A Desert Kind of Spirit
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, March 4, 2007
Even though he was born in San Francisco, we usually associate the poet Robert Frost with New England, of course. His poems are full of images of snow storms and stone walls and other essentially northern images. We don’t generally associate him with deserts, certainly, and as far as I know (though I’m no Frost expert), the great poet wrote of desert places only one time, in a poem of that same name. Of desert places, Frost wrote:
There can be a frightening starkness to the desert. An almost magnificent emptiness. We might see the desert as a place of only the sparsest growth, an open an uncontrollable kind of landscape. Dried up river beds. Sage brush blowing in the wild winds. Sun-scorched by day; frigid cold by night. With our only fellow creatures grotesque lizards, or desert birds circling indignantly in the face of human incursion.
But, of course, reality can be read different ways. The world is always, at least in one sense, as we interpret it. There are different ways to see the desert, too, of course:
“Sometimes people ask me,” the young narrator begins in first lines of Byrd Baylor’s I’m In Charge of Celebrations:
There is an unmistakable congruence between the landscape within and outside of ourselves. There is a distinct relationship between our sense of place and our spirituality. “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are,” wrote the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset. So many great religious epics and myths take place in the wilderness or the desert. “The desert has always been a good teacher” for our religious forbears, says Matthew Fox.
Jesus spent forty days in the desert before he entered Jerusalem and firmly took hold of his destiny.
Moses and the Hebrew people spent forty years in the desert before they entered the Promised Land.
John the Baptist didn’t herald the new age from the busiest street corner in Jerusalem. No, he went to the desert to learn what it truly was he was to proclaim. And he proclaimed it.
Tibetan Buddhism came to birth in the harsh mountain-desert lands between what is Tibet and India and Nepal today.
Mohammed’s great journey, the hejira across the Arabian desert from Mecca to Modina marks the start of the Islamic calendar.
In so many different religious traditions, the Great Man (or Great Woman) goes into the desert in order to prepare for that great undertaking which will change everything. The Great One goes to the desert—and empties himself/herself of the suppositions, prejudices, desires of the past—in order to bring something new to birth.
Sometimes, the image of the Spirit that emerges for us out of such a harsh and rugged landscape might well appear to be an awfully harsh and rugged kind of God. But maybe this is the kind of Spirit we need sometimes to give us that sense of solidness and strength and integrity that the god or goddess of the softer, blander landscapes of our usual lives might not be able to provide.
When we choose to journey into the desert, we are going as far away as we can from those places of human artifice and the manufactured reality of society. By entering the desert, we strive to come face-to-face with the Creation as it really is. The desert, as far from our rationalizations as it can be, can help us to discern more primal and direct ways of knowing. The desert does not merely empty us. There, too, begins the journey toward being re-filled and re-inspired once again.
In the desert, we can gain a sense of our own insignificance—and discern that in that insignificance our true power lies. We might feel small, any of us, against such a broad expanse of openness and emptiness. The circling raven doesn’t care in the least about our resumes. All the measures we use for weighing and measuring and judging in human terms have been taken from us. Odds are that the cactus and the sand and rocks don’t care if we’re there, or not. But “We are saved by the things that ignore us,” Andrew Harvey writes in his book, A Journey in Ladakh.
Harvey tells of his pilgrimage to the mountain-desert region of northern India, on the border with Tibet. He traveled with eager anticipation from one monastery to another, hoping to “find something of himself,” he said. Instead, he came increasingly to feel like just another tourist, rushing off from one sight to another, consuming one holy place after another, never really getting to the essence of the experience.
But then, one day, while frantically trying to reach the monastery at Rde-Zong before sunset, Harvey noticed, just for a moment, the play of sunlight against the rocks along the desert path he was traveling. This tiny spectacle of nature caught his eye and slowed him down; it enticed him to remain there for a while, and just watch the sunlight upon the rocks. Because of this delay, Harvey never got to the monastery—and he learned he didn’t need to go there. He discovered that just being where he was—there, amidst the shadows on the rocks—was quite enough.
“The things that ignore us save us in the end,” Andrew Harvey writes. “Their presence awakens silence within us; they refresh our courage with the purity of their detachment.” By sensing his insignificance amidst this arid landscape, Andrew Harvey was invited to leave his almost frantic search for self-fulfillment, and to listen for, and hear, some of the deeper lessons life had to teach.
Of course, this is no easy thing for us modern men and women. It can be downright terrifying for us not to do something, but just to stand there! We are accustomed to being masters of our destinies and captains of our fates. We don’t think we want to be ignored; we want to be noticed. We’ve come to believe that we deserve to be at the center of the universe.
