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Seeking God’s presence at the desert house of prayer

Sarita, Texas

Jesus’ invitation to “come and see” arrives in many envelopes. The one I opened invited me to explore intimacy with Christ in silence and solitude.

Lebh Shomea House of Prayer in southeastern Texas imposes no structure or predetermined schedule. I could put aside deadlines, chores, family, all activities. Perhaps I could even experience God’s presence in the desert, as had so many seekers before me.

My 1,750-mile air journey from New Jersey took me to Houston and then to Corpus Christi, where I rented a car for the 60-mile drive south along Highway 77 to Sarita.

Sr. Maria Meister, one of two nuns who live in permanent hermitages at Lebh Shomea, suggested I pack a flashlight, and insect repellant for the chiggers and ticks that inhabit the 1,100-acre property, owned and run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Bug spray in baggage, I detoured into the town of Kingsville for the forgotten flashlight.

A Kingsville teacher boasted of the beauty of Sarita’s square in springtime. Though it is October, I detoured anew to check out Sarita’s main edifices, a town hall and police station -- both former mansions occupying a central square and named for the Kenedy-Turcotte founders of the town.

The town -- population 280 -- gets its name from Sarita Kenedy East, granddaughter of Mifflin Kenedy, owner of a million acres of Gulf Coast ranchland. Sarita bequeathed the ranch’s “big house” to the Oblates when she died in 1961 with the proviso that it be used for some religious purpose.

I turned east at the flashing yellow light at Sarita and began the final six miles to Lebh Shomea. The Hebrew name appears in 1 Kings 3:9 when Solomon asks Yahweh: Give your servant a listening heart -- lebh shomea -- so as to be able to discern.

My car window lowered, my nostrils detected an aroma that is at once rural, tropical and salt-sprinkled. Baffin Bay, an outlet to the Gulf Coast, and South Padre Island were only a few miles beyond. Desert scrub brush along the roadside gave way to cultivated fields and a palm grove in the distance.

I continued another mile and a half after the first gate and parked outside a large Spanish colonial garage -- as directed in Meister’s e-mail. I got out and stretched after nine hours of travel. A man approached and apologized for keeping me waiting. I recognized him from his photo on the Internet. In person, Fr. Francis Kelly Nemeck is tall, thin and more countrified than I’d imagined. He extended a hand and delivered a wide smile from under his broad-brimmed straw hat.

Nemeck, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate, went to the “big house” to check where I’d be staying. While he was gone I spied what looked like a band of peacocks, not far from a black pig running with her piglet in tow. The peacocks were actually wild turkeys, the wild pigs javelinas, Nemeck informed me. The animals -- including owls, bobcats and coyotes, which can be heard at night -- were not exactly tame. “Somehow they know they share this environment with us and they sense we share it with them,” he said.

I climbed aboard his golf cart, and we headed for “Jeremiah,” my cottage and one of 10 dwellings named after Old and New Testament figures. Four double-roomed houses await married couples and recall Jacob and Rachel, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Zebedee and Salome, Aquila and Priscilla. The big house contained bedrooms honoring biblical women. In all Lebh Shomea can accommodate 25 guests.

After a tour of the main grounds, I rested briefly before my afternoon appointment with Nemeck. I was to be there only two days and was hungry for spiritual direction. The priest pointed to a chair on the screened porch of his dwelling. I told him that my spiritual life feels dry. Though observing morning and evening prayers, meditating occasionally, and attending daily Mass -- not such an effort as there are 13 Masses offered within three miles of my home -- none of those practices had ignited any holy sparks.

Often I would sense nothing happening between God and me. Nemeck’s hummingbird heard all this and hissed in the feeder overhead. When I mentioned the spiritual dryness to a priest in confession last Lent, he responded: “Oh, that’s perfectly OK. I feel that way myself often.” Three Hail Marys followed, but still no livelier prayer life.

“Aridity in prayer can be a positive sign of authenticity, when accompanied by other signs,” Nemeck told me. The aridity is only on the surface, he explained. Where once there may have been gusto, satisfaction -- even seeming “pats on the back,” now God is drawing the soul deeper and deeper into faith.

I need not analyze my meanderings. “Spiritual and deeply human musings don’t have to coordinate,” he noted. “They make their own kind of sense.”

