[author's note: i have been reading Wilfrid Stinissen's little book: Into Your Hands, Father, and it brought to mind this an essay i wrote several years ago. i thought i would share it with you. it is rather long, so i'm brining it forward in several parts.]
THE DESERT AS METAPHOR
What might prove helpful here is for us to think of the desert not in terms of a place we go, but rather as a mindset we practice in our search for The Holy and Living God. If we were in the desert searching for God what would we do and how would we do it?
Decision Based Upon Love
To begin, we should think of the desert as a metaphor for our desire to pursue The Holy God. To hear this, we could begin by asking ourselves the same question we would ask those ancient hermits, “Just what would motivate someone to leave great comfort and power behind and to step into the mystery of the wilderness, as a way to seek our own burning bush that is not consumed?”
Strangely enough, what we find is that it is God who begins the search. It is God who continually calls us to himself with constant urgings, and at length one day we listen. Suddenly, we don’t know how, we begin to respond to God with a deep and growing desire to follow him wherever he leads. And this response is so strange to us at first because we had little desire before, but one day it was just there!
What is at also important to understand is that our decision to search for The Holy finds its motivation in us as his summons acts upon a small kernel of love for God implanted in our heart. So here’s the question: Do we really love God more than we love ourselves and our own lives? (Mark 8:35) On the day we find that we do, then we also find a willingness to submit to the desert. What also follows is that this initial crisis act of surrender toward the God whom we love will eventually lead us to give our daily life, our time, to him. (Luke 9:23)
Detachment Based Upon Solitude
When we arrive in the desert we are startled to learn that we are alone, really alone! Solitude can unnerve us because we are so used to having our time filled with activities and actions, reports and meetings, meals and entertainment. But we need the shock of desert seclusion to our heart; we need this sudden stop and this empty void, to turn our minds to God. This is why solitude brings on the questions of seclusion: “Now, what will we do? What is the next step? What is supposed to happen?” But when nothing happens, we immediately grab for control and agenda.
This is our first test. We find that the desert pursuit of God is not like anything other experience. We find that this pursuit of God cannot be pushed and prodded. We find that this pursuit of God is not under our control. We learn, in fact, that God is not on our agenda at all; we are on his. In place of those normal actions that bring about our usual desired results – step one, two three – we find the desert pursuit of God means we relinquish our steps and our power. We find in this search for God we wait. We find that in the desert we seek God from within, and we search for God in the subtle movement of the Holy Spirit as he brushes against our soul. It means we linger alone. It means the first move belongs to God.
Another way to say this is to say that this encounter with the craggy rocks of solitude opens to us the experience of a growing detachment. That is, when we decide to move toward God, we soon unearth the truth that all else must be left behind. We discover that The Living, Holy God alone is to be our satisfaction and our daily portion. We find we must forsake our settled affections and our creature comforts. We soon realize that in this move toward seclusion with God we must repeatedly focus the attention of our heart away from all else. This is felt as a tearing-up and a grief.
And, it is in this desert seclusion that our initial vague love for God begins to develops into a mysterious desire for a purity of heart before him. We discover that God is leading us more and more toward detachment, and that he will use the very difficult circumstances in our lives to further this movement. Here we finally learn the difficult lesson that no one and nothing else must ever come before him. Simply put, the dual fires of solitude and suffering teach us that it must be God and God alone whom we pursue, and that any other attachments only serve to dilute our focus and delay our surrender.
Listening Based Upon Silence
The desert also teaches us that we must learn silence. In the outside world, that which exists outside our heart, the constant prattle and the drone of life keeps both the love of God and our own self-knowledge at arms length. But in the solitude of the desert air, after a time, we actually learn that chatter really is only self-defense against the movement of God pressing in on us, and so we realize we must shut-up. Here we must learn to listen for the urge of God, the word of the Christ and the opening of the Spirit’s voice to our heart.
The decision to be silent and to wait on The Holy marks off for us the jagged path up the mountain toward God. In silence we are able to distinguish God’s voice from our own. In silence we are be able to hear God’s assessment of who we really. In silence we will finally discern that the shrill pronouncments of pride and self-importance, so often heard in us, are not really our true voices at all. And we will learn that even though these false voices surface time and again during our ongoing quiet – wanting to be heard and hoping to be delivered from the piercing light of God’s love – we must not relent.
Prayer Based Upon Love
Finally, the desert is primarily about prayer, but probably not prayer as we normally practice it. The solitude and silence of the desert actually causes us to re-think our understanding of prayer. Desert prayer causes us to seek out exactly what prayer involves? what actually occurs in the prayer moment? and what truly motivates us to pray?
Easily, these questions and others like them would take many pages to unpack, assuming I had the solutions, which I do not. So, for this present discussion, I simply want us to close by thinking through the idea of desert prayer in terms that will enable us to give God a significant place in our day.
Early on, I was taught that prayer is asking, but I know now that prayer is nothing of the kind. To be sure, there is petition in prayer, but that one aspect by no means defines prayer. In fact, I would argue that prayer cannot be defined, at least not by some sort of formula. Prayer is about intention. My activity becomes prayer when my aim is to clear time and space in my life for God. Prayer is about focus. My actions become prayer when it is my determination that God will be my center, and that in the midst of my daily activities God will have my attention. Prayer is also about desire. I love God because he first loved me and because he continues to love me, and it is from that love that my desire to be with God grows. Prayer is about relationship. You see, this is my life. I am free; I can use my life as I choose. But, as one on the Jesus-way, as one who has experienced the Grace and Love of God in Christ, I intend to give my time, significant time, daily time, in pursuit of The One, True, Holy, Living God, in order to be in relationship with him.
In other words, desert prayer is not offered because of what it can do for me – I pray therefore I’m healed; I pray therefore I get along better through the day; I pray that I might receive. No, in the desert we pray because God has summoned us. The Holy desires us and we arrive. His love locates us everyday, and after a time we find we can’t wait to be with him. Those moments become our oxygen, and daily his grace strengthens us to find him in the solitude and silence of the desert’s gentlest breeze.
Desert Prayer is based upon love – God’s love for me and my love for God. His love for me leads to his continued, relentless determination to bless me. And my love of him, based upon the finished work of Jesus – the life-giving Spirit – enables me to pursue God by choosing to give him hours of life. Desert prayer becomes the center of life; it becomes our daily bread, our every-day manna provision.