"A Holy Mountain"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -
Yesterday morning my wife and I were walking along one of the desert trails outside our home. It’s a trail that is very familiar to us, we walk it almost every day; but yesterday something happened that turned the ordinary and familiar into a very extraordinary and awe-filled moment.
Seemingly overnight, the rocky, dry, desert mountains had burst into a bright array of excruciatingly beautiful spring wildflowers, bright yellow blossoms on the desert trees and bushes, exotic flowers pushing their way through the tough skin of thorny cacti. It was such a holy moment, such a “thin space” as we stood there gazing in awe at all that wonderful life-energy rising up out of dry desert sand in the middle of the wilderness.
The whole experience reminded me of a verse from one of my very favorite poems by 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
Of course if you think of “God” as a separate, heavenly “superman” out there and up there, apart from everything and everyone down here, then it will be quite difficult to encounter Holy Presence in a flowering bush or a blossoming tree, in a gentle breeze, a soaring bird, a lover or a friend. But if “God” is that abiding life-force, the energy of Love pulsating in and through everything and everyone, then “God” can indeed be encountered in the most ordinary moments of everyday life – in every common bush.
As we walked along that trail yesterday we basked in the beauty of abundant life springing up out of that rocky, barren, desert mountain and it suddenly became quite clear to me that we were standing on holy ground. The ground on which we stood was as holy as any church or cathedral or temple I have ever been in. It almost seemed sacrilegious to be standing there in an old pair of sneakers and I wondered if maybe I should take off my shoes out of respect for that sacred place that was so alive with “God.”
I am reminded of something Wendell Barry once said:
There are no unsacred places;
only sacred places
And desecrated places.
As I see it, all of us are always walking on “holy ground.” At work, at school, in the supermarket, in the coffee shop, on city streets, on a trail in a desert wilderness on a glorious spring day - every place we ever stand is “holy ground” but most of the time we are simply unaware of it because our minds are too preoccupied with our thoughts about the past or plans for the future. Or perhaps we are unaware of the “holy ground” on which we stand because we only expect a church, a temple of a mosque to be a sacred space and so instead of taking off our shoes we just “sit around and pluck blackberries.”
Poet and author, Chris Wiman, once observed this about the spiritual journey:
What I crave is
Mystery that utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it,
some ultimate insight that is still sight.
What a perfectly wonderful way to describe the desert in springtime – it is a place in which the “Great Mystery” we call “God” utterly obliterates reality by utterly inhabiting it.