The God of Barren Landscapes: Absence and Presence in the Desert
by Laurie Gordon, Spiritual Formation Team
“Contact with human creatures is given us through the sense of presence.
Contact with God is given us through the sense of absence.
Compared with this absence presence becomes more absent than absence.”
I am a lover of barren landscapes. And, I am a lover of the mystical intuition that the experience of God’s Absence heralds Unfathomable Presence at the heart of all that is. Somehow, I don’t think these two obsessions are mere coincidence.
Into the Wilderness
I offer these reflections on God’s absence that is, paradoxically, God’s presence on the threshold of Lent. These 40 days of spare simplicity in preparation for the dark suffering of Good Friday and radiant joy of Easter, always begin with a return to the gospel story of Jesus’ 40 day sojourn into the barren wilderness of Sinai’s desert.
Jesus has just been baptized, and he has heard deep in his heart God’s Voice naming him Beloved. To claim this identity, to choose it for himself, to know it as the deepest core and truest essence of his human being, Jesus departs immediately into the desert. In this barren place he sifts through all the competing voices of ego and cultural expectations about what it means to be the Messiah. Beneath the raucous clamor it is God’s “still, small voice” he hears, God’s vision he embraces, God’s call of love rather than power that he chooses to follow.
But here’s the thing: the wilderness into which Jesus journeyed was a terrifying, wild place where, it was believed, God was not present. Who looks for God in a stony, arid desert where nothing grows and no birds sing? Why move into a landscape of sheer absence in search of a God who is always and everywhere present? What deeper wisdom do barren landscapes hold?
An Absent Presence: Death Valley, California, USA
Death Valley in southeastern California is one of the hottest, driest places in the continental United States. And yet it is a place of incredible, unusual, frightening beauty. Years ago I spent five days with my family exploring the back roads and canyons of this desolate National Park in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, always carrying with us gallons of extra water, camping at night in barren places.
Nighttime in the desert is as still and quiet as you could ever hope to find, a silence broken only by human activity. The usual night sounds one experiences outdoors – the rustle of wind in tree branches, the rushing sound of water tumbling over the boulders of a mountain stream, the stealthy movements of night-loving animals – are virtually absent. The nature of life in the deep desert is different, much more subdued, a signal of the lack of something, the apparent absence of that which sustains life: water.
When you enter Death Valley, this place of no water, and gaze out across the valley floor, one of the first things you notice are entrances to canyon after hidden canyon marked by huge rock fans, the deposits of countless, raging flash floods that arose abruptly and swept masses of rock and debris along with them. Alluvial deposits, one after another, march into the distance down the length of the valley, lapping one another like scales on a dragon’s back. They bear mute witness to the powerful shaping presence of water, a lot of it, suddenly present with unstoppable force.
The bare rocks, in places with names like Golden Canyon and Artist’s Palette, are remnants of an upturned ancient seabed. These outcroppings are exposed with exquisite clarity throughout the desert, continually created, shaped, and revealed by the unique interaction of water influencing the landscape, not just for short periods of time, but over thousands of millennia.
There is a high point in the park, a place called Dante’s View (aptly named, presumably, after the writer of the classic Inferno which chronicles a journey through the nine circles of Hell). From this mountaintop visitors look down onto the lowest point in the United States. What one sees are salt pans left over from dried up lake beds, remnants of the water that collects when the rain does happen to fall. The contoured shades of blue, tan, and white create the illusion that you are looking down on an ocean’s coastline, abundant with water, from thousands of feet in the air – instead of at the floor of a dried up desert. Here the apparent presence of water is a mirage, at best a reminder of what appears to be there, but is actually not.
Vivid in my memory after all these years is an afternoon drive through the desert, up a rugged wash to a place called Marble Canyon. It was a devastatingly hot day for the time of year, and in the dry wash where we stopped for lunch there was no shade, no protection from the pervasive heat and scorching dryness. I certainly reconsidered the reasonableness of this particular jaunt, wondering if anything was worth being so miserable! Fortunately, though, we continued on to our destination, passing through a gradually narrowing canyon whose walls turned from the tans and browns lit by harsh desert light into increasingly richer pink, peach and rust-hued, shadow-softened colors.
