Yesterday, I received an online comment about one of the desert pictures I post everyday. The person told me that she couldn't understand how I was able to find such beauty in the desert where I live. She said that she looks at the pictures and all she can see is emptiness and desolation, and concluded that I must be a very "strong person" to live in an environment such as this and to find beauty in it.
I told her that the opposite is true.
In fact, the great gift of living in the desert is that it is teaching me how to be weak and to be emptied. I have come to value "emptiness" as one of my most prized spiritual treasures.
In his "Spiritual Autobiography," the poet Richard Rodriguez relates his experience of traveling to the Judean Desert, just outside Jerusalem. There in the wilderness, he came to understand how and why the desert is the seedbed of the three major religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam:
Moses, Jesus, Muhammad - each ran afoul of cities. Moses, of the court of Egypt, Jesus of Jerusalem, Muhammad of Mecca. They went out into the desert and the desert hid them and emptied them. The desert came to represent a period of trial before they emerged as vessels of revelation.
Before moving out into the desert where I live, I would not have been able to come close to understanding the full meaning of how the desert "emptied" Moses or Jesus or Muhammad and prepared them to be vessels of revelation.
But living out here, I really "get" what that means.
I have also traveled into the Judean Desert outside Jerusalem, and I have to say that it is very similar to the wilderness terrain just outside my own home, here in the Coachella Valley of Southern California.
As is the case of the Judean Desert, I can walk about a mile or so onto the desert floor outside my house and walk up toward the mountains - and in a very brief period of time, I encounter an absolute "nothingness." I am in the midst of a complete wilderness.
The silence is so pronounced in the wilderness, like nothing I have ever before experienced. It is almost frighteningly silent - "deafening."
The wilderness is nothing but rocky soil, stony mountains and desert bushes for as far as the eye can see- no landmarks, no borders or boundaries. It is wild, fierce, desolate. The wilderness is not a place where you can easily "get your bearings" and easily figure out where to go next.
Interestingly enough, all this profound "absence" inevitably has what may appear to be a contradictory effect on me. The total absence makes me feel weak and it is a frightening place because I aways feel out of control. It empties me. However, in the emptiness I feel a profound abundance of Presence- a Holy Presence, a transcendence that does not respond to my whims or pay attention to my needs, a Presence that only emerges when I am empty enough to to be filled up.
Whenever I venture out into the wilderness, I inevitably think about Jesus (or Moses or Muhammad) in a desert place just like the one I walk in.
I only spend a few hours out there in the fierce wilderness (that's about all I can take.) But I wonder, what would it be like to spend 40 long days and 40 long nights out there? How totally emptied would Jesus (or Moses or Muhammad) have been spending that kind of time out in the wilderness? How totally readied would they have become - ready to be filled up with transcendence, becoming vessels of revelation?
I cherish the lesson of emptiness I am learning from my desert home. In fact, I practice being "empty." It has become a daily spiritual discipline for me - devoid of answers, no plans or plots, no agendas, ideas nor doctrines, no dogmas, or rituals.
In absence and in silence, I practice the discipline of emptiness where there is nothing left but "God."