A Desert Pilgrimage
Big Bend, Texas 2002
There are lots of places one can go for solitude, for silence, and for a sense of spaciousness. But this is different. It’s some 40 miles by 30 miles of open desert preserve, huge craggy rock mountains and buttes separated by wide sweeping plains and mesas; fantastic swirling shapes of lumpy volcanic flow and colorful layered sediment, long dry-wash arroyos, badlands, and beds of ancient seas; ever-present swooping hawks and crows, knife-blade 1700-ft. deep river canyons, big blue sunny skies, fiery orange, red, and violet sunsets, and brilliant crowds of stars unhindered by light pollution.
What’s unique, perhaps, about this place of desert solitude and spaciousness is that all of this severe beauty is held in the most profound and utter silence and stillness. It’s all visible at once. The winter light is absolutely clear, so that everything stands out in relief, super-real. It’s all arrestingly Now, all alive and yet perfectly at rest. Wind, birds and bugs make a little sound and movement now and then, but their activity, being natural to the landscape, only seems to amplify the electricity of the Now. It is impossible to describe. The effect is at once scary, holy, intimidating, beautiful, and peaceful.
It’s like walking into contemplative prayer itself. The outer world here is a giant physical version of those moments when you are completely awake and without thought, just being right here right now, still and empty, at peace and eternal. As such it has the effective force, every time I look up, of pulling me down into that internal place of empty availability to God. It’s as if the giant face of God were constantly peering in through your windows all day long, impossible to ignore, quietly saying, as you try to go about your business, Are you here? Don’t forget. Look this way. I can’t imagine how unrelenting all this must feel at 120% in the summer. Way too much presence.
Any place of natural purity can feel this way, of course, but we don’t necessarily quiet down enough to perceive it. The ocean is vast and alive, but we’re often lost in thought when we’re there. The woods are still, gentle, and subtle, but where is our mind? Fussing with our pack, our book, our plan for the day, our binoculars, our snacks. This desert wouldn’t seem so profound to me if I were similarly occupied. I’ve been lowered a few notches recently, so I’m ready and able. As Pat Hawk - the RC priest and Zen roshi in residence at Picture Rocks Retreat Center in Tucson, across from the Desert House of Prayer - replied when I asked him about the effect of desert life on his sense of God: I find that I pretty much find it wherever I am. True, but some places for me are more attention-grabbing than others.
I’m an hour off the pavement down a rough dirt road, and can’t see any sign of human life anywhere, because they mostly stick to the central Basin where there’s a store, RV hookups, and whatnot. No visible roads, not even aircraft overhead, since this isn’t on a flight pattern. Looking off into the distance, it’s not too hard to imagine this as primeval, with dinosaurs lumbering around. Except that back then, this was tropical. Before that, it was all under the sea. I can easily picture that, too. I found a fossil next to my truck, the concentric swirls of a large shell.
In my truck, at this “primitive campsite” (just a spot where cactus is cleared away) it’s the same as backpacking, only without most of the work of hiking, setting up camp, etc. I wake, sit up, read Morning Prayer, get out of bed, make coffee, and sit down. Some time later (who knows when) I have a bowl of cereal, then I sit down. My chair becomes a strong magnet; I’m held in place as I gaze out at the All. A little walk, some reading, then I sit down. I find that I can’t get up. Some time later, Noonday Office, lunch. Go for a hike, read, make some notes, sit still again. Evening Prayer up on the mesa, singing to God in the sunset, 50 miles of desert and mountain in every direction joining in. Dinner, then cold, dark, back in bed, reading with battery light, Compline. Lying there gazing up at the stars. Sleep. No sound, no movement, just This. All the time, unceasing.
Later, I spend two days taking day hikes, about 6 miles each day. I climb a mountain and look down past the rugged cliffs, to the cascading mesas below that disappear into infinity; I hike to a spring, impossibly bubbling out of the dry rock, producing lush greenery; I walk into the sacred, hushed, cathedral-like Santa Elena gorge that forms two towering cliffs only 50 feet apart but 1700 feet above the green Rio Grande (which is mostly Rio Concha water from Mexico, the Rio Grande having been drained out far north of here by irrigation).
In all of these hikes that take me out into the land, away from every human contact, I find myself having to sit down, again and again, and be still. I pray for the Spirit, open my heart, and then I become completely still, straining the ears and the eyes to hear and to see, becoming like one of the rocks, yearning for God in all…then everything around me and within me stops…and begins to come to life in a new way. The usual, illusory separation of my body and mind from everything around me melts and we’re all in the Spirit in a kind of suspended but lively eternity. It’s as if the energy of light in all matter around me is waiting for me to turn my quiet attention to it, and then it turns itself on. But I know it’s always on; I’m just usually too busy to notice.
In Vladimir Lassky’s book The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, which I’ve been reading, he says the same thing about the Transfiguration of Christ: that Christ didn’t change on Mt. Tabor- his disciples did. He’s always the light of the world. In that moment Peter, James, and John were just given the grace to see who he really is. It was their Transfiguration, not Jesus’.
Since I’m doing this several times a day, it becomes easier to drop down into this place of attention each time I do it. It’s as if everything that prevents me from being present to God and grateful for this moment stops, just like that, and then something else starts, a kind of peaceful, grateful, loving, electric expectancy, where the Spirit animates everything, including me, all together. And rather than being a fleeting moment that’s here and gone, it stays until I decide it’s time to get up again, and even then remains, although less intensely.
I think there really is something cumulative about prayer. The intensity and accessibility of what I’m talking about during this pilgrimage is only here because I’ve dedicated these weeks to prayer, and I’m choosing, again and again every day, to turn away from anything that would entertain or stimulate me otherwise. It has been helpful for me to be alone, out in the desert, but I know that this is also possible in every circumstance of life. As we give ourselves over to prayer more and more, God’s presence is more accessible. It’s cumulative.
St. Seraphim of Sarov was asked if there was anything lacking in today’s world that would prevent people from lives of holiness like those of ancient times, and he said Only one thing: a firm resolve. But what I’ve learned is that a firm resolve isn’t a big emotional commitment we finally, really make. It’s a firm resolve in the moment, and always available to us. It’s a choice to open the heart to God, to invite the Spirit into our daily difficulties, to give thanks as we drive the car, to ask for God’s help to love the next person we see, to take a moment and stop, like I do here in the desert, to really listen, look, and feel our desire for God and our appreciation for life. The more we do this, the more God responds, and the more the world comes alive with Spirit. Prayer is cumulative.
The desert is like any other external stimulus: a church building, a retreat, a backpacking trip, a prayer group. They’re all there to awaken us to a way of being in life, so that we can “pretty much find it wherever we are.” For me, it has to do with seeking the desert within, wherever I am, so that I can remember to stop and sink down into that place I know now more fully, where everything is animated by the Spirit, all together at once, perfectly still and completely energized. Then I know just how small I am, and how grateful I am just to be alive. And I am more likely to be present to others as needed, less cluttered by anything that would hinder the Spirit’s unconditional love.