When I lived in Kansas I just saw pictures of cacti. I saw them in movies when producers wanted to get the point across that their character was in a barren wasteland. Then I moved to Texas and people here love having them like common house plants. I never knew. Specifically, a married couple I’m friends with have over 80 cacti, all different kinds. They love them. They even took a few when they moved to a different state for work. They’re now back in the great state of Texas and growing their collection of cacti again.
Since this plant is so foreign to me, their love of the thing made me want to learn more. Even though you can now find them in homes and yards all around the world, almost all cacti are native to deserts and dry regions of North and South America. We often think of the famous saguaro cactus (pictured below) which can grow over 40 feet tall and live over 150 years, but there are over 2000 different kinds of cacti with different sizes, shapes, and colors.
Part of why cacti are so interesting is how they are different than other plants. Every time I have tried to have house plants, I always kill them because I under water them, but cacti live in regions where there is very little water. So how do they survive? Do they not need water? No. They definitely still need water, they have just found ways to survive long periods of time between getting water. They do this through a number of different methods. One of these methods is they have a waxy substance on the outside. This waxy coat helps to prevent loss of water that other plants lose through transpiration, evaporation of water though small holes in the plant when it is hot outside.
Another trait it has different from other plants are its pokey spines. The cactus has these spines instead of leaves. These spines keep the plants safe from animals, but also give less surface area than leaves so that there is less transpiration. Since there is a long period of time between access to water, cacti need to be able to store the water somewhere. They store their water in their stem and roots. Cacti also have dormant periods. They have short bursts of growth when they have access to a lot of water, but then the periods of rest often last longer.
Unlike the cacti, most of us have access to water on a daily basis, but the gospel this past Sunday reminded us that Jesus is the only source of living water. (John 4:5-42) We are currently in Lent, a time to reflect on the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert. This doesn’t mean we should stop drinking water during Lent, but we should reflect on how we distance ourselves from that living water. Though most of us do not live in a literal desert, often we can feel like we are in a desert in our prayer life. This can happen from us having a weak prayer life, not spending enough time with the source of living water, or even when we pray often, we might not FEEL like Jesus is close to us. Don’t worry, He always is, but sometimes it can be very difficult to feel His presence.
I hear about this desert feeling a lot when working with the teens in my youth group. They have the amazing opportunity to go on multiple retreats a year, and every time they go, they almost all have some amazing mountain top experience. They have some moment on the retreat where they feel the presence of God SO PROFOUNDLY, and they have this clarity. Then when I see them in the middle of the semester and they’re starting to doubt their faith, I remind them of that retreat. I remind them of that REAL encounter they had with Christ, and I remind them that not every moment can be a mountaintop experience, some will be a desert. During these desert times in our prayer life, we must be like the cactus and draw from the times where it felt like the water of life was flowing.
Whether you had a mountaintop experience on a retreat, you had one in a moment of solitary prayer, or you’ve never had an experience like this, I have a few thoughts of how to prepare and survive these desert times.
If you’re currently in a desert time:
- Tap into your stored supply of that living water like the cactus taps into its reserves.
This means think back to those moments when you felt the presence of God. This could have been an experience on a retreat. This could have been a time when you felt comforted in prayer. Maybe this was a time when God answered a prayer. When we are reminded of these moments it can bring comfort, and it can give us spiritual energy to continue the journey. Sometimes this desert time may be a short time, like the 40 days of Lent, but other times it can be much longer.
One example of this is Saint Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
Hers is a name known around the world. She was a woman who was known for bringing the love of Jesus to others. Many people see her as the epitome of what our faith should look like. Those same people might then be surprised to know that for almost 50 years of her life, Mother Teresa said that she didn’t feel the presence of God. It was very difficult for her, but she can be an inspiration to us. In this time of desolation, she didn’t stop praying. She didn’t stop doing God’s work with the poor. We too will get through these times where we feel we are in the desert.
If you’re currently in a time when you really feel God:
- Soak it all in. Open yourself like the roots of the cactus to allow that living water to really fill you. Then keep that feeling.
What a wonderful time this is. Not only should you relish the comfort and joy that this time may bring, but you should commit that feeling to memory. These are the times that you will look back on when you are in a desert time, so make it easier on yourself to look back at it. How do we do that?
- Write it down. Write things in a journal like how you feel, what you’re doing, what God has done for you
- Create art! Even if you’re not the next Michelangelo, make a drawing or painting or borrow your kids’ crayons. Create some sort of art that expresses how you feel. It could be warm colors; it could be a shining light in the dark. Whatever you are feeling, turn it into something that you can look back at in the future when you need it.
- Take pictures. Whatever you are doing when you feel the presence of God, document it. Take a picture of retreats, adoration, or even happy times with friends. Whenever you feel God strongest, snap a photo that you can look back on.
Hopefully these suggestions can help you to last through the difficult times. Hopefully this list can make it a little bit easier. It is important during this time of Lent as well as this time of difficulty in the world to be reminded of the source of all life. We must stay close to our Lord. Even if we feel like it is one-sided, we must continue to pray and take in that living water that only God can give us.