Desert alone

Lately I’ve been haunted by these words of Jesus: “I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly.” “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” When I hear Jesus talk like that I’m forced to wonder: Am I alive? Am I free? How would I know?

I recently attended the funeral of a man I never met, the son of a dear couple in my parish. He was only forty-five, felled by cancer way too soon. One person after another got up to eulogize him, and having some emotional distance I began to analyze the content of their remarks. (Maybe it’s being a sociologist. You can never turn it off.)

“He was so alive.” “Here he is at the beach/in the mountains/on the water.” “He built my house/repaired our church/kept my roof on during a storm.” “See him climbing Mt. Rainier/hiking in the rain forest/skiing on the lake.” Saint Irenaeus, the 2nd century bishop of Lyons, said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” I sat through the funeral thinking, “By these standards I’m not alive at all, much less fully.” I wondered if that free, abundant life Jesus promised could be passing me by.

With active people it’s easy to tell they’re alive: they’re saving the world, or at least climbing a good-sized volcano. But as a wise friend of mine said, “That’s a very extroverty way of looking at things.” With contemplatives, it’s harder to tell we’re alive; sometimes you have to look closely to be sure, because we’re not moving. This makes it equally difficult to tell if we’re free. I decided to try a different tack. How would I know if I were dead?

If I were literally dead, of course, I’d be surrounded by angels taking me straight to heaven. Well, maybe. But I knew as soon as I asked the question that I could be pretty sure I was dead if my life were totally predictable, with no surprises and no risks. If I did what everyone expected, including me; if I suppressed my dreams out of fear; if I kept trying to look normal once I knew it was pointless—in short, if I were bound to convention, then I’d know I was dead, at least inside. Living, technically, but dead to the life I was born for. Dead like a slave.

So how to find the life Jesus had in mind? He tells us that he himself is the way, and that being his disciple leads us to liberating truth. Another wise friend commented that “a true disciple follows her master so closely she gets covered in the dust kicked up by his sandals.” “That’s it,” I thought, “that’s my goal: to end my life covered in dust.” In one sense, of course, that’s guaranteed. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” as the church annually reminds us. But I don’t want just any old dust; it’s got to be the Master’s dust.

You don’t get covered with dust in the city, though, at least not in my city. In Seattle you’re more likely to get covered in moss. To me, dust says “desert,” and “desert” says “lonely.” I wonder if loneliness isn’t a sign of freedom, a sign that one’s life does indeed contain risks and surprises. If I’m out there alone feeling the sand between my teeth, I know that I’ve at least had the guts to leave the security of the city behind. That’s a step, anyway.

Saint Paul knew what it was to be out there on his own. He’d heard things in prayer that could not be spoken (2 Cor 12:2-5): they were forbidden, or just impossible to articulate, or both. Mary was on her own for a while with a big, holy secret. I’ll bet being blessed among women is a lot scarier than it sounds, because it also means being unique among women. And being unique has got to be a lonely business.

But could we seriously doubt that either of them was alive? Pregnant with God, bursting with the Spirit, each of them freely accepted a gift that filled them with life in ways that were sometimes well hidden, even dangerous. Life often grows most powerfully in the darkest, deadest-looking places.

Am I alive? Am I free? I think so, because I am often surprised, occasionally lonely, and sometimes coated with dust. Fortunately, I can be alive without climbing Mt. Rainier—in fact, my chances of being alive are probably much better if I don’t. I think my best shot is summed up in the old Collect for Peace in the Book of Common Prayer: God is the one “in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, in whose service is perfect freedom.” I can imagine St. Paul shrugging as he wrote, “To live is Christ.” Once I grab onto this, I can relax. Nothing important is passing me by.