As I’ve begun to study the mystics in recent years, I’ve naturally been drawn to the idea of solitude as a method of prayer and meditation. Growing up in a religious setting where prayer was narrowed to a communal activity where what one said mattered most, the adjustment to contemplative prayer in solitude has been challenging.
Thomas Merton has taught us that prayer can be most plentiful when nonverbal, and can indeed be quite difficult to communicate to others what we learn through prayer in this form. Too often prayer is focused on finding something or arriving at a conclusion that warps into a feeling of certainty rather than embracing the quiet journey of emptying our minds from all the clutter we endure.
Contemplative prayer offers something opposite: silence and profound nothingness. Merton writes that contemplation “does not ‘find’ a clear idea of God and confine Him within in limits of that idea…” Prayer can be most beneficial when its seemingly insignificant and silent, where you allow yourself space for the constant noise to fade away.
The world is getting louder. It’s a quantitive trend, both in the amount of noise we hear as well as the heightened obnoxiousness of everyone’s opinion on every topic being heard. Real discourse has faded to polarizing shouts where each side demands it be seen as correct. Nuance has given way to straw men. Empathy and the ability to listen has been muted. We are overwhelmed with the amount of information that we have available to us. The temptation seems to be that our identity is worthwhile as long as we ascent to the slogans our communities deem right.
James Finley writes, “The desert where prayer flourishes is the desert of our own hearts barren of all the slogans that we have been led to believe to be our very identity and salvation. Prayer is a death to every identity that does not come from God.”
I use this quote in my forthcoming book, and there I write about the literal and metaphorical interpretation of Finley’s profound paragraph. Prayer is an emptying, a silencing, and a recognition of who we are and who we want to become. There’s a silence about the desert that is required to do the deep soul searching that is required to discover our true selves in the midst of a loud world.
Yet in order to practice this mindset, we need to find our desert space. This will be different for each of us. Perhaps it is a quiet corner in a favorite bookstore or coffee shop. Or maybe it is on a walk around our neighborhood. Or maybe it is on a hike, finding oneself out in nature.
In May I decided to take a solo trip to several of Utah’s gorgeous national parks. I desired adventure, which Utah never ceases to offer. I likewise wanted to prove to myself that I could push myself to do something on my own that I previously thought impossible for myself.
Through it all, I knew I wanted solitude – a time to reflect and enter into meditation and prayer. Like many, I have found myself disturbed by the rhetoric that engulfs our political and social conversations. Admittedly I can contribute to the nastiness. I find myself doing so precisely at the point where my side’s slogans and talking points become gospel truth. I needed to get away from it, to disconnect from the talking heads, and to meditate on who I wanted to be in these tumultuous times.
There is something about being out in the wilderness that humbles you. Frankly, I felt so small most of the time I was out there. Subject to the relentless elements of the desert, I found myself recognizing how fragile life is. When I climbed to the highest point in Zion National Park, a strenuous 9-mile hike in the scorching desert sun, I looked over the most beautiful canyon I have ever seen. Seeing the exposure of the deep rock sides that created this space, I was literally looking at millions of years of evolution. Here I was, a tiny and seemingly insignificant part of its history.
The beautiful balance of that moment, of looking out at Zion, was feeling small but taking in the incredible blessing that it is to take part in history and evolution. Zion’s sacred space existed long before me, and it will continue to thrive long after I die. Life is but a moment. Desert space reminds us of who we are, and who we want to become in the short time we are granted passage on this blue globe.
When you are feeling dismayed, when the noise of the religious, political, and social conversations make you feel like you’re drowning, create the space to enter into your desert to meditate.