Letter From The Desert

Report from New Mexico (December 2002)
New Mexico has some of the most stunning, unusual, even mystical landscapes in the nation. When Georgia O’Keefe first visited, she fell in love with it and called it “The Faraway.” Orange deserts, rocky red hills, snow covered mountains, river gorges, spectacular big skies, every variety of wild animal and the ever present sage brush combine to make it a magical place.
The home of artists, writers, and Native Americans, New Mexico has a peculiarly spiritual landscape as well, with its crosses, Santos, penitentes, adobe chapels, moradas, portraits of Our Lady of Guadeloupe, Native American rituals, and ever-present Catholic churches. Its ancient native American pueblos and devout Catholicism combined with its stunning beauty have raised generations of natural born mystics. Out here, most people grow up with a deep, innate spirituality that the rest of us spend our lives pursuing. Living in deserted places, witnessing the grandeur of God’s creation, dwelling in a natural peace far from the rat race of the big cities, these people have cultivated a supernatural grace, a rare peace ableness.
Yet New Mexico has two notable distinctions that set it still farther apart. According to the most recent census statistics, New Mexico is the poorest state in the nation. In 2001, the US poverty rate was 11.7 percent, with more than 32.9 million people suffering under poverty. New Mexico’s poverty rate is 17.7 percent.
On top of that, New Mexico leads the nation in nuclear weapons spending. It is the birthplace of the bomb, and the midwife to every nuclear weapon since. It is the home of the mini-nuke, post-nuclear laser weapons, Star Wars, radiation dump sites and other demonic inventions. The nuclear age was born here, on July 16, 1945, amid the cholla and yucca cactus of the Tularosa Basin in central New Mexico. Since then, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, and the White Sands Missile Range work to expand the profitable nuclear industry. Today they employ over 19,000 of the world’s best technicians in the art of annihilation.
Much of New Mexico has suffered from nuclear fallout. Cancer and its related illnesses are widespread. In the town of Cimarron, population 900, over 80 percent of the people have cancer or diabetes. For years, Dr. Helen Caldicott, the longtime anti-nuclear activist, has urged the people of New Mexico to move away.
New Mexico then is a land of contrasts, from grace to disgrace, from angelic spirits to the demons of war, from natural nonviolence to nuclear violence. It combines the best and the worst of the United States. Recently, I accepted an invitation from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and moved into the New Mexico desert.
A Journey to New Mexico
For the last few years, I have lived in New York City, at the West Side Jesuit community, in an old apartment building with twenty other Jesuits right on Broadway. All night long, the sirens, fights, and loud street music of New York City keep us awake, yet we have found a way to share evening meals, pray together, and carry on a wide variety of good ministries throughout the city.
After the September 11 th attacks, I began to volunteer like thousands of others at Ground Zero and the Family Assistance Center, where the Red Cross asked me to be the local coordinator of chaplains. During those difficult days, I counseled some 1,500 relatives at the Center and 500 rescue workers at Ground Zero, and helped over 500 chaplains from all religions. I witnessed unimaginable horror, unspeakable grief, but also, for a time, unbounded compassion. As my friends and I spoke out against the US bombing of Afghanistan and the preparations to destroy Iraq, we learned anew the repercussions for trying to ad here to the biblical commandments to love both our neighbors and our enemies.
I had been discerning my next step with the Jesuit community, and eventually decided to accept an invitation from friends and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe to move out to the New Mexico desert to become a pastor in several poor, remote churches.
I could not have imagined the contrast such a journey would bring. But I did know that the church and the Society of Jesus encourage a “preferential option for the poor,” a choice to stand with, serve, walk with and defend the poor and those on the margins. I also know that the Gospel advocates a “preferential option for peace and nonviolence,” that instead of bombing our enemies and vaporizing them with nuclear weapons to uphold our own security and global interests, we are called to love our enemies and practice Jesus’ active nonviolence.
With these two options then, I chose to move out here to the desert, to that out of the way place where everyone goes to get away from it all. Here, it is easy to stand with the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the forgotten, and to stand for disarmament and peace at a time when our country is gearing up for war. With each passing day, I’m beginning to feel like John the Baptist, baptizing people, calling people to repent of the sin of war, and pointing to the Lamb of God. All that’s missing is the wild honey and locusts.
The Church in New Mexico
Catholicism has deep roots in New Mexico, but the Native American spirituality, of course, goes back even farther. Together they have created a beautiful blend of devotional love for God, respect for the earth and kindness toward one another.
