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Into the desert

I love reading books, but there are few that I read again. I have, however, returned to 'The Absence of God: Dwelling in the Presence of the Sacred' by Sam Keen.

The central thesis of this work is that in throwing out traditional beliefs about God, the West has lost its connection with the sacred. Keen seeks to recover some of this lost spiritual wisdom, writing about it in such a way as to inspire a yearning for its return.

Much taken by his reflections, I am trying to figure out how best to embody one part of the wisdom he speaks of - retreating into the desert.

Twenty-seven years ago, in preparation for theological studies, I went on an eight-day silent retreat.

Retreatants only spoke during a one-hour daily meeting with a spiritual director. No books (except a Bible), no TV, no telephone calls, no computer, no one I knew, no planned activities… Eight days of no distractions. A sort of desert…

At the time, I had two young children. The first day was bliss. The second less so and by the third, I was struggling. Keen speaks of the importance of wrestling with inner devils. On the third day, I met mine.

It was anguishing and lasted for a further four days. There were no distractions to help alleviate it.

On the seventh day, to quote Keen, I met my ‘better angels.' Their arrival was a gift of grace.

This retreat had a sort of Easter quality. The silence enabled me to move through my own crucifixion to resurrection. I was not able to navigate this way by reason or even heart. It was grace. It was a new experience of hope.

The memory of it encourages me to this day.

This is a small, personal example of what Keen alludes to in commending retreating to the desert.

The wisdom of it doesn’t sit well in contemporary culture, which views happiness as the highest goal, and unhappiness as a sidetrack to be avoided at all costs.

This current obsession with happiness, its terror of inner demons, and its practice of avoidance, nonetheless suggests that Keen’s plea for spiritual wisdom be taken seriously.

We are too busy, too addicted, too unfocused, and we remain largely unaware of what happens below the surface of our consciousness. Moreover, with personal happiness at the forefront, we quickly turn away from the turmoil of what lies within.

Sacred wisdom counsels a journey into the desert. Although not a popular message, it is one to which I find myself returning. (I should add that Keen is not advocating time out, unwinding, debriefing and leisure, valuable as they may be. He is advocating withdrawal to face one's inner demons.)

At this point, I don't anticipate going on another eight date silent retreat. I am chewing over how to build desert time into the week.

The16th-century mystic, John of the Cross, wrote;
In order to come to a pleasure you have not
You must go by a way that you will enjoy not
To come to the knowledge you have not
You must go by a way that you know not.

The desert is such a way.