As a child my inner world centered on the high festival days of the church year. Jesus and God were one. At Christmas I literally believed God was born and on Good Friday at three in the afternoon believed He died. God died on some of the hottest days of the Philippine year when nothing moved, not even the stray dogs in the dusty streets. I imagined people stumbling along when they had to do something, bereft of God’s enlivening presence.
The early 1970s were a bleak, dark period for me. What had propelled me forward suddenly lost steam and I kept my head barely above water after losing all sense of direction. As happens with many others, in those years of dumb deprivation, religion was a lifeboat, and I didn’t leave it for years thereafter, taking it to many shores of discovery, disappointment and reorientation.
I was staying in a one-room apartment in Quezon City one year during Lent. The sun was hot, turning the day outside white with heat and light. Inside my room the air hang motionless like a dead animal. In that unearthly silence I found a chink that was not quite light but it pointed to something like hope. Being young has its advantage. The future stretched before me like an endless sea: I had time.
With nowhere to go, nothing to do, I decided to spend Holy Week sequestered in my room. I didn’t go out for food but lived on what I had in the refrigerator. The days were long, the nights even longer but after a day or two time seemed to stop. It lost punctuation and became one fluid line like a motionless sea or a straight line I later learned to read on a cardiac monitor when a patient’s heart stopped beating.
It was in that time of emptiness that I found what felt like a spring in a featureless desert, a gush of surprising joy. It didn’t lift my spirit but spirit came to rest in itself, a kind of death with the mind staying astonishingly alive.
Later I struggled back into historical time. I spent a year working at Clark Air Base in Angeles City where I met an African-American captain, a nurse at the ward where I worked. One day Maddie invited me to dinner at her on-base Quonset hut home. She showed me a book with an unfamiliar-sounding title, the Bhagavad-Gita.
What she told me that evening didn’t make sense to me until years later when I rediscovered that thin volume in America and its words gave form to what had become the shape of my spiritual quest.
Today desert and the bleakness of Temperate Zone winter are one. On this first day of what people reckon is a new year I give thanks for all the people who somehow came into my life, leaving me with books and memories, words and images, with a bit of energy that has become part of my own energy.
We are truly one boat, one seamless garment even though most of the time we live as though solitary, alone in a desert with just our personal demons to struggle with and no one there to lend a helping hand.
We don’t undertake a quest. The quest is our life. There is nothing to discover, nowhere to go but we go as though hiking miles and miles of geographic time, often without an enlivening spirit. We go because that’s what being alive means.