God is in the city, too, but who can see God for all the man-made splendor of the place? Who can see God in the glare of the Christmas lights, in the shine that pours off the plastic Marys and Josephs and Baby Jesuses? Who can see God for the dazzle of the tinsel and the glitter of the glass ornaments and the bright array of packages we hope will be piled there? Where is God when the trees go up just after Thanksgiving, and the light strings appear, and the stores are thick with Christmas music?The tradition of seeing God in the wilderness is not to set the city (evil) against the country (good). That dichotomous paradigm is more peculiarly American, and largely a product of European Romanticism, which was paramount when American culture was being formed (and so we've never really gotten over it). We tend to set the city against the country, favoring the country as the "Real America," a la Sarah Palin, damning the cities as "Sodom and Gomorrah" (where the real sin was inhospitality, not sexual relations). But that dichotomy rests on a distinction between people, not places; in each, it is the people who are the concern, and the concern is with what people have done with their environment (i.e., accepted the Jeffersonian "sons of the soil," or been corrupted by, especially, "foreign" elements. The city is always the place of the immigrant, the country the place of the monoculture in which the immigrant farm worker never intrudes, but only plays a supporting role. That, clearly, is another problem.)
God is still there; but who can hear God, who can see God, in all that visual clutter?
I am not going to be literal, and defend the city and the clutter, except that I am. I'm going to regret arguing with you because you're smarter than me, but puzzle this out with me: It's fashionable to deplore the rush and bustle of modern life and long for simpler things, but things weren't simple in Jesus' time. It wasn't easier to see God, it was harder, because death was closer, all the time. I think we romanticize the past and we especially romanticize and fetishize lives different from our own, lives lived in a different time, on a different timetable.
Maybe if we can't see God in all the visual clutter, we should look harder, because the clutter isn't the problem. We're the problem. Strip away all the clutter and somebody who doesn't want to see or hear God won't see or hear him even in the deepest, darkest silence of the farthest, loneliest wood.
Where is God amidst all the ornaments and tinsel? In the strong bones and thin skin of my grandmother's hands as she reaches out for me beside the Christmas tree she trimmed, in the midnight Mass we walked to, past a dozen houses decorated with a dozen plastic Jesuses, in the voice of my baby sister asking me to sing her a song on Christmas Eve even though I have the worst singing voice on the planet. If you're truly looking for God, can any amount of tinsel get in your way?
Seeking God in the wilderness is not about fleeing the corruption of the city, but the clutter. Cities are man-made, even if the source of their creation is in God (as Judaism and Christianity both confess, albeit weakly, sometimes). Before Augustine blessed the "City of God," Christianity was still a religion of the wilderness, of the fringes, of the outlying regions. But it was moreso a religion of people, and people have always needed holy places. So the Irish monks, out on the fringe of the collapsing Roman Empire, even as Augustine tried to rescue Christianity from that wreckage, gave us the idea (again) of "holy ground," as well as a "place of resurrection," and it was seldom a spot in a bustling metropolis. Why the wilderness, the un-man-made? Because there (as the Romantics later recovered the understanding) we are most purely in God's creation. Can we not find that creation in the city, especially among God's children, as Athenae asks? Certainly.
A brother said to an old man: There were two brothers. One of them stays in hi cell quietly, fasting for six days at a time, and imposing on himself a good deal of discipline, and the other serves the sick. Which one of them is more acceptable to God? The old man replied: Even if the brother who fasts six days were to hang himself by the nose, he could not equal the one who serves the sick.The purpose of the wilderness is not to escape the people. John, after all, drew crowds out to him. The purpose of the wilderness is to refresh the knowledge of the presence of God. But if you don't serve people from that well, you don't accomplish anything. And if you go to the wilderness, you go alone to seek God; but if you already see God in the city, among God's people, a trip to the wilderness will be merely to see a reed bending in the wind.
As the E&R eucharistic liturgy puts it: "May it be unto you according to your faith."