The first time I flew over Arizona, I was taken aback by its desolate landscape. Absent the lush greenery and seemingly endless network of waterways to which I had grown accustomed, the barren mountains and bleak desert offered little to entice the eye. Or so I thought.
Last week, the view from the plane presented a very different experience. The magnificence of mountains, contrasting with cavernous valleys, surrounded by a desert awash in cacti took my breath away. It was my fifth visit to the state whose motto, “Ditat Deos” (“God enriches”), seems highly appropriate.
With each visit, I’ve become more aware of the beauty and importance of diversity as a conduit to the Divine presence in every aspect of life. Since this visit was the first that wasn’t work related, I was able to enjoy much of what the state has to offer in terms of culture and spirit. With my brother serving as tour guide, we spent the first day visiting a Greek monastery, replete with gardens, fountains and, of course, religious icons.
The monastery had been in existence for only 25 years, but walkways leading to numerous chapels were a testimony to the beauty, planning and precision required to transform a dream into reality.
The 52 monks in residence gave witness to their austere lifestyle, as did the required dress code of ankle length skirts, long sleeves and head scarves for women and long pants and long-sleeved shirts for men. Visitors who came unprepared were respectfully issued appropriate attire, which was returned upon departure.
Respectful compliance by all was refreshing, given our current culture where a lack of appreciation for diversity has become a cancer on society. Perhaps nothing spoke to the beauty of diversity more poignantly than our visit to the Musical Instrument Museum.
Any expectations were exceeded by the experience. The research and appreciation for indigenous cultures with displays of every type of instrument from the most primitive to the most sophisticated was impressive.
With every country and culture, including the most remote islands represented, diversity was at its finest. Equipped with headsets, visitors listened to music and narration accompanied by visuals via monitors that were surrounded by artifacts and an array of instruments ranging from ancient to modern times.
The video that introduced the tour referred to music as the language of the soul, and there could be no better description. While most people have a musical preference for one form of music over another, there’s no denying the effects of rhythm and tonality on the human spirit.
Few mediums affect the human heart like music. Music consoles and celebrates; invokes fear and energizes. It accompanies mourners and military troops, ignites the hearts of lovers and soothes anxious minds.
Music evokes memories even as it expands the limits of our minds, transporting listeners beyond the confines of earth to celestial realms deep within the soul.
Against the backdrop of the previous days’ excursions, where diversity was embraced rather than disparaged, the yard at my brother’s home offers another example of diversity at its finest. Alongside orange and grapefruit trees are giant cacti and palm trees. There is no better teacher than nature when it comes to demonstrating the importance of diversity.
I am reminded of the words of St. Thérèse the Little Flower, who in pondering the many different gifts of saints looked to nature as her instructor and wrote:
“He [Jesus] set before me the book of nature; I understood all the flowers he created are beautiful, how the splendor of the rose and the whiteness of the lily do not take away the perfume of the violet or the delightful simplicity of the daisy. I understood that if all flowers wanted to be roses, nature would lose her springtime beauty, and the fields would no longer be decked out with little wildflowers.”
As Lent beckons, I am reminded that even the liturgical cycle bears witness to the importance of diversity. Without Advent or Lent, could we really appreciate the joy of Christmas or Easter?
Like the Arizona desert, the liturgical calendar reflects the peaks and valleys that are part of life. They’re part of the journey, and when the journey is made in faith, we soon realize that it’s the valleys that give us the strength to climb mountains.
Marked with the sign of the cross, we begin Lent by entering the desert to learn what only the desert can teach. The first is that less can be more, and the second is that when we are mindful of the grace that each day holds, we discover that flowers can bloom everywhere, even in the desert.