Posted November 04, 2015:
A Gift I Almost Missed

by Kathy Snider.

At the end of a recent Sunday service, a catechist announced from the podium, "This coming Saturday, the prayer group will be praying in the desert. All are welcome."

The word "desert" piqued my interest. Years ago, I read the book, Poustinia, by Catherine Doherty, in which I learned that the word, poustinia, in Russian means desert. In poustinia, one prays and fasts in silence to intercede for the needs of the world.

In the Ixcan Jungle where I live, "praying in the desert" means going to an isolated place to pray, fast, and intercede. And here people usually go as a group.

My heart stirred. I decided to go.

A few days later, I ran into Elena, a member of the prayer group. "I would like to pray with all of you in the desert on Saturday," I said. "What time do you leave, and can someone pick me up?"

"I will pick you up around 7 a.m.," she said, smiling. "The desert is along the road to the Playa. It’s not far from here. You are right along the way."

"Gracias!," I said. "I will wait for you then."

The battle began Friday evening. Like a ping pong ball batted back and forth across a table, I debated whether or not to go to the desert. Back and forth it went—yes, then no, then yes again, then no. The fact was: I was busy.

Saturday morning arrived, and I woke up early, convinced not to go. I was surrounded by piles of papers clamouring for order, the house in disarray was begging for a thorough cleaning, and a lengthy to-do list I had touched was harassing me for completion. I felt justified in not going to the desert. Almost.

I began my day as usual with prayer. The feast of St. James the apostle was approaching, and I was reflecting on his life. I read in Matthew 4:21-22 about Jesus calling James and his brother John to leave what they were doing (leave their nets—they were fishermen) and follow him. They did.

The reflection question posed in the commentary pierced through the web of excuses, "Are we ready to respond to the Lord’s call—to do something different, to become something new?"

Then I knew. I had to go. I looked at my watch; I had 30 minutes to get ready.

I laced up my hiking boots, put on my pack, slapped on sunscreen, and plopped on a hat.

Diego, Elena’s husband and the leader of the group, with Ofelia and Sylvia, his daughters-in-law, came through my front gate. We greeted one another, I grabbed my walking stick, and we set out.

We hiked for about 45 minutes, first on a gravel road then on a dirt jungle trail. Diego led us on the trail swinging his machete with expert accuracy cutting through razor sharp vines and undergrowth.

Early on, he inadvertently disturbed a hive of small black wasps who chastised him by stinging the back of his neck. That was enough protest, I guess, because they left the rest of us alone.

Diego rubbed the back of his neck and didn’t complain about the red welts swelling while he continued to clear the way.

The trail ascended gradually. Leg muscles strained as we neared the summit. Soaked in sweat and breathing deeply, we broke through to a clearing surrounded by trees at the top of a hill. This was "the desert."

We stood for a few minutes in silence catching our breath when the sky echoed with the clamour of parrots flying overhead. They landed unseen on the other side of us in a grove of trees.

"The first choir praising," Diego said. My heart smiled.

"This is one of the most beautiful chapels I have ever seen!" I exclaimed. And it was true.

The trees covered us in soft green shadows, and the pews were trunks and branches of trees. Long wide leaves were gathered and placed on the ground as a cushion for kneeling or sitting. And in the center of the space was an altar: a slab of wood on two wooden legs with a candle on top.

Other members of the prayer group arrived, one by one or in pairs, until a dozen people were gathered together.

We had been instructed not to eat breakfast. This simple fast was part of our prayer. In addition, we sang praises joining with the birds. The Spanish hymns carried through the jungle recesses.

We begged forgiveness of our sins, the sins of the community, of the nation, and of the world, and we prayed for various needs ranging from personal healing to peace in Guatemala. Three of us read scripture passages and shared our reflections.

It was the parrot flock that spoke to me and led me to the Scripture in Matthew 6:26. Look at the birds in the sky. They do not sow or reap; neither do they gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not more important than they? …


But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself (Mt 6:26, 33-34).

We prayed together for about three hours and ended with a rosary. Finally, our stomachs growling but our hearts and spirits filled, we made our way down the hill. Within minutes, it seemed, we arrived back at my house.

Later I realized that I had almost missed my day in the desert. I almost missed the beauty, the prayer, the sense of community I felt with those present.

And the message God gave me: Do not worry. And seek first the kingdom of God.

The author, who was a long-term working guest at Madonna House many years ago, is a lone lay missionary in the remote Ixcan Jungle.


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