This Present Desert: God’s Invitation to Solitude and Slowness

(Editor’s Note: What follows is an article longer than what is typical for Missio Alliance, but the content that our guest contributor Jared Boyd offers here is substantive and thoughtful, well-worth the read. In addition to this article, Jared and Sister Heather Kristine have also created a five-day prayer guide to help us more deeply enter into this present desert. You’ll find a link to the guide at the end of the article.)

The whole world has been led into the desert and we must confront the demons.

While previous moments in history have taught Christians to be salt and light through darkness and plague, I fear we may still miss out on what this moment may have to teach us. This moment is apocalyptic in the truest sense of that word; this is an unveiling. I’d like to call this moment: the desert.

We can also refer to it as the wilderness. The wilderness has always been a time for seeking God and receiving God’s instruction. While we seek to build new systems of connection and infrastructures of worship and find ways to love in the time of corona, might we also consider the gifts that the solitude and slowness might bring?

The suffering we are experiencing in the wilderness and isolation is not the suffering of judgment—as some would have us believe—it is the suffering of our life stripped of the comforts that we, all of us with privilege enough to have comfort, have grown accustomed to. But these are the comforts that mask the fear that many of us are only now discovering has been there all along; we are afraid of being completely alone with God, and what we might find there. The suffering we are experiencing is the suffering of our life stripped of the comforts that we, all of us with privilege enough to have comfort, have grown accustomed to. Click To Tweet

Isolation is quite different from solitude. The main difference between a cloistered monk and a prisoner is the difference of will. The monk is held in his place by the giving of his own word through a vow of obedience. The prisoner is held in place by another’s word through a sentence handed down. Both men sit in a cell, without possessions, carrying on life at the instruction of another. The confinement itself is not what makes a prisoner imprisoned. It is that the confinement and constraints for a prisoner are at the will of another and not one’s own. Isolation is something that happens to you, it seems to me. But solitude is something one can choose.

When a new government leader (rightfully) orders new constraints limiting human interaction and disrupting our way of life—we feel the force of another’s will: we are constrained— it feels as though it is happening to us. And the desert feels lonely. But not every desert is a dark corner to be avoided. Some of the beasts that await us in the wilderness are beasts worthy of giving attention to; some of our early church Fathers and Mothers modeled what this might look like for us. They went into the desert looking for union with Christ. But they went by an act of their own will. It isn’t something that happened to them, and thus, they were not in isolation (as I’m defining it); they chose their way of life. They were seeking solitude. And so should we. And so we can, with an act of consent because consenting requires our will (more on this below); we can choose what we did not choose.

Isolation breeds restlessness. Solitude nurtures peace. One way of considering whether you are experiencing isolation or solitude is to ask yourself whether you are experiencing restlessness or peace. We must pray for the courage to say yes to what our current circumstance brings us. But, and this might sound in opposition to what I have just said, we must also take a posture of fighting. But what is it that we are to fight against? The tension is that we must both learn to consent and fight at the same time. Sifting this COVID-19 moment and making one pile of things to which we can consent and another pile of things to fight against might help us face what this desert offers us. This is not the work we can do as long as we remain in isolation. Spiritual formation cannot happen in isolation, but it absolutely can happen in solitude. We must transition from thinking that we are in isolation to consenting to the solitude before any spiritual formation can take place. As Abba Moses says, “Go, sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.” Isolation breeds restlessness. Solitude nurtures peace. Click To Tweet

In the fourth century, small communities of salvation seekers began to spring up in the deserts of Egypt, Persia, and Palestine. Men and women sought solitude, far from a way of life that was fabricated by the world. The primary history-writers were men, and thus, the Desert Fathers, as we have come to know them, forged a way of life together by recognizing that there was enough within their own selves that the world had fabricated; enough to last a lifetime of sorting out. By their own choice, they left behind the normal way of existence, and with great severity, confronted the demons within their own heart and soul. They didn’t need a pandemic to go to the desert—what they had was an awareness of a battle waging within them, what moved them into the desert was a longing for union with God, what they found was solitude. Solitude was the teacher they needed. And now we need it too.

