Monday, September 26, 2011

The deserts of our lives – a place where God can speak to our hearts

The school that I am currently studying in as well as my accommodation (affectionately known as the Castle) which is just a stone’s throw from each other here in Washington DC, are within crawling distance from the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I have visited it on several occasions, and try to concelebrate the Sunday morning Mass there when the weekend comes. Entering this Basilica always gives me a sense of going into the heart of Mother Mary, where she places me together with her beloved Son, Jesus.
One interesting nugget of information that I found out about this shrine was that this was the place that Dorothy Day, the devout American Catholic convert and social worker, came to in the 1920s on a day trip out of her native New York City to get some help from the Lord. She was at her lowest, after having given birth to a baby girl, became Catholic, and an unwed mother. The man she was with at the time was a staunch opposer to all forms of religion. Dorothy chose God over this man (a very tough choice, as can be imagined), and found herself at this time very much alone. Apparently, in her biography, she told of how she spilled her very being out to the Lord in that particular shrine, and how she felt that she was in a desert all alone. Did the Lord take her out of the desert right there and then? You’d hope. But no, this was no Hollywood story. She had to hop back on the train to take her back to New York City (it’s about a four hour train ride from here) but it was only when she was back there that she met Peter Maurin who was to be the one who would help to start the Catholic Worker Movement with her in 1933.

What struck me about this story was that Dorothy Day described herself as being in a desert at that point. Desert moments occur in just about everybody’s life. When we are abandoned and lonely, we are in deserts. When we are betrayed and feel forlorn, we are in deserts. When we encounter failure and rejection, we are in deserts. When we get misjudged and abused, we are in deserts. Desert moments come also at the least expected of times. When loved ones get ill and their earthly end looms in the horizon; when we want to do God’s will and it seems the hardest thing to be happy to do; when those we put our faith and trust in, return it with infidelity and a whole basket of hurt feelings. These are desert moments that so many of us can connect with.

The difference between a faith-filled person and one who is faith-less, is the way that they handle their desert moments when they come. The faith-filled person will try to look beyond the pain and the sorrow of the moment, and open up to the Lord, like the way Dorothy Day did in the National Shrine back then when everything was breaking apart. The faithful person will try to not make her pain and her loneliness the heart of the universe, and dare to even ask God what is it that she should be learning from this whole experience. The faith-filled person will try one’s best not to blame and shame others, tempting though it may be. It is a tough decision to make, because it means not telling God what to do when the proverbial chips are down. It is very easy to make God our servant and give him a ‘to-do’ list and perhaps even have a ‘to-be-done-by’ date at the bottom.

People who lack faith will do one or more of the following – blame one’s spouse, one’s children, one’s parents, one’s employers, one’s superiors, one’s unhealed past memories, and perhaps the most common one of all, blame God. After all, he is the best scapegoat since he doesn’t retaliate in any violent way. At least not most of the time.

To be fair, I don't think any of us are totally one way or the other. I know I'm not. The reality is that we waver between these poles. Sometimes we do better at being faith-filled, and sometimes we are at the other end. Just as sometimes the desert can be a very hot place, and sometimes a freezing hell hole.

The desert in the scriptures is a place of great foreboding. In the Near Eastern mind, it is a place where the devil roams and inhabits. That is why Jesus was sent to the desert after his baptism – to encounter evil and to begin that great battle that was to be the story his life, and the greatest story ever told. But we need to also know that it was the Holy Spirit that sent Jesus there. God did not send him there alone and without a comforter. His love for the Father and his Father’s will gave him the strength to go to the desert with a confidence and a trust that he would be alright despite the battles that would be fought there.

When we find ourselves in the desert alone, we need to reclaim our baptismal dignity and remember that firstly, we have never been without the Holy Spirit in our journey in life, and secondly, like Jesus after his third temptation, we too, have our Guardian Angels to ‘light and guard, to rule and guide’.

And of course, though I had made reference to this before, it bears repeating here. In the book of the Apocalypse, to escape the foreboding dragon, Mary was given refuge in a desert. That is not what a desert is for. No one in the right mind would flee to a desert for refuge from danger. Yet, God’s ways are often not ours. It is precisely in the most unlikely of places that we will find the most unexpected of graces.

I do have my bouts of surreal homesickness now and then. I find myself low in spirits when I realize just how far I am from home and family, or when I glance at my watch and realize that everyone in Singapore is fast asleep as I am warming up to a cup of tea in the afternoon in the cold DC weather. This is when I go to the roof of the Castle, and have a very good view of the dome of the National Shrine before getting my nose buried back in the books. Sure, it may not be much of desert experience compared to those of others, but the desert takes all forms when it comes. (That's what I see from the roof of my 'castle'. In the foreground is the back portion of my school)

One doesn’t need to have the Basilica as one’s neighbour to find comfort in desert moments. Rather, what one needs is really the faith to enter the desert with a new resolve, knowing that one is not alone.


  1. Dear Fr Luke,

    Thank you for pictures from the Castle. It gives me and my hubby a better impression of the wonderful place you are studying in. The greenery around is so fresh...beautiful - relaxing for the eyes.

    I wished you a coloured bird for days when you are low...that was few blogs back. The 2 black-naped orioles are still within my vicinity to lift me up a lttle...the gentle breeze a wonderful equate them with God's touch is a very personal experience...just like the zip of hot tea on a cold day..

    I turn half a century today. I'm reading 'the loving search for God' by William A. Meninger a second time. Miss intellect, Miss memory and Ms imagination will drop in to have tea with us every now & then but "Peace, be still, and know that I am God".

    Thank you Father. It is through our low moments that we appreciate our high moments more preciously. Focus on the beautiful events you have pulled together and touched many hearts with them. There will be many more to come....

