-Just Outside the Desert Retreat House-
In the spring when the wildflowers bloom and all the trees, shrubs and bushes go into blossom, it's sometimes hard to know that I live in a desert. But when summertime comes, all the blossoms disappear and the wildflowers are gone. Day after day there is not a cloud in the sky as the temperatures linger in the triple digits in the heat of the noonday sun. In the summertime there is no doubt that I live in a desert terrain- barren, stark, wild, vast and utterly beautiful.
My wife and I took a little jaunt up to Los Angeles last weekend. The city was such a stark contrast to what we see every day in our desert life - the fast pace and the "hustle and bustle" of life in a city, the oppressive traffic, the rumbling subways, the endless corridors of tall buildings. I've lived in cities all my life, but we had become so used to our wilderness environment that on that weekend in Los Angeles, it took us a while to adjust to being back in the city once again. It was such a powerful lesson in the sharp contrasts between city life and desert life.
This morning, at the beginning of another hot summer day, I look out into the vast desert wilderness just across the street from our home, and my mind immediately goes back to those 4th century Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers who abandoned their lives and livelihoods in the city and moved to the fringes of society - out into the neighboring deserts of Egypt and Palestine in order to live a life of quiet contemplation and compassionate community with one another.
Those ancient Christian monastics moved to the desert to embrace a simple lifestyle, following the "way" of Jesus. They came to the desert to pay attention to what was important and to ignore what doesn't matter.
Back in the city, many of those ancient desert monastics had been people who enjoyed a life of fairly high repute and social status. They lived their lives according to the norms of society - competition, strategizing, planing for success. Back in the city, the official church was being established - a newly emerging institution of Christendom that was becoming more and more like the kind of empire Jesus had rejected, as popes and priests, the rich and the powerful living the high life lorded it over the weak and marginal.
So they moved away from it all, away from all that the "city" represented - out into the stark contrast of wilderness living.
Their new life in the desert was a contemplative life, characterized by a disciplined practice of mindful awareness. The stark, empty, wild and untamed geography of the desert offered a constant invitation for these monastics to become like the stark desert - emptied of ego and ambition, devoted to compassion and service to one another. And in the emptiness, they discovered fullness- a deep peace and a rich abundance of Holy Presence.
I look to my spiritual desert ancestors as a model, an icon and a guide for my own life journey. In fact, I think every spiritual path of any kind involves both paying attention to what is important and ignoring what doesn't matter.
I have come to understand that I am unable to pay close attention to what is important to me in life unless I honestly name what is unimportant.
I no longer need or want the glib praise of others so that I can feel that I am successful - being held in high esteem by others is no longer important to me. Also, when I consider my life "back in the city," I recognize that I was consumed by strategizing, competition, and career building -that's no longer important me. I would often spend my time thinking about what "was" or "what might have been if only," I have come to realize this was a total waste of energy. And while I am still connected to the official institution of the church, the politics and power plays that go with that territory are no longer important to me.
I have moved away from the "city" out into the wilderness of the desert.
At the beginning of this hot summer day as I look into the wilderness outside our desert home, I vow again to ignore the unimportant and pay attention to what counts- to shrink my self-important ego, to be as emptied as the barren desert wilderness staring me in the face.
As the day begins I commit myself to mindful awareness, to be awake to the revelations of what "is," my heart open to the mysterious, wild and untamed energy of life flowing in and through it all - the name of which is "God."