How living in solitude led one man to God

An aerial view of the desert area on November 6, 2008 in Henderson, Nevada. (Getty Images)

One way to come to know God and to understand the way he communicates with us is to read the testimonies of those who have personally encountered him. St Augustine’s Confessions is perhaps the classic text in this genre. I have just been reading Kenneth Garcia’s Pilgrim River: a Spiritual Memoir (Angelico Press), a modern account of a man driven, in his own words to “come to terms with the overpowering experience of God.”

Growing up in a dysfunctional family in Elko, Nevada, a place he grimly describes as “Cattle, casinos and cathouses”, Garcia was given no moral or spiritual compass in his early life. Such were his unhappy memories of his father’s violence and emotional detachment that he later refused to attend his funeral. The outer loneliness he experienced in realising that he was different from his peers was matched by an inner loneliness that in his youth he only dimly discerned.

It was his long solitary hikes in the Nevada desert that first gave Garcia solace, as he absorbed the grandeur, beauty and stillness of his natural surroundings. This in turn led him to sense a “mysterious and holy” spiritual force, although one that was not linked to any moral or religious tradition. In his wanderings he was drawn to Mexico with its Catholic culture and began to acknowledge “a strong sense that God was, though I didn’t know exactly what God might be.

Reading omnivorously, hiking and writing a journal characterised much of Garcia’s 20s. He noted in his journal, “We need only be attentive to discern God’s presence everywhere.” Returning to Mexico in the winter of 1972, he looked in a mirror and thought for the first time “as if a mask had been torn away.” Aged 25 he had several sessions with a psychiatrist in Utah. The psychiatrist wisely counselled him to spend less time on his own. Garcia came to realise that although he had “encountered God in the natural world and in solitude …that alone only led to shipwreck.”

Drawn back to Mexico, to escape from a brief broken marriage, Garcia was again struck by the way Catholicism “pervaded all aspects of Mexican life: their liturgies and rituals, baptisms and confirmations, births, marriages and deaths…” He started going to Mass and aged 29 in 1980 he became a Catholic at the Easter vigil. He writes that although he thought he was escaping a conventional life, he found his way instead “into a new home [the Church] with all its rich history and traditions, its deep sacramental life.” Garcia was also wryly aware that the Church “was a home full of flawed people, with whom you nevertheless have an unbreakable bond…even when you dislike one another.”

The author describes returning to formal academic study, his happy second marriage and how family life with five children brought healing, though it never takes away his passionate love of solitary places – where on long lonely early journeys he had first encountered God. There are also moving passages in which he shares his struggles over many years to parent his troubled son Diego, who as a child was diagnosed with all the symptoms of psychopathy.

Garcia is frank about his failings, his shame over past transgressions, his regrets and his self-recriminations; yet underpinning this unsparing self-knowledge is his certainty of the presence of God: “A voice inside says ‘Persist. Have faith.’ I continue on.”