- Sunset at the Desert Retreat House -
Last evening, just after sunset as I sat outside, to my great wonder I realized that I was actually observing the “Star of Bethlehem” rising in the Western skies. The fact is that way the way in which the planets were particularly aligned was exactly how they were positioned 2000 years ago at the time of the birth of Jesus. This was the exact same star that had been the source of all the magnificent biblical poetry about Jesus’ birth - the same bright star shining over a manger, guiding the three wise men to the Bethlehem cave.
As I gazed upon that brilliant star last evening as it lit up the nighttime skies, I felt this incredibly powerful sense of connection. It was a transcendent moment in which I literally felt like I was being pulled out of my self, connected to an infinite cosmos of multiple galaxies, connected to the billons of other people who have gone before me in time, connected to people who lived 2000 years ago and looked up in wonder at that same night star in the little town of Bethlehem.
My experience last night reminded me of what is likely the most important lesson I have learned from my life in the desert. Living here has allowed me to feel more connected than ever before. It has given me a sense of belonging to the universe, an intimate connection to the beautiful, vast and yet totally uncontrollable world of nature; and yet, I also realize how relatively unimportant “I” am in the larger scope of things.
One of my desert wisdom books explains why this happens:
Deserts confront us with a vast horizontal edge,
a horizon of emptiness into which we find ourselves absorbed and lost.
The desert is intrinsically hostile to the ego,
threatening to swallow it up in its endless expanse of nothingness.
The Desert Mothers and Fathers, those ancient 4th century Christian monastics, moved away from the formal church and out to the fringes of popular culture. They left the cities and moved out into the vast desert wilderness to grow in wisdom as faithful followers of Jesus. They would often say that the greatest gift given to them in their desert life was what they referred to as “the gift of indifference.”
In the desert they leaned that, while they were valued and significant, no one of them was especially important. In fact their great gift in the desert was that they were essentially ignored. They were simply part of the vastness of it all, embraced by an all-abiding Holy Presence but never the singular focus of attention. The desert is “intrinsically hostile to the ego” and when the ego doesn’t thrive, the true self can blossom.
But of course you don’t have to live in a desert to appreciate the value of this “gift of indifference.” In fact this gift may lie at the very heart of everyone’s spiritual journey.
My book about desert wisdom puts it this way:
So often people presume themselves to be at the center of everyone else’s attention,
performing for an audience that isn’t even there.
Their chief loss in the process is missing
the gift of blessed indifference that was being offered to them all along.
We are saved, in the end, by the things that ignore us.
Like most people I spent way too much time and energy in my life imagining what other people were thinking about me and then acting accordingly. It was as if my life was one continuous performance review and I did all I could so that others would give me a positive evaluation- high grades for my expertise in living everyday. But the truth is that, for the most part, most of the people I know or have ever known hardly, if ever, spent much of their time thinking about me at all.
The narcissist in me had convinced myself that “I” was important enough for others to be constantly paying attention to what I did. I spent an awful lot of my time performing for an audience that wasn’t even there.
As the sun went down last evening, I sat in the midst of this vastly beautiful wilderness where I live and looked up at the “Star of Bethlehem” so brightly shining in the cosmos, and I was so thankful for that “gift of indifference,” so grateful to realize that “I” was being ignored. Sure, I was significant and valued, but I was just a one tiny speck in the whole array, not at the center of anyone’s attention- not even God’s. There was no performance review going on – only an all-embracing, abiding Love.
Ahh, the gift of blessed indifference!