Dear Donagh,

I have been meditating for three years and it still feels like standing in an arid desert.  I know we don’t meditate in order to have some kind of experience – but the aridity is very discouraging.  You once said that meditation is an attraction – God attracting us.  I don’t feel this – I just feel that God is switching off his magnetism where I am concerned. Where should I go with it?  Marie

Dear Marie,

I know it is too easy for me to say this: don’t go anywhere with it; stay with it.  It is easy to say it, yet it is the wisdom of the ages, discovered in the very kind of place you are in now.  It is discovered again and again, not as easy words but as intense experience, by everyone who seeks God.  It is so much part of the picture that many Christians in the 3rd and 4th centuries fled the comfort and security of the city and lived in actual deserts – in Egypt and the Near East.  They were so possessed by the urgency of the Gospel that they seemed to throw their lives away, remembering that Jesus had said: “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Mt 10:39).  There is an abundant literature of the ‘Desert Fathers and Mothers’, which you can find easily on the internet.  Here is a sample:

Amma Syncletica said, "In the beginning there is struggle and a lot of work for those who come near to God. But after that there is indescribable joy. It is just like building a fire: at first it is smoky and your eyes water, but later you get the desired result. Thus we ought to light the divine fire in ourselves with tears and effort."

We would like to follow a known path, but as Machado said, real travellers don’t follow a path, they make one as they go: Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.  In a desert there are no paths, no signposts, no features…. After a few days of a desert crossing, I read, travellers begin to lose all sense of progress, because the horizon looks just the same, day after day.  They are driven into an eternal here and now.  In meditation groups we are forever hearing about the ‘here and now’.  This sounds easy and pleasant, so I wonder why we find it hard to stay with it for any length of time!  I think it is because we are addicted to being on the move and knowing where we are going.  A lot of spiritual writing attempts to be aesthetic (see the Gospel commentary for Dec. 15: re Kierkegaard), but we know that if we take the spiritual quest seriously we will be dragged beyond nice words and feelings. The ‘here and now’ is a tiny patch of desert, and we usually want to get out of it as quickly as possible.  But you have kept coming back to it for three years already.  The fact that you are experiencing it painfully shows that you are going beyond words and descriptions; you are entering the reality of it.   

It is painful to feel that you have no path, no maps, no timetable, no sense of progress….  It leaves you with the feeling that you are all alone; but in reality you have a lot of company.  It was said of those ancient times that the desert became “like a teeming city.”  The inner desert is an even vaster city.  Millions live there full-time; billions live there part-time.  Most people hate it, some few have the courage to love it.  It is a consecrated place.  Jesus lived for a time in the desert, echoing the ancient history of his people who wandered “for forty years in the wilderness.”  The desert was the abode of wild beasts and demons, but it was also the place where those wanderers came to know God.  Christians ever since have seen it as a real ‘place’ in the spiritual life.  It is a good place, full of possibilities.  We have no depth if we have never allowed ourselves to be willingly in a desert for some length of time.  We face our own wild beasts and demons there, but paradoxically it is their very onslaughts that can drive us into the arms of God. 

When you sit in meditation you are sitting with that vast company.  I went to St Thérèse of Lisieux to find a text for the ‘Wisdom Line’ section this month.  I picked that particular passage because of its relevance to your question; it is like a continuation of this section.  No one would have guessed, it seems, from looking at St Thérèse that she lived in an inner desert.  “My only guide is self-abandonment,” she wrote; “I have no other compass.”  Of Jesus, she said, “He never manifests himself nor lets me hear his voice.”  She remained in the desert and like millions before and after her she found God there. 

Be content to stay in the desert, the wise ones tell us.  It has something priceless to give you.  If you attempt to push it away it will follow you forever.  If you stay with it, it will slowly change its aspect – because nothing ever remains the same.  Gradually it will feel different: its vastness will not seem threatening, its pathless expanse will become the path, its timelessness will enfold you in God.  Then one day you will do a double-take: you will realise that it is not the desert that has changed, but you. 

I hope these few pointers may be of some help to you, Marie.


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