January 18, 2020

Hidden Life in the Desert

It was a blessed year living in the desert mesas of New Mexico. I was in my novitiate in preparation for religious life. Sunday afternoons were free so I would hike into the mesas with my Bible and a canteen of water. There I would seek my favorite spot in the shade.

The desert, in its silence and grandeur, incites the heart to prayer and praise. It is good to enter into the desert to pray because our relationship with God has so much in common with two meaningful aspects of the desert: changelessness and silence.


The changelessness of God

The mesa’s layers of geological strata, of varying colors, are its wrinkled lines of age. These strata were thousands or millions of years in formation by the wind and elements. Surrounded by these ancient sentries of time, problems and worries lose their urgency. What a blessing!

Our lives, our culture, our relationships… all are subject to change. These changes are often rapid and difficult to control. They serve to make time unmanageable. We must take time to be away from them.
Being so barren and devoid of change, the desert offers us a reprieve. In fact, it’s greatest wealth is its time. Time is also the gift that God wishes to give to us in prayer.

Let me explain.

Think of your soul as a deep chamber where God dwells. In God’s original plan the Holy Spirit who would well up from within the soul like a ‘living spring.’ This spring was meant to refresh our God-given thirst for Him who alone is changeless and eternal. But original sin dried up the ‘spring’ of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus told us that he came to give us a new source of living water. He said, “the water that I will give will become a fountain of water within springing up to everlasting life” (Jn 4:14).
By grace, the human soul is an oasis of lifegiving water, the Holy Spirit. From within the Spirit wells up renewing us and our fallen creation. St. Paul spoke of the mystery of renewal by the Elect. He wrote, “creation waits with eager longing for the revelation of the children of God” (Rom 8:19).
Our Blessed Mother gave insight into this in her prayer of Magnificat. She sang, “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Like the moon reflecting the light of the sun that is not its own, so the soul refreshes itself in what is within…

Now God is pure spirit and his abode is outside of time and space, living in an eternal now. Yet He abides in the soul in a state of grace, making us capable of entering into His time, His space. He is, in fact, closer to us than we are to our very selves.

We do rejoice in God’s Presence. He is personal and loving.
Jesus Himself said, “we (the Holy Trinity) will come to him and make our abode within him” (Jn:23). And “The kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:21).

In practical terms, there are often times that we cannot feel God’s love, His Presence. We should not believe that He has somehow changed or that He is no longer with us.
That would be wrong.
To know God in His love, is to know that He has always loved you. And that He has always been present to you and will always be.

He is like the air surrounding us. You feel it in the wind, yet it is always there, even when the wind ceases to blow.
I recall the classic prayer of St. Teresa of Avila: “All things are passing away: God never changes.”
It is true He never changes, His love is everlasting (Jer 31:3).
His love for you and me is the one constant and unchanging thing in our lives… in our souls.

It is in this way that time becomes that precious gift the elect receive from our Lord. Entering into their souls by prayer, by faith, they encounter His eternal Presence. It is there that His love ceases not, and His time becomes our time. 

All else passes.


The silence of God

This is the other aspect of the desert that reveals God. Silence is perhaps its most endearing aspect… and, perhaps, the most difficult to bear.

The silence of the desert, just as God’s Word, is pregnant with meaning. His Word only seems to be silent to the uninitiated. This is because it is not heard without grace.

Our finite human nature is helpless to know Him as He is. He is pure spirit and exists outside of our time and space. Our natural five senses only with difficulty recognize the traces of His Word in creation. And then when God did enter creation to speak His Word, few heard it.

Recall the words of St. John the Evangelist, “the world came into being through him, yet the world did not know him” (Jn 1:10). The world cannot hear or recognize the Word because of His silence. This silence serves as proof to the unbeliever but it can be a treasure to the faithful.

Silence is the living reality that monks and hermits order their interior lives by. The Desert Fathers of the third century fled the noise of the world to listen to His Word in silence.
In our day we rather seek to avoid silence. We live attached to media devices that keep us linked together, informed… to what can all be an unsettling distraction!

I have often pondered the following, which the Lord spoke to a mystic friend of mine. He told her, “If you cannot understand my silence, you will never understand my words.”
This seems to be contradictory at first.
It has come to me to mean that as we quiet our soul, our thoughts and imagination, with the help of grace…
it is then that the Spirit within speaks His Word.
And His Word is always love.

The Spring rain

One last thought…
When the annual Spring rains come to the desert in New Mexico, it comes alive. Flowers and plants appear from out of nowhere.
Little fish swim in ponds that the rain forms and sustains.
Somehow life existed there already, albeit in some seed form, hidden, waiting, ready.

So it is with us.
The Life of Christ is within you, hidden, waiting, ready for the Spring rain. As Solomon poetically sang, “The rain is over and gone, the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come…” (Song 2:11-12)

We should strive to enter by prayer within… into the silence and changelessness of the desert.
There we trust to hear His Word, which always speaks to us of His love.
There we find that nothing has changed… and the time of singing has come.

ID Picture

Fr. Michael Hinken SOLT is a priest of

the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity.

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