an empty fullness
-The High Desert -
I was a pretty dangerous character when I was first ordained a priest (many years ago). I had just completed years of advanced study in theology, and I was convinced that I was the "answer man." Come to me, and from my vast storehouse of theological education, I could dispense a "quick and easy" answer to everything and anything you'd ever want to know about God and religion.
"Theology" is, by definition, a study of "words about God." Over the years, I gradually came to realize that my quick and easy answers had lost their power to explain (actually I came to realize that they really had little or no explanatory power to begin with). The older I got, all the millions of "God-words" in my vocabulary began to lose their luster- becoming weak and tepid tools for accessing that wild, fierce, untamable fire of cosmic loving energy we call GOD.
I gradually came to understand what so many of the great theologians of the past had come to say about their study of God. Their ultimate conclusion was: "Anything you can ever say about God- God is not." Words can only point you to the path on which you meet and encounter the mystery.
Last Spring I conducted a "men's retreat" in the HIgh Desert, located in the region above the area where I live. I had been in this part of the desert before - mostly as a tourist admiring the endless desert terrain, carpeted with cacti and Joshua Trees and framed by stunningly beautiful snow-capped mountains. When I went there last Spring, I was no longer a tourist passing through. I was there to reside for a few days and, along with my fellow "retreatants," I was on a spiritual quest.
I can vividly recall the very first time I walked alone out into that wide-open desert terrain. It was a crsytal-clear morning and I was standing in a space that was "absolutely empty" - not a soul in sight, no cars, no houses, not a sound. I can vividly recall that my first response to it all was "panic." My first impulse was to "literally" run back to the safety of the retreat house where I could touch all my comfortable things and have conversations with the people I knew, speaking a language that put me at ease.
As I walked out into that desert terrain that first day, I did not panic because I felt so alone. I did not "fear" because there was nothing there. I was fearful and awestruck because the emptiness was so full. A Holy Presence of wild, untamable, fiery, cosmic love was pulsating like a beating heart. The separation between me and GOD was so thin that I could almost see and touch it, and I was afraid. ( I know now why in the biblical stories whenever characters encounter GOD, angels always tell them, "Do not be be afraid.")
That day in the desert set me on a course of learning a new language for encountering Holy Presence - not the language and the words of "theology," but a new language of "nothingness."
Buddhists talk about a spiritual path that leads to "emptiness" or to "nothingness." I am following that path.
Every day I sit in mindful silence and I listen with my new language of nothingness-open to the emergence of a power I cannot tame or control. Every day I walk out my front door into my own desert region down here in the valley, and every day I practice my new language of nothingness- always amazed at the fierce power of the stark emptiness and the ear-shattering sound of a deafening silence. And, lest I panic and run back to safety, every day I need to hear the message of that angel, "Do not be afraid."
Lao Tzu (the Father of Taoism) says:
Become totally empty
Quiet the restlessness of the mind
Only then will you witness everything unfolding from emptiness