Desert in Spiritual Quest

Long before I heard about the Desert Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries in Christian Egypt and Syria, desert had come to symbolize one of my earliest religious experiences.

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.


About orlando gustilo

Digital content producer, photographer, writer.
This entry was posted in Christianity, culture, Hinduism, memoirs, philosophy, psychology, religion, spirituality and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Desert in Spiritual Quest

  1. Vincent says:

    Your experience is similar to the stories narrated in the TV show “Journey Home” on EWTN. This show is about Christians who were brought up Catholics, Protestants and Jews. These people
    left their religion and, somehow, found their way to the Catholic Church. I like to watch this very moving show. I consider myself lucky because I was not attracted to leave the Catholic Church. I found that everything in the Catholic Church jives with what is in my heart. Jesus teachings have helped me in time of sorrow, difficulties and despair. Religion is my lifeboat. I will sink without it.

    • orlando gustilo says:

      I like to think people in our modern world have more opportunity to seek meaning for themselves whether in religion or relationships or compassionate action, the numberless ways we seek and find fulfillment as well as comfort and strength. I would hate to think we continue what I call the old imperative of needing others to validate what meaning we find by forcibly putting them in the pigeon holes of our own making.

  2. ShimonZ says:

    A beautiful post. Your memories reminded me of a few of my own. almost forgotten in a bottom drawer… that are very different on the surface… and yet amazingly similar in personality. I still give thanks for a number of teachers I didn’t think I deserved when first I met them.

    • orlando gustilo says:

      I’m glad the post connected to that bottom drawer of yours. Rediscovering forgotten drawers is a form of invention, the new coming from the old as the old arises from the new! Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

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