The Spiritual Desert

Sermon for Sunday, December 11, 2016 || Advent 1C || Isaiah 35:1-10

To his people in exile, the prophet Isaiah says these words of hope, promise, and comfort:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing. […]

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water…

I must confess that I needed to hear these beautiful words this morning. I must confess that I have been feeling spiritually dry lately. I must confess that an arid desert of burning sands has grown up within me in recent months when I wasn’t paying attention. There have been a few moments of oasis – notably splashing my hands in the waters of baptism two weeks ago – but overall my spirit has shriveled recently. I’m, quite simply, parched.

I’ve gone through spiritual dry spells before. My first semester of seminary was one; a strange time for a spiritual dry spell, don’t you think? I went to chapel every day. I read the prayers in the book. I recited the psalms and the creeds. But I was just going through the motions. Ironically, I lost sight of God when I arrived at the place where I was to study God. I noticed the dry spell when I was leading evening prayer one night with my fellow first year seminarians. I read the first five words of a prayer: “Assist us mercifully, O Lord…” And for the first time in months, I realized the words I was saying meant something. I realized I was addressing the Creator of all that is. How could I have forgotten? But I did.

Another dry spell happened during the weeks after Christmas the first year I was a priest. The season of Christmas utterly exhausted me and I had nothing left in my batteries. Again, I was going through the motions until one day in late January when I was celebrating the Eucharist, although “celebrating” is a bit of a stretch. It was more like “speaking the Eucharistic prayer on autopilot.” I got to the moment when I’m supposed to touch the cup of wine. I looked down and realized I had forgotten to pour the wine into the chalice. If an empty cup wasn’t a perfect metaphor to describe how I had been feeling, then I don’t what is. My friend and spiritual mentor Ruby took me aside after that service and gave me a talking to. And things got better.

I’ve had other dry spells, but these two shed light on my current one. All three follow the same pattern; perhaps you’ll recognize a similar pattern in your own life. For one reason or another, we flip an internal switch and turn on our autopilots. The reasons for the switch to autopilot differ, but they often hail from the cloud of busy-ness and distraction and exhaustion and all the other forces that lead us to misplace our priorities. In the seminary example, a new environment overwhelmed me, and my spiritual life took a backseat during my period of adjustment instead of taking the wheel. In the empty chalice example, exhaustion like I had never before experienced led me to embrace apathy and indifference. (Sidenote: I was a wimp back then. That tiredness was nothing compared to having newborn twins two years ago.) And now as I examine my current spiritual dryness, I see the simple dailyness of my routines have processed me into an automaton. I have become robotic. Does any of this ring a bell for anyone? Have you been in deserts like these before?

So the autopilot switches on, and flipping this switch is never a conscious choice. In fact, just like a meteorological drought, we never notice a spiritual dry spell until it hasn’t rained in awhile. We’re in the middle of the desert before we realize there’s sand all around us. So during the first stage of spiritual dryness, we’re not even conscious that our spirits are getting parched. Then something happens, and we become acutely, painfully aware of how thirsty we are. A prayer smacks us upside the head. Or an empty chalice reflects the barrenness within. Or for me today, simply moving into the season of Advent has invited fresh self-reflection. And right now my spiritual reflection is gaunt.

In this second stage, we know we’re in the middle of a spiritual desert, but we can’t find the path out of it. The sand dunes stretch as far as the eye can see. We look back for footprints but the hot winds have blown them away. Finally aware of our thirst, it magnifies. It grows and grows and grows until we’re wondering if we had ever drunk from the springs of the water gushing up to eternal life…or if our spiritual vitality had all been an illusion, a mirage.

The initial shock of recognizing that we’re lost in the desert can lead two responses. Sometimes the shock wears off and we get used to the aridity. We become spiritual camels, making whatever residual soulfood last until we eat and drink again. But at least now we’re aware of our dryness and we can be on the lookout for oases at which to stock up for the long walks over the sands. Other times, the shock leads us to try to get out of the desert as quickly as possible. We pick a direction and just go, hoping against hope that the desert will give way to fertile ground just past the horizon. We redouble our efforts to re-energize our spiritual lives, picking up old practices or trying new ones – anything not to feel so thirsty.

Neither of these responses is good or bad, but they both miss the subtle reality of God, to which Isaiah points us this morning. As I struggle through my current spiritual desert, I realize again the promise that Isaiah points to, and I find hope for myself and for everyone marching through the sands. The desert does not end. We don’t get out of. We can’t find the edge of it. God transforms the desert into a place of springs.

“The desert shall rejoice and blossom,” says Isaiah,

“For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water.”

When Abraham and Sarah, our great spiritual ancestors, left home and started wandered the hot sands, theye discovered an astounding thing. God was there in the desert. When the ancient Israelites escaped Egypt and spent forty years wandering the land, they discovered an amazing truth. God was there in the desert. When I’m brought up short and realize I’m in the midst of a spiritual dry spell, the only way to keep existing, to keep from shriveling up completely, is to remember this truth. God is there in the desert. God transforms our spiritual deserts into new fertile lands. We cannot make this transformation ourselves; we can only participate in God’s movement, which changes our parched landscapes into places where there is abundant blossoming.

Oftentimes it is spiritual dryness that leads to spiritual growth. The dry spell returns to us the seeker’s heart that we had lost. We gain new affinity for others who are struggling through their own droughts, spiritual or otherwise. We find new reserves of compassion and empathy.

Today, as I recognize the desert around me, my prayer for each of us surrounded by sand is for the strength to trust God, who will make these deserts rejoice and blossom.

One thought on “The Spiritual Desert

  1. Adam, your vulnerbility in this sermon strikes at my heart strings. These desert experiences are all too common. Yet, so is the blossoming that comes in due season. Like the ancient Ammas and Abbas, our invitation is to sit in the dryness, listen to the silence and be ready to bloom again.

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