Forty Years of Chewing Sand

St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness (Osservanza Master, Siena, c. 1435)

The desert can be tomb and cradle, wasteland and garden, death and resurrection, hell and heaven. Thus in the desert you will find that God is simultaneously present and absent, proximate and remote, visible and invisible, manifest and hidden. He can receive you with great tenderness and then abandon you on the cross of loneliness. He consoles you and torments you at the same time. He heals you only to wound you again. He may speak to you today and ignore you tomorrow.

–– Alessandro Pronzato [i]


In American Nomads, my recent reviiew of Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland, I applied the term “ascetics” to the motorized wanderers who have left behind the oppressive futility of a dysfunctional society to seek a freedom and authenticity seemingly unattainable within the rigged game of economic inequality. Although most of those contemporary nomads might take issue with the religious connotations of the word, I believe that any intentional exodus “away from here” is inevitably a quest for the redemptive space of a Promised Land. Its refusals and renunciations are the necessary first steps toward new being.

In popular usage, asceticism conjures images of bodily self-mortification, like sleeping on a bed of nails, for the sake of a purely spiritual goal. Such a limiting caricature reflects an unfortunate dualism of body and soul. But the term comes from the Greek word for athletic training, and is best understood as a wholistic practice in which everything which comprises the human person—body and soul, heart and mind, inner psyche and outer world—is fully engaged in a committed discipline of patterned living.

Asceticism is not solely a matter of giving old things up; it also involves taking on things that are new. Lenten discipline, for example, involves the addition of deeper spiritual practices and loving actions, and not merely the common subtractions of culinary pleasures and worldly amusements. More prayer and more justice, not just less chocolate.

But even the embrace of positive actions or behaviors involves the renunciation of obstacles, distractions and hindrances which impede or resist the ascetic’s goal. And since we are social beings, both formed and deformed by the worlds we inhabit, it is not always enough to work on ourselves within the confines of the given world. To borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens, we sometimes need to “exit the whole Shebang.”

And from the biblical Exodus to the “vandwelling” nomads fleeing the enslaving fleshpots of America, the exit always leads to the desert: the no-where beyond the reach of the social imaginary, the silence beyond the captivity of language, the trackless waste where all our constructions turn to dust. As I wrote in Via Negativa:

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

We could all use some time in the desert, whether it’s Jesus’ 40 days or the Israelites’ 40 years. But whenever we step outside the noise of our social and personal fictions, the silence is going to wound us with questions. Who am I really, when my familiar props, costumes and stories are stripped away, leaving me naked and alone on an empty stage? Do I have what Salinger’s Franny Glass called “the courage to be an absolute nobody?”

Even the great desert saints of Late Antiquity trembled on the brink of so much nothingness. As Belden C. Lane writes in his indispensable guide to wilderness spirituality, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes:

“What they fled with greatest fear was not the external world, but the world they carried inside themselves: an ego-centeredness needing constant approval, driven by compulsive behavior, frantic in its effort to attend to a self-image that always required mending.” [ii]

The desert way is threatening and fierce, but it is also a place of transformative clarity, as mystics and artists continue to remind us. Indifferent to the old scripts of alienation and inauthenticity, it can be the birthplace of a new way of being human. Video artist Bill Viola describes the lure of the desert issuing from the spiritual desire for true and undistorted existence:

“I want to go to a place that seems like it’s at the end of the world. A vantage point from which one can stand and peer out into the void – the world beyond… There is nothing to lean on. No references… You finally realize that the void is yourself. It is like some huge mirror for your mind. Clear and uncluttered, it is the opposite of our urban distractive spaces. Out here, the unbound mind can run free. Imagination reigns. Space becomes a projection screen. Inside becomes outside. You can see what you are.” [iii]

Of course, the desert can be anywhere. Alassandro Pronzato, one of my favorite desert teachers, describes it as an essentially inward condition:

“You can find your desert in a corner of your house, on a motorway, in a square, in a crowded street. But you must first renounce the slavery of illusions, refuse the blackmail of pressure, resist the glitter of appearances, repudiate the domination of activity, reject the dictatorship of hypocrisy. Then the desert becomes a place where you do not go out to see the sand blowing in the wind but the Spirit waiting to make his dwelling within you.” [iv]

The desert is no place for the casual tourist. It is a pilgrimage of arduous passage, demanding time, patience, endurance and persistence. “You do not settle there, you pass through. One then ventures on to these tracks because one is driven by the Spirit towards the Promised Land. But it is only promised to those who are able to chew sand for forty years without doubting their invitation to the feast in the end.” [v]

Chewing sand for forty years—not the best sales pitch for the pilgrimage to God. But all the easy roads just lead back to Egypt. Endure the trials, bless the oases. Persist. Never turn back.

