There’s no permanent trail leading to the ridge overlooking “Little Cappadocia” – those spired and spindling rock formations behind the monastery property that sprout up like stalagmites from the desert floor. But, if you’re willing to slug through soft sand and shifting hillside, you’ll eventually arrive at a vista point that rewards you with a scene that offers no assistance in replenishing your breath.
From here, you can witness the wind transporting white clouds swiftly overhead and their shadows changing the color of the earth-tone canvas below to a darkened brown. Lake Abiquiu’s blue coves cut away at the red rocks and the water beams like turquoise jewelry on native skin.
“I am a speck on this earth!” I think to myself, or did I just yell? Either way, the words are lost to the desert.
Bundled in a hooded jacket, and with an Egyptian pilgrim’s scarf wrapped around my face, I feel invisible. A raven flying overhead would hardly differentiate me from the scrub brush and the struggling piñon tree that’s become my refuge from the wind. Perhaps I have been led here to become nothing, or I’ve been brought here to become everything – it’s hard to tell the difference these days. I do know that emptiness welcomes a refill. In this vast beauty, I feel like a raindrop falling onto dry earth where the splash is ecstasy then quickly nothing.
“I am a speck with this earth.” And this time it’s neither thought, nor word, but a reality sensed; one accompanied with joyful tears. What has deemed me worthy to experience this unity?
My prayer rope moves reflexively between my thumb and index finger, each knot unraveling the mess in my soul, pouring mercy into cracks that spread like the continental patterns in the dry arroyos; another world’s map imprinted on my heart; a new mode of existence revealed to me by way of the wasteland.
“Orthodoxy is not a religion,” Father Nektarios told me on the first day I met him during our car ride from Española to Cañones, “it’s a way of life.”
I skeptically nodded. I’d heard these words before in reference to so many things – diet and exercise, national identity, and professions. What does “way of life” even mean?
A degree in Biblical theology had me reading Jesus’ proclamation that he is the “way, the truth, and the life,” but those designations get lodged in my logic and have hardly penetrated my heart.
From atop this ridge, with God’s silent wilderness spreading for miles in every direction, the world looks flat. I know there are heights and depths, colors and shade, but it could just as easily be a giant movie screen. The wind moves and makes me shudder, reminding me to hold on and causing me to realize that this scene is reality. The clouds shift and shade the desert. The dark spots testify to a sun shining above, as I remain a speck below, sometimes in dark and sometimes in light, but always surrounded by the air. God invites this speck-like being into a “way of life.” But how do I know the Way?
Just then, a gust of wind nearly pushes me over the ridge and into a cactus. I laugh and tremble; joy and fear, an answer of sorts. It’s time to go back down.
There’s no permanent trail leading down to the valley floor. I carefully navigate a way through thorny brush and earth that tries to swallow me up. From the bottom, looking up, the dimensions of the world are more perceptible and it’s easier to assess the heights from which I’ve scrambled down.
“Stay low,” I hear, “and you won’t have to be reminded where I’ve taken you and who I’ve made you.” This is neither voice, nor wind, nor self-talk; it’s that assuring voice that’s begun to whisper to my deep heart.
I’ve heard it said that it’s impossible to be a Christian, “all one can do is simply die every day.” So, that’s the way of Christ: Death. He demonstrated as much. I’m only a speck. Why not be a speck that’s dead to self and alive to the sustainer of the universe? Specks can attach themselves to something grand, leeching off of glory. First, I must offer myself.
This Orthodox “way of life” is actually death. Up is down. And emptiness is fulfillment. This mode of existence is intellectually mind numbing because that’s not where it thrives. It lives beyond the mind, in the deep heart, and is participated in by staying low. The wind, like the Spirit of God, reminds me to keep low to the ground.
Humility is my only stability.