Say what you will about the strangeness of the Desert Fathers. They were strange. They lived in a time when the ascetic life was in style, although still obscure, in many corners of the world. It is no doubt that their way of life was fundamentally different from our own—they are men and women from the past. However, they lived in a way that might be instructive for us during this season. And, more importantly, they left a legacy behind them and forged out a new way of living that gave birth to the traditions that can help us think about formation in our own time of solitude. It’s a time that we are meeting a version of ourselves that we never expected to meet.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers gave birth to St. Francis and St. Benedict, which gave birth to people like St. Therese of Lisieux, and John of the Cross, and more recently, Thomas Merton. They all lived in the tension of consent and fighting. I think this is the primary lesson of the monastic witness and by metaphorical extension, the desert. Learning to distinguish between what to consent to, and what to fight, is at the very least, one lesson that the desert offers.

We cannot obtain the virtues found in the desert in the abstract. We cannot imagine ourselves in the desert so that we can learn what only the desert can teach us. We have to go there either by choice or, like Christ, because we are thrown there (Mark 1:12). In either case, now that we are here, the question on everyone’s mind is what to do. If you are a pastor or leader of people in this moment, if you are a parent struggling to find your center, even if you are happy and content because you are a raging introvert that was lucky enough to max out your library card just before it closed—what is the shape of your spiritual life right now?

I have been revisiting and meditating on two things:

  1. We can consent to what we did not choose, and this is where true spiritual freedom begins to emerge.
  2. We can fight against the enemy of our spiritual consolation.

The first comes (to me, at least) from a little book called Interior Freedom, by Father Jacques Philippe, a member of the Community of the Beatitudes (France). He’s still alive and teaching. If he has an Instagram feed, someone please tell me. He is who we should be listening to. The second comes from St. Ignatius of Loyola. Loyola’s Rules of Discernment are rules written for spiritual directors guiding devotees through the up and down path of a journey that we now know to be the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. St. Ignatius is dead, of course, but his words and teaching are very much alive.

Consenting To What We Did Not Choose

The highest and most fruitful form of human freedom is found in accepting, even more than in dominating. We show the greatness of our freedom when we transform reality, but still more when we accept it trustingly as it is given to us day after day. It is natural and easy to go along with pleasant situations that arise without our choosing them. It becomes a problem, obviously, when things are unpleasant, go against us or make us suffer. But it is precisely then that, in order to become truly free, we are often called to choose to accept what we did not want, and even what we would not have wanted at any price. There is a paradoxical law of human life here: one cannot become truly free unless one accepts not always being free!

— Father Jacque Philippe

Father Philippe provides a helpful progression along which we might move back and forth, vacillating as we would in stages of grief, for example, between rebellion, resignation, and consent. Of course our initial reaction—to the world shutting down, the loss of life, the stress that is now our everyday reality, to the years of economic gains now lost—is rebellion. This is why getting everyone to stay at home in those initial few weeks was so impossible. This is why people kept going on cruises and sunbathing on the beaches of Florida. But it is also why we kept walking around the house, opening the fridge and turning to anyone who will listen while we say, “I can’t believe what is happening.” Of course this would be our reaction. But Father Philippe says that the next most palpable thing to live with is resignation.

Resignation is the realization that we cannot change the situation. Resignation is not a Christian virtue for the simple fact that resignation lacks hope. Even with a solid plan to fight against the pandemic, the fact that we are in a crisis of pandemic is enough to warrant a great deal of depression and listlessness (more on this later). In resignation, we are resigning to allow the virus and the isolation it brings to take over. The posture of resignation is a concession to passivity. For Father Philippe, resignation is the attitude of powerlessness not only over the circumstances but that feeling of powerlessness when one feels as though one cannot change one’s disposition towards the present circumstances.

Resignation at this moment looks like resigning oneself to whatever default setting one has in the midst of stress. You might be unaware of your default setting. For some of us, our default setting is rooted in self-preservation, finishing Netflix and moving onto Disney+ in an aggressive intake of anything that will distract us. For others, we’ll find our way forward through some degree of over-functioning activity in an effort to take care of everyone else. It is absolutely a time to be present to one another and serve in ways that we can—but for some, the default response will be to spend the next three months on every possible Zoom call imaginable.