Rather than trying to fathom an occurrence like Sept. 11, which I admitted I was still deeply grieving, Nemeck suggested letting God work with that event within me. “Intuition and common sense” may well be the path that God will use to direct me, he offered. Where the two converge, there will I find peace and unity. He prescribed Ecclesiastes.

A snippet of spirituality

At 6 p.m. I entered the big house and shared in silence a supper of cold cuts, salad and fruit with eight other guests. They appeared to be between 35 and 75 years of age, five women and three men seated at three large round tables. Later I scanned the guest list. Texans had come from San Antonio and Houston; others guests had traveled from Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New Zealand. One had already been there four months, the others a few weeks or days. I wondered what snippet of spirituality I could take from my short sojourn.

Upstairs the library stretched across what once was the mansion’s spacious living and dining rooms. Its 30,000 volumes drew me. I found Bibles in French, German, Japanese, Creole, Spanish and many English versions. There were sections labeled Biblical Studies; History; Islamic, Judaic, Middle Eastern, Oriental and Byzantine Studies; Patrology; Russian Spirituality and a large reference section. The Corpus Christianorum was there as was any significant work by any author in spirituality.

I could have gotten lost there, stayed overnight among the shelves. I ousted temptation temporarily and slipped into one of two oratories that bookend either side of the library. Inside the tiny chapel I recalled the ornate text that bordered the sanctuary of the Minnesota church of my youth: “Blessed Be Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar.” I took the monstrance from the tabernacle -- a custom encouraged there -- and sat in adoration, aware of the redness of the room from the flickering sanctuary lamp and of a pink aura around my heart.

En route back to “Jeremiah,” I thanked God and Meister for the flashlight. When the Oblates claimed the property in 1973, they removed all security lights. I rounded the palm grove at the back of the mansion and headed down a path toward home. My flashlight beam told me I’d landed at “Ezekiel,” not “Jeremiah.” Once I located my own dwelling and lit a lamp inside, I returned outside to view the canopy of stars. My ears caught the chorus of crickets, cicadas and other creatures singing the music of the night.

How lucky I felt. In but a few hours, I had experienced God’s separating again the day from the night, the heavens from earth. Butterflies, birds, bees, deer, rabbits, wild game and tame cattle have shared their home with me.

Had I arrived a week or two earlier, I would have felt the driving rains that accompanied two hurricanes. Summers here can be hot, often arid, and at other times humid. November through February ranges from mild to cold, with periodic fog and rain. Winds from the north occasionally plunge the temperature to near freezing.

Back in my room with its bed, desk, bookshelves, closet and bathroom, I read Ecclesiastes. Its messages -- it is senseless to be selfish; everything has its time; the future is known only to God; respect and obey God -- made somber reading but led to tranquil slumber.

Daily Mass was at 7 a.m. Again, my flashlight proved indispensable in locating the Chapel of the Little Children, not far from my dwelling. Its warm glow lit up the world as I approached. In the entrance, several Lenox statues depicting Christ and his words about children were on display.

Though I was early, most of the others were already seated on chairs in the large open room that formed the chapel. The silence was palpable. My attention leaped to the large cross above the altar table -- hued from a native tree. A small garland of local flowers hung from the lectern on which rested today’s scripture readings.

The Eucharist as meal, as shared faith, as sacrifice or as mystery; none is mutually exclusive, Nemeck said during our first tour of the chapel. “Here we accentuate Eucharist as mystery.” He favored reciting the eucharistic prayers more slowly, deliberately and so our responses would be slowed, too. “Each word is sounded and savored. For me that is the key,” the priest said.

“Cutting down on the wordiness is a tremendous help,” he answered when I later asked what happened to the Responsorial Psalm. While it went unsaid or unsung, a period of meditative silence was inserted between the first reading and the gospel. Instead of a homily, guests would share briefly in hushed tones what word or idea impressed itself from the readings.

Piety and wealth

On Sundays, local ranch families join the guests in Sacred Heart Chapel. Later I would see the altar where traveling Oblate padres offered Mass for eight decades and were largely responsible for evangelizing hundreds of Mexican rancheros. A pair of private family cemeteries and a Lourdes grotto bordered the Mission-styled church, built in 1897. A 1435 del Piambo Emmaus scene, a 16th-century Caravaggio Madonna and Child and a Russian icon testified to both the piety and wealth of the Kenedy-Turcotte families.

Following Mass, I watched the sun lift itself over the firmament, lighting the stained glass windows in the library and illuminating acres of wild and cultivated fields. After breakfast, I climbed the stairs to the fourth floor tower of the big house.

