"Down in the Valley"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
It's Sunday morning - for many people throughout the world this is a day to explore those high realms of the spiritual life. Some will go to church, others will stay home and say some prayers, others may perhaps devote some extra time to meditate, perhaps read from the Bible or listen to a symphony. It all makes me realize that when it comes to the topic of spirituality, people usually assume that's a rather lofty endeavor. Many people think that getting in touch with their spirituality always involves some sort of "mountaintop experience" - an uplifting sense of powerful transcendence.
The problem is that for the most part, these kinds of mountaintop experiences are normally few and far between in the normal course of most people's everyday spiritual journey.
I am reminded of one of my all-time favorite biblical stories found in the Hebrew Scriptures. It's a story about Moses wandering around out in the middle of the wilderness as he attempts to lead his people home to the Promised Land. Moses is frustrated and lost, he does not know the way; and so he goes up a high mountain where he hopes to meet "God" and get some some direction- and in fact that is exactly what happens.
Up there on the mountain, "God" is revealed to Moses in the form of a "Burning Bush" - a fiery flame of intense radiating light and love. In fact the light is so intense that it makes Moses' face glow as he stands in its brightness - a powerful "thin place" experience of the Holy and the transcendent.
But then it's time for Moses to get to work- to go down from the mountain and back to the dry desert valley where the people still wander in the wilderness. In order to do this, the story says that Moses has to cover his face with a veil. He couldn't possibly live everyday existence glowing with such an intense spiritual experience, and besides that, who would even want to come near him if his face was beaming like the brilliant sun like some sort of alien creature- they would shrink away from him in fear. So, he has to cover it up, put a veil over it for the living of life every day.
I think this wonderful story is a perfect icon of the spiritual journey each us is on, and since I live in the valley of a desert wilderness surrounded by towering mountains, I have a living reminder of that story every day of my life.
My normal everyday life happens down here in the valley and not up on those lofty mountaintops. The valley is sometimes harsh, the days are hot, the shadows are long, the trails are unmarked and sometimes hard to follow.
Of course I have been up on those mountaintops- it's quite beautiful up there, and on my spiritual journey, I have had many Moses-like, thin place experiences of the "Burning Bush," intense moments of awareness of the transcendent at various times in my life; but that's not where everyday life happens. It happens down here in the valley of the wilderness, and here I remember the light; here, I am bathed in the glow, and yet I always live under a veil.
I think of something author and poet, Christian Wiman, once wrote about his own journey of faith:
To be truly alive is to know one's ultimate existence within one's daily existence.
My awareness of my ultimate existence, my underlying awareness of a holy and abiding presence is always part of the journey, but it is always veiled. This ultimate awareness in my daily existence is indeed what makes me truly alive.
The Buddha taught:
However many holy words you read, however many you speak,
what good will they do you if you do not act on them?
Such a good thought for me to hold onto this Sunday - a day of lofty thoughts and high places, a day for holy words and noble thoughts.
If I expect that I will always be on the mountaintop I may be so disappointed that I may never even try to walk the spiritual path; but because I know that most of the journey is lived under the veil of the ordinary, I have the strength and the courage to move along.
So I will do my best to act on my holy words and lofty thoughts. I will get up every day, say my prayers, do my chores, try to show kindness whenever I can, try to forgive where possible, to be as compassionate as I know how.
Once in a while the veil may be lifted and I'll be back on the mountaintop once again, but even when that doesn't happen I know the light is always there. So I just "keep on keeping on" making my way in the wilderness.
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