- At the Desert Retreat House -
I was out doing some Christmas shopping when I came across a table of “clearance items” and a sign that read 40% off all nativity sets. There they all were, those cardboard stables and cheap plaster figurines of Mary and Joseph with those pasted-on smiles and of course the sweet cherubic baby lying in a manger- all at drastically reduced prices because no one wanted to buy them.
I must have been standing at the table and looking at the items for some time because I noticed that people walking by were starting to stare at me, wondering what I was doing. I just couldn’t stop reflecting on how “iconic” those plaster figurines were of how people often think about “God” and “faith” nowadays –cheap, tame, reduced for sale because fewer and fewer people want to buy any of it.
As I see it, many religious people want to keep “God” safe and tame, at a comfortable distance from their real everyday lives – a sweet babe in a manger, a Man Upstairs who you can go to visit from time to time especially if you have things you want him to do for you, a relatively uninspiring plastic figurine who you can look at from time to time and then pack away in a box when you get tired of him.
For the past few years we have made our home out here in the desert – it’s sort of amazing how this desert has influenced my own spiritual journey.
Many people use the word “fierce” when they describe what a desert is like- I think it’s probably an apt term. The desert is wild and untamed, the endless terrain of sand and rock is disorienting, the silence so profound as to be frightening at times, the surrounding stone mountains seem so formidable. It’s unbearably hot out here in the summer months and during these days of winter it’s freezing cold at night. The desert skies can be pristine, calm and clear but then “at the drop of a hat” howling winds can roll up through the canyons sweeping in the dust and sand making it almost impossible to see. By anyone’s standards I suppose the desert is indeed a fierce place to live.
And yet I continue to live out here because, for me, it is also the most beautiful place on the planet- sunrises and sunsets so stunningly beautiful that they are almost painful to behold, the crystal-clear night skies revealing a cosmos I never before thought possible, exotic flowers that bloom amid cactus thorns and wildflowers that spring up from the barren desert floor after a spring rain.
The desert –so wild, so untamed, so unpredictable, so fiercely beautiful. I have come to embrace the desert as my new image of “God.”
In the book The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century mystic once said:
God is a desert to be entered and loved
Never an object to be grasped or understood.
In these last days before Christmas lots of people in Christian churches all over the globe will be praying “O Come O Come, Emmanuel,” inviting “God” to come” and sit at the table of their lives. It’s a beautiful prayer but maybe people who say or sing this should be be a bit more careful before inviting “God” to come and enter in. The problem is that when you do this, you never know what might happen, so just enjoy the ride.
One of my favorite poems comes to mind – powerful wisdom for these days just before Christmas:
Sometimes a wild god comes to the table.
He is awkward and does not know the ways
of porcelain, of fork and mustard and silver.
When the wild god arrives at the door you will probably fear him.
He reminds you of something that you might have dreamt
or the secret you do not wish to be shared.
You do not want to let him in,
you are very busy.
It is late or early and besides…..
You cannot look at him straight
because he makes you want to cry.
Oh limitless space, Oh eternal mystery.
Oh miracle of life.
Oh the wondrous dance of it all.