I painted this a year ago and put it aside because it felt very intense. The gray color dominates the piece, and the ocra is like a sliver of light, which is appropriate for the topic of the essay attached, The Desert and Spirituality. The painting is 13 feet by 12 inches (2 meters by 30 cm).
The Desert and Spirituality
Gabrielle Roth, the creator of 5Rhythms dance, the master teacher of all my dance teachers, said: “I want to take you to a place of pure magic… It’s the place athletes call the “zone.” Buddhists call “satori” and ravers call “trance.” I call it the Silver Desert. It’s a place of pure light that holds the dark within it. It’s a place of pure rhythm.” I am a 5Rhythms dancer, and many times I wondered why she named that place Silver Desert. Why Silver, and why the Desert? But then, I kind of already knew the answer. The silence in the desert mirrors our soul and spirit, and dancing, like the desert, offers us an opportunity to access the divine within ourselves. I often feel it when I dance because, in 5Rhythms, there is no choreography, and it’s not a performance; you dance to the rhythm and voice that comes from within.
The Bible tells us that when God freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, he didn’t bring them straight into the promised land. He took them on a journey first. And not just any journey – he took them into the desert for 40 years. Again, why did he bring them through the desert, of all places? And why did it have to last 40 years?
One explanation is geography. The land between Egypt and the Promised Land is a stretch of desert land called the Sinai Desert. Another explanation is verbal wit. In Hebrew, the word speak (Medaber) has the same root (dbr) as the word desert (Midbar). Thus one can say God needed to speak to his people, and there is no better place for that than the desert.
A few famous biblical figures, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Elijah, and Jesus, wandered into the desert. Was it by accident? The Bible tells us that God wanted to talk to them without distractions; what better place for that kind of important meeting than in the desert? The Bible also tells us that the Ten Commandments, God’s covenant with his people, written on two stone tablets, were presented to Moses on Mount Sinai in the Sinai Desert. So, it all happened in the desert.
In my travels, I visited a few monasteries, some Buddhist, up in the Himalaya high desert valleys, like Ki Monastery in Spiti Valley or Hemis in Ladakh, India, and also Christian monasteries, like Santa Catherine in the Sinai Desert and Saint Goerge in the Judean Desert. Why are so many monasteries located in the desert?
When I think about how to describe the location of these monasteries, the first word that comes to mind is wild. Wilderness engulfs these structures from all corners as they stand alone and naked amidst the purest element – mother nature. On the one hand, they are separated and completely withdrawn from society and protection. On the other hand, they are a cosmos onto themselves, at the center of a stunningly beautiful, barren, and deadly environment. Isn’t that the definition of glory?
The monks who live in these monasteries experience a spartan lifestyle, run by strict rules, chastity, obedience, and silence. They must be possessed by mystical aspirations, a search for God in his absolute mystery. I am in awe of their dedication but am also scared of their single-mindedness and totality.
I once heard a sermon where the speaker said God’s voice is not as eloquent as his silence.
Walking with faith is sometimes like being amidst a desert sandstorm. Visibility is gone; your sense of direction is upside down. You think you are walking to the right, but actually, you walk in circles. The best way to handle the situation is to lay low and wait till the view clears up. The same is true with certain feelings; even the most uncomfortable ones will not stay the same forever; they will pass and clear up. Being patient is not easy. It’s a muscle that needs constant training, maintenance, and strengthening. I found that it’s in the pause that I hear the whispering sound of grace if I am only present enough to take a breath.
When I lay low and wait, I can tell that the sandstorm is not blowing from some far-away place, but it’s all in me. It is me. It is an invitation to dig deeper and explore the story behind the story. It’s an opportunity to expand, grow, and become a better man.
Struggles and wrestles mark my journey with God. From a young age, I argued with him. I was furious at him. How could he let the Holocaust happen? How could he let my parents go through that hell, left wounded for the rest of their lives? How can he be all power, knowledge, and control and still let it happen? And more, how come people who claim to be people of faith could be sinners, thieves, and crooks? I could not understand or accept it. I researched, read Job, studied Philosophy, and tried to grasp what it all means and where God is in the picture; nothing made sense or seemed right. I had no God. I was also broken.
Years later, when I went through an existential struggle in my early forties, a wise man told me, you can make your own God. Let go of the one you were raised with; put aside religion and philosophy. Make a list of the traits you want to see in your God, and make it yours. What a radical concept, I thought, to make one’s own God, the ultimate rebellious act. Letting go of the second commandment’s God, the jealous one. The only one I knew, even though I did not believe in him. It was like going through a painful divorce. At the same time, a silver glimpse of freedom snaked through the cracks. It was like falling in love again.
I believe that we arrive at the experience called life with a boatload of free will. The choices I make are mine. Thus, sometimes, my God sits on his balcony up there and is sad. At times he even cries about my poor choices. Regardless, my God always wants the best for me; he is my number one cheerleader. He is my rock. God is there for me, rain or shine, filled with love, acceptance, kindness, total compassion, and endless forgiveness. When this consciousness is present in me, which is far from most of the time but better than it was 20-30 years ago, I find it easier to be kind.
David Bowie, the singer-songwriter, said, “Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.” The journey of growing and connecting with the oneness has taken me many years and is very slow. I am just scratching its surface; I think about it every day. And maybe that’s why Gabrielle Roth named it Silver Desert.