I was asked to take on four parishes with several missions in the northeastern corner of New Mexico, some in the desert plains, some in the mountains. Overnight, I became an itinerant preacher, a missionary, a traveling evangelist. The churches are located miles apart, far away from any major cities, so I find myself driving alone through the desert into rugged canyons, up to various mountain villages and back through the plains to small desert oases. Along the way, I pass elk, deer, antelope, cattle, horses, bear, coyote, eagles and other nameless exotic creatures. Even more mysterious is the weather. With a panoramic view in every direction, featuring desert and mountains, I have seen five storms at the same time, with half of the sky pitch black and hailing and the other half bright blue with large white clouds. Fifteen minutes later it all changes. The sunsets are awesome.
The week before I arrived, during the first reading at Sunday mass at St. Joseph’s Church in Springer, a bear appeared at the back door. No one was fazed. The bear simply walked away. At least three bears live in this three block town. Every day, they visit the apple tree behind the house where I live.
The Church of the Immaculate Conception in Cimarron is the oldest of my parishes. It was built in the mid-1800’s at the foot of the Rockies along a row of desert hills where the plains begin and extend out through Texas. Though there is a history of Wild West violence here, beginning with Jesse James and Doc Hollyday, there is also a history of faith, hope and love, and a deep understanding of the spiritual life.
One evening, for example, during our weekly bible study class for our confirmation candidates, while reading about Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God, I asked the students, “What is the reign of God?” After a pause, one of the seniors said, “The reign of God is life.” The rest of the class nodded their heads in agreement.
I was stunned. I would expect that kind of answer from Thomas Merton, Thich Nhat Hanh or Mahatma Gandhi. For them, growing up in both poverty and natural splendor, God is a daily, vivid, loving reality. They feel God’s presence in their peaceful lives. I could only affirm and learn from their instinct. The group then proceeded to explain that our country’s rush to war, its development of nuclear weapons, its intent to kill Iraqis, and its culture of death are antithetical to the reign of God because they go against life itself. Such violence can not even be imagined, one student calmly explained, by those who live in God’s reign.
Though they have serious problems–unemployment, poverty, lack of health care, and boredom, and though life for some can be a struggle simply to survive, the people of New Mexico, in many ways, get the Gospel. For most of them, Jesus’ words make sense. In them, they come true: the poor in spirit are blessed, the reign of God is theirs. The meek are inheriting this beautiful earth. The merciful are receiving mercy. The pure in heart are seeing God.
Recently, I had lunch with an elderly woman after a funeral, and she told me about growing up with her seven brothers and sisters out in the desert plains. “What was it like to grow up out there?”, I asked. “Oh we loved it,” she said. “It was so peaceful. We all raised sheep and played in the desert.”
“How was the weather?” I asked. (The weather is a popular topic of discussion out here.)
“One day in 1936,” she said, “while everyone was at home, we saw out in the distance, a big tornado coming across the plains right toward us.”
“What did you do?” I asked.
“We did what anyone would do,” she said. “We went into the house and all eight of us children knelt down around the bed with our parents and started praying. Sure enough, the tornado came right across the desert, straight for our house. It hit the house and the whole house came crashing down!”
“But the bed was one of those old beds with four poster beam frames and a canopy,” she explained, “so the roof and the house came crashing down around us, except for where we were kneeling. The bed protected us. God protected us,” she concluded with a smile, “and here I am today.” No one was even scratched.
The Desert As a School of Prophetic Nonviolence
“What did you go out into the desert to see?” Jesus asked the crowds at one point in the Gospels. He was trying to tell them about John the Baptist and the meaning of his prophetic message. Jesus is familiar with desert life, having spent forty grueling days there, fasting and praying. Luke reports that he regularly retreated to “deserted” places for prayer and solitude. He understands the desert as a school of prophetic nonviolence, as the training ground for the spiritual life, as the first place where we can renounce idolatry, violence, doubt and domination and learn to trust the God of peace.
A decade ago, the late Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara spoke at a liturgy outside the gates of the Nevada nuclear weapons test site, sixty miles north of Las Vegas, to a gathering of Christian activists. “The desert is a good friend,” he said. “But it has been the place of the greatest violence on the earth [due to repeated nuclear weapons testing]. Therefore, it must become again the place of the greatest nonviolence.”
These days, I can see why the ancient desert fathers and mothers stepped back from the imperial culture to reclaim the Gospel of Jesus. Today the desert still has much to offer those who want the essential ingredients of Gospel living. It can help lead us back to the basics–how to be peaceful, how to live calmly, how to pray, how to rejoice in God’s creation, how to be human, how to be.
The New Mexico desert and its people, I have discovered, have much to teach about faith, nonviolence and life. As Advent begins, I hope with them to keep watch, to keep listening, to keep learning.