Desert Grace

Man walking the desert, footprints being left behind.
"While I was afraid of facing my inner desert of dry longing, I knew it was the desert’s open space where greater intimacy with God and generosity in service could be born."

Gallup, New Mexico sprawls across dry desert land, surrounded by large reddish-orange mesas where small, hardy cedar trees and cacti litter the rocky ground. The cacti bloom in the Spring with tiny bright red flowers that sparkle over the brown dust and rocks. It is quite beautiful.

I walked through town and passed over a dry river bed to find the Missionaries of Charity at the shelter they run. They serve men with alcohol addictions who lack a roof over their heads or a meal on cold desert nights. These sisters were dressed in their distinctive white and blue habits and welcomed me with open arms. Nearly all of them are from different countries.

The sisters labor all day: picking up extra food, organizing donations, hand washing clothes, cooking a large meal, and welcoming men into the shelter. They never seemed to miss a beat or be the least bit tired. Their only breaks in the day are for communal prayer and mass. After one afternoon of work I was exhausted.

***

On my first day they brought me to mass in their modest, old, neatly maintained house. I walk in the door and remove my shoes in a small parlor. The house is still and quiet. I see what could’ve been a living room redone as a chapel. There are wooden floors, walls humbly adorned with a crucifix, an altar, a chair for a priest, prayer and song books, and a few religious images.

Throughout mass I feel the quiet intensity of the sisters praying, it is palpable. Their slightly bowed heads, the shuffle of their habits as they kneel, the scent of old wood, and the taste of the Eucharistic bread and wine capture my attention.

We sit silently after mass. Still air presses my ears. My gaze pans the space. I look up at the crucifix, the body of Christ is pale white. There is blood on his wounds. Most markedly, fixed above the cross are the words, “I thirst.”

I’m mystified. My mind cannot categorize or connect what I’m witnessing to anything else I’ve participated in prior to this moment. I don’t know how to enter into the experience. What is the “thirst?” What silent words are rising from the sisters’ hearts toward the stark body of Jesus? These women are totally enraptured in prayer and I’m keenly aware that I am unsettled in comparison.

***

After only a few days of helping and praying with the sisters, I felt exhausted and stripped bare. I’d been in unpresuming places before, which had reshaped my vision of the external world. But, I had never encountered my own poverty of interior resources and motivation like I did in Gallup. With only the sisters, tedious acts of service, and the desert to console me, I met the limits of my capability and generosity.

This all left me unexpectedly rattled. I thought my life of faith and service was supposed to be fulfilling, not dry. I thought there would be an intensification of inspiration guiding me into my relationship with God, not the seeming loss of it. In Gallup, I knew I was doing good work, but I didn’t feel good. I felt unprepared, fragile, and dissatisfied.

As the years passed, I began to have similar experiences of dryness and lack of motivation in other areas of my life. Weekly ministry became monotonous. The initial excitement of academic study became boring. Soon, feelings of emptiness started to seep into the confidence of my vocation: Why would God let these feelings happen when I’m doing everything to follow him? Why wasn’t I feeling happier and more fulfilled? I felt angry and betrayed, and I let God know it.

***

The words “I thirst,” hanging over the sisters and the crucifix in their chapel, returned to my prayers. In my emptiness and dryness I also thirsted. I could instinctively see how I had satisfied this drought in the past with material comforts, affective support from friends, and novel/exciting activities. I was able to see the invitation to give my life to God and God’s work more fully. Which meant I would, in some way, have to let go of comforts I held onto for security and satisfaction, like time to myself or living near family and friends. I had to give God my arid interior. While I was afraid of facing my inner desert of dry longing, I knew it was the desert’s open space where greater intimacy with God and generosity in service could be born.

And, it is taking time. Scared by my lack of control, I still sometimes runaway from this desert grace. But, when I turn and face the torrid wind, God beckons my parched soul, becoming the driving force toward something beyond what earthly comforts can offer. I can begin to make some small sense of the sisters in Gallup, only allowing their thirst to be satiated by total love and justice of God. So they remain, they love, and they serve. And, I pray I can do the same.

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Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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