Into the Desert

Just the other day I shared a meal with one of my spiritual teachers who is also a beloved friend. He was preparing to embark upon a solitary spiritual retreat during which he will have no direct contact with other human beings, living in isolation without the distraction – or luxury – of easily accessible internet or telephone connections, without television or YouTube, without a pile of magazines or a stack of books to shuffle through. To those who overestimate their spiritual development or who lack a certain kind of experience in the world, it doesn’t sound all that bad. We complain that our telefonini dominate us. Oh, how we’d jump at the chance to get away from all the demands people make of us! Hell, we’d probably pay a handsome sum to have this kind of experience. Well, if we could have our lattes in the morning. And only the proper kind of all-natural, cruelty-free, vegan items from WholeFoods. And maybe a small stash of designer weed. And hot showers followed by fresh, fluffy towels whenever we want. That’s how serious most of us are about our spiritual and human experience – and we’re the ones who prance about smug and satisfied at how “spiritual” we are, how much “progress” we’ve made. Such is the nonsense of our delusions. (Don’t get me wrong, those of us who are spiritually deluded needn’t abandon all hope, but that’s a topic of another day.)

My friend will have none of these conveniences. He’ll be in the mountains in winter, receiving food provisions left for him every couple of days over a period of about four weeks. He has chosen to freely and temporarily enter into the lifestyle of a Carthusian or Camaldolese monk, a Zen hermit, or a convict behind bars. It is an experience that changes a person, destroys the human spirit, or endows insight that you and I cannot begin to understand. Far from a life of escape from the world, it is an encounter with all that we cannot bear to know in ourselves, all those aspects of life that we ignore and block out.

In the primitive Christian community, many men and women received the inspiration to set out for the desert, with this caveat: “You do not take refuge in the desert to escape the devil. You go forth to the desert to find him.”

We honor and celebrate those among us who choose to leave the comfort and safety of the home they know for the homelessness of a spiritual path. We even call them “saints”. Let us not forget those others who are also “saints” – the ones lost in prison compounds, held out of sight, treated as less than dogs. The Carthusian monk and the Zen hermit regard them as brother, sister, friend, and teacher. You and I do well to regard them with as much affection and respect as we might any [would-be] saint or [so-called] enlightened person. In fact, on the day of judgment, I’d much rather cast my lot with a death-row inmate than a sappy saint. (Peace be to sappy saints! They gave me much inspiration in my youth, and that was no small task.)

~BT Waldbillig
December 13, 2016

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