Sunday, September 14, 2014

A Desert Spirituality

"A Way in the Wilderness"
--Outside the Desert Retreat House-

Years ago I first read the classic work, The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century guide to Christian mysticism. I recall one sentence that I found particularly striking: 

God is a desert to be entered and loved, never an object to be grasped or understood

Now that I have lived in a desert for a few years, I think I may have finally come to grasp what this actually means. In fact I have come to believe that life itself is a desert to be entered and loved rather than grasped and understood. Living in a desert teaches you that.

Real estate people are fond of the term "location, location, location" -the value of a home or property is largely determined by "context" - where the home is located, its neighborhood, its surrounding geography. So it is with living in a desert,  the "location" itself teaches a "desert spirituality."  - location, location, location.

The desert is a mysterious wilderness. A few steps from my home I can be standing on the desert floor - I never cease to be amazed and awestruck when I walk into that place.  The desert is so vast and when I stand in it, I always feel so small. It is also such a barren and empty place filled with thundering silence, rocky stone mountains and dry sandy soil. There are no roads, it is uncharted territory, and it all seems so wild and untamed, even fierce at times in the baking sun and triple digit afternoon heat. 

And yet this wilderness is also exquisitely beautiful, and always full of surprises- night skies so brilliant that you aren't sure if it's day or night, pristine sunrises so beautiful that I sometimes find myself in tears, wildflowers and blooming cacti, exotic birds, even underground streams of refreshing water that mysteriously pop up from time to time from the dried up desert floor.

Location location, location. This mysterious wilderness points a way to walk through the wilderness of life- a path to greater wisdom and truth.  It points a way to "God." 

-Emptiness:  Just as the desert is barren and empty, so must I be "empty" on the journey to truth and wisdom - no reliance on all the glib and easy answers about life and about "God" I have so carefully refined in the past. The desert teaches me to unclutter my mind and open my heart -  No living in the  past, strategizing future plans, just be empty so that I can be filled up.

-Pay attention: Every day in this mysterious wilderness, I come across new surprises that I have never seen before, but I will miss them if I am not paying attention, mindful, awake, "in the moment." So the desert fosters a contemplative spirit.  In moments of prayer and meditation, in everyday living, pay attention to what "is."

-Few words, much silence:  The desert is a place of utter silence. The silence is frightening at first but when you embrace it, it brings a sense of deep peace. So I don't need lots of words on a path to truth, and when I pray I even find that words get in my way. 

-Don't take yourself too seriously: The desert is a place where the "ego" doesn't thrive very well - the wilderness is so vast; and in it, I always feel so small.  So, the desert teaches me to shrink a bloated self-centered ego that must be constantly fed by the high praise of others. 

-Kindness, compassion, hospitality: The great paradox of this mysterious wilderness is that the smaller "I" feel, the more do I sense that I belong to it all.  I can look up into the desert skies at night and while "I" am but a speck, I also belong to the cosmos - everything and everyone belonging together. The One is in the many and all the many are in the ONE. There are no "different others" and so I am drawn out of my self toward others, pulled into relationship, called to treat others with compassion and kindness and everyone is always welcome at my door.

Location location, location. This mysterious desert wilderness is a great teacher, but you don't have to live in a desert to learn its lesson:

God is a desert to be entered and loved, never an object to be grasped or understood
Everyday life is a desert to be entered and loved, never an object to be grasped or understood















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