The Wisdom of Returning to the Desert by Charles Ortloff
My two experiences in the wilderness with Ron Pevny and Anne Wennhold have been nothing less than life changing. The first was in 2016 and the second in 2019, one month before I retired. Nine months after my second experience, I received a diagnosis of stage 4 prostate cancer. My doctor told me, “There is no cure. We will try to keep you alive so that you die of something else.” This was totally unexpected. My two times out in the wilderness prepared me for this unexpected journey. Let me explain.
My first time in the wilderness for a Conscious Eldering retreat was not what I anticipated. I was three years away from retirement. I was looking for some direction of “what next?” From the very first night, gazing into the starry night sky of the Milky Way, I felt my heart opening up to something, but I didn’t know what. I was excited for this journey to begin.
Each morning, Ron led us in drumming. On the second day, and each day after, a strong sense came to me that I would get nothing out of this experience unless I approached it from the spirituality of this place — native American. This was a big hurdle for me. One that I accepted after only two or three days of nudgings.
On my day alone in the desert, after giving tobacco to four directions of the compass, I sat quietly and waited. I felt surprisingly comfortable with this very foreign experience. Almost immediately, I sensed a pow-wow going on. There was dancing and chanting and smoking of a pipe. I wanted to ask my question, “What’s next?” But the celebration just went on and on. It was a sacred moment. I don’t know how long it lasted. And then, unexpectedly, I had my answer. The leader looked at me and said, “You will be called snow goose.” And that was it. Not long after this the pow wow ended, but the answer stayed with me.
In the weeks that followed that first retreat, I pondered my new name. Snow geese travel great distances. The metaphor seemed clear. I was called to travel, leave my comfortable spirituality and assumptions about other religions. Several quotes came to mind that informed me of my new name. From Matthew Fox’s quote, “one river, many wells,” I was reminded of the one truth deep within the many great spiritualities of the world.
From the quote, “From the top of every great tree in the forest, the view is the same,” I was reminded that all spiritualities in their most mature forms are the same. They are love. So for the next three years, I gave myself over to the study and practice of many of the great spiritualities. I experienced a great peace and connection to myself and my world.
With one month remaining before I retired, I eagerly went back out into the wilderness on a Next Step retreat. I had no idea what I would do in retirement. I was certain, I would get a clear message in the desert.
But nothing came, not in my long walks, nor looking at the night sky, nor in any small group time. After my day alone, with once again, nothing to show from my inner work, I walked back to the main lodge a little discouraged. As I walked, an image gently passed through my mind, hardly noticeable. Had a deer or even a squirrel come into view, I would have immediately forgotten the image. But I was all alone with an image of a small, clear votive candle. The light in the candle was flickering. And that was it. Was this my new calling? Was this my new name? It did not appeal to my heroic side that responded so well to the tribal circle of elders chanting. But that was all I had. I must have shown a little disappointment with my time alone when I returned to our small group and shared my story. One dear friend mentioned, “Well, Charlie, don’t forget that song you learned as a child, ‘This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.’” And of course, she was right. It was so simple and profound, I had missed it. But I still did not embrace it. I went home a bit confused and disappointed.
At home my confusion continued. I retired in a month with no idea what I was to do next. For eight months, I floundered. Then, I got the diagnosis of stage four prostate cancer. Everything changed. For two or three months, every morning I awoke with this elephant on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I did not want this diagnosis. And I prayed, “When will this be over?”
After a while, remembering my times out in the desert, I got my bearings back. I had asked God to use me in retirement. Be careful what you ask for. I saw myself as that clear, small votive candle. My body would sooner or later be taken away. All the outer forms of my life would be removed, one at a time. But the light of God would continue to shine. That would be my one constant. The image of that small, clear votive candle, once so insignificant to me, has now become the answer to my question, “What next?”.
As I let go of the outer forms of my life, all the places I had been hiding behind, I now started to let other people in. I wrote a letter to my children telling them how much I loved them. I had never spoken with such forthright passion. What a gift to have that opportunity before one dies. I wrote our Christmas letter to friends and family telling them that “I am not fighting cancer. But to paraphrase, John O’Donoghue, I welcomed cancer as a guest who has gifts to offer.” My family and I have experienced these gifts from cancer many times over.
My time in the wilderness with Ron and Anne has not only been life changing, it has been life inviting. In whatever time I have left, I’m that little, clear votive candle. I try to let God’s love shine through me. I’m writing a book for my grandkids, sharing my life with them, the real me. My subtitle for the book is: “The Making of a Modern Mystic.” I co-host a weekly podcast where I share some of my spirituality. I continue my work as a spiritual director. And I am learning to play the cello. All from this new perspective of my life as the clear, small votive candle.
Life is so good.
In 2019, Charles retired after 42 years as a Lutheran pastor. He continues to do work as a mentor and spiritual friend. He enjoys writing and is currently working on a book for his family entitled “Grandpa Speaks, At Last: The Making of a Modern Mystic.” He has two other books in the works, one for those diagnosed with cancer and one outlining his own spiritual cartography, that of a contemplative. Though diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, he has never felt so alive. You can reach Charlie at firstname.lastname@example.org