Jessica Hartenbower

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NONFICTION

For the Darkest of Deserts

On Ash Wednesday, I cried for mercy. As the church entered the season of Lent, I lamented my own spiritual desert. I grieved again the perpetual feeling I can only describe as dark. I have lived here for much longer than forty days. With little hope left in my heart, Ash Wednesday reminded me that Jesus suffered a desert, too. So I cried again for mercy.

I don’t know how to describe my ever-looming sadness except through jumbled metaphors and spiritual symbols of liturgical tradition. I suppose in some ways it’s the outworking of the deep-rooted feelings of my unworthiness to be alive, and therefore to be loved at all, especially by the God of the universe. That type of existential insecurity doesn’t leave much room for joy. There are people who have seen glimpses of my brokenness and tried to understand, to offer fragments of healing. They have been near while God has felt distant, each tangibly revealing God’s character toward me when I couldn’t see or feel Him on my own.

*

My pastor, the kind and loving father I always wanted, once told me that I wasn’t in touch with my emotions.

“You’re suppressing her, Jess. And I want to know her so bad. Just let her out.” He was so unmistakably full of gentleness and compassion in that moment. He really meant it. How could he want to know me? I don’t even want to know me. There’s a reason I have mastered the art of suppression, my greatest coping mechanism. I wasn’t used to others trying to reach inside my sadness-induced darkness and pull me out. Maybe I don’t have to stumble through the desert alone.

My Bible professor, who asks me, “Are you okay?” more than anyone, once promised, “I don’t expect you to be perfect. Be honest with me about how you’re feeling. I won’t think any less of you.” My eyes wandered over the bookshelves in his office, before settling on the floor. He too was trying to release me from my lonely desert, to show me that he cared. But his grace fell just out of my reach.

I always shrug when he asks me “Are you gonna make it?” and with half a smile say, “I dunno,” because I truly do not know how I survived today or how I’ll outlive tomorrow.

After expressing my frustration with my lack of faith in God’s love for me—despite the fact that I can exposit God’s love theologically—he said, “Well, you exist. That’s proof that He loves you. He wants you here.” I had never thought of myself in this way, the very creation of my life as an act of love. Maybe my existence too was divinely desired.

*

As I was leaving one of my English classes one day, another professor asked me before I escaped out the door, “How you feeling, Jess?” I don’t know what prompted this question or what exactly he was trying to ask me, but I do remember the genuine concern in his voice.

“Not great.” I ventured momentarily into honesty, trying to accept the care he was offering. “But, I’ll probably survive,” I continued, plastering positivity over the truth.

“Oh, I think you will.” He was confident in me. I was not.

“Yeah…” I hesitated. “It would just be nice if I actually enjoyed the process of survival.” I ventured again, holding my breath.

“We all go through phases of life that are more enjoyable than others,” he replied with real compassion, allowing me to exhale. I wish I would have told him that my entire life feels stuck in the less enjoyable phase and that I’m afraid I’ll never make it out. But despite my silence, this brief exchange offered a little water to my desert-dwelling soul. Maybe others do understand. Maybe I could be seen and still loved, exposed and not rejected.

*

On Good Friday, I pondered why we name the literal darkest day in all of history “good.” In the very middle of that day, the sun stopped shining and a few hours later Jesus took his last excruciating breath as His Father abandoned him. Jesus too knows what it is like when God feels distant. He too grieved the darkness and knew agonizing loneliness. And his desert culminated in death. But somehow the facing and experiencing of such sorrow was good.

Easter Sunday marks the end of Lent with celebration of life in Jesus’ resurrection. The tomb is empty. He is risen indeed. The light shines in the darkness, and the light has won. I wish I could write here that Easter cured me, that making it to the day when death was defeated pulled me out of the darkness of my desert. But that isn’t true. I know that Jesus’ resurrection lets me face death without fear, but what about life? It’s not that I want to die but that living feels too difficult, like I wasn’t made for it. I find myself crying still for mercy, now in that empty tomb like Mary Magdalene, looking for Jesus. But he has yet to appear beside me. I have yet to hear his gentle voice say my name and pull me out of my grief. I live in that moment of in-between, in that Holy Saturday, amidst the darkness of Good Friday before the light of Easter Sunday, in a Lenten season that stretches for years rather than weeks. But I find comfort in the fact that the liturgical calendar offers space for grief, that God allows seasons of sorrow, that Jesus himself suffered the darkest of deserts too. And if all that is true, then maybe I am not uniquely broken, but simply a human who feels the depths of this life. And if Lent tells me anything, it’s that Jesus understands perfectly, and he dwells with his people. Maybe that applies to me, too.


Jessica Hartenbower graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English from Colorado Christian University in 2020. She enjoys reading of all kinds and hopes to communicate both truth and beauty through the means of the written word. She has also published her personal essay “Serving Size: A Fraction of Myself” in Waymark Literary Magazine.


Artwork: “Melancholy” by Odilon Redon via Rawpixel.com, Flickr.com.


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