Desert Encounters

We are concluding our 5th week of drought and looking at yet another week with no rain appearing in the forecast. I feel somewhat trapped indoors, yet there’s no reason to go outside; I can’t water the gardens as I’d like to, due to the risk of drying the well, and it’s too oppressive to weed. I have no reason to use the car and expend its energy to convey me somewhere I don’t need to be, and I face only discomfort if I venture out for a long walk or bike ride…so I photograph through windows or briefly from the bridge, observe the 4-leggeds as they observe the outside world, read, write, and divert myself from anxieties and questions that have been nagging my spirit for some time now.

Yesterday the heat index was 106; I went outside only to hang the laundry and then retrieve it; both times, I moved as though walking through walls of heat. It felt claustrophobic, like living in a terrarium. Suffocation might feel like this, right at the beginning…that sense that breathing has become a struggle, the next breath is less generous than the last and the throat closes in self-protection, fearing the heat of the breath to follow.

I prayed for the people living and moving and having their being, by necessity, in this oppressive atmosphere. “Fire purifies or fire destroys,” a literature professor used to remind us. “Water drowns or baptizes…” And “Deserts are places of death, which is to say, places of transformation.” How to choose one’s perspective in the midst of life’s circumstances?

I remember an elderly patient I visited in the hospital where I worked as a chaplain. She had been isolated for some contagion that left her magnificently alone. The room was a “negative pressure space,” the other bed, table, and chair had been removed, and the patient’s own bed was pushed in the far corner. One had to cross what felt like a vast and empty galaxy to approach her.

Emotional and spiritual excavation over the course of many visits revealed that the woman’s personal relations echoed this isolation. All connections had been broken, due to one or another quarrel, grudge, or perceived impediment to forgiveness and love.

Our dialogue eventually began to explore how the spirituality she identified and the beliefs she claimed were of value to her, were helping her cope with her circumstance, which is what chaplains seek to help a patient discern. Is your belief system helping you cope positively or contributing to negative coping? Where is your God or sense of the sacred in this experience? What are you feeling as you share this story? How would you define a “healed body?” a “healed life?”  What do you desire or need at this time?

Of course, a barrage of such questions is not one’s method; but the focus of our visits explores these types of avenues through various approaches: silence, “sideways observations,” gentle touch, when and if appropriate (even if the chaplain is gowned, masked, gloved and hidden behind protective garb), listening for metaphors and patterns as the patient is encouraged to share her story, and always, compassionate presence.

At times, a judicious question can open doors that have been bolted for years. One can almost hear the rusty hinges creak and sense the cobwebs brushed away. It takes a lot of time to sense the appropriate moment to ask such a question and when to let it pass. Speaking the (observed) truth, in love, is a way to confront fears and regrets, but timing is everything.

The underlying “foundation” to these visits is always being able to listen to one’s own denials, regrets, fears, anger, joys, etc., and acknowledge them and the ways the patient and her story triggers or elicits these responses. The chaplain hears these, gently “tucks them away,” and brings the light back to the patient. Certainly in her own heart, the chaplain acknowledges that the presence of love, or Spirit…one’s own sense of the sacred, is “embracing” the encounter, and will “manage” it for ultimate good.

My job as a chaplain was not to fix, transform, or bring about a resolution, and believe me, the temptation can be very strong to do this (which again leads to the inner work one must explore at a later time). Rather, what you’re trying to do is open the space for the patient to hear her own story, her own wisdom, her own needs and choices…clarify her own relationship with the Holy. What needs to die and what is almost-or-fully-gestated and yearning to be born?

Chaplaincy is eventually and reliably exhausting, because in every visit, the chaplain is encountering herself as well, at deep and profoundly naked levels, and must be brutally honest about this part of her profession, to be good at it. Self-care and replenishing “breaks” are absolutely necessary if a chaplain is to do work that is effective and life-giving.

I remember this specific patient because of the dramatic contrasts between her isolation and her inability to encounter a need for connection. How strikingly the stories of her personal relationships correlated with the physical space she occupied. Her God couldn’t have led her to greater isolation, couldn’t have shouted any louder that it was time to listen and to stop pushing away, time to go deep within and, finally, encounter her brokenness.

