Desert road with tumbleweeds

Into the Desert, and Out the Other Side

Getting to Know God, Part 3

I started this blog as a way to explore some of the great works of the spiritual tradition that many of us have heard of but probably never read. My idea was to introduce people to these works by reading and commenting on them from my own perspective, inviting others to chime in as well. But almost as soon as I began, I realized I needed to explain what my own perspective is. Thus, I decided to do an autobiographical review of my own process of “learning God,” beginning in my early childhood and moving forward. When I was a kid, what I learned about God came mostly from others, from what I was taught explicitly. But there comes a point where each of us needs to start “learning God” through our own experience and exploration. Even more importantly, a big part of “learning God” has nothing to do with our own direct efforts or the efforts of others to teach us. A lot of it comes from recognizing what God Himself is trying to teach us.

Learning from Memories

As I’ve been looking back over my own life, I begin with memories — vivid recollections of what I saw and felt at the time. In most cases, I grasped little of what those experiences had to teach me at the time they occurred. It has taken me many decades to gain the perspective from which I can see clearly how God was making Himself known to me, and now I can see things that were not apparent at the time.

The more I gain perspective, the more I see the hand of God in those early experiences. For instance, I now recognize that when I was six, and Donna Sharkey and I sat under her house while we played in the dirt, she gave me my first catechism lesson. It would be five years before I got my next one, but from that day on, although I hardly understood what Donna told me, the experience stuck in my mind. Now I see the profound truth contained in that childish lesson, and this makes the memory more meaningful to me. I can see that God was using Donna, another six-year-old like myself, to plant a seed in the soil of my soul which has since sprouted and borne fruit.

As we endure the present trying circumstances, when so many of us are confined to our homes, unable to shop, work, or worship as we are accustomed, we need to consider that God is using this fallow time to prepare the seeds in our lives for a future sprouting. Many people are aware only of the privations of this unusual situation and chafe against their confinement, thinking constantly of what has been taken from them — which is perfectly natural. But there is also a supernatural element at work. What does God mean us to learn from this time of fear, anger, and deprivation? The answer may become apparent only with the passing of time, but we should rest assured that He is planting seeds in this dirty business of the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant circumstances that will sprout and bear fruit in the future.

Babylonian Exile

I’ve learned this in my own life. In the previous “episode” of this little spiritual autobiography of mine, I told how I became a happy Catholic at age eleven. That condition lasted until I was nearly fifteen, when my family moved from my home town to a “foreign country,” Texas. Fort Worth, to be precise.

I’ve tried to write about this period of my life several times now (at least half a dozen previous drafts of this post litter my cloud drive), but it wasn’t until now, several weeks into our shared privations of the pandemic, that I could see how to make this part of my story most meaningful to others. The first time I looked back over those most painful years of my life, my high school years, I was completely caught up in the memory of the pain, anger, and loneliness I felt during those years. They were, for me, a kind of Babylonian exile.

Although I had taken to the Catholic faith like a duck to water, the same wasn’t true of the rest of my family. Joining the Church was a way to gain access to the superior education offered by parochial school. So, when we moved to a city where there were no parochial schools, my mother decreed that there was no reason to continue pretending to be Catholic. Thus, against my will, I was cut off from the Church. I said I would walk to Mass by myself (the church was across the street from my new high school) but my mother got angry and forbade it and that was that. This offended me deeply and I knew that God could not be pleased, but I was helpless, still a child under my parents’ care. I knew, though, that it would not be ever so, and vowed to myself that I would return to the practice of my faith as soon as I got the chance — in other words, as soon as I left home for college. Until then, I would have to bide my time and try to make the best of things.

The problem was, the best of things was pretty bad. Problems in my family that had been simmering for some time boiled over and scalded us all as soon as we left the protective environment of our homeland, where we had family and friends. My home town and our close-knit neighborhood community, where many of us attended the same church and school, had provided familiar structures that allowed us to survive from day to day, if not exactly to thrive, but now all that was gone. I suppose the ancient Jews, sent into exile in Babylon, must have felt much the same about the Temple in Jerusalem and the role it played in their lives, not just as a place to worship the Almighty but also to congregate and kibbitz, a center of culture and daily life. So I can perfectly understand how disorienting it must have been for them to be forced into exile in Babylon and how impossible it must have seemed to find a way to go on being who they were among a bunch of pagan strangers. “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” Are you kidding? How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

A Desert Experience

That was something I had to figure out after coming to Texas. Everything seemed foreign to me, and barren. We were living in a new subdivision on the edge of town, and it seemed like a desert to me after the lush pine forests, rivers, and lakes of central Louisiana. There is an image in my memory of the day we moved to Fort Worth, a false memory, I know — tumbleweeds blowing across the road as we neared our new house. There are no tumbleweeds in Fort Worth, Texas, which is generally pretty green, like much of North Texas. But in my mind’s eye, I can see that tumbleweed, a symbol of the Godforsaken uprootedness I felt.

It took a long time for me to make any friends in my new school, which had all the marks of suburbia in the ’70s. This was the time when American families were just starting to fall apart, parents to divorce, kids to be raised with little religious or moral influence. The world had not yet settled for broken homes and “blended families” as a social norm, but the social decay had already begun, within a crust of conventional respectability.

