If you’re prone tears as I am, you’ve got to expect that at some point on an eight-day spiritual pilgrimage in the desert, you’re going to dampen a few hankies. Especially when your one prayer for the pilgrimage is to open yourself to God. God is real and raw and authentic and takes no part in denial, false pride, or stiff upper lipping.

I see my emotions as part of who I am, gifts from God that help me understand what is going on in my soul and recognize areas in which I want to grow and heal. I used to stuff my emotions in a misguided effort to protect myself from pain, and then I tried simply hiding them so that I wouldn’t riffle anyone else’s pond. But now I’m a grown-up and allow myself to be fully me (mostly).

Mortification and Defeat

Nevertheless, I was mortified to find myself on the first full day of our pilgrimage, standing on a dusty trail in the middle of nowhere with ten virtual strangers, sobbing kindergarten tears onto a nearby shoulder. I knew none of these people and was pretty sure that none of them would want to know me after witnessing my wailing: “I’m so frustrated! I’m so tired of hurting!”

I had not been sure that I could make the hike, but thought I’d give it a try. Thrilled that I needed no cast on my recently fractured shoulder, I wanted to take full advantage of the beautiful surroundings at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. I’d taken care of myself and honored the limitations of my injured arm by skipping 7 a.m. body prayer yoga (always glad to have an excuse to smack the snooze button), and by resting after lunch, journaling and reading J. Brent Bill’s little Quaker book, Mind the Light.

Now I took a handful of Advil and responded to my father’s Texan voice in my head telling me to “Buck up! You can do this, you’re a Griffin.”

I laced up my hiking boots — a feat that would have been impossible just a week before — slung my daypack over my good arm, and headed to the trailhead to meet my fellow pilgrims. Our trip leader Tiffany had asked me to wear my arm brace for her own peace of mind and advised me to carry a walking stick for the steep trails.

I quickly fell behind the others, juggling my pack, stick, and clumsy brace. A sweet guy quoted some scripture about helping one another with our burdens and reached out to carry my pack. His kind gesture, coupled with my pain and the growing realization that I was already slowing everyone down, sapped my energy as surely as the altitude had sapped my breath.

When Tiffany said kindly, “I don’t think you should go on this hike,” I threw myself on her shoulder and moaned “I don’t either,” and the waterworks started.

I was face-to-face with my imperfection, my brokenness, my inability to do absolutely anything I put my mind to, and yes, my age (this trip being a sixtieth birthday present to myself). My familiar mantra, “I should be able to…” was crumbling like the red sandstone cliffs that surrounded us.

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Even rock cliffs crumble

Letting Go

That morning we had begun our main work of the pilgrimage, looking at the cycles of call — the phases and transitions in life — and reflecting on resistance and the need for release. What’s holding you back, and what do you need to release in order to move into the next calling in your life?

“What needs to break is often our competence,” warned our pilgrimage leader Marjory, clearly prophesying my afternoon breakdown. “Call often comes after suffering.” Moses had lost everything before he was “called” by a burning bush in the desert, and Jesus spent forty days in the desert suffering trials and temptations before he was ready for his earthly ministry.

The desert is a great place for suffering. It’s a harsh place, a place that reminds us of our mortality. Droughts, razor sharp foliage, whipping winds, and killing sun. One doesn’t look to the desert for mercy.

No mercy here

No mercy here

Now I headed back the way our group had come, my broken competence stowed in my daypack and my broken shoulder throbbing. I turned to watch the other scrambling up the rocky trail and felt humiliation and defeat.

Desert Mercies

After I’d walked a while, I sat down by a narrow creek and took my water bottle out of my pack. As I leaned my head back to drink, I noticed that the branches of the cottonwoods lining the creek were bursting with tiny buds, reaching fuzzy chartreuse fingers into the brilliant blue sky. I wiped the dusty red tears from my cheeks.

Two robins arrived, tilted their heads at me, decided I was safe, and then hopped into the creek and began to splash exuberantly, creating haloes of sparkling water in the air above them. The juxtaposition between their mood and mine made me laugh out loud.

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I pulled out my binoculars, camera, and notebook and settled in for an afternoon of desert mercies. As She so often does, God was speaking to me through the natural world. I realized that I was now feeling intense relief — relief that I did not have to prove anything to myself or to anyone else. I could just be, like the robins . . . Day two.

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