Desert Prayer Odyssey

Therefore, we are not discouraged; rather, although our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.  For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal.
— 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

It was the end of May and hiking season was officially over.  That much was pretty clear.  Perhaps I should have been tipped off by the empty trailhead parking area when I pulled in earlier.

I was thinking about this from the Eagle’s Perch high up in a steep canyon, swatting at a swarm of gnats along with a single fly that had been hounding me for miles.  The full wrath of 107 degree temperatures was beating down on me, and my trail water was long since warmed to air temperature.  It was also unnervingly low, but would have to suffice for the long way back.

There was nothing for it but to simply put one foot in front of the other and begin the descent.  At least my mind formed the thought, but my flesh was still a few clicks behind.  It was in that short lapse that I was startled by an unexpected breeze that suddenly kicked up.  Not only was it gently cool and refreshing, but it had just enough strength to disperse the gnats, if not that annoying fly.

Thankfully that was just enough, and a couple hours later I was back down at the trailhead.  As far as I was concerned right then, it was the end of another hiking season until the monsoons had run their course at summer’s end.

Imagine my surprise the following weekend when I actually caught myself considering another trek into the mountains.  Ridiculous!  It seemed as if I had suddenly forgotten every grueling facet of that previous slog, still clinging to that silly little breeze. Well, I love being in the wilderness because it’s such a great opportunity to focus in relative quiet on important matters, contemplate God and His creation, and pray.

52 years worth of flesh was protesting, “Oh, c’mon! You have got to be kidding.  It’s tiresome.  The heat. The cactus thorns.  The sweat in the eyes…  you’re alone out there!”

I wasn’t alone out there.  And besides, it was a good place for me to pray in peace and quiet for long stretches… and that breeze…

In the end, my heart simply said, “yes.”

I wanted to log 100 miles.  I can get pretty ambitious, so I would have preferred to begin with a long haul up to the Mogollon Rim or the like, but the reality of family and work commitments rendered that simply out of the question.  No problem.  I settled for doing it in small chunks whenever and wherever I could, and never let it take precedence over my normal obligations. Often that meant smaller treks into the desert foothills and mountains right up the street. On the weekends, I would explore new wilderness areas with longer routes.

In spite of being a meticulous planner, I found myself becoming more nimble and spontaneous with each outing, typically going where I felt the Holy Spirit lead. That came to encompass all sorts of spectacular terrain from lush river beds in the lower elevations, to higher desert elevations in full summer bloom, to some scenic peaks of all shapes and sizes including Tom’s Thumb, Lookout Mountain, Bell Pass, Brown’s Summit and the like.

More importantly, I discovered that some lingering, repetitive patterns of bad thinking were gradually giving way to a more fruitful stillness and prayer.

Regarding prayer –– because that’s really what I’m talking about here –– let’s just say that my little ‘words’ don’t even begin to compare to the great prayers of Saints. It’s just simple dialog, really.  I often get started with some of the more familiar Catholic prayers and frequently have to lean on them to get myself back on track. I’ve never been particularly good at formal prayers.  I’m human, so sometimes my thoughts wander off course, but I’m getting more patient with myself.

I also find that the great outdoors easily inspire praise for Our Creator.  How could it not?

I wrapped up my summer desert prayer odyssey with the recent Verde River trek.  With nearly 300 total miles logged, I spent a little time reflecting on the overall experience and giving thanks for a number of seemingly small things that are big to me nonetheless.

(1) Although it was summer in Arizona, the heat never seemed to be an issue for me.  Sure, it gets pretty hot here and the exertion adds to the heat, but I can’t honestly say that it ever bothered me.

(2)  I don’t remember being bothered by the bugs again either, even when I was near a body of water.

(3) All the animals seemed friendlier, or at the very least, they all seemed more peaceful.  It’s probably due to the ongoing positive growth in my outlook, as the animals were no doubt doing what they always do, but it almost seems like they let me get really close with the camera (even hamming it up on some occasions).

(4)  I rarely felt alone.  Even though I can count the people I encountered on one hand, learning once again how to be really still ensured that I never felt alone.  God is always there.  That was sufficient, but remembering all the other people I pray for, the many people who pray for me, and the bountiful critters all around certainly helped as well.

(5) I deepened my trust in Jesus. (O.K., that’s a really big one.)

I’m also really thankful that I can do something that I feel called to do.  Some people might scoff at that, but that’s fine.

I do my best at it, for whatever it’s worth.  I do it for my family and loved ones.  I do it for folks with me in spirit.  I do it for folks who will never get the chance. I do it for Our Father to praise His mighty works.  He of course knows how awesome it all is, I think He just delights in us all the more when we’re delighted.

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