Desert House of Prayer—Tucson, AZ
Tuesday, November 12, 2013; 9:29PM
Retreat. Silent. As in no talking. At all.
Three days of centering prayer and meditation in the desert outside Tucson—in the middle of a saguaro forest no less: their arms pointing all directions, towering into the distance over palo verde, mesquite, prickly pear, barrel cactus, agave, cholla, and low scrub I could never name. Or would need to. Seemed like a good idea three months ago when we booked it; now the timing couldn’t be worse with year-end audits, fundraisers, holiday programming… Just cut it off and go. See if three days of silence can somehow balance the other three hundred and sixty two.
A Catholic retreat, of course, [Evangelicals are rarely silent] so there will be Mass and saying the office, stations of the cross. But I come experienced, having grown up Catholic with twelve years of Catholic school and many silent retreats under the belt—even a brief stint in a monastic order. Driving up, it’s about what I expect. Gravel paths connecting a loose grouping of prefab-looking buildings all painted green. Who paints anything that color? Inside it all seems familiar. Catholics have a way of decorating that is always so…Catholic. Even smells familiar, comforting somehow.
We get a tour from Ann, a sweet older woman who knows everything about the center, the desert, and the rules: silent meals here, silent dorms there, silent library, chapel: don’t walk here, be on time for silent group prayer—no late arrivals allowed. Then finally, at the edge of where they pushed the desert back, the hermitages. We had booked hermitages. Don’t know what image the word hermitage evokes for you, but think free-standing motel room, and you’ve got it. Prefab. Green.
The farthest two are reserved for us, one for Frank and one for me. First one we’re shown is nice and bright. Great views out both windows, cool-looking air conditioner with remote control. The one down the hill is darker inside; a stand of palo verde trees blocks the eastern window. No air conditioner. It suddenly hits me that I really want the first one…forget Frank…don’t I outrank him or something? I’m a pastor of eleven years, founder of a faith community and recovery ministry here on spiritual retreat, and suddenly I’m ten years old again trying to talk my little sister out of something I really want. The feeling amazes me: that I still haven’t put a stake in the heart of fears I thought I’d killed off ages ago. Trying to be casual, I give Frank the choice, and he takes the first one, of course. I swallow the envy, hoping my secret is safe and dignity preserved, but the desert is just warming up on me.
As the tour ends, there’s about an hour and a half before prayer, so I go to my dark hermitage to settle in, setting my cell phone timer to make sure I get to the chapel on time. I arrive early and see two big saguaros side by side looking like they’re holding hands. Got to get a picture of that, and as I squat to get just the right angle, I hear and feel my jeans rip right up the length of a back pocket like a bad sitcom gag. When does this ever happen in real life? Now I’d read the policy and procedures on group prayer posted in the hermitage and knew that between sessions we’d be taking meditational walks around the chapel perimeter. Imagining the person behind me trying to stay silent watching my underwear at each step, I take off crunching back down to the hermitage, constantly scanning for anyone behind me. By the time I get back, there’s a sign on the chapel door saying prayer in progress, no entrance until the sign is removed. And I’m ten years old once again, late for class.
I crunch to the library—lots of time to kill now. An entire aisle is dedicated to Thomas Merton, one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century and a spiritual hero of mine going back twenty five years to the beginning of my journey. A book catches my eye because I see the forward is written by Henri Nouwen, another hero, and I read his words:
“The only time I met Thomas Merton, I was struck by his utter earthiness. While on a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani, two students from the University of Notre Dame who had made an appointment to meet Merton at the lakeside asked me to join them. It was a very chatty encounter. We talked a little about abbots, a little about Camus, and a little about writing. We drank beer, stared into the water and let some time pass in silence—nothing very special, profound, or “spiritual.” In fact, it was a little disappointing. Maybe I had expected something unusual, something to talk about with others or to write home about. But Thomas Merton proved to be a very down-to-earth, healthy human being who was not going to perform to satisfy our curiosity. He was one of us.
Later, when I studied Merton’s books, taught a course about his life and works, and wrote a short introduction to his thought, I became very grateful for that one unspectacular encounter. I found that whenever I was tempted to let myself be carried away by lofty ideas or cloudy aspirations, I had only to remind myself of that one afternoon to bring myself back to earth. When my mind’s eye saw him again as that earthy man, dressed in sloppy blue jeans, loud, laughing, friendly, and unpretentious, I would realize that Merton was and is no more than a window through whom we may perhaps catch a glimpse of the One who had called him to a life of prayer and solitude. Every attempt to put Merton on a pedestal would not only horrify Merton himself, but would also be in direct contrast to everything for which he stood.”
Not yet comprehending the desert’s agenda, I come across a collection of recordings of Merton teaching his students in the early sixties when he was master of novices at Gethsemani. Though I’d read a dozen of his books and felt I’d come to know him, I’d never heard Merton’s voice. Searching through the silent library, I find a CD player, and inside those headphones, hear a voice I could barely understand through the primitive recording—an unimpressive voice, a little monotone, a little pedantic even, but punctuated by the laughter of his students…unassuming, but connecting—connecting because it was unassuming.
The desert is not performing to my satisfaction.
Why am I here? To recharge, refuel? Have some major spiritual experience? To prove to myself or others I can do this, be silent, mystical, still be a good Catholic?
A stiff desert wind is howling out of the east against my second-choice hermitage. I think it’s telling me to stop trying to catch it. To let it leak out my sails, out of over-blown tires, any harness I devise. That it won’t perform for me, won’t blow in directions I keep looking: up the pedestal to my imagined Merton, the imagined state of my own affairs. That it will always disappoint the illusions I hold dear.
That it’s really just about being ten years old again, helpless in the face of unwanted emotion, transparent, unassuming, making new choices in the presence of old fears , smiling at the indignity of torn jeans and misplaced plans and heroes cut back down to human.
Time to go to prayer. I mustn’t be late…