    For those who thought you as selective have not focused on the big picture of what you aim to achieve...With God's grace, they will come to see that light and appreciate the song better "From the distance"...Mat & hubby, Law.

  2. Looking back in my life, I realize that I was never alone in my desert moments. I definitely felt abandoned, lonely & bleak during those periods but I was never, never alone - there were people around me who desperately tried to talk me around, encouraged me, cheered me up etc. God never once left me.

    I guess those desert experiences can be akin to the cries of the people in the opening line of Psalm 22 & what is documented in both gospels of Matthew & Mark - Jesus' cry of "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?"

    Although I'm not masochistic to wish for desert moments, & I still sometimes struggle to remind myself that God has not abandoned me, I now know for certain that when I finally made my way out of the desert, the immensity of God's love, grace & mercy will always overwhelm me.

    Thank you, Father, for your sharing.

  3. Dear Fr Luke

    I reckon that the key to survival in a desert is to evolve – into the toughest and prickliest cactus possible. However, even with my carefully cultivated spikes, there are good days and bad days and it often takes more control than resolve to avoid heading down the wrong path since I tether at the brink so often. As such, thank you for specifically identifying the two spiritual anchors. It is extremely touching to me that you brought up the beloved words of the Guardian Angel prayer. Being born on the day the church celebrates the Feast of the Guardian Angels, I love this prayer to bits and I cannot remember a day in my own living memory when I have failed to say it.

    I suppose that our life experiences also include what one sees and witnesses in another’s life. It’s funny that you think of us sleeping in Singapore in your afternoons, and I will similarly think of and pray for slumbering you now when I go for my afternoon caffeine shot! Do take care, keep warm and study hard in your cold desert!


  4. thank you for posting this

  5. To quote Oscar Wilde: To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

    Desert moments give us opportunties to live because it is the pain n struggle that makes us feel more alive, however difficult it may be. It's tantamount to being poked by a sharp object and all our senses become acutely alive due to the pain. I must say I dislike desert moments and wish at times God didn't create human beings at all. But like you say, we must look beyond the pain and sorrows, and open to God. What else can we do and who else can we turn to except God?

    Desert Rose

  6. Father, thank you for choosing to concelebrate the Sunday mass during your study leave. The mass kept you intimately connected to God through his most sacred mystery of worship on the Sabbath day.
    You will never be alone when Jesus is alive in your heart even when you are far away from home. We will be here in Singapore praying for you while you fast asleep. Stay warmth and be energised by the love of Jesus Christ and our Mother Mary who walk with you every day.

    Kelly :)

  7. As the week dawned I realized I was in the desert of regrets.Then the captivating blog with the breath-taking pictures dissolved my regrets and brought my senses back to the immense love of the 'Crucified Jesus',who died a painful death
    for my sins.The majestic 'National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and the lush green picture of your school are reminders of God's bountiful gifts to us all.God Bless .Happy mastering your lessons Fr Luke.

  8. You said, “ No one in the right mind would flee to a desert for refuge from danger. Yet, God’s ways............It is precisely in the most unlikely of places that we will find the most unexpected of graces......” And similarly , Fr R Rohr said that ......’’we must go inside the belly of the whale for a while. Then and only then will we be spit upon a new shore and understand our call...” Whether in the belly of the whale or in the desert, it is a place or space we would rather not be. But usually there is no fore-warning - we are pushed or plunged into it helter-skelter – as when suddenly confronted with a terminal illness, a loved one’s infidelity, a loss of one’s livelihood or such personal catastrophe – what then ?

    Initially, there is a frantic scrabbling to find firm footing where we seemed to be mired in shifting sand , try to pierce the darkness with our unseeing eyes.......... before the cold, dull realization that all these efforts are in vain. There’s not even the proverbial straw for us to clutch at ! That’s when fear starts to gnaw at us......for at last we are no longer in control, we have been dislodged, displaced from our centre. The more we struggle the deeper we go under .....

    Now comes the time- we begin to realize that here, there are no instant and quick fixes....... here, we cannot change the environment or the events but we can change ourselves. We learn to be willing to learn, to slow down our impatience, to wait out this terrible time as it slowly unfolds, not to rush through things as there is no longer a turning back or avoiding of the darkness, the aloneness, the void and the pain. Only one day at a time. Perhaps this is how a seed feels when it is hidden in the deep earth, as it hibernates and gets ready for growth , breaking its seed-skin before new life can unfurl ?

    But underlying all this is a trust that all these are transient and will pass. This is only a passage in life that has to be lived through ....under the shadow of His wings..........though unknowingly to us all this while. So true that “ it is grace that forms the void inside of us and it is grace alone that can fill the void.”

    God bless you Fr


  9. Hi Dear Father,
    I must admit that I dont always read your blogs but somehow sometimes I am drawn to it and it is always at the wee hours of the morning,like now.
    I dreamt of you two nights ago; you were about to celebrate Mass and you were freezing cold.You then sent someone to ask for the gloves which I brought for you and then you put them on...Cant imagine you celebrating Mass with gloves on.Hmm..and now I have just read your blog.Keep warm in His Love.
    Thank you for your inputs, it always has touched a cord with me. We miss you very much at our Parish;your great reverence for the Eucharistic Celebration,inspiring Homilies, your quest for Holiness etc.. has inspired both Ray & myself tremendously. Not forgetting your lovely smile):
    Ray was supposed to come to spore this friday but had to cancel his trip as his mum is unwell. I guess this is my desert experience-will miss him for another two months until I get home to sydney in Dec in time for his birthday and Christmas.
    All the best in your studies, we know you will do well. We will keep you in our prayers.YOU r Very SPECIAL.
    Miss you heaps..Patricia & Ray