Last week Ganga Das and I drove up to Crestone, Colorado, to celebrate Epiphany with our Carmelite friends, Fr. Dave and Tessa, at their remote hermitage in the San Luis valley. Check out their website for a glimpse of the important work they’re doing with the Desert Foundation in an effort to breathe contemplative wisdom into the strife-ridden relationship between the Children of Abraham: http://www.desertfound.org/
Epiphany is the celebration of the startling incarnation of divinity into humanity, represented by the visitation of three wise men from the east—symbolic of all the ancient wisdom cultures of the world—to the newborn Christ child. I like to imagine that the baby Jesus stands for all of us, called to infuse every aspect of our lives with the sacred and embrace all of creation as unutterably holy. But then I also believe that when Christ says in the Gospel of John that he is “the way, the truth and the light” he means that we are also, and that when he says “no one shall come to the Father except through me” he means no one comes home to God except through love. I can’t help but see all true mystical teachings as universal, and universally liberating.
In the afterword of my new book, GOD OF LOVE (to be released in April), I challenge my readers to stretch beyond their spiritual comfort zones and check out a religious tradition different from their own. I encourage them to experience a ritual from another faith, open their hearts, and let in the love in which the practice is rooted. So celebrating Epiphany with our Catholic friends was another opportunity for me to put my money where my mouth is.
Ganga Das and I had just been through a family crisis, and we were reeling a bit as we drove the 150 miles from our home in northern New Mexico, and made our way up the mountain and crossed San Isabel Creek to join our hermit friends in the woods of southern Colorado. As usual, Fr. Dave and Tessa met us with all the exuberant hospitality with which Father Abraham greeted the angels disguised as travelers outside his tent in the Sinai Desert nearly 3,000 years ago.
Tessa and Fr. Dave escorted us to Tessa’s Hogan where we would be staying, and then left us alone to unpack. A small herd of mule deer wandered into the meadow where the Hogan is nestled and watched us through the vast west-facing windows. After we had settled in and the sun began to set in a glorious explosion of color, the two monks returned laden with trays and goblets overflowing with juniper boughs, candles, chocolate coins, and aromatic spices. They set up an altar beside the crackling piñon fire, handed us each a copy of a beautiful Epiphany liturgy they had crafted weaving poetry and song, and led us in a ritual celebrating the mystery of the sacred poured into the ordinary. Afterwards, Fr. Dave wrote the names of the three kings in Arabic with blue chalk over the lintel of Tessa’s doorway, where it would remain until next Epiphany.
Then we packed it all up and ambled back through the woods to Tessa’s casita, where Fr. Dave celebrated Mass for us. I was given the great honor of reading the Hebrew Scripture (in English) from the Prophet Isaiah. When Fr. Dave lifted the chalice, embedded with opals from Tessa’s late mother’s collection and the fire in the stones blazed in the candle light, my eyes filled with tears and I gave thanks for whatever it is in my life that has allowed me to so deeply drink from the most sacred wells of many spiritual traditions. After Mass, Tessa served us French Onion Soup and crusty bread with butter, and we popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate all that we have collectively endured over the past year, and the promise of peace to come.
Next, we made our way back to Fr. Dave’s hermitage for dinner. Tessa had spread layers of brightly colored cloth on the floor, covered with sparkling stars, more golden chocolate coins, cinnamon sticks and candles, and then began to serve us a Middle Eastern feast: two kinds of hummus, pita bread, a half-dozen varieties of olives, home-canned artichoke hearts, platters of raw veggies arrayed like star-bursts. And good red wine. For dessert we had dried apricots and dates, and slabs of dark chocolate. Fr. Dave and Tessa are all about the glory of the incarnation and praising the place where form and the formlessness meet.
All night the full moon poured itself across the latilla ceiling and log walls of the Hogan, and Ganga Das and I hardly slept. In the morning, I felt infused with a stillness I had not experienced in a long time. After breakfast (yes, more gorgeous food—scrambled eggs with leeks and peppers, and a Christmas bread baked by a friend of the monks—“We’re feeders,” Tessa shrugged), we four went walking up a forest trail in the perfect blue-sky deep-winter day. Then, without any other means to thank our friends for the gift of the holy they shared with us, we took pictures of Tessa in the new hard hat Fr. Dave gave her for Christmas, as she held up a log and he brandished the chain saw they use to put in their long winter supply of firewood (they live entirely off the grid). We drove home to Taos, the drained cup of our souls replenished.