The desert is not an easy place to live in. There’s a lot more to it than a first look provides. Dropping into a canyon, unsure when or where you are getting out, is unsettling. There’s a lot more life in the canyon than I ever thought. Instead of being barren and boring, there was quite a variety of trees and shrubs, and wherever you found water there was an abundance of life. It is really hot in the day, a bit cooler at night. In a desert canyon, route-finding isn’t an issue most of the time – you stay in the canyon and go forward! But there are junctions and decisions to be made, and if you haven’t been paying attention to the map you can get into trouble.
The newness of the desert was welcome, but certainly a challenge. And it threw me headfirst into spiritual and physical instability. This instability isn’t a bad thing; it’s expected in life and the spiritual life. But after spending months preparing for mountain cold, I was not ready for desert heat.
And that’s a perfect image for the spiritual life. We can prepare as much as we’d like but we don’t know what God has ready for us. Sometimes a quick spiritual reflection on a prayer or verse of Scripture brings some further understating of the spiritual life, but a closer look can provide much more depth and grace. Like route-finding in the canyons, the spiritual life can be straightforward for a while. Maybe even boring or underwhelming. But then we come to a junction with one or two or more options to go forward. And if you haven’t been paying attention, or don’t know where you are on the map, it can be very confusing and disorienting.
One the biggest lessons to realize in backpacking, and the spiritual life, is to realize that you are not alone. This wasn’t the first time the guides were in this canyon: they knew where to camp, they knew where the water was, they understood the objective hazards. In the spiritual life we are not alone. Certainly, there are books and people around us who can help. Also, we must realize we have the support of the angels and the saints. And as Jesus said, “wherever two or three are gathered in My Name, I am present.” We can always ask the Holy Spirit to be with us in our spiritual journey, from the little decisions to the big ones.
The other significant takeaway from this trip came from a scripture reading from 1King17, part of the readings for a daily Mass. It was a particularly hot day in the middle of the trip. Because we were unsure where there was water, each of us was carrying about 2 gallons of water. Pretty heavy! We had an idea of what the terrain would be like, but with canyons, things are changing regularly. Sometimes it can be clear and easy. Other times there are large bushes to navigate through or boulders to climb over. Not the easiest hiking.
That morning we celebrated Mass and listened to 1Kings17. The story is mostly about Elijah, who is going through the desert. The Lord promised him water and food. Ravens brought him food (and there were many ravens in the canyon that we were in, though they didn’t bring us any food), but the river ran dry. The Lord told Elijah to go to Zarephath for food and water. When Elijah arrived, a widow welcomed him and provided him with food and water. There’s more to the story, but listening to Elijah walking through the hot desert looking for food and water while we ourselves were carrying all our food, but still looking for water was powerful.
At times we were two to three days from a vehicle, two or three days from security and comfort. Certainly, we needed to be practically prepared, but also we needed to know why we were spending more than a week in the challenging conditions of a canyon in early summer. We weren’t there to go exploring. We were there to pray, learn from each other, and grow in deeper relationship. And when the daily Mass reading is about a prophet walking through the desert looking for water and you are in a desert looking for water, it is abundantly clear how much God was working in our lives.
St. Francis is often pictured with a deer or rabbit or bird, which can be good and cute. But if we only take St. Francis and his love of creation at face value, we are missing out. If we only look at a canyon, maybe take some pictures and even spend a lot of time there, but don’t enter into the depths of the canyon, we will be missing out.
I found the desert canyons to be a lot like the spiritual life: a place of unknowns, uncertainty, and possibly even some danger. But lived in, with the help of a community, dedicating some time to enter the canyon, asking for God’s help, the canyon taught me a lot. And I think the same is true for the spiritual life.
St. Francis spent a lot of the end of his life in the solitude of creation, entering into a deeper relationship with God. I’ve always tried to take some time throughout the year to do the same, and I hope you might consider doing the same for your spiritual journey.
– friar Nick Rokitka OFM Conv.