“The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain; and you say that in Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. … But the hour is coming and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn 4: 19-21, 23)
The apparent paradox in the life and teachings of Jesus in regard to being religious and spiritual doesn’t escape our attention when Jesus says that God is not worshiped either on this mountain or on that Mountain but in Spirit for God is spirit; but Jesus himself frequented the temple to pray and visited Synagogues to read and interpret the Hebrew Scriptures. But precisely in this apparent paradox Jesus invites us to move from being religious to being spiritual. His own spiritual life is a validation of this truth.
A strong desire for a life in God calls for a commitment to a lifelong spiritual journey and this journey begins in the Temple with the rituals of initiation and joining others to participate in worship and celebration of rituals. Religion also indoctrinates the believer in its doctrines, dogmas, and traditions. The spiritual journey with its religious practices begins in the Temple but unfortunately for quite a few the journey ends there. It is just the starting point in our journey. It is not the end in itself. We pass through the temple to go beyond the temple – into the desert, that is, into the cave of the heart.
The purpose of this article is not to dilute the importance of religion and its practices. Just as the first rung of the ladder is very important to reach the last rung, so too, one has to pass through the temple to enter into the desert where in stillness and silence we can hear the voice of God inviting us to enter into communion with God. Spiritual masters speak of the various stages in our spiritual growth and the need to pass through each stage to move onto the next one. The higher stages of consciousness presupposes the passing through the lower stages of consciousness. No one stage is unimportant. Life of Beatitudes, which is non-dual experience of God and reality, presupposes the observance of commandments. Do we serve a steak to a child? The child, now grown up as an adult, can be given steaks. So too in our spiritual growth; our spiritual journey begins in the Temple but does not end there, it moves beyond the Temple into the desert where God is waiting to consummate our love for God. While Temple worship serves as the first part of our spiritual life, life in the desert forms the second part of our spiritual life.
Just A Few Examples
From the Bible
It was not in Pharaoh’s palace but in the burning bush in the desert Moses encounters God who reveals God’s name as “I AM WHO AM.” His experience of God deepens in the desert.
The prophets in the Old Testament were called into the desert. It is in the silence and solitude of the desert they listened to God and to God’s call to be prophets. They discerned in the silence of the desert.
John the Baptist, as son of the priest in the temple, did not follow his Father’s profession and the Temple Aristocracy but chose the desert where he becomes a ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’.
Jesus, after his own experience of God at his baptism retreats into the desert to deepen his experience of God and to continue to discern God’s will and his mission. On a daily basis he retreats to mountains and deserts to be in solitude and silence.
Gautama Siddhartha for six years follows the teachings of different masters hoping to experience the Truth but does not find; only when he sits under the Bodhi Tree with the strong determination not to arise until he is awakened that he is enlightened and becomes The Buddha.
Ramana Maharishi at the age of 16 leaves his home for Arunachala and sits in silence and solitude for years and having experienced his true Self becomes a beacon of light for all those who search for God.
Rama of Ramayana is remembered today for his fourteen years in the wilderness than for his rule of Ayodhya.
Take courage to move from the Temple to the desert where in stillness and silence we can let go of the ego and plunge into the ocean of God’s love.
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