In the Desert

I know Lent is the proverbial wilderness exploration in the liturgical calendar, but as someone who doesn’t follow the crowd – even when I choose to – I find myself in a wilderness in the season of Easter, this side of Pentecost.

I’m sure part of it’s the lockdown and lack of social interaction outside of my husband and my co-workers (that I barely see, I’m tucked away in the back). I’ve tried to keep up with friends via text – mostly just asking how they are and how all this is impacting their particular circumstance. I’m still working, I don’t have kids – quite boring compared to some of the cataclysmic situations my friends find themselves attempting to navigate with no outside help.

I’m a perpetually show-up-early-to-everything person, so it’s no surprise I’m hitting peri-menopause in my late 30’s like my mom. No one prepared me for the night sweats and other symptoms. In some ways, I feel like I’m twenty again and in other ways, I am reacting to situations that would have never crossed my threshold for fury before. My husband was convinced I had a fever the other night – but I knew it was just me being warm. I’ve always been an even-keeled person, but predictable hormone surges are causing an intensity in me that is unfamiliar. I’m trying to adjust to my new normal – like a super-power I have to learn to control so it doesn’t control me. I’m sure it will all change again as this phase of life progresses.

If it’s possible to socially distance from yourself, I’m in the thick of it.

I’m far from alone in this. I find myself drawn to the stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early church. They lead a monk-like existence in the middle of nowhere wastelands. Their days were spent living off the land, in contemplative prayer, quietness, and offered great hospitality to any traveler that presented at their door. They reflected the love of the Lord to each other and to those outside their community. Except for the hospitality bit (simply because I want to keep those I care about safe from this terrible pandemic), I feel this is where I’m pitching my tent until I figure out where to go from here.

For me, this means pulling back from the fray and spending time in silence before God. My garden has become a source of rest, at times irritation, but ultimately a way to slow down, observe, and partake in the Lord’s creation. My soul isn’t finding rest anywhere else right now.

My circle has gotten much smaller, as I truly believe social distancing will be the only way to survive this. However, I will keep reaching out with what I have and offer it to others.

My next move is to read “The Cloud of Unknowing,” written by an anonymous European monk in the 1300’s about contemplative prayer. In this age of megachurches, online worship, Christian influencers, and an Americanized Jesus, I want to know how those living in the middle ages sought God. How did they use the Bible? How did Scripture sustain them when plagues were rampant, when they didn’t go along with the culture, and how did they worship in a desert? I hope to glean some understanding from the first thousand years of my fellow Christians’ walk with the Lord and perhaps employ their wisdom in my own walk, as I meander blindly into the future.

[Mother] Theodora said, “Let us strive to enter by the narrow gate. Just as the trees, if they have not stood before the winter’s storms cannot bear fruit, so it is with us; this present age is a storm and it is only through many trials and temptations that we can obtain an inheritance in the kingdom of heaven.”

[Mother] Syncletica said, “Imitate the [tax collector], and you will not be condemned with the Pharisee. Choose the meekness of Moses and you will find your heart which is a rock changed into a spring of water.”

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Adventing

Growing up Catholic, I hated Advent. I was an Ordinary Time kinda of girl and this Christmas stuff into January really annoyed me. When I joined a Southern Baptist church, they looked confused as they explained Advent was not in the Bible, it was a man-made event they didn’t acknowledge. They only hung the greenery at a Wednesday night service. I was elated: I had finally found my people.

Since coming over to the Protestant side, I hadn’t given Advent much thought, since I associate it with Catholicism. I attend a Methodist type worship now, and they casually celebrate Advent: acknowledged, but not a part of our service.

I’ve spent the past couple of years listening to devotionals on the Pray as You Go App, a Catholic outfit. Before each devotional, they announce where they are in the liturgical year; it’s how I knew I had stumbled into the first week of Advent, which meant Christmas was closer than I thought it was.

