Whenever the night sky reveals the twinkling lights of Las Vegas on my long flights from the Midwest, I feel the rush of excitement. Once my plane lands and I’ve had a chance to settle in, I can’t wait to leave.
There is a direct flight to Las Vegas from my city. Even though it’s a long flight, it’s frequent and inexpensive. People like to go there for business and pleasure, and often to mix the two. Since I don’t drink alcohol, don’t gamble, and prefer not to be in the midst of drunk people, Las Vegas is really not the place for me. Nevertheless, having been lured there so many times under various guises, some traditions have set in.
I marvel at people who trade the sunlight for the dreary, smoke-filled casinos. Zombie-like, some of them mindlessly pull slot machine levers for hours on end. The dinging and clanging of the machines is enough to drive me mad. The hideous carpets alone would deter me from wasting a day in a Vegas casino.
But the Venetian is beautiful, and I have a tradition of eating gelato there whenever I go to Las Vegas. I tried this lovely dessert for the first time at a little shop inside the Venetian a few years back, and make a pilgrimage to the same place whenever I return to the city. I watch the fountain at Belagio at night, and sometimes see a show. I’ve been to Cirque du Soleil a few times and once saw the comedian Russel Peters at Caesar’s Palace, scoring front-row seats despite arriving at the last minute. Some of the shows are fantastic.
The Venetian is modeled after the city of Venice, Italy. Elaborate statues and frescos, and shiny marble floors adorn the vast space. There is even a faux lagoon, complete with gondolas gliding silently across the water. The ceiling is painted to look like the sky and the lighting is controlled to give the illusion of a particular time of day. You almost feel like you really are outside, in the iconic city of Venice. The superficial and fake mimicking real-life beauty, like the whole of that sad town.
I had finished my gelato, and was walking back through the Venetian and the adjoining casinos and suddenly it struck me. These casinos remind me of churches. Old churches. How profane!
Churches used to display the finest architecture in the country. Devout Christians poured their hearts and treasure into elaborate testaments to their deep love of God. Soaring ceilings, stained glass windows, shining marble, and finely carved wooden pews. Even in small, relatively poor towns across America, beautiful churches still dot the landscape. In town after town, it is the beautiful churches that testify to a bygone era, even as they stand empty, crumbling and half forgotten.
The new church in my hometown looks like an auto parts store. A “non-denominational” church supposedly for everyone, it was founded in an abandoned bowling alley and the town’s remaining faithful flocked there. Never mind the beautiful old stone churches downtown, with the bright red and green doors. They struggle to survive, but the bowling alley “church” flourished, until they had enough money to upgrade and moved to an abandoned drugstore, complete with a revolving door. They coated the outside with stucco, painted it navy blue, and put the name of the church across the side in clean, modern silver lettering. If I didn’t know it was a church, I’d pull in to buy replacement windshield wipers.
Even though I’m a Muslim, I’ve gone to some of these new “non-denominational” churches with friends. The environment is casual and you can wear jeans and a t-shirt, as most people do. If you’re new, they mob you and pass out gifts–a mug, a copy of the Bible, a calendar and some chocolates. I’ve found the sermons more entertaining than meaningful, and I must admit, I had to suppress a giggle the last time when the musician singing gospel threw his head back and repeatedly shouted, “Penetrate me Jesus! Penetrate me!”
The whole spectacle had a used car salesman feel to it. Which seems appropriate enough, I suppose, in a ‘church’ that looks like an auto parts store. I felt sad, overwhelmed by the deep sense of spiritual bankruptcy that permeated the place. Churches weren’t always this way.
When I was a kid, I was often taken to midnight mass at Christmas with close family friends who are Catholic. The towering old stone church was decked out with Christmas cheer. The priest was a brilliant man who radiated the light of faith and always had something profound and beautiful to preach in his deep, soothing voice. He punctuated his sermon with moments of silence, leaving room for quiet contemplation. At the end, we donated money, coats, food and other items to the poor, and offered cash donations for the privilege of lighting a candle on behalf of a cause close to our hearts.
