Rain drove me to the desert. Years of rain, actually. I’d grown up under gray Midwestern skies that lasted weeks in a row during winter and spring. And fall. Recess was soggy grass and slick playgrounds, a purple raincoat and foggy glasses. At fourteen, we moved to the sunshine state where humidity would collect in spring and summer clouds, and eventually let loose drops so big they stung. The rain fell in torrents, but minutes later, the sky was blue again.
Years later, as I was a mom in the South, rain meant spoiled plans. It ruined park dates and grocery shopping and birthday parties. The final straw was an Easter Sunday when I braced against icy rain while the kids searched for hidden eggs. I was over it, primed and ready for the job offer that came the following month. My husband’s company wanted him in Arizona. We said “yes.”
Hoped for Rest
The moving process stretched months longer than planned. Chronic pain spasms intensified, which I attributed to the pressure of raising four kids in a house that had to be kept perfect for spontaneous showings. There was packing and piles of paperwork and school withdrawals. The neighbors hung Christmas lights; I said goodbye to my family, my job, and many friends. I often imagined myself in my new bedroom, sighing with relief. Rest is coming, I’d assure myself.
But long after the boxes were unpacked, peace was still elusive. My insides were frenzied, which made sense considering we’d uprooted our lives and were deep in the throes of making a new life. I speculated my unrest was further aggravated by grief, which I avoided by compulsively keeping busy and staying in motion. I wore a heart monitor for a month to figure out why it sometimes felt like my heart might jump out of my chest, but the readings said my heart was fine–strong and healthy, actually.
Every day, the desert sky poured sunshine, and every day, I hurried out to absorb it all. This went on for months, and then one afternoon, the air smelled like rain. The sun shone bright as ever, but a few miles north, the sky was dark. The unmistakable scent of rain loosened my muscles a little and a sense of relief shot through my veins. I settled into a chair by the window and watched the rain come down in sheets. The cracked ground gulped what it could, but the streets quickly became rivers. My kids and neighbor kids ran out with boogie boards and danced in water to their knees. In less than an hour, the monsoon transformed the desert into a rushing waterway, and I soaked it all in, completely still. If this was what renewal felt like, I wanted it. I was ready.
No Quick Fix
I wish readiness was the quick finish to all hard things. I wish renewal was instantaneous–God comes in, gets to work, and all is well. But readiness is only the start of the transformation process, which is by definition a “change induced when the underlying becomes surface.” In other words, readiness gives way to exposure, and as human beings bruised by the world, we resist this process, opting instead to protect our wounds and weaknesses. Naomi was so comfortable with her bitterness, she renamed herself “Mara.” Moses was so embarrassed by his inability to speak, he begged God several times to send anyone else to Pharaoh. Naaman rejected the prescription for healing leprosy because dunking himself in the dirty water of the Jordan was just one more way to feel unclean and, probably, humiliated.
I “tsked” at these stories, until I realized my own tendency to respond the same way when pain, failure, and shame were on the line. When appearances and status quo are being maintained and God wants to bring the stones of my mind-heart to the surface so he can remove them and replace them with tender underbelly, I’m not exactly willing to undergo the procedure. I’m happy to encounter God, but I’m not all that interested in struggling with the dark shadows of self.
In The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen simplifies the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers into three disciplines: silence, solitude, and prayer. Read the gospels and you’ll recognize these disciplines in the ministry of Jesus. You’ll see them in the lives of David and Daniel, John and Paul.
In real life, though, these disciplines seem too elementary to be effective, or perhaps, too unimpressive. If we overcome the hurdles of pride, we soon find we are restless in silence, insecure in solitude, distracted in prayer. The disciplines are strenuous in the sense they are ongoing and require daily responsiveness. Plus, quiet is hard to find and busyness always beckons. Plenty of mornings, I’ve ignored my morning prayer time for productivity. I’ve filled silence with music. I’ve consumed social feeds rather than receiving the gift of solitude.
Just like desert ground, the heart must be softened to receive. In solitude, God removes the stones and puts his Spirit in me. In silence, his Spirit renews my mind, and through prayer, this new mind changes my behavior. When I receive fully, I respond fully—to God and to others. Nouwen writes, “[The disciplines] …become a quality of heart, an inner disposition that can no longer be disturbed…an infinite space into which anyone can be invited…it is compassion…the inner disposition to go with others to the place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken.” (Condensed from The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen, pp 23-24.)
The Story of Redemption
We are renewed so that we might refresh others. We are transformed so that our lives tell the story of redemption. We find rest so that our “restful hearts attract those who are groping to find their way through life” (The Way of the Heart, p 90) and make God’s presence known.
I passed a milestone this week: a quarter of my life lived in the desert. I don’t know what compels me to calculate such things—genetics, curiosity, or maybe it’s how I mark where and who I am. It’s monsoon season again and heat lightning breaks the sky as I sit here, thinking about who I was during that first monsoon ten years ago. Not too long ago, I wrote a letter to that girl. I didn’t tell her about the valleys and changes ahead. I told her she’d finally know rest.