Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of April 3, 2000
The desert, a womb of emptiness
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
Christina Crawford once said: "Lost is a place too!" That's wise. Emptiness too can be a womb. Barrenness can be fertile. Desert flowers are often the most beautiful of all.
The experience of emptiness and barrenness is often best for the soul. Why? Because when we are surrounded by emptiness - when, as Shelley said, "the lone and barren sands stretch far away" - the soul is by necessity re-gestated. The experience of emptiness is what writes into our spiritual DNA what was once imprinted into our chromosomes, namely, that we are small, alone, extremely fragile, and in need of a great providence and a great love.
For this reason, among others, the idea of the desert has played a prominent part in the spirituality of all religions. The desert is the place where we feel our smallness; where, stripped of all that normally buoys us up, we feel how lonely, helpless, fragile and mortal we really are.
Great religious persons have always understood this and that is why so many of them, Jesus included, often went physically into some desert to place themselves into a womb of emptiness.
The idea was to go into the most barren landscape, hole up in some cave or crag, and simply sit there; alone, without protection and sustenance, with only sand around you, scorched by day, freezing at night, soaking in the barrenness, waiting for something deep to shift inside of your soul. The hope was that by immersing yourself in such emptiness your soul would empty itself of all that is false and prideful.
This kind of desert, as we know, is not just a physical, geographical thing. It is also a place in the soul. More particularly, it is that place in the soul where we feel most alone, insubstantial and frightened. What happens to us there? What do we experience in the emptiness of the desert?
We feel the depth of our own loneliness. In the desert, in the womb of emptiness, voices within us remind us of a painful fact: "I am alone. I am but a small part in some immense sea. I was born alone, I will die alone. All the love, support, and achievements in the world don't erase the fact that, in the end, I am solitary."
This feeling of loneliness brings with it too a sense of helplessness and dependence. In the desert, alone among the barren sands, painful realizations break through: "I am not sufficient onto my myself; I cannot keep myself alive. I cannot provide sustenance for myself. I depend on many things and many people - for life, support, love, friendship, meaning. Everything I rely on can easily disappear. It's fragile. I'm fragile. I could disappear."
These feelings of fragility help break down our carefully nurtured sense of our own specialness. In the desert a brutal truth hits us: "I do not stand out. Nothing I can do will ultimately make me special, beyond anyone else. I am only a tiny piece of a great fabric within which I can only take my place. I am one of billions, one among many, no more important than anyone else."
Finally, too, when we are surrounded by emptiness, our mortality seeps through, raw and painful. A voice long kept at bay now begins to say: "I too am going to die. Almost nothing sits between me and death. I stand on the brink of nothingness." The desert is full of painful voices. They tell us of our smallness. They remind us that being lost is a place too.
I once read an interview with a famous sports star, an exceptionally talented and sought-after athlete, who had a rather original sense of his own self-importance. He talked about "the magnitude of me."
The desert works to create the opposite sense. It puts us in touch with our seeming insubstantiality - "the insubstantiality of me." Medieval philosophers called this contingency.
For them it was important that we recognize the fact that we, unlike God, are not self-sufficient. God alone (in the classical words of medieval philosophy) is Esse Ipsum Subsistens, self-sufficient being. The rest of us rely on what's outside of us for life, love, air, food and meaning.
We have no real maturity until our souls are shaped by that realization. The desert, letting emptiness work in us, is what re-gestates the soul. Emptiness is a womb. It re-moulds the soul and lets us be born again, adults still, but now aware, as we once were as small children, that there can be no life and meaning outside of acknowledging our littleness and reaching out, as do infants, to a great providence and a great love outside of us.
Lost is a place too, an important place, a biblical place, a desert place. Jesus invites us there. Lent is about going there.