"Intimate and Infinite"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
With the arrival of autumn, the temperatures have cooled down making it possible once again for me to venture out into the wilderness around my home and to take in the awesome beauty of all the desert has to offer.
Historically “deserts” have always been known as profoundly “spiritual” places. The Jewish nation had its roots in a desert, it was in a desert that Jesus discovered his mission and the seeds of Christianity were planted. Likewise, the prophet Muhammad was enlightened out in a desert and Islam was given birth. The great saints, mystics and monks of all religious traditions have lived in deserts, prayed in deserts, written great works and composed beautiful poems in deserts; and to this very day many people continue to flock to desert settings for spiritual renewal and retreats.
Before I moved out here I never quite understood why deserts were such fertile places for spiritual life but now that I’ve lived here for a few years I think I understand the allure of the wilderness, and I never cease to be amazed at the deep spiritual lesson the desert continues to teach me.
Yesterday when I walked out onto the trail outside my house and stood in the stark wilderness, I was once again struck by the experience of how utterly barren, dry, and infinitely vast everything seemed to be.
Whenever I walk into that wilderness I get this sense of being totally out of control as I encounter the profound silence and uncharted emptiness that extends for as far as the eye can see. It is all so very different from my everyday life of constant noise and busy activity and it always disorients me at first, it even frightens me.
But if I am willing to calm down and sit with this experience for a spell, I almost simultaneously discover that, far from being void and empty, the desert is a place that is filled with “presence” – an abiding “Holy Presence” thunders out in the profound silence, an intimacy emerges in the vast spaces. It is such a powerful icon of who “God” is and what the encounter of “transcendence” is all about.
As I stood in that wilderness yesterday I recalled the words of Saint Augustine who, back in the 4th century, described his experiences of “God” as:
Beyond my utmost heights and more intimate to me than my inmost thoughts.
What a perfect description of what it feels like to stand in the middle of a desert wilderness - everything so close and yet so far.
The desert is a place of great paradox. In the desert tender blossoms spring up out of the hard rocky soil, streams of water flow inches below bone-dry sand, beautiful flowers blossom out of the thick-skinned thorns of the cacti, and, like the desert, “God” is a paradox.
“God” is an infinite and uncontrollable mystery that simultaneously embraces me with the most tender intimacy, beyond my utmost heights and more intimate to me than my inmost thoughts.
Yesterday when I retuned home from my jaunt into the wilderness, I re-read poet and author, Christian Wiman’s, exquisite description of his spiritual journey:
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.
I live in a place where I crave and where I encounter mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it; and the fact is that, whether or not you physically live in a desert, each and every one of us dwells in this wonderfully mysterious place – it’s called life.