The desert, Balzac once declared, holds everything and nothing for God is there, and man is not.
The beauty of the bleak and empty, the holiness of the still and blank: If you cannot call up this mood in yourself, then half of literature will seem insane, and half the human reaction to reality will feel alien and cold. Yes, the mind of winter is an arctic mind. Frozen, perhaps, into immobility. But those whose minds are never cool – how can they see the nothings that stand on the other side of things, the shadows that define the lights? We have a word to describe such people. We call them overheated.
But then, the lush, the full, the rich, the lively – there is another landscape of splendor and the divine. God warms His hands at human fires, at family hearths and public flames. And why not? It is how He made us. The political animal hunts in packs, the social being dwells with others, and the cultured man seeks friendship. Yes, the crowd can stifle and the mob can kill. But if you cannot call up in yourself the warmer mood of love for neighbors, of happiness in throngs, then the other half of human things will seem unreal. We have a word to describe these people, too. We call them lonely.
Shiloh and Jerusalem, the desert and the city, the hermit's cell and Rome: The history of human experience knows this duality and maps it to the world. To call it symbolism is hardly to do it justice. That word is just another expression of the modern thinning and demythologizing of reality. Those places once were more than symbols. They were trumpet cries that echoed across the universe. They were weights that tugged on the imagination. They were magnetic points that influenced our compass readings. They were centering points in the cartography of the soul.
We walk so mapless today. Our spiritual geography has come adrift, and the compass swings in aimless circles. It's not every man his own priest; it's every man his own surveyor of the wilderness of life.
I saw the perfect darkness, once. Driving across the plains, from Brookings to Pierre on a two-lane blacktop, I glanced in the rearview mirror, expected to see the headlights of the car that followed me since dusk, a mile or so behind. But it had turned off, somewhere, and instead I saw nothing. The absolute nothing. A darkness so thick it was like deep water, or hard basalt, or the shadow of God. By the time I awoke, I was half off the road, the gravel and weeds on the shoulder rattling against the wheel-wells of that old Ford pickup I was driving.
I've seen the brightness, as well. Not often, just a touch here and there of the beingness of things. A woman in a Polish church, tears after taking communion running down her face, the mascara and pancake powder of her over-made-up face dribbling down to stain her dress. A damaged man, with twisted limbs and the mind of a slow child, placing groceries in a box with a care and concentration as great as any genius could manage. A child, once, laughing and clapping in a stroller as her mother wheeled her bouncingly over a brick sidewalk.
But all that was happenstance, the adventitious and the once-off. The places were beside the point, the locations incidental. When Samuel Johnson and Boswell went to the island of Iona on their Scottish tour, they went expecting – knowing, demanding – that they be led by their presence to contemplate the divine, the monastic, and the holy. Where shall we go for something like that now? Without a spiritual geography, the known world is terra incognita. An over-populated wilderness. A lonely crowd.
Joseph Bottum. "Spiritual Geography." Dappled Things (Christmas, 2010 issue).
Reprinted with permission of Dappled Things.
Dappled Things is a literary magazine dedicated to providing a space for emerging writers to engage the literary world from a Catholic perspective. The magazine is committed to quality writing that takes advantage of the religious, theological, philosophical, artistic, cultural, and literary heritage of the Catholic Church in order to inform and enrich contemporary literary culture. Dappled Things pledges complete faithfulness to the teachings of the Catholic Church as expressed by the Bishop of Rome and the Church's Magisterium.
Subscribe to Dappled Things here.
Joseph Bottum is the former editor of First Things and host of the nationally syndicated radio show Book Talk. His writings have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Washington Post, and National Review. He lives in New York City and is the author of The Second Spring: Words into Music, Music into Words and The Catholic Awakening: How Catholicism Replaced Protestant Christianity as America's National Church.
back to top