-a day in the desert-
The other day I came across a wonderful wisdom saying from the Sufi tradition:
Know that all that is,
is nothing more than that which veils God.
If it were not for your alienation,
you would look upon God face to face.
When I look back at the earlier part of my life, I would never have been reading the literature of Islamic mystics. I didn't even know what a Sufi was back then. But more importantly, I can honesty say that back in my younger years, I wouldn't have had a clue about what this Sufi poet was actually saying here.
As a young man and newly ordained priest, steeped in the theology of a Western Christian tradition, I was very familiar with the concept of "alienation from God." I had learned that "sin" alienates us from God. I had come to believe that "God" is an almighty person, out there, apart from me, and "sin" is an offense against that person. Sin puts up a wall between me and God, and of course no one wants to be alienated from God. So, the way to tear the wall down was to confess and repent- say "sorry, I won't do it again, I'll try to do better next time."
But I have grown into a new wisdom in my later years, and with this new wisdom I think I can now finally understand what the Sufi poet meant when he said, all that "is" veils God, and that we could see God face to face if we weren't so alienated.
I no longer think of "God" as a person out there, apart from me down here. I have come to understand "God" as an abiding Presence, an energy flowing in and through all that "is." I have come to understand that there is no isolated "me," - everything and everyone all belong to one another, all part of the great flow of life, all swimming together in that river of "God." All that "is" veils "God."
Sometimes the space is thin and I am aware of the flow of life, and aware of the abiding Presence in the midst of it all. At other times I retreat into my own selfish ego, putting up thick walls of self-importance, fooling myself into thinking that "I" am the focus of life. And whenever I do this, I am alienated and estranged from "God." Indeed if it were not for my alienation I would see "God" face to face.
When I read this Sufi wisdom saying the other day, I was immediately reminded of one of my favorite stories told by the mystic monk, Thomas Merton, who describes a moment of epiphany for him - a time when, in the midst of ordinary everyday living, the thick walls of his alienation fell down and he saw "God" face to face:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were strangers. It was like waking up from a dream of self-isolation. Yes, the whole illusion of a separate existence is a dream.
This sense of liberation from the illusion of separation was such a relief and a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud to think that such a commonplace realization made me feel like I was holding the winning ticket to a cosmic sweepstakes.
As I begin a new day here at my Desert Retreat House, I pray for the walls of alienation to come tumbling down. I am eager to look upon the face of "God."