“The desert is a place of great undoing.” Ryan Kuja
“The Bible abounds in references to the desert and the wilderness. Encounters with God, both directly and through prophetic voices, took place in scenes of desolation. God spoke on an empty stage, knowing how easily the sound of rivers diverted human attention.” Yi-Fu Tuan
(In case you’re wondering if Yi-Fu Tuan is a Confucius mentor, he is not, he is a Professor Emeritus of Geography at the University of Wisconsin, and Ryan Kuja is a modern day Christian contemplative, not a Hindu mystic.)
I have been reading and rereading a book on desert and mountain spirituality by a fellow named Belden C. Lane titled The Solace of Fierce Landscapes. I began reading this before the corona virus emerged into our lives. I think I was being prepared for what has come upon us as the virus is our desert experience. It is undoing us and certainly there are many churches with empty stages. This is an opportunity for an encounter with a God we don’t know; maybe he has our attention, and we can avoid being distracted by rivers streaming entertainment.
I don’t know about you, but this excites me, an adventure with a God I don’t know. How comfortable we have become with a known God who works in ways we understand, through books and sermons and pastors that have answers for us; it’s spiritual comfort food. The only path to spiritual growth, or making changes in our personal life, that I have ever experienced is through being undone with what I was already doing. And while having a Mr. Rogers in the Neighborhood is pleasant and comforting, it is insufficient for actual transformation.
The desert makes you look and listen; let’s embrace this moment.
There is much more to say, but I know we are scrolling through pages on Facebook.
For the past several months I have immersed myself in the writing and teachings of a Franciscan friar named Richard Rohr. I have been “captured” by the idea or practice of contemplation. I highlight captured because that is what it feels like. I am compelled to explore contemplation and I have been fascinated by Richard Rohr’s particular perspective on it. I have been inspired by his writings and also challenged and disappointed. I am obviously seeking something, and hopefully that something is truth and how to live with integrity and maturity within truth. My hope is that this leads to freedom.
For anyone who is on a genuine spiritual journey, and I do not think there are many in our culture or maybe in any culture or time who are genuine seekers of truth and freedom, one major obstacle is our personal ego, our small self or our false self. Whatever it is called it is caught up in its own perspective, agenda, and self protection. Contemplation is a spiritual practice that can help gain perspective on this self protecting, defensive, frightened and controlling self that really can’t see anyone else in the room, including God.
Dr. Gerald May, a psychiatrist and spiritual director says: “Contemplation happens to everyone. It happens in moments when we are open, undefended, and immediately present.” Why is this important to our spiritual life? If your spiritual background is evangelical as mine is, you will question what this has to do with Jesus or the Bible? This statement of Dr. May is not typical of an evangelical perspective on spirituality, there is no mention of Jesus, just undefended presence. Sometimes we evangelicals think there is no other perspective than ours and we need to be careful because it begins to look like we have all the answers. What can subsequently happen is that we close off to any other experience if it does not fit our formula of proper or true faith. I think some of my seeking has to do with how tiresome and small the practice our faith can seem. It is sometimes too neatly packaged.
If you read most of the discipleship books on how to grow in the spiritual life they are more like formulas that are applied in an experiment than an experience that is lived in the midst of life. There is no mystery only answers and anyone who has lived life honestly and long enough to suffer knows that there are not always answers or solutions or resolutions and living in the tension of not having answers, with hope, might be the spiritual life. Jesus rarely if ever gave direct answers to questions, he spoke in parables and paradox. This frustrated and maddened the scholars and teachers of his time as it does ours. I just do not think we realize how obsessed with and maybe desperate for control we are. It is such a part of the fabric of our lives that we do not even see it. We must gain perspective to see it and contemplation can help.
The contemplative life seeks union with God and being present in the moment, this moment, the only time we have, is central to experiencing God’s presence. This is why being open and undefended is so important because God is now, He is the “I am that I am” and as long as we live only in our heads with our theories and formulas and doctrines and creeds we miss seeing the bush that is burning right in front of us.