there—I have no idea if they were Protestant or Catholic, black or white or brown, gay or straight, Democrat or Republican. Moreover, I don’t need to have such an idea…because whoever those prayers came from, they came from children of God.
I know, y’all, I know. This is not an easy truth. Hate and distrust and miscommunication and tribalism are so, so easy right now. It feels good to wrap ourselves in those just like us, makes us feel less alone, like we have that belonging we’re searching for. But the real truth is that we belong to each other…all of us. And making the conscious choice to do the work that helps us remember this is unabashedly difficult. Impossible, even, some days, it seems.
It is also our only way forward. And, so, where our greatest hope is to be found.
We were not made to tear each other apart. We were made to belong to one another. And so as I fly back east today, I am carrying in my heart desert prayers, trusting that in the madness and chaos around us all, God is still at work, and that out of all that threatens to destroy, something whole and beautiful and redemptive might be trying to make itself known.
For all of us.