Guests may reserve the space -- the highest spot for miles around -- by signing a book at the bottom of the landing. I packed my Bible, intent to peruse Jeremiah. But it was hard to sit still even in this remote perch. From the lookout tower, my eyes fanned the tops of palms, vast acres of lawn at the front of this sturdy mansion and a sliver of the bay.

“Call to me, and I will answer you. I’ll tell you great and hidden things which you have not known,” Jeremiah wrote. I summoned these words later when I visited a second altar of repose on the south side of the big house. The room was a conservatory of light and air with windows styled like arches, looking onto a vista of oleanders and bougainvilleas. Sitting with the Blessed Sacrament, I felt the strands of peace and unity loose in my fingers. Peace, it seemed, is the experience that God is truly omnipresent, and unity the joy in realizing that God delights in sharing himself with me and all creation.

The ringing of the Angelus stirred my reverie. The bell also signaled lunch. I followed it to meatloaf, refried beans and mashed potatoes served in the basement of the big house. After lunch I meandered along two of the many trails, shooting a roll of photos and whistling. Was I deliberately breaking my silence? I absolved myself, remembering the psalmist’s hymns of thanksgiving.

At 4:15 p.m. I met again with Nemeck. Four white-tailed deer grazed on his lawn. He reminded me that Lebh Shomea’s main charism is prayer -- at least the opportunity for leisurely yet profound prayer. “It’s not only that you tasted it, but that you need it. You make the time for it” in a setting that is very different from most people’s real world.

The priest, who has taught at the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio and in Ottawa, Canada, and was a missionary in Mexico, earned a doctorate in spirituality from Les Facultés Catholiques de Lyon in France. His studies of John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin as well as of behavioral psychology and the social sciences are available in several of his books. Best known is The Spiritual Journey, coauthored with Sr. Marie Theresa Coombs, a hermit at Lebh Shomea.

Ultimately prayer is what is healing us, transforming us and helping us find God deep within ourselves, Nemeck said. But prayer requires deliberate solitude. To be still or quiet is so contrary to our consumer culture that it is almost impossible to be both, he said.

“Quiet and still doesn’t sell anything. So much in our society involves noise, activity, saturation. We’ve reached a point of material saturation. Some are supersaturated,” Nemeck said. “Where do we go for the next 100,000 years?” he wondered. The hermit in the desert needs no crystal ball to see that many are seeking a time and place in which to do nothing, “for sanity’s sake, if not for the sake of the Kingdom within.”

Places of solitude will increase, he said. Far from being a spiritual spa, Lebh Shomea is not a place where a person would come for a vacation, said Nemeck, who gets to know guests by phone or e-mail before they arrive. It offers no massages, workout rooms, excursions or gourmet meals. Ninety percent of guests come because of word of mouth, he said. They include religious, seminarians, students pursuing a master’s in theological studies who use it to do a practicum in spirituality, ecumenical guests and laity -- many having experienced a recent death, divorce, lifestyle or career change.

Even for Texans, the Wild Horse Desert is remote, and getting to Sarita is expensive for those from afar. The House of Prayer charges $35 a day for room and three meals with a price that slides to $18 a day for those staying five months or longer. Guests who remain more than 10 days are asked to do an hour’s manual labor; after 20 days the request is for two hours of daily work in the kitchen, garden or office.

Even in so brief a visit, I found myself enjoying God, his grandeur in making night and day and arraying the varieties of flowers, crops, stars, birds, insects and animals. I felt privileged to meet him anew in scripture and in the pages of spiritual masters.

The deepest moment of joy and peace came on my final evening when I discovered the works of the 14th-century Flemish mystic Jan van Ruusbroec, many of them translated by my former husband, who died at 50 in 1996. While he had no time for religion and blamed the church for many of the faults he found with his native Belgium, his renderings are revelations in English of how the soul relates to God as a lover to his beloved.

On my way to the airport the next day, I gave a ride to a retired sister who was heading home to Pennsylvania after two weeks at Lebh Shomea. It was her 12th visit. The first one many years ago involved a stay of over six months, she told me. I envied her prolonged contemplation. Like Nemeck, she assured me that deep within each of us there is a quiet, still point, where we “listen” to what is happening to us, where our “listening heart” finds God working in our lives. Experiencing that presence is worth a trip to the desert.

Patricia Lefevere is NCR special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, December 13, 2002