I happened into the desert – place strange to me – unwelcoming, forbidding, barren. Sent by God to dwell for a time among children of the Church whose experience of it, and of the world, seemed alien to my own, I recoiled from the task set before me: to open my heart to people who are at least so alienated and frustrated by, and at worst so contemptuous and hateful of the Church I love; to be willing to see in them what is dear to God’s own heart; to let down buzz-word barriers and hear their stories, their fears of people like me, their reasons for conclusions antithetical to my own.
As a new Catholic, I had jumped at the first ‘Catholic’ Writers retreat that came to my attention. One by one, the writers introduced themselves: 2 ex-priests, now married (a choice for human freedom can never be wrong); a writer whose most profound spirituality would probably never be printed because it was dictated from a UFO; a woman who felt more at home with enneagrams and Native American spirituality than with rosaries and all that; a campus minister who writes to lift students out of their inexplicable fascination with outdated forms like processions and Eucharistic adoration; several ex-communicates who write to courageously resist the domination of the Church…and me. “Hi, I’m Charlotte Ostermann, a new Catholic, and I write to glorify God and in the hope of leading people to Him and to His Church. I love the Catholic Faith because it is whole, and beautiful, and real, and I love Pope John Paul because he is, too!”
The heat radiating from the desert pushed me away – back into my comfortable cave. The cacti menaced with thorns, prickles and spikes. I was warned of one that would go so far as to shoot its barbs at me as I walked by! Venturing into this shadeless territory threatened pain. I felt God had left me there, defenseless. I longed for safety – for the consolation of trees, grass, familiarity; for the cool comfort of shared vision and soul-to-soul agreement. But it was not to be.
Needless to say, my intro went over like a lead balloon. I was shunned at meals – literally, no one would sit with me at the round tables, and no one acknowledged my smiles and ‘this seat is free’ gestures. I ate alone, and listened to talks by Catholic publishers alone, and went out in the desert to collect my thoughts….alone.
The sun kept beating until it exposed the lack of charity in my soul. In such a place, one must dig more deeply for the water of the Word, lest words become weapons and writers use them to wound the Body of their Lord. I was parched and dry. I prayed for the hospitality of the Blessed Mother’s heart, so that I could somehow embrace these hostile children of hers. I discovered proof that Living Water had indeed blessed this land with beauty.
Tiny purple flowers, hovering hummingbirds, painted rocks, saguaro mothers cradling their infants, yellow-blooming cactus hoarding water within. That life thrives here at all is the miracle, not its shape, or its relationship to me. Christ has come to the desert to pull himself together once again…to give that perfect body, broken, to a hurting world. In a moment of waking, I saw the whole world differently.
Back into the wall of silence I went, praying for some path through the desert, where there seemed to be no way. Back I went for another look at these fellow Catholics, but this time trying to hold open my heart so that the Mother’s love could fill it. I found some beauty there, too. The time came for sharing stories and poems, and in those works I found words that helped me appreciate these writers as artists, and then as unique, unrepeatable persons. Maybe it was my face that softened, or my posture that relaxed, or just my heart that beat with Christ’s yearning that we be one. I read a humorous piece that had recently sold to a conservative Catholic women’s magazine these folks would probably never pick up. And they laughed! Somehow, humor let them see me differently, too. I managed to have a few conversations, a few meals with other writers, and a less barren retreat after all.
I offer this as a lesson to Catholic writers that our words are, in their own small way, helping to heal the Body of Christ. To me, that is reason enough to write.