Archives, Biography, Orlando, Pondering

Mountains, Valleys and Deserts

And I was wondering if you had been to the mountain,
Looked at the valley below;
Did you see all the roads tangled down in the valley?
Did you know which way to go?
Well, the mountain streams run pure and clear
and wish to mv soul could alwavs be here
But there’s a reason for livin’ way down in the valley
That only the mountain knows

(Noel Paul Stookey, “John Henry Bosworth” The Solo Recordings)

The “reason for livin’ way down in the valley” rather than in a small paradise somewhere up in the woods was a life-shaping image of the rhythm I thought I needed for the first twenty years of mv adult life. Noel Paul Stookey’s song tells of a family who leaves all the mess of civilization and winds up, in the end, well prepared and utterly alone. The song ends with this haunting chorus that long rang through my soul whenever I quietly shut the door behind an extended period of silence.

I walked a long journey from valley to mountain and back before I learned that what I was really seeking was a desert. The valley is a place for family and friends, work and community, affirmation and disruption. The mountain is our “leisure” place, where we retreat, vacation, take a day off, with the intent of recouping enough energy to go on back to the valley.

Unfortunately, if you are like me, any recovery I encountered on a particular “mountain” was pretty much dissipated after too short a time upon my return. My soul was just too leaky to hold much of the mountain peace for long. I would never have thought to look for a desert instead. Yet the last fifteen years of my life have taught me that the lonely, desert is precisely the place where the transformation I longed tor on the mountain can actually be forged in me, not just poured on me, only to roll back off again.

We get to the desert in different ways: during Lent, our “giving up” of something is a means of sticking our toes in the desert. When we abstain from something we perceive as life-giving for us, we learn to pay attention to our souls’ response to that deprivation. Such responses give us a hint of what’s lurking below the surface when we are not completely comfortable.

The result of such interior preparation is more than a generic nod to “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Leaning into the cross during Holy Week becomes more concrete and tangible. And repentance of these deeper things bubbling under the surface draws us into a “time of refreshment” that St. Peter had personally possessed and publicly proclaimed (Acts 3:19-20).

But we can find ourselves in the desert at other times besides Lent. We suffer great loss, and the very grass under our feet dies, and our lives become a dust bowl. Or we flee to the desert like the infant Jesus and his parents, because a kind of Herod is on our back, with danger, threats and condemnation not very far behind.

These desert wanderings can turn relentless, lonely spaces into a furnace of transformation from which we no longer attempt to flee but embrace, as necessary to us as to the Israelites, to Elijah, and, (I pause at the mystery) to Jesus himself. In the weeks to come I hope to draw in insights from these various desert spaces from Scripture, the Desert Fathers, and my own personal discovery that while I live in the valley, mountains can come and go, but fleeing to the desert is the sure-fire place where I meet God in life-transforming ways.

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