In 2012 I began traveling to monasteries for respite, silence, solitude, and space. I started these journeys feeling as if I was traveling to a museum – an aesthetic location of a tradition that’s been upheld for thousands of years; a place where people can go to see monks or nuns as if they’re some sort of monument to religion or life. Yet, much like the pilgrims that traveled to see the 3rd century desert fathers and mothers for a word; I emerge time and time again awoken by my own truth and empowered by each word of mystery that I encounter within these desert experiences.
In each pilgrimage, I was never told how to do the journey. I was never given a spiritual map to navigate my way. I wasn’t disregarded or turned away because of my previous experience or lack of a Catholic background. I was instead gently reminded to remain open, kindly supported in prayer and presence, and lightly guided towards that inner stance that “offers the least resistance to the gift” (Jim Finley). Ultimately, I was reminded by the great mystery: I’m doing the right thing. I’m in the right place. I still don’t know what that is or looks like but I don’t need to know.
“Stay open, until the end.” A Nun of Our Lady of The Angles Monastery
Upon each return to everyday life, I find myself navigating a new kind of desert – one filled with aimless grasping, ego needs, and technology beyond my wildest dreams. I catch myself being convinced that my connection via technology is an authentic and complete connection. And I lose my ability to truly engage with a human face-to-face. This modern day desert consumes me time and time again and convinces me that I’m looking in the bowels of myself while holding an artificial device.
Like so many in this new desert, I’m vastly unacquainted with myself and the world around me. I spend my hours captivated by social media whilst my imagination lies useless; I skim an article to ensure my time was “productive,” often times not even considering the source. I’ve forgotten the sacred art of boredom, the pleasures of being in nature, the growth that happens in solitude – I’ve forgotten myself.
“I have always loved the desert. One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
We’ve forgotten how to encourage each other to go alone into the deserts of ourselves. We instead continue to prefer the deserts of our technology. We’re continuously consumed by technology’s tug telling us it is filling our anxious “needs”. We spend hours preparing our social media facades instead of considering the detour into the desert of reality; our reality.
Our minds no longer wander down aimless paths. Our entertainment tells us what we’re feeling and how we feel it. Our ego disallows us to be vulnerable. Our hearts desires are so buried by the suggestions of advertisements that we truly don’t know what we want or what we stand for. Screens have replaced faces. We’re not only deserting ourselves but also our neighbors, co-workers, family and friends.
“We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.” John Naisbitt
What is the way out? How can I disengage with this modern day desert? Why do I believe it’s engaging me more with those nearest and dearest to me, including my own self? Much like my retreats to monasteries, there are no definitive conclusions or answers. Or, perhaps, the answer is different for each of us. Maybe for me, it is a time to reconnect with myself and those nearest to me. Maybe it’s time to pick up more books and less handheld screens. Maybe now is the time to gaze out the window and re-engage with awe, mystery, and the unknown. Or, perhaps all this trying is the actual barrier to Mystery. Perhaps all this clawing towards doing things is what hinders us from the desert encounter with our own selves.
“We think all this noise and artifice is human, but it’s not. It takes us away from what is human. There’s nothing wrong with it but we tend to live via our ingenuity instead of being our own truth.” Maggie Ross
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