Still others will do everything in our power to control our surroundings, tidying up the garage, running the numbers on the budget, and avoiding any unnecessary conflict because one more thimble-full might set the whole house on fire. All of these responses will continue to happen and we should have all the patience and grace in the world for one another in this moment of collective trauma. But we can be present to our default setting that reveals itself to us in this stage of resignation. We can pay attention to when we are slipping back into passivity and move towards consent through an act of our will: we can choose what we did not choose. We can pay attention to when we are slipping back into passivity and move towards consent through an act of our will: we can choose what we did not choose. Click To Tweet

Consent is when the objective reality of the world remains the same, but our heart and disposition towards that reality begins to turn towards faith, hope, and love. We begin to know deep within us that though we cannot change the conditions of our world, God is working in the world nonetheless. The virtues of faith, hope, and love come after the consent, but we can move towards consent and trust because God is faithful. Faith, hope, and love will meet us on the other side. Consenting to the reality of pandemic and all that it will bring does not change the world, but it changes our world. It changes the way we experience the world. And it changes the way we suffer. Father Philippe writes that “consenting to suffering makes it much more bearable than tensing ourselves against it.”

That is a hard thing to hear in the desert, and I suspect we, none of us, have the grace for it. But this is when we go into Gethsemane—where Christ meets us—and ask for the grace for it. This is the Gospel—Christ going ahead of us, consenting to the suffering, working it out with tears and blood until he could say, “Thy will be done.” To be clear, I do not believe that COVID-19 is God’s will. But I do believe that God’s will is that we would receive him in the midst of it. It’s in this way that I believe that we can pray, “Thy will be done.”

Knowing What to Fight Against

If we can consent to the reality that our lives will never again be as they were prior to COVID-19, what we fight against now becomes much clearer. Part of the wasted energy and part of why you and I are so tired is because our brains are trying to figure out what exactly to do with an enemy that we cannot see. That act of holding the posture of disbelief itself is exhausting. We wake up in disbelief that this is happening. We go throughout our day with moments of incredulity that are suffocating. We go to bed trying the best we can to pull our eyes away from that little black mirror that we hold in our hands—updating us with more data for us to try to shake off in our slumber. Our limbic system is in a constant cycle of fight, flight, freeze; we’ve never faced this kind of enemy before.

Knowing what is really the thing to fight against, in the middle of the desert, could be the single most important question. If left unanswered, we simply shake our fists in the comments of other people’s Facebook posts, or worse, we turn our unnameable discontent towards the ones we love the most alongside whom we are quarantined. If you haven’t tried this yet or caught yourself slipping down that path—I assure you, it’s a dead end.

St. Ignatius of Loyola helped people know what to fight against. He spent the first half of his life looking for fights until his pride led him to overestimate his abilities as an army commander resulting in a cannon-ball shattering one of his legs. He would never walk without a limp again (there is probably a little sermon in there, but I’ll resist). While convalescing at his childhood home, Ignatius discovered that the real battle was not outside of him, but within him. It was a battle of desire and getting to the heart of what he really wanted. Later, after years of questioning and noticing the movements of his desires, and the kinds of thoughts that emerged from different moments and seasons of his life, he developed 22 rules to help others navigate both the lush green valleys and the dry deserts (with all their beasts) of the spiritual journey. The real work in knowing what to fight against is the work of discernment. As Abba Poemen said that Abba Ammonas said: “A person can spend his whole time carrying an axe without succeeding in cutting down the tree; while another, with experience of tree-felling, brings the tree down with a few blows. He said that the axe is discernment.” (The Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

The 22 Rules of Discernment that Ignatius lays out as material to accompany his Spiritual Exercises are guidelines to follow when trying to discern the movements of our inner life. Given that we all are in the midst of a great tragedy and now share in our stories a global collective trauma, my assumption is that at some point along this pandemic journey you will or have already experienced a sort of desolation in that part of you that maintains your spiritual life. Spiritual desolation is defined by a darkness and disturbance of one’s soul. It’s when we are moved to “lowly and earthly things,” as Ignatius calls them—binging Netflix, overindulging in alcohol or food, could easily make the list.

“…disquiet from various agitations and temptations, moving to lack of confidence, without hope, without love, finding oneself totally slothful, tepid, sad, and, as if separated from one’s Creator and Lord.” (St. Ignatius of Loyola, Rules of Discernment, Rule 4)

While Ignatius was primarily concerned with the kind of desolation that comes without external cause, many Ignatian scholars rightly point out that St. Ignatius was well aware that non-spiritual desolation (for example, a global pandemic) is fertile soil for spiritual desolation. Losing a loved one is non-spiritual desolation, but it could certainly lead to deep doubts of God’s goodness, or a sense of abandonment by God. Likewise, living through COVID-19 and the wake that it brings is itself a form of desolation, but what Ignatius helps us take a closer look at is how this external event brings disruption to our spiritual life. Are you feeling abandoned by God? On some level, I’m sure we all are. If you need language or another story to immerse yourself in to get a fuller picture of what abandonment by God feels like for an entire city—I commend to you Albert Camus’s The Plague.

