"Earth's Crammed with Heaven"
- Morning at the Desert Retreat House -
Throughout my entire adult life I have been talking about religion and spirituality and now, most recently, I have been writing this daily blog post on the subject. As I have reflected on it I realize that there has been one common factor that has prevailed over all these years – when thinking “spiritually,” most people make a basic underlying distinction between heaven and earth.
When it comes to spirituality, (at least in the West), many if not most of us still carry around the baggage of a worldview that is distinctively “dualistic” – a heavenly realm and an earthy existence. And so, people go to churches or attend a temple or a mosque, say prayers, in order to be transported away form this earthy existence into the more ethereal heavenly realm, the place where God lives. For many, life on this earth is merely “tolerated” - a proving ground for a future life in a far “better place.”
As I see it this dualistic distinction between heaven and earth ultimately ends up in a spiritual dead end. It pushes people away from the present moment and away from everyday life; and yet, it is precisely in the present moment of everyday life of where “God” is to be found – we experience transcendent power in the here and now.
When his disciples asked him where they could find the “Kingdom of God,” Jesus told them to look for it here: The Kingdom of God is here, it is now. The Buddha taught the same thing when he told his disciples that enlightenment is found by focusing on the present: There is no past, there s no future, there is only now.
It seems to me that we can never actually grasp this deeper spiritual wisdom until we are able to abandon the dualistic distinction between a heavenly realm and an earthly existence.
In his wonderful book, My Bright Abyss, author and poet, Christian Wiman beautifully articulates a truth he has discovered on his journey of faith: everyday life is always a mystical union of both heaven and earth.
What I crave – and what I have known, in fugitive instants
is mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it,
some ultimate insight that is still sight.
This one little line says it all for me, so exquisitely expressing the core of what spiritual wisdom is ultimately all about: not a way to be transported away from this world but a spiritual insight “into” this world, some ultimate insight that is still sight.
A summer sunrise on a desert morning, a look of love in the eyes of a spouse, the innocent face of a child - all holy moments, “fugitive instances” when, if we are attentive enough, we might be able to catch a glimpse of a sublime mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it.
I am reminded of a story about the North American Indian People who first inhabited this continent. When the European missionaries landed on these shores their goal was to “convert” the heathen natives to the one true Christian faith. But, in fact, those native peoples were already a very deeply spiritual people who, over thousands of years, had believed that the earth and all that is in it was full of a Holy Presence- the Great Spirit” of the creator flowed in and through it all.
When the native people prayed, believing that the Great Spirit flowed throughout the earth, they kept the gaze of their eyes fixed upon the ground on which they stood. This practice infuriated the Christian missionaries who ordered the natives to look up to heaven whenever they prayed because God dwelt up there in the sky, in a distant heaven separated from earth.
I think the missionaries had it all wrong and those deeply spiritual, native people could have taught them all a thing or two about heaven and earth: the “Kingdom of God” is here and now, in the present. We enter into heaven by looking at the earth.
As I sit in my garden at the beginning of an excruciatingly beautiful summer day in the desert, I remember a line from the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
and every common bush alive with God,
but only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries.
I think I need to take off my shoes – I am standing on Holy Ground.