This past weekend, I went to Red Mesa, property of the CAC about 2 hours west of Albuquerque. It’s about 140 acres of more or less wilderness, no electricity, no cell signal, and no human beings for probably about 10 miles (at least) most of the time. There is a very little used road about 4 miles from the edge of our property, but most of the time it is deserted. I went alone, planning to spend Friday and Saturday fasting and praying, and return Sunday morning. It was probably the best decision I made all summer, and a very rare opportunity. It is very difficult to find anywhere that is so far removed from other people, and I’ve never gone 48 hours of my life without some sort of communication with a certain part of the world.
So, having planned this retreat to be spent in prayer as much as possible, some wandering and walking meditation, and not much else, I was quite frustrated to spend 4 out of my first 6 hours there doing something completely different: putting up a tent. Now, I can’t say that I’ve been camping a ton, but I’ve gone several times (though never by myself) and have put up many a tent. But the problem with this (borrowed) tent was 3-fold: 1) It was a 6 person tent, humongous and a bit older, not designed for being put up by one person. 2) The dirt/sand there is very loose, doesn’t hold stakes well 3) It was particularly windy that day. Consequently, I spent the first two hours there just trying to get it standing. I had it figured out at one point, but couldn’t get it to stand up and the wind kept blowing it away cause the stakes wouldn’t hold. Also, the poles seemed to not have the tension evenly split and one side was over bowed. So I took it down and started over. Tried it a different way. No luck. More wind. FINALLY, after 2 hours, managed to get it standing but not assembled completely correctly. To keep it from blowing, I ran back to the car and brought all my stuff, including 2 5 gallon jugs of water. I left it, hoping it would be still standing when I returned. I spent a lot of energy and anger on this tent, and it wasn’t even up properly! I was furious because here I was, spending my whole time trying to put together a darn tent and I was supposed to be sitting somewhere silently reflecting with God. After spending some quiet time, I came back later and cranked out 2 more hours to get it secure so it wouldn’t cave in on me at night and finally got it finished.
As angering as it was to spend so much time doing something that should have been easy, I quickly realized a vital part of my retreat experience was being humbled. Instead of puffing myself up on pride and vanity, thinking I’m particularly pious or holy because I’m on a retreat and I’m fasting and trying to be like Jesus and John the Baptist, I was struck down by the simplest thing!
From there, it was a powerful experience. What a joy to spend so many hours in silence. To devote hours to reading the first 3 gospels, and to feel completely sustained by the Eucharist meal I’d been given at morning Mass on Friday, was such a reassuring feeling that I’d made the right decision to forgo some fun things back in Albuquerque and come out alone. At night, despite the full moon and thousands of visible stars, it was quite nerve-wracking, to be honest, alone and miles from anything with coyotes howling not too far away. To quiet my nerves, I read some of the Psalms the Benedictines read before night, specifically Psalm 91, and then also Ps. 63 and 62 (I think), which are all Psalms assuring God’s protection. Ps. 91 even mentions that no danger will come near your tent! I can’t say that I had any overwhelming revelations or clairvoyance about where my life will be, but with nothing else to get in the way, I knew so fully the presence of God. God was companion, conversationalist, and listener. When asked how she prays, Mother Teresa said, “I just listen. And God just listens too.” A lot of listening happened.
I’m very grateful for being able to spend some time in such a place. It probably won’t happen exactly like that ever again in my life. I hope to keep taking personal retreats, but I think that the opportunity to do one in a place so removed and seemingly barren was unique, and gave me a chance to experience life in a place of desert.