Love in the Desert
February 22, 2020 – Feast of the Chair of St. Peter, Apostle
This is the least I have ever looked forward to Lent.
Yes, it’s a time of renewal from which I have certainly benefited in the past, but Lent can be tough. As it draws near this time around, I feel ambivalent while also knowing that it will soon be upon us regardless of how I feel.
I’ve been in a bit of a mood recently. While I’ve certainly had episodes of openness and joy, I have also felt both irritable and isolated at various times. How’s that for a winning combination? Feeling cut-off from other people but then annoyed when they draw near. Perfectly rational. Again, it’s not as if I’ve felt this way constantly, but it’s been more common than typical. Maybe the length of winter is getting to me… although there’s been little snow and few cold days, it still feels like a long time since the world around me has been in bloom.
I know that any objective description of my life circumstances would accurately portray me as an extremely fortunate individual. I don’t need to worry about any survival needs, I have a robust network of supporters and well-wishers, and I find my work fulfilling. I’m healthy, loved, and I know it. Still, there is part of me that has been unreasonably downcast recently, even if few people have had the chance to observe me in those unguarded moments. In short, part of me feels like I am already in the desert just by circumstance. And now Lent asks me to go into the desert deliberately?
Although I can sometimes think my way out of a funk, the fact is that thinking better does not necessarily lead to feeling better. There are some things I can do that often help lift my spirits though. Some social interactions are helpful after all, playing guitar distracts and delights me, and exercise shifts my body chemistry. Prayer doesn’t always take away the pain of a moment, but it does help me enter into it in a healthier way.
On Thursday, I took a rare day off and treated myself to a hike. Because there was nobody to go with me, I went alone. Although I would have gladly shared the trip with any one of a few friends, instead I was gifted with a graced time of contented solitude. For the most part, it was just me, God, and the day God had created for me, challenges and all. While I was aware of my recent moodiness, it no longer lived in me quite as vigorously. My focus was on my Creator.
I remembered many lessons on that hike (which I may choose to write about next week), but above all I was reminded that my God is the Lord of My Heart. Anybody with whom I’m in relationship can move far away or even predecease me. That is to say nothing of conflicts and misunderstandings. The love I experience from another, no matter how true, is a temporary expression of a more eternal love. No matter how well I may wish to love another, my own petty faults will inevitably interfere time and again—the best I can do is to try to embody a love greater than that which can originate from any human being.
If the desert experience is about going into the wilderness and stripping away all but the necessary, is it not ultimately a stark encounter with the one essential Love? Whatever hardship I experience there serves to train my patience and endurance so I can slowly learn to prefer God’s ways to my own and remind myself that no, I haven’t already completed that journey.
And I learn again that the wasteland is not a wasteland.
I have no plan to adopt any particular Lenten discipline this year. Instead, I intend to learn from the desert that is already laid out before me. If I can marvel at it, savor it, and uncover the life hidden beneath the arid surface, I will have found the renewal to which I’m being invited. The trick is to focus on the truly essential. Giving something up—of my choosing—in advance feels like it would actually distract me from whatever God might be inviting me to during this time.
I go into the desert because otherwise it would come upon me regardless. As I prepare for the journey though, I notice that I am actually part of a caravan. As I travel, I do so with others. Sometimes I will walk in a group or with one companion or another. Sometimes I will wander off for some quiet. We may linger long at an oasis or journey far between rests. Hardship is guaranteed, but so is beauty, and at the end of the voyage lies a Promised Land.
Love may seem natural, but there is a strong learned component as well. More and more, I believe that truly learning how to love is the task of an entire lifetime, whether that means loving God or loving another (as if the two are easily separated). This week’s “ear candy” is a reminder that learning to love is a process. The “brain food” provides some thoughts about meaningfully engaging with a desert experience.
Ear Candy: “Learning How to Love You” by George Harrison
Brain Food: “When Your Nation is Stuck in a Spiritual Desert” by Adam R. Taylor
Come back next Saturday for a new post!