Land of Enchantment

Is there such a thing as a spiritual landscape? It seems wrong somehow to suppose that God manifests Himself more fully in one place than another. The whole earth is His creation, after all. Why should one place feel more sacred, more suffused with spiritual energy than another? And yet, there is something that you can feel here in New Mexico as soon as the airplane lands. Is it the quality of the light? The low relative humidity of the air? The vision of mountains in the distance, encircling the land like the arms of a god?

My parents and I moved to Albuquerque when I was only a few months old. My sister and brother were both born here and we lived in Albuquerque until I was five, returning for a year when I was seven. I spent third grade* at the foot of Sandia Mountain looking for castles along its top ridge. Even today, so many decades later, I can't look at a landscape without mountains and not feel that it is missing something essential. Coming back to New Mexico always feels in an important way like coming home, although, having said this, I'm not entirely sure that I actually want to live here. It would spoil it somehow if this landscape were to become ordinary.

But could it? If I were less tired**, I might try to write about the way in which the Navajo describe this land, its four sacred mountains, the way they were made. But almost everything I know about this sacred tradition, I've learned from reading Tony Hillerman novels. I don't really have a deep sense of the stories and I can't even name the mountains without looking them up. And yet, I feel the energy here. At least I think I do. At least I want to.

My father always used to badger us kids when we came back to visit his sisters (they still live here, as do most of our cousins on his side of the family) whether we could feel how amazing the landscape was, and my brother talks about coming here as needing a "New Mexico hit" in order to stay sane. It seems somehow presumptuous of me given the fierceness of their desire for this land to claim to feel anything as strong (Dad never believed me when I said I understood). I can go for years, it would seem, without coming here. And yet, if I don't, I start feeling dried up, mountain-less, as it were.

But neither do I want to become one of those people who enthuse idiotically about the energy of the place, about "how spiritual" it all is, about how you can really get in touch with your inner self simply by looking out at this landscape. Isn't this somehow confusing exterior beauty with the presence of God? Besides, it's too easy: sure, I can see the hand of God in the volcanic colors of this land, but God's hand is at work in the waters of Lake Michigan, too. Just because I like mountains and don't really like the lake doesn't mean that God isn't equally present in both. It's just easier for me to see His workings in one than other.

There's also the fact that there are many fewer people here. It's easy to feel spiritual out alone in the wilderness, much harder to feel spiritual as one of a crowd. Mind you, the South Asian Indians don't seem to have a problem with this: the more the merrier at their sacred festivals as they crowd into the Ganges. Maybe it's a residual effect of our Christian tradition, looking for God out in the desert, like the Desert Fathers and Mothers of third-century Egypt. You see, I'm skeptical. We city-dwellers are constantly fantasizing about making retreats, but if we really cared about the landscape, would we live in cities in the first place? Cities have their own energy; indeed, if you think about it, cities themselves are just as much an expression of the landscape as is their absence. They grow, as it were, where the energy of the land is strong enough to support them.***

I can feel myself wrestling here with the claims of the men in my (natal) family. "Oh, you just don't appreciate this landscape enough," as if I were a spiritual cripple not to fall into ecstasies with my first breath of this air. Because, in actual fact, I do. I could feel my spirits lifting before we had even left the airport. The thing is, I'm not sure whether it is the landscape as such or the openness of the people around me to the possibility of things spiritual that I am sensing. Case in point: the meditation chapel in baggage claim. Okay, so there was nobody in there when I went to take a look, but there had been. I could feel it. Perhaps, after all, it is the people who make the landscape sacred, not the other way around.

Now there's a thought. Yesterday morning it occurred to me during my meditation about how amazing it would be if, in fact, at just that time everybody in the world were sitting in faith-filled love waiting for God. Wouldn't that be something? Every human mind and heart in creation focused just for a moment on God rather than on the vicissitudes of the day. And what if all of us came together to pray at the same time every morning? Thanks to the rotation of the earth, this would mean in effect that at any given time, there would be millions of people praying, just thinking about God. Think of the energy that would involve! Then even the cities would be holy, every street, every building filled with thoughts about God.

So which is it? Do we see God more easily in the landscape or in each other? It seems wrong to suggest that the answer is somehow either/or: we, as much as the land, are God's creatures, whether we live together in large groups or scattered more widely about the landscape. Perhaps God gives us the land to teach us how to look for the divinity in ourselves. If so, it does seem wrong to privilege one place over another, except insofar as we connect with the people living there.

*Yes, when I was seven; I was moved up a grade.
**I blame it on all the inspirons that have been hitting me since we got here. Be careful what you wish for: the only thing more exhausting, it seems, than writer's block is coming unblocked. Go figure.
**Hat tip to Stuart Ashman for this insight.

Comments

  1. If so, it does seem wrong to privilege one place over another

    Maybe God makes such variety because he knows we will value one place more than another. Because we are as varied as the landscapes which surround us. Even if we should value all places (and people) equally. I know I am drawn more to certain landscapes (and people) than others. Maybe those are the ones with messages for me.

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  2. I like that: different spiritual landscapes to suit our different spiritual personalities. It makes sense for the world to contain places to suit many different ways of responding to God's creation.

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