During the two years before my Catholic conversion, I spent several nights sleeping on the open ground in the Arizona desert. Tents were too expensive, and I often slept poorly when sharing one with my friends. So, before my monthly or bimonthly drives to Sedona, Tucson, or Lake Havasu City, I would stuff a crumpled $20 Home Depot tarp into my trunk instead. I would then unroll it somewhere flat, inflate my miniature camping mattress, lay out a sleeping bag, and be at home.
At home. I felt surprisingly safe in the wilderness, among the junipers and the rocks. I would fall asleep quickly and sleep soundly almost every night, despite being vulnerable to insects, raccoons, snakes, coyotes, and, every once in a while, rain or snow. I often wondered how I could sleep so easily when the conditions were so uncertain. Back in my comfortable Phoenix apartment, in contrast, my sleep was more restless. I typically relied on a fan, a memory foam pillow, melatonin, essential oils, and sometimes even earplugs in order to fall asleep. But, on the ground, under the open sky, I needed nothing. I was free.
Those were the same years I was finally reading the saints. Working as a medieval literature and history teacher at a classical charter school, I told my middle and high school students what I had learned about Benedict, Anthony, Francis, and Clare. My reading started as research, but quickly became a romance; I found myself in the company of ground-sleepers. And, as I visited Catholic churches on Sundays and mourned that I couldn’t yet take the Eucharist, I thought of how our Lord himself often had nowhere to lay his head. I knew that in spite of their homelessness, these saints and Christ himself were all freer than I had ever felt.
I prayed that I could bring the freedom of the wilderness back to my apartment with me. I prayed for the simplicity of sainthood. And then I packed my tarp into my trunk again, drove to the desert, and practiced needing nothing.
As the saint-study and camping trips converged, I began to understand how I could sleep so soundly. Sleeping on the ground strips away the illusion that any earthly thing can protect us. In the wilderness, we are utterly dependent on divine protection—on the ravens, the manna, and the pillars of fire. The desert is a thin place, a place where artificial comforts disappear and make way for us to see the real ones. Out there, I started receiving the gift of true rest. To quote a saying I learned at my evangelical church as a teenager, “the safest place to be is right in the middle of God’s will.”
Sleeping on the ground also became a chance for me to practice a kind of celibacy. In years past, I had often lamented that I was not yet married and had no family members living in Arizona; I realized over time that I had never felt truly at home anywhere. The lack of a roof over my head shifted my attention—it opened me up to notice and love the world as family. The desire to have “a very healthy external relation to everything else,” as Chesterton writes in Saint Francis of Assisi, grew within me. I realized then that, from the moment I woke up on the ground, I was prepared to pay attention to the birds, the trees, the morning sky, and my fellow campers. Over time, upon my returns to civilization, I found myself dwelling less often on my lack of spouse, children, mortgage, and front yard. I began seeing the neighbors, students, and strangers in front of me as siblings in the world. I was following in the footsteps of Francis; I had never been happier. In the words of Jean-Baptiste Henri-Dominique Lacordaire, I was able to more readily “be a member of every family, yet belonging to none . . . to have a heart of iron for chastity and a heart of flesh for charity.”
This world is a homeless one. People are spending more and more time working, shopping, and resting in their homes—and yet, ironically, often feel less at home. When screens replace campfires, pets replace children, and athletic rituals replace liturgy, even homes with roofs become shadows of homes, mere structures providing another place for isolation and alienation. Perhaps this is why, in order to return to a house and make it a home, I first needed to tear away everything else and simply stand outside, beneath the stars.
In autumn of 2021, I finally converted to Catholicism. In pursuit of my vocation, I went to Sonoita, Arizona, to visit the Trappist nuns, women who have stripped away even the possession of frequent speech in order to more simply serve each other and God. During a 3 a.m. vigil, I told God what I’d been afraid to tell him for years: If you want me to live this life, to never pitch a tent and raise a family in it, I’m ready. I’ll sleep under the stars forever. Just tell me what to do. I went home feeling at peace. Two weeks later, my best friend, an ex-seminarian, asked me on a date. Six months later, he asked me to marry him.
We own a tent now, and a home with a real roof and real walls. But our friendship started as a union of two desert vagrants with nowhere to lay our heads, and this is what led us to pray together. Prayer, and sometimes even the loneliness of celibacy, kept us safe, free, and reliant on the only lasting Home. This is the gift that initiated our friendship and now sustains our marriage—the gift that taught us how to keep watch with Christ, and how to rest in his peace.
Betsy K. Brown is a writer and educator in Arizona. Her work has appeared in Fare Forward, The Classical Outlook, and AWP's The Writer's Notebook.
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