So many of us spent our first few weeks in quarantine fighting against the notion that this was for real. And when we realized that it was for real, and then realized that there was no visible enemy to fight against, we no longer knew what to fight against. So what and how do we fight? Who is the enemy in this moment? The enemy, the only enemy, is the enemy of our faith, hope, and love. When these begin to decrease, we are headed for desolation.

St. Ignatius says that we have an enemy of our spiritual consolation and that enemy comes in the form of temptations, deceits, and attacks. Our posture against these is to resist, reveal, and to do some spiritual reconnaissance.

The enemy of our spiritual consolation is weak, says St. Ignatius. Ignatius teaches (in Rule 12) that when faced with strength, the enemy is weak, but when faced with weakness, the enemy is strong. His instruction to us is to resist the temptations that the enemy puts in front of us to lead us away from spiritual consolation and into desolation. And so, if you, dear reader, would permit me to be a bit pastoral in this moment, where are you experiencing temptation to set aside your spiritual practice? Where are you being drawn away from engagement in prayer and presence to your life with God? There is an enemy, and if you are experiencing spiritual desolation, it is likely that you are being wooed towards that desolation. While Ignatius’ response might seem a bit simplistic, its simplicity makes it at least worthy of trying: resist the enemy and he will grow weaker and eventually just leave you alone.

The second posture towards the work of the enemy of our consolation is to do the work of revealing; the way that the enemy works is deceit. The enemy will do everything he can to remain hidden and to encourage your struggle to remain hidden to others. If you feel yourself hiding something, anything, from the people who love you, that’s a sign that you have lost your peace, are in spiritual desolation, and need to do the hard work of revealing to others that you are seeking secrecy. More than once over the past few weeks I have reached out to friends and mentors when any hint of the desire to hide creeps in. A global pandemic is a ripe time for old habits to be resurrected. If you find that you are eating too much or drinking too much or tempted toward unhealthy sexual impulses and satisfying that impulse with online porn—have compassion on yourself and also recognize that you are being led down a path that will keep you in spiritual desolation.

The last posture during a time of spiritual desolation is the posture of reconnaissance. The way that the enemy works against our faith, hope, and love during times of spiritual desolation is attack, which is really a summation of the first two (temptations and deceit). But, knowing where the enemy is attacking becomes data that is quite helpful. Gathering this data is the work of reconnaissance. If you can imagine that there really is an enemy, and you are at war, knowing where the enemy is about to attack next is helpful information. I don’t know how it works in your life, but spiritual desolation enters my life through just a handful of pathways; they are well-worn. Another pastoral moment: where, specifically, are the places of weakness in your life? What are the well-worn paths that attack comes in? How can you be on guard and vigilant to pay deeper attention to these places?

We can fight against the spiritual desolation that is upon us as we work and pray and love our way through global pandemic. But in order to fight against the real things that we must fight against, it seems to me that we must stop fighting against the thing we have very little control over. Every spiritual Father or Mother that I have ever read speaks about the dangers of living with a heart that is actively resisting the present moment and circumstances of life. True freedom comes through accepting the reality of life as it comes to us, consenting to it, as Father Philippe reminds us, and asking deeper questions in the midst of it: How am I responding to the invitations of God in this time? Who, God, are you making me, forming me, through the present realities of the life I am living? True freedom comes through accepting the reality of life as it comes to us, consenting to it, and asking deeper questions in the midst of it. Click To Tweet

I have tried to make the case that there is a difference between isolation and solitude. The former will keep us stuck while the latter has been shown, tried and tested through monastic cells and deserts, to be the place of deeper spiritual formation. Continuing to live in isolation is a passive stance about what is happening to us. Consenting—through an act of our own will—to “stay-at-home” orders and “sheltering in place,” receiving these as some strange gift that we did not choose, is akin to going to our cell and allowing it to teach us. We can be led into this desert and thrown into the wilderness, even one that we did not choose. We can choose to fight the beasts that come to us and we can do so with courage. This desert wilderness will provide plenty of opportunities to fight against the temptations, the deceit, and the attacks of the enemy.

For those wishing to fight, it turns out that consenting to the impact of a global pandemic, choosing what we did not choose, is a way to throw the first punch.

Click here for the Five-Day Prayer Guide for Being in the Desert by Jared Boyd and Sister Heather Kristine.