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Spiritual Life

Burning Man renews sense of intimacy with the divine

This is the final article in a three-part series on Young’s experiences as a Christian pastor at Burning Man, the annual art festival and temporary community based on radical self-expression and self-reliance in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada.

At times, one could not help but wonder why we chose to go to Burning Man. We left loved ones behind only to be stuck in two of the worst traffic jams of our lives, waiting five hours to move one mile on our way in and out of Black Rock City.

The elevation, dust storms and extreme daytime heat wore everyone down. The wild colors and scenes overstimulated us. The action and the beat of the electronic music never stopped. Without enough water to bathe, 68,000 people lived practically on top of each other in a harsh desert of extremes.

Still, one could not help but feel a sense of elation on arriving. Signs along the roadside prepared us for the society we were entering. One said, “Finance is your religion.” Another quoted Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Together we were getting free from our shared religion of finance with a social technology that seemed like magic. For an entire week, no one tried to sell me anything, and no one talked about jobs or the economy. There were no phones, schedules, email messages, advertisements, brands or logos. The only things one could buy were coffee and ice. The pace of Silicon Valley makes it difficult for us to be generous with our time. Out there, it seemed we had infinite reservoirs of time and attention to share even with strangers.

What did I learn? Mystical experiences in the desert renewed my sense of intimacy with the divine. In the solitude of early morning, red slivers of cloud intersecting the rising sun made me feel like God was baptizing me in dust. Bicycling at sunset with the wind at my back flying past extraordinary artistic creations into the gray-water sky, this vast, mysterious universe seemed like a home for our peace, gratitude and love.

Most of the people I met were younger and helped me to see the world in a different way. I realized how sheltered and naive I am. Usually when I talk to people in their 20s, it is on my terms, in my world – and this constrains our conversation. At Burning Man, I got out of my suburban church box and met people who do not even really know what Christianity is, people whose motivations and most basic assumptions differ from my own. They deeply blessed me and helped me to appreciate our shared humanity.

Finally, perhaps it took getting out of my church sphere to discover what I have to offer to the world. The people I met showed me the value of being so deeply immersed in an ancient spiritual and intellectual tradition.

On one of my last nights, in the middle of a dust storm, I met a woman named Susan. She had sought God when she was young and had given up. We wondered whether everyone might know something about God, even if we use different religions and language to describe the source of meaning. Perhaps truth is the collection of ways that God is speaking to all of us.

In that conversation, I realized that churches offer ancient practices (prayer, service to others, the study of holy writings, music, various rituals, a calendar, aesthetic experiences, etc.) that help us to be drawn more deeply into the divine. At its best, church functions as a community and a technology for recognizing our place in the universe, for loving other people in the confidence and intimacy with God exemplified by Jesus.

Burning Man helped me to see that spiritual practices from the past have no value unless they can be connected to the concerns and aspirations of the present. Of any group in society, the churches I know should be speaking to exactly the people drawn to Burning Man. Their openness to the future, their divinely inspired creativity, their idealism in seeking to transform society so that it is fair and accepting and their spirit of generosity and concern for others is exactly what churches need.

The Rev. Malcolm C. Young, author of “The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau” (Mercer University Press, 2009), is on sabbatical from Christ Episcopal Church in Los Altos. For more information, visit ccla.us.

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