I recalled the Native American commitment to “all my relations,” which acknowledges that a balanced life requires commitment to one’s relationships with everything, and understands the sacred reciprocity of attention and the necessary choice to attend that exists between oneself and all life, every point along the web’s delicate strands. This woman had made a series of choices that severed all connections.

“How did we ever arrive at this place?” Eleanor of Aquitaine asks her husband, Henry II, in James Goldman’s brilliant The Lion in Winter. “Step by step,” he replies.

And I remember this patient today because I sense I’m in a similar space, in that I’m being called to the center of the desert, to listen for the change that wants to happen. My invitation from Holy Mystery couldn’t be more starkly and physically heard.  Here I am, for all intents and purposes “trapped” by the heat and drought into inactivity. I cannot choose an action that will alleviate the drought; it’s out of my control. My calendar is free of engagements and there is no purposeful work I “have to” accomplish.

Mystery/Spirit/Love has cornered me: Uh-oh; time to listen.

Wake up (again), my situation seems to be saying. Of course, the spiritual journey is an ongoing spiral of discovery, but we all tend to step in and out of the dance at times. And then there are moments, whether we’re so inclined or not, when we’re called to fierce engagement. I’ve been aware for a few weeks now of the need to go within and listen and I’ve avoided it, like most people. Discernment is a chancy undertaking; it often leads to change and, also like most people, I fear transitions.

But unlike most people, I’ve been given the gifts of chaplaincy training and spiritual direction training. The character Monk always says of his detective ability, “It’s a gift and it’s a curse.” The same insights I’ve brought to my patients and seekers are turned inward. I can see my denials and diversions and I’m challenged to call myself on them. I know my next move and can counter it. Or not. It’s always a choice. And I’ve been avoiding my regular deep practices of silence and meditation because I don’t want to hear the questions that have been circling, and I know the time has come to face them. The vision quest never ends.

Here I am in isolation, and I’m saying yes to the invitation to listen. I will walk across the vast galaxy and through the door. I acknowledge my fear and will go deeper within, anyway, because I believe that in the end, I’m on a journey of healing, of making myself whole, and that the way in is the only way out—and is ultimately necessary for any healing to occur. And whether I’m being invited to change dramatically or make minor adjustments, I know the invitation comes from Love.

Please keep me in your gentle energy; I’m setting off for the far country of the heart and the whispered encounter with Mystery.

May the rain come soon.

All my relations.

I’ll be away till July 8. Gentle peace to all.

Happy 4th of July

10 thoughts on “Desert Encounters

  1. Wow…..Sounds like a major journey Catherine…I wish for you peace, gentleness and answers. This is all part of the journey we are all on at this time, peeling away the layers to look beneath. I hope all becomes clear and the path ahead is cleared as well. Good luck and take your magic wand with you!!!!! VK
    P.S…..Sending prayers your way for you and for rain!!!!! We are still drowning. Wish I could send it your way……Happy 4th…

  2. I really appreciate your description of the inner work triggered by your chaplaincy experiences. I find the same thing happens in spiritual direction or 12-step sponsorship.
    Funny how we can only run and avoid that inner work for so long. I’m convinced that God just sits back and giggles for a while and then says “Enough.” And we must begin the work.
    Blessings on your journey, Catherine.

  3. I hope it’s a dry heat in your area… It was very interesting to read of your experiences as a chaplain. In the days of the holy temple, one of the jobs of the priests was to enable people to be cleansed of spiritual uncleanliness. In the process, one priest was able to serve many people. But afterwards he himself suffered from the same spiritual uncleanliness and depended on another pries to clean him. In interacting with people who are suffering, it is hard not to be affected. I found this a moving post, and wish you a very rewarding expedition, and a healing experience.

  4. Thank you, Shimon; I have had a lovely retreat. Yes, there can be collateral or residual effects in supporting others and time for one’s own healing and spirit-care is always necessary, that’s for sure. As importantly, as we help others face emotional and spiritual needs, we have to be equally honest in facing our own. I’m blessed with a husband and friends who are great supporters, so this was a very good week for me.

    Weather-wise, not so good, but we’re thankful for geo-thermal heating/cooling system. Our temps were averaging 102 this week, but it will be cooler starting tomorrow. However, the drought is staggering to area farmers and continues, with no rain in sight for the 7th week running. And so we help each other and pray…

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