"Sunshine and the Shadows"
- At the Desert Retreat House -
In these days of early spring the coyotes come down from their mountain caves and roam the desert in search of food. Last night I was roused from a deep sleep by the sound of a pack of wild coyotes howling in the wilderness just across from where we live. The eerie sound of these wild animals howling under a midnight moon always gives me chills especially if they wake me while asleep; but over the years, I have learned to take a few breaths, calm down and “make peace” with the sound of those wild beasts. In fact, I have come to realize that the night creatures are what make this desert such an intriguing place to live.
If the wilderness was only populated by hummingbirds and butterflies fluttering about in flowers and bright morning sun, the desert would be a “nice” place to live but not a deeply spiritual place. Instead, here in the desert, the sun shines brightly but coyotes also howl in the middle of the night, snakes slither in the sagebrush and bats fly in the midnight sky.
Just as shadows and shade provide depth and contrast to a painting, the nighttime shadows and the sounds of the wild beasts offer depth and contrast to life in the wilderness. That’s what makes this place so “deeply spiritual.”
The story of Jesus in the wilderness immediately comes to mind.
Just as the Buddha sat alone under a Bodhi tree for 40 days and 40 nights on his journey to enlightenment, so did Jesus go out alone into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights searching to be enlightened about his identity, seeking the meaning of his life and mission.
Alone in the desert, discerning his deeper truth, Jesus not only listened for the voice of “God” but he also paid attention to what the shadows and the demons were saying to him. The Gospel of Mark wonderfully describes “Jesus in the desert” in one pithy, profound and extremely iconic sentence:
The spirit pushed Jesus out into the wilderness, where for forty days
he lived with the wild beasts and the angels attended him.
As I see it, this is indeed an iconic description of the very essence of any spiritual journey. The path to deeper truth and greater wisdom always engages our brighter angels and also our darker demons. The spiritual journey is a beautiful struggle
I think about something priest and author, Richard Rohr, once observed:
I suppose there is no more counterintuitive idea than that of
using and integrating what we fear, avoid, deny and deem unworthy
as necessary to our growth and maturity in the spiritual life.
Somehow we believe that religious people or people on any sort of spiritual path aren’t supposed to be haunted by the demons of our human condition. Spiritual people aren’t supposed to have doubts or fears or anxieties, lust or addiction, they aren’t supposed to be prone to laziness or cheating. Spiritual people are supposed to walk in the light and avoid the darkness – I think the opposite is true.
We all have our demons that haunt us and rather than pretending these demons don’t exist or continually trying to fight them and kill them off, we need to learn how to live with the wild beasts who abide in the wilderness with us along with our better angels. Without giving in to their allure, we even need to listen to what the demons may actually be teaching us about our lives.
When we embrace our doubts we can explore deeper truth, our injuries against others can push us into places of forgiveness and mercy in life. Lust, anger, addiction and anxiety can make us vulnerable enough to break away from the grip of our isolated ego and reach out to others for healing, wisdom, counsel and guidance.
The Psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck once put it this way:
The truth is that our finest moments are most likely to occur
when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy or unfulfilled.
For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort,
that we are likely to step out of our ruts
and start searching for different ways or truer answers.
It’s now morning and I am sitting in my garden. The bright sun has come up over the eastern mountains, hummingbirds are fluttering about and an early spring breeze is gently blowing through the palm trees. For me, this whole experience is so much more beautiful because last night wild beasts howled under a midnight moon.