When Everything Feels Like a Desert, Prayer is Labor

A cactus

At the end of February, I went with my husband and four small children to Arizona for a medical conference, at which my husband was presenting some research.  We were very excited to see all of the fascinating horticultural varieties as well as the unique creatures that are native to the desert, as they promised to be quite different from our home in North Carolina.  I had no idea just how many varieties of cacti there are or how incredibly long (and sharp!) their spines can be.  Cartoons do them no justice.  The insects and lizards, even the birds all had very specific adaptive behaviors that allowed them to survive in the seemingly life-opposed conditions of the desert.  The ground was beyond dry.  There was water, but only in small oases that dotted the landscape.  For the most part, it was a bit of a wasteland.  The dirt - really dust would be a more accurate word - was so dry, it rose up in clouds whenever it was disturbed by an unwelcome footstep.  The very fact that anything lived among the rocks was quite impressive, and one might wonder why they didn’t all escape the wasteland in the hopes of finding a better life with more abundant nourishment.

It got me thinking about prayer.  Weird, right?  A campus minister in college had a quote next to her computer that I must have read 100 times while she was giving me spiritual direction (I swear I was also listening intently).  “Prayer is labor” had been etched on a tiny scrap of paper by a much more spiritually profound student than myself in neat but determined handwriting, and the campus minister kept it by her computer as a note of encouragement.  Apparently, it made an impression, as I remember it quite well, even 15 years later.  Prayer is indeed labor.  It is difficult, and it requires an investment of time and energy that isn’t always easy to muster.  Especially during spiritually dry times, it can be much like that desert.  It kinda feels like a wasteland, but there is beauty in the difficulty because difficulty produces determination.  In scripture, James reminds us to “consider it all joy, brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance” (James 1:2-3).  The dryness in our spiritual life can help us to learn to persevere.  The trick is to keep going, keep praying.  

I have been finding my spiritual life during the quarantine to feel a bit like that desert.  I ache - not as much in an emotional way, but in a deeper, more profoundly human way - for the grace of the sacraments.  I need the sacrament of reconciliation, which we have not had at our parish since the stay at home order was issued nearly two months ago.  Being at home with four children, trying to distance educate the older two while keeping the younger two alive and out of total mischief is an occasion for sin if ever there was one.  This is not a good time to be without the opportunity for confession.  I can actually feel a space between Jesus and myself as I long to receive Him in the Eucharist.  We are attending Mass online each Sunday as well as frequently during the week, and, while the Masses are beautiful, it is so far from the physical act of receiving the Eucharist and, in doing so, being joined together with Jesus in my soul.  I am so grateful for the many varieties of prayer we have in the Church, but none compare with the sacraments given to us by Jesus to feed our souls.  This is difficult, so incredibly difficult, but it is far from useless.

God, as the perfect Father, allows us to struggle.  He allows more difficult times in our spiritual lives because difficulty and struggle yield growth, much like more challenging workouts yield better results in our efforts to get into shape (a helpful piece of advice as I battle the Covid 19 - not the virus, the inevitable 19 pounds I’m trying not to gain due to the quarantine).  We, much like the strange desert animals, adapt and grow when we are faced with challenging conditions.  The desert is not always beautiful to the naked eye, but when you look more closely at the strength of the life around you, at the animals and vegetation that continue to persist by sheer willpower, in the arid, dry earth, it is, in fact, an exquisite sight to behold.  I imagine that a soul undergoing the difficulties of spiritual dryness, who continues to persevere, by his or her own will power and the Grace of God, not for his own pleasure or happy, peaceful feelings, but out of pure love for his God, must look rather exquisite to Our Lord.  Getting through those times can be incredibly challenging, but the spiritual fruit is unlike any other.  Our soul can draw so near to God during the dark, difficult times, that when we finally feel that closeness in the light of day, the joy is unparalleled!  It is so worth the struggle, and our relationship with Jesus is so very worth the fight. The key is to keep working, keep laboring in our prayer life, keep having faith and knowing that God is there, He is just as close as He always is, He is just hiding His face temporarily, waiting to show us His love in His warm embrace.  

Written by the Holy Rukus