The Hebrew Bible (aka Old Testament) speaks often of “wilderness”. Spiritually, the wilderness is understood as a time of separation from one’s geographic home, community, physical and emotional comforts; often with no idea when that separation will end. Whether it is literally a desert, like the ones the Jewish people were forced to call home throughout long intense years of exile, or psychological and biological as with grief and illness, it feels dry and desolate in many ways. It is often associated with a time of testing. Despite many biblical references to it, in my personal understanding of God, I do not believe God tests us. I do not believe that hardship is personally directed; but I know Love is.
This time of year, more than any other, we are inundated with the reminder to be joyful and fill our homes with food, music, decorations, gifts, and hopefully family and friends. There are so many people for whom this constant public call to joy is a dramatic emphasis on the absence of all of those things; whether it be due to a lack of employment, grief, mental illness, physical illness, transition, separation due to military service, or a host of other challenges and disappointments. It is Both: for many a time of great Joy, and for many a time of great suffering. As a Christian I use the dichotomy of the Incarnation, for which we prepare and celebrate in churches this time of year, to give flesh and continuity to the two drastically different ends of the spectrum of human experience. Just as we celebrate the miraculous mystery that God came into the world as a fully human being to Love us ever so particularly through this unique experience of the flesh, God is with us in every moment- mountaintops and desert wildernesses. God was with the Jewish people in the desert, and is with the mother who is bereft of her still-born child when she should have been celebrating their first Christmas together. Likewise, God is celebrating with families for whom Christmas is a fun and beautiful time to make happy memories. Life really is that dramatic- high, low, and everything in between.
This year I find myself frustrated with doing things that are not fun to set up a house in a new place, not to be able to visit friends and loved ones like in past years, missing my home church and the friends I made there, not to be able to make left turns (silly New Jersey), having to buy or get water delivered instead of drinking out of our own faucet. Ahh, the First World, Suburban Wilderness! How incredibly fortunate I am that these are the struggles I move through this year. Always there are more and deeper things moving in the undercurrents of our lives, but often these get our attention. I have noticed the things that are hard about settling in a new place far from all that is comfortably familiar and my personal team of supportive people. I am really feeling the tension and hardship. Each time I come up with a new complaint is an opportunity to take a breath and realize, the excitement of making new friends, the amazement at how many people I love enough to send out an inordinate number of holiday cards, that no one is trying to bomb my quiet neighborhood on a regular basis, how fun it is to “church shop”, the fact that I have reliable transportation at all, and finally– that I am not in Puerto Rico or parts of Africa where there is no clean water at all!
Every disappointment or irritation is an invitation back to gratitude. God is big enough and loving enough to comfort me in my Suburban Wilderness and to get in the trenches with those in total life threatening crisis. THANK YOU!!! As Centering Prayer instructor Thomas Keating teaches, every time our minds wander during prayer or meditation is an invitation to return to awareness of the presence of the Holy in our lives. Just so, during a time that is a Dark Night and a Wilderness for some, and a Winter Wonderland for others, it is a time for Gratitude for all. The more we practice in times of evenness and contentment, the more it is there to support us in times of turmoil. Consider keeping a Gratitude Journal. At some point each day, write down a Minimum of 5 things for which you are grateful. On a good day it may take up a page and be wonderfully descriptive. On a challenging day it may be things like the names of family members, clean water, air conditioning, a car. Those may appear to be small, mundane things—until they are gone. But knowing you are committed to acknowledging and tracking the moments of grace, gratitude, and ways which you see God working in your life each day may just change your awareness to begin intentionally focusing on the Blessings in your life.
Whether you are in the Wilderness, the desert, or suffering a Dark Night of spiritual separation; or on the Mountain Top brimming with spiritual epiphanies and Creative Abundance- you matter, and you are Loved deeply.
(Please visit https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/fr-thomas-keating for more information about the healing practice of Centering Prayer)