Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Center at the Edge

"Untamed Wilderness"
-At the Desert Retreat House-

Our house is located just at the edge of a vast and expansive desert landscape. There are other houses situated behind us in our neighborhood, but directly across the street there is "nothing" -an untamed wilderness. 

Every single day as I walk out my front door and look out at the desert, I am reminded of my spiritual ancestors - those 4th century Desert Mothers and Fathers who moved away from the center of the city and moved out to the fringes to live in a desert. They moved from the center to the fringes of society, from the center to the edges of the established church, and they did so because of their desire to be more faithful followers of the "way" of Jesus.  

Those desert monastics moved away from the values of a society that cherished fame, fortune and social status, and they moved to a desert where they lived in caves and huts, lived a simple life caring for one another, with very little regard for high status or personal power. They moved away from the center of the growing institution of the established church with its accumulation of wealth and designated hierarchy, where bishops lived in mansions and priests lorded it over peasants, and they moved to the fringes of the church where they lived as a community, prayed together and worked together - no one more important than the other.

Those ancient desert monastics also left behind their glib and ready answers. They had little concern for doctrine and dogma. They made their dwelling in a wilderness place of untamed and uncontrollable emptiness and there they learned to be just as empty as the desert in which they lived; and in their emptiness, free of ambition, free of a bloated sense of self, free of answers and definitions, they ultimately came face to face with "God" - an abiding Holy Presence in the total emptiness. 

It has been said that those early monastics had to move to the fringes to find their core. I actually think this is the ironic path of any spiritual journey:

You must go to the edge to find the center.

The Buddha, a wealthy prince, moved away from the center of his rich and famous lifestyle and lived as a beggar where he found enlightenment. Jesus stood boldly against the accepted values of temple and empire where the strong lorded it over the weak. He went out to the margins and embraced little children, welcomed the poor and the needy, and ate dinner with sinners and outcasts, announcing that the "Kingdom of God" belonged to them. Saint Francis of Assisi ripped off his wealthy merchant clothes and stood naked in a city square, then went out to live with and love those on the fringes of life, the poorest of the poor, the rejects on the garbage heap of life.  

They all went out to the edges and there they found the center - standing at the edges they were at the core. 

But, you don't have to sell all your stuff and move out to a desert to go to the edges. In fact, as I see it, any spiritual journey is always an "edgy" endeavor. The spiritual path leads us away from "self-centeredness." It puts us on a path that leads us out to all those people living at the margins of life and calls us to embrace them with compassion and offer them a place of dignity.

The spiritual journey puts us on a path of emptiness, it takes us to the fringes where there are no glib and easy answers, and in the end all we have left is "God." 

It's ironic, isn't it?

You must go to the edge to find the center.

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