The Word Among Us

November 2010 Issue

A Desert Experience

This desolate land became for me a place of beauty.

By: Judi MacLean

A Desert Experience: This desolate land became for me a place of beauty. by Judi MacLean

If you’ve ever spent any time in a desert, you know how unmerciful it can feel, with no water, no shade, no respite from the scorching heat. A spiritual desert can be like that, too—a testing place where God’s refreshing presence seems as elusive as a mirage. And yet, those forbidding deserts contain surprising seeds of life.

Three Wise Guides. I began discovering this in the non-desert setting of San Jose, in northern California. My husband, Ray, and I had moved there from our home in the south of the state—a job-related move made necessary by the changes affecting so many people in the publishing world.

For many years, Ray had been the chief financial officer for a metropolitan newspaper; that job disappeared when the paper was sold to another corporation. We were relieved when the company offered him a position at another paper in the Silicon Valley. It meant moving away from our adult children and our friends, but we settled easily into our new house, neighborhood, and parish.

In December of our third year there, we went on an Advent retreat at a local convent with gorgeous grounds—grassy knolls and mighty pine trees. The weather was cold and rainy, but through our moderator’s reflections and meditations, we entered into the world of the Christmas story. We “became” each character and traveled the desert, rode the donkey and the camels, and kept watch in the stable and the fields. We rejoiced, sang, and even acknowledged fearful anxiety about the fate of the newborn Child.

For me, it was the story of the Three Wise Men that really made an impact. As I told the others on the retreat: “I have never traveled the desert alone—and never at night without the glow of city lights on the horizon or of headlights on the paved road. I have never followed a star for guidance in the dark, dark of a desert.” Meditating on the Magis’ arduous journey of faith stimulated my own faith, and Christ was truly born within me that Christmas.

Change of Course. The Wise Men were warned in a dream to return to their country by another route, and a few months after that Christmas, our route was altered, too. As the economy began to quiver, the Silicon Valley went into a meltdown that affected my husband’s newspaper. He emerged with an early retirement package, feeling let down by the company to which he had given so much of his life.

This was not what we had planned. Our future had seemed so secure, but now everything was spinning quickly out of control. We put our house on the market, and it sold in three days. Fortunate as we were to have found a buyer in that depressed economy, the sale left us frightened and isolated. We had no home, no job, and no clue about what lay ahead.

Even as I worried, though, the message of the Wise Men kept speaking deep within me. They had journeyed obediently toward something they could not see. I wanted to do the same, for I was hearing whispers to “follow.” But where, God? Where am I to follow?

Not There, Lord! The answer came through God’s softly spoken urging and my husband’s persuasion: We would look for a house we could afford back home, in Southern California. First, though, we would move in with my elderly mother, who was needing more attention despite my frequent trips to her home about five hundred miles away.

Moving in with Mom was right and sensible, yet whenever I tried to picture it, a haunting feeling came over me. I dreaded living in that ancient and stuffy house, so empty of life and happiness. The grandfather clock in the foyer stood silent. The furniture was uncomfortable and felt staged—it hadn’t budged for decades. The stove didn’t work, the heater and the air conditioner rattled, and all the mattresses were flat and lumpy. The whole place had a chill, as did my feelings toward my mother. Nothing about this move warmed my heart.

My mother, on the other hand, was excited and welcomed us with more joy than I had experienced from her in a long time. I balked at her hospitality like a sullen teenager—it was a gift I had to receive. Outwardly, I expressed appreciation, but it was an act; inside, I struggled with pride and resentment.

Where am I to follow? I had asked God. And he had responded: Into the desert so that you can follow my star into the dark of night. I will lead you to the stable of birth. My mother and her house were located in the California desert. Obediently but grimly, I went.

Life in the Desert. We moved in early August. It was the beginning of the hottest season in the Coachella Valley, with daytime temperatures often exceeding 110 degrees. I was angry and hot and discouraged. I like to think I was pleasant, although there were times when my frustration showed.

I spent my days inside—reading, talking, and doing household chores. Often, I felt trapped. But in the evenings, when the temperature “cooled” to the mid-nineties, my husband and I would take a walk. Every walk we took soothed my spirit a little bit more. The asphalt radiated the day’s heat, but the array of stars in the desert sky was exquisite.

As time went on, something exquisite began to happen inside the house, too. My mother softened—and, to my surprise, so did I. Our relationship took on a new warmth. I began enjoying our time together.

That sense of closeness peaked in November, when our family was all together for the Thanksgiving meal. Very unusually, Mom made a point of calling my daughters into the kitchen to reveal, step by step, how to make a pineapple dish that has been a family favorite for generations. As always, we teased her that she must never die because “without you, who will make the turkey gravy with the giblets?”

Just before going to sleep that night, my mother gave me a hug and a kiss. She said she was proud of her family and that she adored me. It melted my soul. “I love you, too,” I said, and kissed her good night.

It was our last conversation. Softly and quietly during the night, Mom entered into eternal life.

Moving On. My husband and I moved into a home of our own about a month later. Now it was January, and the California desert was in bloom, its beauty come alive. As I closed my mother’s front door for the last time, I thanked God for all that had come alive in this house in the desert.

Here, feeling scorched and alone, I had journeyed through dark nights, holding onto the promise of new life as I gazed into starlit skies. And here, God had met and nourished me. Like my three wise companions, I had found new birth in his presence. Now I was ready to travel on.

Judi MacLean lives in Trabuco Canyon, California.