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Finding the holy amid desert beauty

A priest discovered 'a serenity that was a gift' in the Owens Valley and has written of sacred spaces there.

February 23, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

Inside a cave high on a cliff in the Owens Valley desert north of Los Angeles, the Rev. Brad Karelius struggled to find words to describe "a life-changing holy encounter" he had there.

Surveying the chaotic landscape of dormant volcanoes, lava beds and snow-capped peaks outside, the Episcopalian priest and philosophy professor said, "It evoked a serenity that was a gift. It was as if I'd entered a sacred space that changed me.

"I must have carried the memory home," he added with a laugh, "because people said I was a lot easier to get along with after that."

Karelius was talking about his first visit to the cave at Rose Spring -- a dusty gash in the Coso Mountains at the southern end of the Owens Valley, about 120 miles north of Los Angeles. He stumbled across the cave in 1997, a few weeks after his then 14-year-old son, Erik, nearly died after a series of epileptic seizures.

What happened to him there continues to provide spiritual direction for his sermons at the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Santa Ana.

With his son's crying echoing in his mind, he explored the ruins of a stagecoach stop that burned down in 1870, admired the massive grinding stones of an ancient Native American village and took in the desert hills marked by the spicy scents of wild rose and sagebrush. Then he climbed into the cave, startling a great horned owl out of a dark corner.

Karelius spent several hours in the cave, just listening to the stirring and penetrating sounds of wind in the sage and marveling at the unspoiled views -- not much different from when Paiutes went there to grind meal and to chip tools out of volcanic glass.

"I was overwhelmed by the power of a place with so many stories of struggle to tell," he said. "There was a palpable sense of danger and awe. It was the one moment I felt closest to the holy."

Karelius later learned that, in 1957, archaeologists from UC Berkeley discovered three graves below the cave entrance. In one, a 14-year-old Paiute boy had been buried in a deerskin shirt decorated with small seashells.

Karelius had long been awed by the region's beauty, but after that visit in 1997 he went on to research the myriad spiritual traditions that used wilderness and silence as gateways to spiritual awakenings.

The ancients communed with the divine in sacred spaces that for them were models of how the universe and life itself unfolds: natural springs, rivers, fertile fields, hostile deserts, cloud-enshrouded mountains and rock outcroppings facing the stars.

Some of those places -- Jerusalem, Mecca and Rome, for example -- became places of pilgrimage and hubs of some of the world's great religions.

When Karelius, 62, needs to "detox from the adrenaline of tough times," he travels to more than a dozen patches of solitude without fences in the Owens Valley, usually with a bell tied to his backpack to ward off mountain lions and bears.

His travels, and study, provided the framework for an upcoming book, "The Spirit in the Desert: A Priest's Pilgrimage to Sacred Sites in the Owens Valley and Eastern Sierra."

Karelius' experiences resonate with Christopher Langley, executive director of the Beverly and Jim Rogers Museum of Lone Pine Film . The Owens Valley, he likes to say, "is a place of spiritual power and healing that cuts across religious disciplines."

"The stark beauty of the desert has something to do with it," Langley said. "The desert has always attracted spiritual searchers. It's why people go on retreats and spiritual quests around these parts."

Karelius said his initial goal in writing the book was to spur "clergy, rabbis and imams to be like Jesus, Moses and Muhammad and venture into the desert and be available to God's presence." Now he wants to introduce the world to his collection of soul-filled caves, sand dunes, dry lakes, streams, ruins and great silences.

On a recent frosty morning at Rose Spring, he recalled how he once stood at the mouth of the cave, opened the Bible at random and began to read aloud. The passage was from I Kings 11-13:

He said, "Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind, an earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

"I wonder," Karelius asked, "if I'm the only one who feels this way about the place? I wonder if others will come here and just see a pile of rocks and a field of weeds."

He drank in the scenery and listened to the sounds of wind rustling the sagebrush.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com This is the first in a series of occasional articles about sacred spaces.

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