The desert will lead you to your heart where I will speak.
Last week I spent five days in the Sonoran desert at the Redemptorist Center for Renewal in Tucson, Arizona where I have been privileged to be the co-facilitator for Ascension Health’s program on management formation, Managing Effectively; Growing Spiritually. I have spent quite a bit of time here or in their companion facility, The Desert House of Prayer over the last four years either on personal retreat, leading Cove retreats, or teaching in the leadership formation program.
The retreat house backs up to a national forest of Saguaro cacti. The Sonoran desert is the only place in the world that these iconic cacti grow, and to see them is to marvel at their presence. Still after four years of visiting here I am captivated by the surreal nature of this place. When I awaken and look out of my window or walk out of my door the crystal clear atmosphere of the desert renders the landscape in such stark relief that I question the reality of it all. But it is real all right; all you have to do is touch one of these thorny plants and you will be immediately relieved of the notion that they aren’t real! This is what the desert does; it plunges you into the reality of the mystery of the here and now.
A year ago last June I spent a week at the Desert House of Prayer. I was on a personal retreat that I had planned months in advance, but as it turned out I spent the week pondering the mystery of impermanence as I grieved the recent terminal cancer diagnosis of a dear friend and colleague. I met with my teacher, Father Pat Hawk, who was himself living with terminal cancer. Listening to my anguished questions about the mystery of life and death, he simply smiled at me in the most loving way and said, “I am alive now, and when I am dead I’ll be dead.” Fr. Pat, in addition to being a Redemptorist priest was also a world famous Zen Master. Whether it was his years of living in the desert or his Zen practice, or both, Fr. Pat was gifted with the ability to see clearly what was right in front of him.
I think this is what the passage from Hosea points to. If I can become quiet enough, if I can let go of the myriad distractions in my day- to-day life, I might actually get in touch with what is. And what might that be? It is so obvious that we almost always miss it. But this piece of property in the desert is a “thin place.” You might remember that a “thin place” is a term that comes to us from Celtic spirituality. It means a place where the boundary between the sacred and the secular is very thin—in fact for those paying attention there is no boundary at all.
Last Tuesday was the beginning of a year-long course of management formation. The beginning of a new class is always filled with excitement and anxiety. As a teacher I was about to meet a new group of thirty Ascension leaders with whom I would spend the next year doing leadership formation work. The overarching purpose was to integrate the wisdom of the heart with the reason, logic, and empirical knowledge of the mind. These leaders enter the program not really knowing what to expect but trusting that it will be worth the time and energy they will devote to it over the coming year. As a facilitator I prayed to be a worthy companion to them on their journey.
So I went to early morning mass before the program started, not really knowing why but only knowing that it was the appropriate thing to do. I entered the chapel and saw the familiar quote from Hosea on the chapel wall. I listened to a sermon about the many rules and regulations of organized religion and then I heard Fr. Charlie say in words as starkly clear and real as the desert around me, “Love is the only rule.” Tears filled my eyes and I breathed a sigh of relief. These were words that no matter the pain, uncertainty, or challenges of life would carry me through. This simple statement unites us all.