"Sunshine and Shadows"
- in the deep wilderness -
Over the past few nights I have been roused out of a sound sleep by the sound of a pack of wild coyotes howling in the wilderness near where we live. When we first moved out here, the eerie sound of wild beats howling under a midnight moon in the desert made me very nervous and uncomfortable; however, over the past few years I have learned to take a few breaths, calm down and “make peace” with the sound of those wild animals. In fact, I have come to realize that the night creatures are part of what make this desert such an intriguing place to live.
If the wilderness was only populated by hummingbirds and butterflies fluttering about in the bright morning sun, the desert would be a “nice” place to live but not a deeply spiritual place. Instead, out here in the wilderness the sun shines brightly but coyotes also howl in the middle of the night, snakes slither under rocks and in the brush and bats fly in the midnight sky.
Just as shadows and shade provide depth and contrast to a painting, the nighttime shadows and sounds of the wild beasts offer depth and contrast to life in the wilderness, that’s why this place is so mystical and so deeply spiritual.
On the Christian calendar, the season of Lent now begins with the story of Jesus in the wilderness. According to the gospels, before starting his public ministry, Jesus went out into the Judean desert (an area that looks very much like the desert where we live here in Southern California). He spent 40 days and 40 nights alone in the wilderness searching to be enlightened about his identity, seeking the meaning of his life and the direction of his mission.
As he discerned his deeper truth out in the desert, Jesus not only listened for the voice of “God” but he also paid attention to what the shadows and the demons were saying to him. The Gospel of Mark wonderfully describes “Jesus in the wilderness” in one pithy, profound and extremely iconic sentence:
The spirit pushed Jesus out into the wilderness, where for forty days
he lived with the wild beasts and the angels attended him.
As I see it, this is indeed a wonderfully emblematic description of the very essence of what a spiritual journey is always all about. The path to deeper truth and greater wisdom always engages our brighter angels and also our darker demons. The spiritual journey is not so much a victory march as it is a beautiful struggle
People may imagine that the journey to enlightenment involves a rejection of the shadowy and darker aspects of our life, I don’t agree. The journey to greater truth and deeper wisdom always involves embracing the shadows of our human condition. Priest and author, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way:
To be fully human is to live by sunlight and moonlight,
with anxiety and delight,
admitting limits and transcending them,
falling down and rising up.
To want life with only half these things is to want only half a life,
shutting the other half away
where it will not interfere with one’s bight fantasies
of the way things ought to be
Richard Rohr, offer some similar wisdom about the journey to enlightenment:
I suppose there is no more counterintuitive idea than that of
using and integrating what we fear, avoid, deny and deem unworthy
as necessary to our growth and maturity in the spiritual life.
Somehow we believe that religious people or people on any sort of spiritual path aren’t supposed to be haunted by the demons of our human condition. Spiritual people aren’t supposed to have doubts, fears, anxieties, lust or addictions, they aren’t supposed to be prone to laziness or cheating. Spiritual people are supposed to always walk in the light and avoid the darkness - I don’t believe this is true.
We all have our demons that howl in the night; and so, rather than pretending these demons don’t exist or continually trying to fight them and kill them off, we need to live with the wild beasts who abide in the wilderness with us along with our better angels. Without giving in to their allure, we even need to listen to what the demons may actually be teaching us about our lives.
When we embrace our doubts we can explore deeper truth. The times when we are injured or do damage to another can be opportunities that push us into places of forgiveness and mercy in life. Even our lusts, anger, addiction and anxiety can make us vulnerable enough to break away from the grip of our isolated ego and reach out to others for healing, wisdom, counsel and guidance.
It’s now morning here we we live and the bright sun has come up over the eastern mountains, hummingbirds are fluttering about and an early spring breeze is gently blowing through the palm trees. For me, this whole experience is so much more beautiful because last night wild beasts howled under a midnight moon.