Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 1, 2010
Transform inner chaos into a garden of peace
By FR. RON ROLHEISER, omi
Almost all spiritualities have a special place for deserts, wilderness and other such places where we are unprotected and in danger from untamed nature, wild beasts and threatening spirits. This concept has deep roots inside both ancient religions and the human psyche itself.
In ancient Babylon, for example, wild, uncultivated terrain was seen as something that God left unfinished and which still participated in the formless chaos and godlessness of pre-creation. It was seen both as unfinished and as a place where dangerous forces lurked, beasts and devils.
Thus when people took possession of wild, uncultivated land, it was understood that certain religious rites had to be performed that, in essence, claimed the land for God, for civilization and for safety. For ancient Babylon, a cultivated garden was a safe and sacred place whereas an uncultivated desert was dangerous and in some dark way in opposition to God.
Similar ideas were present in other cultures that saw wilderness as a place inhibited by satyrs, centaurs, trolls and evil spirits. Myths and folklore abound with these images.
Medieval Europe, as seen in our fairytales, added the idea of "deep and dark forests" to this concept. These too were seen as uncultivated, dangerous places, places where bad spirits or evil persons might capture you or as places within which you might hopelessly lose your way. Deep, dark forests were not places you were to venture into without proper guidance.
It was also understood that these wild places were not meant to lie forever untouched. The idea was present inside of Christian spirituality that we, men and women of faith, were meant to help God finish creation by taming these wilds, exorcizing the bad spirits there and turning the wilderness into a garden.
So Christianity developed the idea that men and women armed in a special way with divine light and protection, monks and nuns, could and should go into these uncultivated places and turn the unsafe wilderness into a safe garden. Among other reasons, this was why medieval monks and nuns often chose uncultivated places to start their monasteries and convents.
This fear of wild, uncultivated regions was also partly behind the Church's fear of inquiry into and exploration of outer space. Galileo knew this first-hand. The Church had been warning: Stay away from certain dark places.
In subtle ways both this concept and its concomitant fears are still with us. What frightens us today is not untamed geography (which we now see as inviting peace and quiet). Rather for many of us, the untamed, the wilderness, is now visualized more as a gang-infested area in a city, crack houses, singles' bars, strip clubs, red-light areas. These are understood as lying outside our cultivated lives, split off from the safety of home and religion, godless places, dangerous, a wilderness.
OUR DARK SIDE
What frighten us still more are the untamed and uncultivated deserts in our own hearts, the unexplored and dark areas inside of us. Like the ancients, we are frightened of what might lie in hiding there, how vulnerable we might be if we entered there, what wild beasts and demons might prey on us there and whether a chaotic vortex might not swallow us up there. We too fear unexplored places, except our fear is not for our physical safety, but for our sanity and our sanctity.
This fear is not without wisdom. It is wise to not be na´ve. For centuries parents told their children frightening fairytales about evil things lurking in dark forests, looking to devour little children or bake them in ovens. These stories were not told to children to give them nightmares but rather warn them not to be na´ve about whom or what they met. Not everyone can be trusted. It is wise, particularly when you are young, vulnerable and unarmed, to stay together, to stay away from dark places and to be safe.
FACE THE BEASTS
Nonetheless, our Christian faith invites us to go into those areas, face the wild beasts that dwell there and turn those dangerous regions into cultivated land, into safe gardens. That is what Jesus did: He went into every dark place, from the singles' bars of his time into death and hell itself, and took God's light and grace there. But he wasn't na´ve. He heeded the advice of the old fairytales and didn't venture there alone. He entered those underworlds with his hand safely inside his Father's.
Faith is meant to rid us of fear, including fear of the wild beasts and demons that lurk inside the deserts of our own minds, hearts and energies. We are meant to turn those wild, dark areas into safe gardens. But we should heed both our own instincts and the instinct behind the fairytales: Never venture into the dark woods naively and alone. Make sure you are armed with a sturdy creed and that you are walking hand-in-hand with your Father.
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