Do not doubt the feast.



Related posts:

Via Negativa: A Lenten Worship Installation

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)


[i] Alessandro Pronzato, Meditations on the Sand (1982), q. in John Moses, The Desert: An Anthology for Lent (Norwich, UK: The Canterbury Press, 1997, 30-31.

[ii] Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 166.

[iii] Bill Viola, Reasons for Knocking at an Empty House: Writings 1973-1994 (London: Thames & Hudson, 1995) 54.

[iv] Moses, 31.

[v] Ibid., 26.

I took the photograph in California’s Alabama Hills, where I have run among wildflowers and slept beneath the stars. The mountain peak on the right is Mt. Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 states. I climbed it in 1998.

God and the imagination are one

HS dove

Following this blog’s inaugural series of dispatches from the Camino de Santiago last spring, readers of The Religious Imagineer may have noticed a curious diversity of topics: saints, seasons, nature, culture, theology, Scripture, liturgy, art, theater, circus, classic cars and cinema. And perhaps they wonder, what ties all this stuff together?

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. When Isaiah Berlin explored the implications of this ancient Greek saying in his celebrated 1953 essay, he argued that Tolstoy was by nature a fox but by conviction a hedgehog. His interests were wide and his eye for the particular was acute, but he sought to contain the world’s multiplicity within a single defining idea.

I can relate. And the one big thing for this blog is found in a line from Wallace Stevens:

We say God and the imagination are one …
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

This might be taken as a secular celebration of the human mind, reducing God to one of its creative fictions. But if I read Stevens with the hermeneutic of a believer, “God and the imagination are one” is not necessarily a matter of either-or. It might also mean both-and. God dwells both in the mind and outside it. Imagination is both a way we reach beyond ourselves, and a means by which the transcendent finds a home in us, enabling us to see with the eyes of God and the mind of Christ, and to act accordingly. To say that God and the imagination are does not mean for me that they are identical, but that they participate deeply in one another.

The Creator’s “Let there be light!” and Jesus’ refusal of the tomb’s finality are the supreme biblical examples of divine imagination. But there have been countless imagineers engaged in the work (or is it play?) of bringing the new heaven and new earth into being. The activist imagining peace, the oppressed imagining justice, the forgiver imagining reconcilation, the mourner imagining joy, the saint imagining a new way of being, the theologian and the artist imagining the beauty of the infinite in the particular, are all practitioners of the holy and transformative task of conforming the world more closely to God’s image.

When Jesus quoted Isaiah 61 in his hometown sermon, he embraced such prophetic imagination as his own vocation.

The Imagination of God is upon me,
for she has sent me to bring good news to the poor.
She has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind;
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of divine favor.

So to return the original question about The Religious Imagineer’s diversity of topics, I would say that imagination is the unifying subject of this blog. How do we say the unsayable, see the invisible, dance the impossible in our images, rituals and stories? How do we attend to the traces of God amid the chronic unknowing of secular modernity? How do we imagine the really Real and the not-yet?

Video artist Bill Viola, the subject of an earlier post, has observed that “in the Middle Ages they painted the sky gold in the paintings … It was realism they were after – reality of the divine effused through everything in the physical world.” That is my theme as well.

As ever, thanks for reading.

Behind the veil

When you arrive in Santiago de Compostela, they say, then your real Camino begins. Or continues, since the vast traverse between where we’ve been and where we’re headed is ongoing, never finally completed – not even by death, say the theologians. We are always “on the way,” deeper and deeper into the mystery of the world. Just so, this blog will itself travel on, exploring the permutations of that mystery within the wide categories of God, Nature, and Art, which are my three great passions. The subjects will be diverse, but all will pursue my guiding theme: where the fire and the rose are one.

