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Praying with the Saguaros
If you drive about twenty minutes southwest at sunrise from the Redemptorist Renewal Center monastery in Tucson, Arizona, you’ll find yourself in the barren, beautiful heart of Saguaro National Park. On a June morning like the one I experienced, the dry desert heat will not have yet begun its ascendant day-reign. A coolness mixes with the warm expanse. The group I traveled with broke off from each other, pursuing intentional solitude. Our morning practice: an hour of prayerful walking in the desert, accompanied only by the sturdy presence of saguaro cacti.
We learned the night before our early saguaro trek that the Tohono O’odham tribe views the saguaros as friends and even persons. Hia-Ced O’odham member Larraine Eiler writes about her place-based beliefs in a community of beings that “includes the Saguaro, and the mud turtles, the onion and the spinach, numerous species of migrating birds.” One of our retreat guides, a longtime desert hermit-mystic named Tessa Bielecki, spoke to us about how she encounters Christ in the saguaros. She evocatively described contemplating Christ and saguaros during Lent, and even experiencing the cacti embodying scenes from the Stations of the Cross. (Read her invitation to gospel, cacti-inspired reflection here). After all, in a well-known hymn in the letter to the Colossians, Christ is before all things, the firstborn of creation, and holding all things together (Colossians 1:15–19). That means that we know Christ through creation itself and not only through the biblical text. Nature also is a sacred “book” through which God speaks, as Augustine and many other theologians affirmed.
Thanks for reading Revelations by Mark Longhurst! I’d love for you to join me on this slow and weird journey of transformation.
The first thought I had upon entering the national park was that it is so populated. There are no people, at least at the hour we chose, but there are saguaros in every direction. A city filled with two million of them, according to the National Park Service. And if the saguaros are friends, I thought, then I am not alone at all. I’m surrounded by other bodies in Christ. So, this being my first time ever to Arizona, and first time ever meeting saguaros, my prayer time included me pouring my heart out to God—and introducing myself to them. I slid a finger in between the sharp spines to touch the cool, cucumber-like body. I tried to listen to what each new friend might have to tell me, what stories and histories they held. After all, since a saguaro’s life span ranges from 150-175 years, most of them had been there long before me and, God willing, will still be there after I die. They have much to teach us. View this photo gallery to experience the saguaro’s sparse dignity.
The O’odham affirmation of a saguaro’s personhood has even galvanized activists to save imperiled cacti. If nature has being or “personhood,” then maybe nature even has legal rights, some are suggesting. (Wouldn’t it make far more sense to give nature legal personhood rights rather than corporations?) Emergence Magazine illuminates the disregard that the Trump border wall construction in the Sonoran desert has for saguaros (which parallels the blatant disregard and dehumanization of migrants): bulldoze them over if they are in the way. Never mind that many of the saguaros, as Lorraine Eiler points out, are older than the creation of the U.S.-Mexico border in the first place. If we treat nature as our friend, we are much less likely to destroy it.
My desert companions and I are all part of a “new monastic” community hosted by the Long-Island based Center for Spiritual Imagination. We are like-spirited seekers who have banded together to commit to a life of contemplative rhythm amidst our busy lives of work and family. We meet online once a week, go on retreats every year, and share a so-called “rule of life” that involves daily meditation, morning and evening prayer, days of solitude, and more. We converged on the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson to experience the prophet Hosea’s words: “The desert will lead you to your heart where I will speak” (2:14, paraphrase). During a year dedicated to learning Carmelite spirituality and reading the famous Spanish mystics Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, we also sought to discover the roots of the Carmelite order—that of Elijah and the desert.
I wrote in this book about some things the Bible has to say about spirituality and the desert (146): The desert is the archetypal and literal place where we meet God, the place of what writer-speaker Jacqui Lewis calls “fierce love.” Deserts of loss, grief, pain and literal sand strip down our pretensions, as if to say that preparing for God’s way requires abandonment of all our prior ways. The ways that we are in the world are all-too-often directed from addiction and a desire for more. The desert demands us to be emptied rather than filled, to show up and be tested, for divine fire to refine our desire, to face inner barrenness head-on, just as Jesus faces down the devil in the wilderness/desert.
We are confronted with our naked self in the desert. There’s no place for our pride, lust, anger, resentment, or need for approval to hide. No amount of posturing will shield us from the desert sun’s unremitting glare. Its clarity may even stir us to long once again, as the Israelites did, for the seemingly safe oppression of Egypt. Or the truth that the desert peels away may cause us to plunge headlong in love with God, to say with the poet of the Song of Songs, “Who is that coming up from the wilderness/desert, leaning upon her beloved?” (Song of Songs 8:5).
What Else Is Going On:
I’ll be back to the Revelation commentary when I can. In addition to juggling work and kid summer camp schedules, I’m plugging away on a writing project that I’m so excited to share about with you when the time is right. Oh, and this weekend I saw one half of “Barbenheimer” (it was great!).