But only when we empty ourselves of our self-centeredness can we find our place in relation to the true Center. Only when we let go of our self-consciousness can we come to glimpse, and share, a deeper consciousness. Then it is that we can experience directly the presence of the divine, and see our own relationship to the expanding cosmos. Then we can truly sense the real power and creativity that our being upon this Earth represents.
The outer landscape will match our inner landscape. “If you go to the desert merely to get away from the people you dislike,” Thomas Merton wrote, “you will find neither peace nor solitude; you will only isolate yourself with a tribe of devils.” If we go through life refusing to acknowledge the devils and demons that are inside each of us—if we have suppressed them and denied them at every turn along the way—then we are going to carry them with us, wherever we go—even to the corners of the Earth; even unto the desert itself.
For this wilderness within us cannot be controlled. It’s not like the “How are you/ I’m fine.” easily-mowed suburban patch of lawn living where most of us drift around, most of the time. The wilderness inside can be a terrifying place of inner chaos and confusion. We’re all much too polite to want to admit that there’s a wilderness—a wild man or a wild woman inside.
We want control over who we are—24/7. The wilderness, within or without, will not be controlled.
We want to understand who we are—fully, totally. There are parts of ourselves we will never understand.
In the wilderness, there are no Great Authorities to whom we can refer all of our questions about what’s going on. It’s just us, face to face with reality, with no store-bought answers—no ideology—no theology—to cushion the blows. When we touch those desert places inside ourselves, then we come face-to-face with our true selves at last, and come face-to-face with the Creation (and perhaps with the Creator). There are times in our lives when we front life most directly, and feel most unmistakably alive and connected, and when (in the words of the elder George Bush, of all people) “God introduces you to yourself.”
When we touch that desert-wilderness inside, then there are no opinion polls to tell us what to believe. No television or other media to tell us how to think and feel. There’s no one else there, to tell us who we are today. There’s no one there to ask; no one else to rely upon; no bridge of excuses (in Havel’s term) between us and simply living in our own truth. There is just that exciting (and terrifying) wilderness inside—and that feeling that we aren’t in Kansas anymore: that we are no longer who we used to be; and that we are not yet who we will become.
The poet Anne Hamilton wrote:
One does not flee to the desert in order to escape the pressure and tensions of the world. The desert is as much of the world as any other place. The spirit of the desert is as vital and alive as that of any other locale. The desert is, obviously, as much a part of life as lush forests or sparking rivers, oceans, and lakes. The desert does not call us toward annihilation of the self. Rather, the starkness of the desert calls us to a deeper, simpler, more basic and direct self.
The feminist artist Meinrad Craighead found healing in the desert when she went to live among the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. In her book, The Mother’s Songs: Images of God the Mother, Craighead writes: “When I came to New Mexico in 1960, I found the land which matched my interior landscape. The door separating inside and outside opened. What my eyes saw meshed with the images I carried inside my body. Pictures painted on the walls of my womb began to emerge.”
Amidst the harsh desert landscape, Craighead found the Great Mother brooding over a world still being formed, a world still being born. Scenes that might have spoken bleakness or despair in some of us spoke a word of hope to her—because she was alive to hope, deep inside herself. The same experiences which are terrifying to some are a solace to others—because our interior landscapes are different.
“Go into the desert not to escape others but in order to find them in God,” Thomas Merton tells us. He continued: “Physical solitude has its dangers, but we must not exaggerate them. The great temptation of modern man is not physical solitude, but immersion in the mass of other men… There is no true solitude except interior solitude… Solitude is not separation.”
His words are echoed by those of Anne Morrow Lindbergh we shared earlier: “It is not physical solitude that separates us from one another, but spiritual isolation… When one is a stranger to oneself, then one is estranged from others, too... Only when one is connected to one’s core is one connected to others…”
The beauty and simplicity and directness of the desert invite us to discern this connection inside ourselves. One lives can lack beauty (and significance) if they have too little empty space within them. “One double sunrise is an event,” Lindbergh points out, “six is a succession, like a week of schooldays.”
The soul grows not by addition, but by subtraction, the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart pointed out. The desert inside invites us to subtract. In the face of a world which is always screaming to us, “More! More! MORE!” the desert inside whispers “Less… less… less.”
There is something mysterious about the desert, something that can bewitch even those of us who have lived our lives far from such arid places.
Sometimes, it takes the dry solitude of the desert to refresh our inner springs. Parched as we are by the desert’s heat, the cup of life tastes all the sweeter when we drink its waters once again.