From The Desert
BY JOHN DEAR
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
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
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,
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
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
"How was the weather?" I asked. (The weather is a popular topic of discussion
"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.
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