The Far Side of Eden
At the north end of the Dead Sea, in a dry and unforgiving wilderness, two thousand years ago a Jewish monastic sect kept hope alive for the coming of the Messiah. They copied out scrolls of sacred text and scrutinized them for cryptic clues and hopeful signs.
Under threat of a Roman backlash to Jewish rebellion, the community hid its precious scrolls in caves that were not discovered again until 1947 when, according to one story, a shepherd boy threw a stone through a high opening in the rock cliff and heard the sound of pottery shattering.
Nearby, overlooking a lake so encrusted with salt as to be inhospitable to plants and animals alike, are the foundations of that ancient community, carved from the surrounding stone, a refuge built far from the religious tensions and political turmoil of the capital city of Jerusalem.
What is so astounding, as you stand in the midst of the ruins, fourteen hundred feet below sea level, where the sun saps your energy and the hot air evaporates the sweat from your skin, is that such a formidable place could have been chosen ... to sustain hope. It's about as far from the Garden of Eden as one could imagine, closer perhaps to the gates of hell.
Yet, spiritual seekers have always sought the wild places, the harsh places, the dangerous places, to seek both refuge from a madding world and solace from a God who, they believed, would find them even in their farthest retreat: Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Mohammed, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, the Celtic ascetics, the Native vision questers.
It's as if the conveniences of the settled world, where both God and nature have been tamed, serve only as distractions to the spiritual life. God, whose good graces we seek in the handsome halls we have built for prayer and worship, and nature, which we trim and cultivate according to our whims, cannot survive where human ingenuity has triumphed so completely.
So of course people seek communion with an untamed God in the untamed places of the earth. It's not that God lives there, or that God lives only there; it's that we are more likely to encounter God where we've not already "paved paradise and put up a parking lot." We need, from time to time at least, to leave the comforts of our hearth and home and venture out into the wilderness and, there, remember who we are.
This week in The Mystic Cave, I speak with Richard LeSueur who, for over thirty years, has guided pilgrims into the desert of the Sinai and the wilderness of the Middle East. As he reminds us, the God of the desert is the God of the three great monotheistic faiths--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Whatever we have done to house God in our temples, our faith was formed by the wild places, and that's still where we will find it.
This week's episode of The Mystic Cave is "Desert Spirituality: Richard LeSueur and the Hidden Wisdom of the Wild Places." To listen, simply press the Play button below ...