My stay at Desert House of Prayer (DHOP) began with an orientation--a tour of the grounds, cactus identification, what to do when you pick up prickles, where to find hiking information, walking sticks, water, and hats, and a tour of the library, kitchen, chapel, and common areas. We skipped the intro to rattlesnakes and scorpions since they're hibernating this time of year.
When I planned my winter retreat this time, I chose to go to Tucson because my daughter moved there recently. I chose this particular place for its tininess and remoteness, for its promise of solitude. By "tininess" I mean population (only housing fourteen people). . .Desert House of Prayer is situated on about thirty acres that backs up to Suguaro National Park, which is vast. You can hike into the park from the retreat center.
Solitude is what I found.
Following the orientation provided by Michael, the gentle-man who handles such things for Desert House of Prayer, I unpacked and settled into my hermitage, ate lunch, took a walk, napped, read, showed up in the dining room for dinner, walked some more, called my husband, texted Sarah, read some more.
Wouldn't it be spectacular if my retreat were to yield profound new spiritual insights about God, about the world, about human nature (or even just my own)? Wouldn't it be spectacular to claim that I was driven there by the Spirit of God in order to be tested mightily, only to emerge victorious, something that would carry me through the rest of my life? But I'm not Jesus.
I didn't even bring a Bible.
I brought only the clothing a needed, (sandals! and walking shoes), a few other small essentials (and non-essentials), my journal and pens, two books on writing (Dani Shapiro and Robert Benson), a third one I discovered in the library (Natalie Goldberg), Oh. And some coffee and KIND bars.
and my novel.
The retreat was just that. A retreat. Five days in pure desert silence, simply being. With God, with the natural world, with myself. My only interactions with people were a couple of brief texts with my daughter, a couple of short phone calls with Jack, and evening meals, the only meals where conversation takes place at Desert House.
Breakfast and lunch are eaten in shared silence. In this little community of only fourteen or fifteen other people, I noticed how easy it was, even in silence, to find others with whom I struck a natural affinity. (And others with whom I didn't.) I wandered, rested, was nourished and fed, hiked extensively with bottles of water shoved in my backpack, along with my phone (in case I got so lost I would have to call someone, and of course for the camera), and my little handwritten map in my pocket. I felt as though I could have stayed out there forever. And I did get lost, but only once, and maybe for only half an hour or so, with my only anxious thought being that it might grow dark soon in the box canyon. I picked up my pace!
Thomas Merton said that "The desert was created simply to be itself, not to be transformed by men into something else. So too the mountain and the sea. The desert is therefore the logical place for the woman who seeks to be nothing but herself--that is to say, a creature solitary and poor and dependent upon no one but God, with no great project standing between herself and her Creator." (Thoughts in Solitude)
ahhhh. . .so for five days I was just in the desert, being only myself, while the desert remained in and around and through me, utterly, being itself.
"With no great project standing between. . ." All the so-called "great projects" of my life fell away, dissolved, were left in the winter climes of the upper Midwest, in my house, at my desk, even in the relationships with people that I am called to live out on a daily basis.
AND SO, NOW. . .
I find that I need to withdraw in similar ways several times throughout the year, typically for shorter stays in the spring and fall, and a longer one in the summer. A retreat, in some form or other, typically renews my spirit, fuels my energy, and enables me to regroup, offering me a fresh start. I don't know whether the people in my life can detect any noticeable changes, but I usually feel some sort of shift.
This time, the shift seems to be to a greater sense of abundance, as though I have everything I need, and always will. Maybe it's the austerity of the desert, and the spare, pared back way of life that did that. I do know that I am more deeply in touch with something that grounds me. I think it may be what Ron Rolheiser is saying in one of his recent daily meditations on Being Born from Above: "To be born again, from above, involves a gestation process, namely, being hooked up to a new umbilical cord, one that begins to nurture us in such a way that our old support systems are no longer what ultimately gives us life. We still want these things, but we no longer build our lives around the fear of losing them. We now begin to draw life from something beyond them. We sense ourselves as hooked to something deeper, a spirit and a person who offers us a meaning that dwarfs what we now have. We begin to give up on fear, because what we are now receiving is not experienced as precarious. In this new place we don't need to possess things, defend ourselves, cling so desperately to health, youth, and good looks, or fear that joy and meaning can be taken away from us." And he reminds us that this doesn't happen all at once.
Interesting that in that spare, silent place I began to feel so deeply nurtured; so deeply connected, and secure.
I want to say more about Sarah, my daughter, and our time together. Just not right now. I can tell you that I experienced an unanticipated, particular ache, realizing I was so close, just ten minutes away, up in the desert just above her house, when I hadn't gotten to be with her in quite a while (since July). In the evenings when the lights of Tucson twinkled below me, I felt close enough to see her. I felt a tug in my heart at various times throughout the day, but didn't follow it. I was there for a different purpose.
The time of silence and solitude, focus and reflection, brought new perspective on the novel--what my characters need from me, the time that it will take, the love I have for it, how to approach the questions.
Also, I gained some understanding of Merton's desert--its harsh realities, the ways of its wildlife (javelinas, coyotes, rabbits, roadrunners, hummingbirds, lizards), the temperature extremes, the ancient rocks and trees (twelve- to eighteen-hundred-year-old ironwoods; two-hundred-year-old suguaros), its timeless beauty. And I plan to return.