The more I read about Contemplative Prayer, the more I begin to understand the liturgical year as a rhythm. Just like the rhythms in gardening (pruning, planting, growing, conditioning soil), finding a rhythm in spiritual matters has become more important as I’ve gotten older in the faith.

I’m not sure how I would have survived the stressful seasons without praying The Offices – making room for prayer in morning, afternoon, evening, and night – just like the monks do.

Life has been heavy as of late and my spiritual life feels stale as we steam into the Christmas season. Pray as You Go has a beautiful Advent meditation retreat that emphasizes new beginnings, and it is like a salve to my soul. Each week, I’m tuning in with a silent house and the Christmas tree lights, basking in the glow of Scripture and examining my own thoughts while resting deeply in love of Christ.

After all these years, I’m embracing Advent.

If you’re interested, here’s a link to the series.

The introduction, which just tells you the nuts and bolts of the series, helps assist with how to use this time of prayer.

I hope this season of Advent transforms advent from a noun to a verb in your walk with Jesus.

Gardening Contemplation

Since turning to the contemplative prayer lifestyle, it’s changed other areas of my life which I never expected. Ah, but such is the life of a Christian.

In short, contemplative prayer involves meditation. It is taking the time to be silent before God and just be. It’s a chance for my soul to rest at the feet of my Lord. It goes further than just checking a box while reading the morning devotion. It means quality over quantity: reading a short passage or a line of Scripture and mulling it over in your mind for a few minutes. Sometimes it means unpacking the message, viewing the context from the view of someone in the passage, or asking yourself questions and how it relates to your treatment of others/God. Other times it’s imagining the sights, sounds, and smells that would accompany the words of Scripture.

It’s an anathema to modern American Christianity. It’s centering. It’s quiet. No flashy lights, no sleek messaging, nearly impossible to Instagram it. It is simply dwelling with Jesus. I use the Pray As You Go app during my lunch walk. It’s an English production and while it is backed by the Catholic Church, it’s so focused on Jesus, you won’t be able to tell it’s Catholic.

Following Jesus means you’re living a life of intention. For many Christians, Christianity is habit, not an intent. Contemplative prayer breaks you out of the typical Christian humdrum of bouncing across the surface instead of plumbing the depths – sometimes where the light doesn’t shine. I want the real Jesus, not this sanitized American version that comes with the “If you do X, God will do Y” formula. That is nothing more than a prosperity gospel dressed up for a middle class capitalistic society with education and money.

A fruit of my garden labor….my favorite garden flower, a Camellia (Corina variety)

I’ve become a better gardener since becoming contemplative. So many times we plant things and then life happens: days, weeks, months later we go to find them dead, diseased, or struggling to survive. We promise to do better and then we don’t. We don’t follow through. Our modern lives are filled with so many things that light up, ding, talk to us – not to mention cooking, cleaning, eating, sleeping, random household things – there simply isn’t time.

I disagree.

If you make it a priority, it’ll happen. But that’s just it: you have to want it and make time for it. Sometimes 10 minutes of contemplative prayer is better than an hour long Bible study. I do a quick survey in my yard at least once a day to see how things are going and address the issues straightaway. Beyond that, it’s a tangible way for me to slow down and take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the garden. I get joy from seeing my double formal Camellias carry on with green glossy leaves. My tea plants are flushing with new growth, although they’re still well below my knee. The bed I made around the water oaks with ajuga from my old house, white lantana, and a prized red azalea as its center piece always makes me smile – especially now that the ajuga is taking off. Pretty soon I’ll have to divide it up and give it away someone else.

That’s the beauty of the garden – I get to share it with others. Just like the peace and calmness I get from sitting quietly before Jesus, contemplating the finer notes of Scripture, savoring every new leaf and rejoicing at the flower buds.

Slow down, you busy Christians. This life Jesus calls us to is meant to be lived with purpose and love. Yes, sometimes life gets crazy busy – that will happen – but it should not be a lifestyle to maintain.