|The ash-flow volcanic tuff of Fort Rock rises|
above what was once the bed of a 170-foot deep lake
On a whirlwind tour of the Oregon high desert last weekend, I introduced my family to some of the best this patch of earth has to offer: the improbably named Hole in the Ground, Fort Rock, Crack in the Ground and Lost Forest. This was a reunion of sorts, as I’d been to the same hallowed ground decades earlier in my impressionable youth. I spent a vividly remembered New Year’s Eve atop the rimrock at Fort Rock with friends, howling with the coyotes at a searchlight moon. The sky was so clear and hard that night that the batteries in our trucks froze and we drank all our booze before it had a chance to do the same. We kept from freezing in our sleeping bags by piling ourselves in the middle of a cavernous canvas tent and giggling ourselves to sleep.The silent immensity of that desert place remains, as does its capacity to absorb all the grief I can pour into it. In the time I had to mumble a woebegone prayer from a rocky precipice out over the sagebrush plain my 20-something children scrambled above me to even greater heights. They are now the age I was then. The desert brings to us, in turn, melancholy loss and joyous discovery. Presbyterian minister Belden Lane has written that it’s a place of threatening indifference but also, unexpectedly, of love. In his inimitable style, environmental anarchist Edward Abbey has written that the desert simply doesn’t care about us. “It would as soon kill ya as look at ya.” The fierceness and beauty of the place puts me on a spiritual knife edge that can strip me bare and skin open my soul.
|In geologic parlance,|
"The Crack" is a graben-- a
depressed block of land
bordered by parallel faults
One can’t be a lover of lonely places full of jagged rock, and a Christian, without recalling Jesus’ showdown in the desert with the devil. After being baptized in the River Jordan (the local equivalent of western Oregon?), Jesus was led by the spirit to the Judean desert for a fast of 40 days. It’s no wonder the devil tempted him first by suggesting he turn stones into bread; he must have been famished. The devil then offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his fealty, and finally urged him to jump from a high place in order to test God’s promise of physical safety. Satan failed in each of his temptations. Jesus won the showdown, despite what surely must have been a temptation of a different order to simply destroy the tempter and be done with the whole tedious affair.
I have never witnessed an embodiment of the devil, but I have toed the edge of cliffs from which a fall would mean certain death. These occasions have not been temptations per se but rather the urging of the spirit to experience the exhilaration of unattainable space. In this life my feet are bound to the earth, but there are moments when I wish I could be free of it. I trust God’s care, but not enough to test my faith by stepping into thin air. I’m left to envy birds of prey for their freedom and power.
|Female Ferruginous hawk gave|
us hell for trespassing on her turf
|I once was found but now am lost|
The fourth-century desert fathers in Egypt practiced a spiritual virtue they called indifference, apatheia, a stubborn refusal to be distracted by unimportant things. They went to the desert to say “no” to a culture where consumerism and militarism and careful cultivation of one’s reputation were the highest possible values. They said “no” to what wasn’t important so they could say “yes” to what mattered most. These are the basic desert questions: what do you ignore, and what do you love? Answer these questions well and you’ll have won your own showdown in the desert.