It wasn’t planned. I didn’t see it coming. But I experienced special blessings when I spent Ash Wednesday in the desert in Arizona.
3 Revelations and Blessings from Ash Wednesday in the Desert
I was invited on a girl’s trip by my friend and neighbor to experience, explore, and hike the area while visiting her college age daughter who attends Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. The week started with the expected things: baggage claim, rental car, coffee runs, planning out the week’s bucket list of places to see and things to do. After checking for the best weather the week had to offer, we planned a quick overnight trip north on Tuesday to spend an afternoon at the Grand Canyon before heading back to stay in Sedona that same evening to avoid a snow storm that was headed our way.
As expected, the Grand Canyon was amazing! Even the drive to the canyon through Flagstaff was special as we all took turns “oohing and aahing” with the beauty of the changing landscape from shrubs to cacti fields to evergreens with what seemed like an endless stream of more and more amazing mountain ranges. We sloshed through the melting snow at the top of the north rim with a few wet toes, soaked in the dramatic, vast beauty of the canyon from as many angles as we could, and took turns taking pictures with other visitors as if attempting to permanently imprint the beauty onto our memories though the lenses of our iPhones.
With the snowstorm of the season looming, we pulled ourselves away from the canyon and headed back down through the mountains towards Sedona. As a first time visitor to Arizona, I didn’t think it could get much better, but God never ceases to amaze! With every winding turn down the mountain side and around each bend was another incredible scene. Snowy mountains. A trickling stream lined with moss covered stones. Cliffside after cliffside of indescribable beauty. A treasure of red rock towering from every window of our little white car.
We arrived in Sedona to the most sensory display of HIS work. With God’s timing, we reached the area during the “golden hour” just before the sun went down. The glow of the sun as it moved through the mountains left us awe struck by the intensity of the changing colors from sky, to mountain, to valley. So intensely beautiful that it was almost painful to see the sun slide down behind the mountains leaving us with only glimpses of their dark tops through the shadows of the evening.
But, by Wednesday morning in Sedona things had drastically changed. It seemed like we had been transported to another land while we were sleeping. The dazzling colors of the evening before turned to muted gray as a gauzy mist overtook the view. Not knowing what to expect of the day with snowflakes and a bone chilling wind ripping through, we skipped our morning hike and opted for a light breakfast before heading out to salvage what we could of our side trip.
But as he often does, God continued to surprise us! Despite the uncooperative weather, my friend loaded us into the car to check off the one thing I had hoped to see in Sedona, the Chapel of the Holy Cross. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s a marvel of a Catholic chapel tucked into the mountainside so well it looks almost is if God himself placed it there as he rose up the rock. I had seen it in a TV special some time ago and hoped the wild Arizona weather wouldn’t keep me from experiencing it in person!
As we ascended the up the mountain, the gray began to burn off as towering butte after butte of red rock mountains revealed a stories-high cross jutting out of the rock face. The swirling road led us up towards the entrance of the chapel to find it packed with visitors and pilgrims admiring the 360 view of beauty surrounding the building. As we entered, we found a young priest offering ashes under the piercing eyes of our Lord as he hung on an organic looking tree to form the crucifix attached to the inside version of the huge mountainside cross.
After spending time appreciating the chapel, then a few moments in quiet Eucharistic Adoration, I was graced by confession with young Father Glenn before my friends and I explored the large gift shop under the chapel. Our time shopping seemed short despite our bags of gifts and religious items and before we knew it we’d been there much longer than expected. Again with God’s timing and the generosity of my friends, I was blessed to experience standing-room-only mass in this beautiful and holy place. Packed in the stairwell just outside and above the chapel’s gift shop, I experienced new joy being poured out through the sacrifice of Ash Wednesday mass, bringing me ever more close to Christ on the brink of this most holy season of Lent.
His blessings on this trip to the desert of Arizona were everywhere and occasionally overwhelming, revealing many things including three that I will strive to remember no matter where I am and hope you find them inspiring as well.
Revelations and Blessings from Ash Wednesday in the Desert
Revelation 1: God can be found and experienced everywhere, especially in the beauty of his creation
As we explored beautiful places and vast, immense landscapes of Arizona, it was evident that God is everywhere and his work is more incredible than can be imagined. It’s impossible to not feel his presence as we experience the endless beauty of his changing creation. With only one week in Arizona, we experience more than five different weather phenomena. We visited city, prairie, mountain, desert, and traveled through clouds to and from different states in the country. God’s hand and presence was evident through the land, the air, and the many people we met along the way. Immersing ourselves in his creation allows us to connect with him in new, astounding, and deeply touching ways.
Revelation 2: Worshiping God in community is a true treasure
Experiencing God on a mountain, literally in the middle of a desert was special, but worshiping him in community is a true treasure. Packed wall to wall, down the stairwell, and out the door, all were there to spend time with our Lord and each other. Visiting with my two Protestant friends and surrounded by so many faithful Catholics made this new place feel like home. Our friendship with Christ is stronger when we celebrate in community with the family that makes up His body on earth. We left our imperfections at the altar then adored and worshiped together in the grace of his endless mercy.
Revelation 3: When you give yourself to God, he blesses you abundantly
The temptation to save time for God for later when we’re less busy is real and so easy to do. I admit I worried about what my friends would think when I insisted on going to Sunday mass. Then with Lent approaching, I considered not attending Ash Wednesday mass to avoid inconveniencing them a second time during our trip. I took hours of their time asking them to take me to mass and either wait or pick me up. I was stressed about what they would think while I abstained from meat and fasted on Ash Wednesday and then continued to abstained from meat on Friday. But what I got instead was pure love. They asked questions, they gave of themselves and their time freely, and they thanked me for sharing my faith with them. The blessings from my time in the desert — this trip, these wonderful sisters in Christ, this special Ash Wednesday, and the endless beauty of God’s creation have blessed me abundantly and I’ll hold them —and the dear memories we created— as gift from God!