- At the Desert Retreat House -
When I get out of bed on these early winter mornings it’s still pretty dark outside- barely a trace of the dawn in the eastern desert skies. This morning as I sat in the dark waiting for the first light of day I reflected on enlightenment and what it means to be enlightened.
It seems to me that there are two ways of thinking about enlightenment – both involving very different paths.
The 18th century ushered in a new Age of Enlightenment- a new era of science and reason. Old superstitions of bygone days gave way to scientific thinking. In some ways the dawning of the Age of the Enlightenment was a renaissance for all humanity, demonstrating the enormous potential of the human mind to come up with answers and to figure out problems. To this very day we live in that era of enlightened reason, scientific knowledge and technological expertise - we have medicines to cure diseases and advanced technologies that allow us to press a key on a computer and be connected to the entire world.
But there is also a downside to this kind of enlightenment.
Because we live in an Age of Enlightenment, many people believe that there is an answer for every problem and that the purpose of science and reason is to eliminate mystery. The problem with this kind of thinking is that our lives and our world are filled with mystery that cannot ever be explained away. If the purpose of life is to eliminate mystery, we would have no use for poetry or music or art, and even the most advanced and respected scientists of our own day have determined that we can “figure out” only about 5% of how the world works, the rest is nothing but “dark matter,” unsolvable and mysterious.
As I sat silently waiting for the first light of dawn this morning I also reflected on another kind of enlightenment – a pathway that leads to deeper wisdom, a pathway that is a doorway into mystery. When you walk on this path, instead of filling the mind with ideas and explanations, you unclutter it - devoid of answers, you wait silently in the darkness.
Both Jesus and the Buddha walked on this other path of enlightenment.
Jesus found his way on this path by going out to a desert and sitting in silence for forty days and forty nights – there he encountered “God” and discovered his mission in life. Buddha did something very similar- when he sat alone under a Bodhi tree for the same amount of time, waiting in the darkness until he was enlightened with the experience of the truth that everything and everyone in the entire cosmos all belong to one another.
As I sat in the darkness this morning I realized that I walk on and value both of these paths of enlightenment. I cherish my ability to reason and think. I read as much as I can and try to keep informed about theology and about the latest scientific discoveries and technologies, but I also realize that the older I get, the more inclined I am to walk that other path of enlightenment-sitting in darkness, open to the touch of the light.
I am reminded of what priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor, says about her own spiritual path in the later years of her life- this wisdom rings profoundly true to me:
After so many years of trying to cobble together a way of thinking about God
that makes sense so that I can safely settle down with it, it all turns to ‘nothing.’
There is no permanently safe place on earth to settle.
I will always be at sea steering by stars.
Yet as dark as this sounds, it provides great relief,
because it now sounds truer than anything that came before.
As I sat quietly in the darkness this morning, the eastern desert skies were enlightened with the dawn of day - such a beautiful icon of the path to greater wisdom.
Several centuries ago, Saint John of the Cross observed:
On a spiritual path,
If you want to be sure of the road on which you tread,
you must close your eyes and walk in the dark.