Struggling to find space? Follow Jesus into the desert.
The desert is a vast and beautiful. The colours of the sky and the sand and the piercing blue against the reds and the yellow, are intense. A few years ago, on an 8 days retreat in the Egyptian desert, three days of which were solitary and fasting, I was struck by the space and sheer beauty of the desert.
It was a struggle to get away, with four children at home and a fulltime job, but I needed space and after all, many people, including Jesus, have gone into the desert and have found solace and purpose.
I often feel I need space, space from the constant demands of daily life such as e mails and domestic tasks. I find that when I have a moment spare all too easily my hand can move to my phone or instead of sitting down I move to clear something away. I need to space to think, to remember who I am and space to breathe, for my body to stretch, to be alone, but I struggle to make it happen, even for a moment.
The desert provided me with space to expand because there, of course, the usual demands could not crowd in. At first I was struck by the beauty of the sky at night and landscape by day, a beauty that stays with me whenever I think of those biblical stories of the desert.
Pay attention to beauty
As St Anthony once commented in the fourth century, the desert is a great teacher and I learned lessons there that are useful at home. The desert taught me that it is in the presence of beauty I can breathe deeply, expand, extend my personal space and remember who I am, a creature in the presence of the creator. I am small and vulnerable in the vastness of the created world, but I am made to wonder, to absorb and be fulfilled by the beauty of nature and creativity.
Having struggled to get to the desert for some space, of course it wasn’t long before I experienced the struggle in the desert to survive. I couldn’t laze about because I had to survive the extremes of temperature, find shelter from the sun and wind. The beauty could quickly look bleak and desolate and then unfeeling. I could easily imagine the landscape cared so little that I would die and not be noticed. But only to glance at beauty without pondering the gift it is to you now, is to miss something you need.
Attentiveness is a virtue the desert teaches, part of what is called the wisdom of the desert. For as I looked across the landscape of sand and rocks I noticed caves and crevices, places for shelter, places to stand firm so I didn’t slip about. I found the gift of somewhere to rest and sleep out of the wind.
The desert taught me to do more than notice something beautiful in the moment I see it, but to pay attention to it, notice its gift to me. The desert taught me that when I look over the landscape of my day and it feels bleak and desolate, if I pay attention there will gifts I can receive which will provide what I need.
So now I do try to watch the sun for a moment if it is rising or setting, to buy or gather flowers for the table to keep me seated and paying attention as I finish my tea. To accept the invitation to pay attention to beauty enables me to cultivate the virtue of discipline. Discipline is a struggle and worthwhile for creating a deeper space to be me.
Cross the threshold
Finding space is a physical process whether it is getting right away or and being still; it’s a process I have to work with and struggle to make happen. We have to mark our territory and cross a threshold to enter space and put behind us whatever we know will distract us. I don’t find it easy to cross the threshold which will force me not to look at e mails, for example, but I can and do make this happen by going for a walk to ponder a situation rather than being lured into reacting without consideration. A few rows of knitting can help me too, for I have sat down and am using my hands, freeing my mind to mull, even pray.
Crossing a threshold in a physical way, leaving behind gadgets and daily demands, frees us up to attend to a deeper place within us. We put those things aside to get some space, but we find the space isn’t empty. Thoughts crowd in and we find we are ruminating, justifying, accusing, ourselves or others. Paying attention to these thoughts, observing them, helps us find the space where we can be free to discover who we are or where we are at. In the desert I found that observing my thoughts and feelings as I lived through the extreme cycles of temperature taught me much about the cycles my mind and emotions went through.
Pay attention to the cycles and seasons
Although we think of the desert as unchanging through the centuries, through a twenty four hour period there are dramatic changes of temperature, related, of course to darkness and light. These constant changes within the changelessness taught me much about my ability to cope with fear, discomfort and even to learn a bit about perseverance and hope.
The intensity of the heat during the day meant I was so hot and weary from the heat that I thought I would never be cool again. Then all of a sudden it got dark very quickly, I couldn’t see a thing and began to feel cold. That was the most frightening time for me, the sundown until the time when I could see the moon and the stars. Then I could see by their light. It was not only the dark which was scary, but the cold. Having thought I would never be cool, at night I thought I would never be warm again.
After a day or so, I realised that this pattern was predictable. I don’t mean the night and day, sun and moon, though of course that was predictable too. I mean that my fear and my belief that it would always be hot and I’d never again feel cold, or the other way round, was predictable. Remembering that I had had these fears before, I realised my belief that I would never be cool again was misplaced. I learned to trust the rhythms of the desert and to hold on, not lose hope, but extend my patience and endurance.
Back home I am more aware of my mood through the seasons of the year and now it is Lent we approach with that invitation to follow Jesus into the desert. If you struggle to get space Lent is a good time to embrace the struggle. To follow Jesus into the wilderness of the desert for 40 days and 40 nights will deepen the struggle. Paying attention to beauty in the moment will be a gift in itself, affirming your humanity. It will invite you to cross the threshold deep within you so that open to yourself, and to God, your struggle, having found the space, can be life-giving.