This richly suggestive phrase, the last line of T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, harmonizes seemingly incompatible energies: the wild, consuming flame, the serene, soft and self-possessed bloom. As traditional symbols of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, they recall the fruitful incongruity of the Incarnation, but even without this theological overlay, on a strictly sensory level, their union comprises a highly charged coincidence of opposites. The interplay of radically different entities – matter and spirit, sensation and meaning, fact and imagination – and the expanded sense of reality that such unlikely dance partners can produce, will be the subject of my inquiry. John Muir, rhapsodic apostle of the California mountains, described nature as “opening a thousand windows to show us God.” The Religious Imagineer exists to look for those windows – not only in nature, but also in the arts, literature, cinema, theology, and ritual practice. The terrain is immense, my maps are few. But like Wordsworth, I pray that “should the guide I choose / Be nothing better than a wandering cloud / I cannot miss my way.”

So let me begin my new “camino” with Bill Viola, whose video art installations explore big questions: Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going? I have admired his work for years, and was delighted that the first retrospective of his work in France coincided with my arrival in Paris en route to the Camino in April. The notes to the exhibition related his aesthetic to religious contemplation: “For the artist, the camera is that second eye that ‘re-teaches us how to see’ and addresses the world beyond, or beneath, appearances.” And in fact the multiple rooms of the gallery, cave-like spaces lit only by the high-definition images projected on large surfaces, seemed more church than museum. People stood or sat on the floor in rapt attention to the visions unfolding all around them.

I was struck by one room in particular, where the four walls were covered by simultaneous projections of five different 35 minute scenes of mortality and resurrection. One of these was a fixed wide shot of a man dying in a tiny house perched on a bluff (a cutaway wall lets us see inside) as a boat is loaded with household goods on the beach below. When the man dies, we see him appear on the beach (while his lifeless body remains in the house) and get into the boat, which ferries him slowly across the wide expanse of water toward an unknown shore. In another scene, a rescue crew is packing up at the edge of receding floodwaters, while a distraught mother keeps watch in the desperate hope that her drowned son might still be rescued. After a long vigil, mother and paramedics, exhausted, fall asleep on the shore. It is only then that the son’s resurrected body rises out of the water and into the sky beyond the frame. The sleepers miss it, but the viewer is given a privileged glimpse of the crossing between this world and the next. Water dripping from the man’s ascending feet turns into a downpour once he is out of sight. The sleepers are awakened by the deluge, and they exit the scene, never suspecting the rain to be a sign connecting earth and heaven. The mystery of resurrection remains hidden from them, though not from us. The largest image, covering the entirety of a long wall, was an endless procession of people, seen from the side like a Parthenon frieze, moves in slow single file through a forest. As Viola intended, these walkers, wrapped in a silence that seems neither anxious nor eager, suggest souls who have left this world, on their way to whatever world awaits them. I would recall this image a few days later, when I took my own place in the Camino’s great procession of pilgrims, all making our way toward God knows where.

It would be hard to imagine a casual encounter with this installation, whose title was Going Forth By Day (a term for dying taken from the Egyptian Book of the Dead). It seemed too concerned about our own fate for us to pass it by with only a glance. Viola’s work always invites us deeper, soliciting, in his words, “faith in that other thing, that something else dimly felt behind the veil of daily life.” (David Morgan, “Spirit and Medium,” in The Art of Bill Viola, p. 101)

We could use more of such conviction – and poetic persuasiveness – in the rites and imagery of our churches, which sometimes seem at a loss in the task of making the sacred tangible or even thinkable in a culture saturated by secular assumptions. I was delighted to hear that St. Paul’s cathedral in London recently unveiled a permanent Viola video installation in its Martyrs chapel. You can find images of this new work at

You can view a short montage of excerpts from Going Forth by Day here:

You can also watch an excellent lecture which I heard Viola give at UC Berkeley in 2010. It is 90 minutes long, includes examples of his work, and is well worth it for his discussion of “technology and revelation.” The link is at:

Viola flood res