"Absence" on the Desert Floor
As I sat and looked out onto the desert yesterday, I was reading a newly published book of essays by Richard Rodgriguez, in which he writes the stories of his personal spiritual autobiography. He tells of the time after the 9/11 bombings when so much anti-Muslim sentiment gripped the heart of the nation. During this period, he was moved to discover the common ground upon which different religions stand.
His quest for common ground led him on a journey to the "Holy Land," where he discovered that Christians, Jews and Muslims were indeed bound together in a common bond, not only because we all believe in the same God or because we all descend from Abraham.
He went looking for a commonality among religions by visiting the many shrines of the different faith traditions standing next to one another in Jerusalem - churches, temples mosques. But here he found more division than commonality.
It wasn't until he travelled away from the city and found himself in the middle of the Judean wilderness that he found the common ground. Our various different religions all emerge out of a common desert. The desert is our common ground. And since I live in a desert, I understand exactly what he meant, and it was wonderfully insightful to me.
In his book, Rodriguez notes that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad all began their journey of faith by first going out into the wilderness:
The Desert hid them, emptied them, came to represent a period of trial before they emerged as vessels of revelation.
Before Moses or Jesus or Muhammad could come back from the desert and talk about God, they all had to come to the realization that you cannot actually "talk" about God. "God" is unable to be contained in words or ideas. God is beyond reason. In fact, "God" is irrational. The desert is probably the only place on earth where you can learn that lesson.
Rodriguez' spiritual sojourn into the desert very much resonated with me.
"Desert" is, literally- emptiness - it's synonyms, "desolation," wasteland." To travel to the desert "in order to see it" is paradoxical. The desert is an absence. The desert is an empty place.
Every time I walk out into the desert, I learn a lesson of "awesome emptiness." The wilderness is a humbling place where a bloated ego gets deflated real fast. It is a place beyond control, seemingly without defining borders or boundaries. I find that the desert is an irrational place. I find myself unable to "think" very much when I walk on the desert floor. I find that I suspend my thinking, as I walk along in the moment - swallowed up by the vast absence that is so very pregnant with presence.
The most advanced new scientists of our day confess that science and reason can only get you so far in explaining what the universe is all about. In fact they say that science is only able to explain about 5% of how it all works - the rest is "dark matter," "dark energy" - mystery.
I think this also applies to theology, doctrine and religion. Our thinking and our rational mind can only take us so far. Our words about God, our dogmas, doctrines and religious rituals probably get us to about 5% of grasping who God is and what God is all about- the rest is all mystery.
God is a pregnant absence, a dark energy, an unknowable mystery and faith is irrational. You can't think your way into God, you can only journey along in the absence, surrendering your own ego, diving into the absence - going with the flow.
This is the lesson of the desert - a lesson taught to Moses and to Jesus and to Muhammad.
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