I used to receive the church newsletter, and when it would arrive at my home, I would sit and read it all the way through. Father Keith has since passed, may God rest his soul. His death extinguished the last light of the true Christian faith I ever saw in my hometown. I haven’t been to the auto parts church in years, and never plan to return. Not even to appease my dearest friends.
The old churches are dead but the casinos live, now standing out as some of the finest architectural achievements in the land. Standing in the Venetian, gazing at a fountain graced with an elaborate statue, I was struck by a sad revelation: now the church is a bowling alley and the casino is a cathedral. The transformation is complete.
As a society, we used to worship the Almighty God, and now we worship the “almighty” dollar. Has anyone else noticed?
I couldn’t wait to leave Las Vegas. There are couple of wonderful restaurants there. One for breakfast and one for dinner, the only two meals I have when I’m on vacation. After breakfast, we left Sin City for an empty desert, and for me, we couldn’t get from Vegas to nowhere fast enough.
I’ve been all over the areas surrounding Las Vegas, and well beyond. Death Valley, the Valley of Fire, and Red Rock Canyon. This time we went to California, crossing some of the most barren land I’ve ever seen to arrive in a picturesque area in the vast Mojave desert. Joshua trees graced the stark landscape, as far as our eyes could see.
I love the desert.
Vegas is far away from us now, and I feel relieved. Bathed in the midday sun, I stand in awe and enjoy the silence. No one speaks. Here, where there is nothing, I find everything that matters most to me. Away from the grime and din of the city, I find peace. My phone doesn’t work. Nothing obstructs our view. There is no one else around for miles and miles. A brief wave of panic strikes as I realize we are truly stranded if our car breaks down. What if there is a flash flood? Somehow we meet an untimely death, our bodies baked in the sun? I experience the brief, uneasy thrill of an adrenaline jolt, then settle in to do what I came here to do: commune with the Divine.
Standing in timeless sands, it makes perfect sense to me the desert was the scene of revelation. Here, on a stark landscape there are few distractions and the veil is thin. Nowhere am I more painfully aware of how small I am in the vastness of creation. How vulnerable I am without the illusion of civilization. Here where I feel on the edge of life and death, on the fringes of the unseen world.
At first nothing happens. I sit in silence and wait. In my head, I repeat the anthem of my heart, again and again. La ilaha illallah, la ilaha illallah, la ilaha illallah…
And then it begins, first a trickle, and a familiar warmth washes over me, as if I’ve returned home after a long journey. The feeling builds and builds until the trickle is a torrent, as Allah in His infinite mercy pours love into my heart and peace into my soul. I am completely immersed, oblivious to my surroundings. I have no idea how long this goes on.
I return to the silence of the desert and sit in silence for a while longer. We are there so long sun has traversed the sky. Finally we are back from a spiritual journey, returning to the same place we’ve been sitting all along. No one breaks the silence as we leave. It’s not until we’re back on the road that someone jolts us back to reality, with talk of finding bathrooms, and replenishing our drinks and snacks. We leave the empty desert filled with spiritual life and head to the glittering city devoid of spiritual life, and I contemplate this contradiction.
God is as close to us as our jugular vein. Always. But I’m distracted. Often I can’t sense Him near, even though I have faith He is there. We have added a thousand veils between Him and our awareness of His presence with all our “progress”
I can’t commune with Him in the Auto Parts Church of Jesus Christ, nor the beautiful old stone churches that still grace the streets of my hometown. I can’t commune with Him in the neo-cathedrals of Sin City. Even the masjid is not the place where I feel closest to Allah. I commune with the Divine when I’m alone, especially in the early hours of the morning, before dawn paints the sky. But there is nothing like the desert. Away from the drunkenness and debauchery, and grime and crime of “civilization,” where insanity prevails.
Where there is nothing, I find everything. In the vastness of the desert, I found God.