Let me give you one example that sums up the worst of it. One of my earliest friends in Fort Worth was a girl I’ll call Karen Cox (not her real name); she and her younger brother Chad lived with their parents in a semi-rural neighborhood on the far side of our school zone. Karen’s parents were still married, but only because her Catholic father refused to allow his wife to divorce him. He knew a divorce would mean he would lose custody of his kids — despite the fact that Karen’s mother, Jill, now shared her bedroom with her hulking lesbian lover, Agnes. (I think Mr. Cox slept on the sofa in the living room.) He was not allowed to take his children to Mass with him, and the kids’s mother treated him like some bum who had moved in without her permission. Karen and Chad both despised him, probably for his failure to stand up to their crazy mother.

Karen, convinced by her mother that her father and his religion were the real problem in the family, had no interest in the Catholic Church, although she got drawn into the Baha’i faith by some neighbors. It seemed a strange and benign but pointless religion, which involved a lot of time spent staring into candle flames. It was a religion that seemed to jive well with Karen’s belief in invisible aliens who walked among us. After high school, Karen decided to major in astronomy and got involved in the early days of the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project, which has spent forty fruitless years looking for signs that humans are not the only intelligent beings in the universe.

On the other hand, a year or two later I became friends with a girl I’ll call Lyla, whose family were rock-solid (so I thought and so they pretended) members of the Church of Christ, where Papa ruled the roost and Mama stayed home and sewed curtains. I liked to hang out at their house when things got too hot at my own home, although Lyla’s father gave off a kind of creepy vibe. Years later, I learned that he was physically abusive to all of them and that Lyla’s mother left him as soon as the kids had graduated from high school. She became parish secretary at a Catholic church and eventually became a Catholic herself.

Meanwhile, at my house, my mother spent her days reading her horoscope and books by Erich von Daniken that claimed the earth had been colonized by aliens from outer space. At night she listened to talk radio shows that interviewed people who claimed they had been abducted by aliens. I tried to keep an open mind about all this, and wondered why she found this craziness credible, but not the Christian faith. Deep down I realized that space aliens didn’t really matter one way or the other — maybe they existed, maybe they didn’t. Whatever the truth was about all that, it didn’t touch the deepest truth, so these speculations could never be more than a rather pointless pastime for me.

I think my brushes with all this weirdness must have inoculated me against any interest in New Age maunderings or occult interests. More than ever, I clung to the idea of returning to religious normality the first chance I got — I just had to hang on and endure. I might not know the truth about space aliens, but I knew that God was still “out there” somewhere, even though I could not feel His presence. I didn’t doubt His existence, although I often wondered if He had given up on me and my family. I prayed to Him from time to time, mostly desperate prayers like those found in some of the psalms: “How long, O Lord? Will you abandon me forever?” My prayers didn’t come from the Bible, however; they came from the depths of my heart. “Out of the depths have I cried unto Thee, O Lord. Lord, hear my prayer!” These didn’t give me much comfort at the time, but I can now see that this is where my life of prayer really began: from a deep well of desperation and longing, knowing how much I needed God’s help just to endure the hardness and loneliness of life on Planet Earth.

Surviving the Desert

I survived those trying years, obviously, but for decades afterward, when I thought of those high school years at all, I remembered them as a harsh desert experience, in which I was lonely, alienated from everything that gave me comfort, hungry for spiritual sustenance, thirsty for kindness and conviviality. That desert was a place of pain and privation, but it was also a place of purification and testing. Not only did it strengthen my determination to return to religious practice and to grow closer to God, but it also prepared me to endure subsequent periods of hardship and spiritual testing. And — something that occurs to me only now, as I write this — God had mercy on my family as well as me. For about six months, leading into my senior year of high school, my parents split up, my older brother going to live with my father and the rest of us with my mother. But by Christmas the family was reunited and, although the Hallmark Channel will never make a movie based on our family life, we rubbed along more or less as we had before everything fell apart.

Someone once said that it’s not what happens to us that matters, but how we respond to what happens to us that proves (tests) our character. Sacred Scripture is full of stories that show how God used desert experiences to test those for whom he had greater things in mind. In a barren wilderness, comforts are scarce and one learns to be grateful for the sustenance God provides. Many prophets were prepared for greater trials by first enduring a time in the desert, not always by their own choice. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself prepared, not only for active ministry but also for the greater suffering He would endure on the Cross, by first willingly enduring forty days in the desert, where He suffered hunger, thirst, and temptation. The Church recognizes the benefit of such experiences and therefore prescribes periods of fasting, self-denial, and spiritual preparation, particularly the long preparation for Easter that we call Lent.

We have just come through a long Lent, compounded by conditions in the world that have required greater measures of deprivation than most of us would ever have chosen for our Lenten self-denial, including “fasting” from attendance at public worship. While the Church celebrates Christ’s victory over death — whether we can gather physically and be strengthened sacramentally or not — I hope that this Easter faith will sustain us all, as the quarantines go on and the specters of death, disease, and deprivation continue to haunt us.

There will be life after all this death, although what life will look like after the pandemic remains to be seen. But while we don’t know what the future holds, we should never doubt that it is God who sustains us, not full shelves in grocery stores or fat relief checks from the government. God has foreseen the joys and hardships we are facing and those we will yet face, and He has woven them all into His divine plan. What is required of us now is to keep on keeping on, to trust in Him, and to be open the the challenges of the “new normal,” which may or may not look a lot like the “old normal.” Whatever it looks like, God will be there with us.

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