We went as far as the jeep could take us, before we parked and set out on foot. We climbed up and over a huge boulder that blocked our progress up the canyon, walked around a bend in the path … and into exquisitely cool, deep shade created by the rising of massive rock walls sweeping up and away in a swirl of water-cut stone. We wandered this deep, narrow gorge, rock walls occasionally opening out and then closing in again to a width of only a few feet. Water-deposited pebbles formed the track on which we walked. Once again it was clear that the absent water was also the powerful, present force that had cut and created and sustained this place of refuge and beauty.
We camped that evening in the neighboring Cottonwood Canyon, where an underground spring surfaces and the presence of water is made apparent in the oasis-like abundance of green, growing plant life. Because shrubs and trees grow here, and because there is water to nourish, there is also more animal life. Unlike previous nights, the chatter of birds and hum of insects and quiet patter of tiny feet transformed the utter stillness of desert nights into a rustling center of activity.
Hidden presence revealed in the subtle, vibrant buzz of life. In the desert, that hidden presence is water; in the desert of the spirit, it is God from whom life arises and thrives.
We need only look to our own lived encounters with Divine Mystery to detect currents of experience that seem to both affirm and deny Holy Presence. Times of loss and desolation remind us that, at least as far as human perception goes, God is not always here. “Trying to give one’s life to God can be a very lonely business, especially when God often seems absent,” laments the priest Felix in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Severed Wasp. And yet life’s suffering is sweetly balanced with startling eruptions of joy as absence gives way to the awareness of loving presence that gives and sustains life.
Living the Presence of Absence
Encounter with desert harshness and barren beauty has revealed holy possibility: to experience the absence of God is also to experience God’s presence.
To experience the absence of God is also to experience God’s presence. So did the sparseness and bare simplicity of the desert strip Jesus of all but the most essential truths of his life? Did the lack of water, did his thirst, did his hunger reveal to Jesus a deeper thirst and a more driving hunger? Did it show him the deepest desire of his heart, to live as God’s Beloved to the fullest potential of his divine humanity? Did he discover that it mattered more to him to encounter a Living God than to limit his experience of God to moments of comfortable and comforting emotions? Did Jesus experience God’s absence in the wilderness as another face of God’s presence? And did his experience of Absent Presence sustain him for what lay ahead?
During this season of Lent, I simply invite you to test these possibilities against the realities of your own life. When and where has the hidden presence of God been revealed in your wilderness times of desert barrenness?
“The mystery of God’s presence, therefore,
can be touched only by a deep awareness of his absence.
It is in the center of our longing for the absent God that we discover his footprints,
and realize that our desire to love God is born out of the love
with which he has touched us.”
Simone Weil, The Notebooks of Simone Weil, trans. Arthur Wills. Quoted in Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (Crossroad, New York, 1995), xix.
“The paradoxical necessity of both presence and absence is one of the most important of all the verbal strategies by means of which mystical transformation has been symbolized.” Bernard McGinn, The Foundations of Mysticism: Origins to the Fifth Century (Crossroad, New York, 1995), xvii.
This section, An Absent Presence: Death Valley, California, USA, is excerpted and revised from Laurie Gordon, “Presence and Absence: Exploring Two Faces of Experience with God,” Saint’s Herald, April 1995.
The last paragraph of this section, Living the Presence of Absence, is taken from Laurie Gordon, Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Spiral in an Evolutionary Universe, presented to The Faculty of the Graduate Theological Union in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts, Berkeley, California, March 2002 (unpublished).
Henri Nouwen, Reaching Out: Three Movements of the Spiritual Life, (Doubleday, 1975 or Image, 1986), p. 128.