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Bryan McCarthyFebruary 17, 2023
Men and women siting on large wheels in the desert at sunset at the Burning Man festivalFor someone with the right ears and eyes, Burning Man provides opportunities to become more engaged and more intentional in faith. (Photo: jurvetson, via Wikimedia Commons).

In 2022, I made an unlikely pilgrimage to a city of joyful mavericks and anyone else ill-fatedly curious enough to wind up there by invitation or mistake. What I found was an unconventionally but profoundly spiritual experience. I went to Burning Man.

For the uninitiated, Burning Man is—and this description is likely to satisfy exactly one “burner,” me—a combination of three things: a desert survival camping trip, the electronic dance music equivalent of Woodstock and the ultimate postmodern art exhibition, in which creators are spectators and vice versa. Approaching its 40th anniversary, it is held yearly in Black Rock Desert in Pershing County, Nev., and, in some years, has drawn as many as 80,000 participants for its nine-day duration.

The event is organized into concentric, semicircular “streets,” named alphabetically (Apparition, Breton, Cocteau, etc.) and radial cross-streets enumerated according to quarters of an hour on a clockface from 2:00 to 10:00 (as in “2:15 Street,” “2:30 Street,” etc.). Within the regions formed by these streets lie hundreds of camps, each offering their unique gift to “the playa” (the waterless “beach” that makes up the physical location of Burning Man). The gifts range from the silly and sweet (as delivered, for example, by “Kindergarten Kamp”) to the overtly hedonistic (available in the infamous Orgy Dome) to the more conventionally profound (like the “Shabbat Ecstatic Prayer” offered at Milk and Honey).

I made an unlikely pilgrimage to a city of joyful mavericks and anyone else ill-fatedly curious enough to wind up there by invitation or mistake. I went to Burning Man.

A two-mile campless circle known as “open playa” occupies the center of the bullseye made up by the annular streets and serves as a shortcut from one side of the city to the other. Dead center stands the Man, a giant, abstract humanoid sculpture who, as the event’s name indicates, is torched in the stark tenebrosity of the Saturday night desert. On Sunday, burners engage in a similar, early-evening burning of the Temple at the 12:00 mark on open playa’s circumference. Beyond this temple lies “deep playa,” the emptiest and least noisy area of the event, though both open and deep playa are home to scattered art installations that petition active engagement. All this makes up the space that perennial burners earnestly refer to as “home.”

No one would mistake Burning Man for a Catholic church: The event is unapologetically decadent. Camps all over the playa offer indulgences like dripping grilled-cheese sandwiches, popcorn dip and bananas rolled in cinnamon with names saturated in double entendres, for almost everything at Burning Man has a cheekily sexual air. Naked and nearly naked bodies that span the range of human shape and color are everywhere, though surprisingly fewer than I expected for a “clothing optional” event. And, unlike anywhere else I have ever been, appreciation of the beauty thus embodied seems not only welcome but perhaps even offered as a gift.

Strikingly, there is a counterintuitive spiritual purpose for all this, and for everything else at Burning Man. While the event clearly has some un-Catholic elements, the willingness of burners to be experimental in working out their ethics allows them to bump into truth that goes over others’ heads. I would, therefore, have no trouble sending an earnest Catholic to Burning Man because, for someone with the right ears and eyes, it provides opportunities to become more engaged and more intentional in faith.

For example, the “Death Guild Thunderdome,” a gladiator camp with a futuristic “Mad Max” vibe, straps two people into harnesses and swings them into the center so they can pound each other in the air with slightly more injurious versions of a Nerf bat. The real fight and violence lies in the kicking and head-locking necessary to make the pounding possible.

One of Burning Man’s core insights is that the twin extremities of extravagance and deprivation, simultaneously operative, can teach us something not otherwise so apparent.

At the first sign of a fight getting too unsafe—e.g., broken-bones unsafe—nine big, tough-looking dudes dart in and break it up. For the most part, however, the M.C. is egging fighters on. The experience allows fighters to meet the beast within, perhaps for the first time, and to see what it feels like for that beast to win or to confront the cascade of confusing emotions when it does not.

The guiding principle at Burning Man seems to be that fun is spiritual. Or, more exactly, that excess is spiritual. During their regular lives in “default world,” many burners are minimalists and/or progressives with big hearts for the poor and the environment. But for 10 days out of the year, they engage in the most gratuitous profligacy. That profligacy gets at what I take to be one of Burning Man’s core insights, that the twin extremities of extravagance and deprivation, simultaneously operative, can teach us something not otherwise so apparent.

And that desire to be extravagant—or, as burners say, “radical”—extends to principles like giving. During my time at Burning Man I heard stories about companies earning money all year so they can spend a bunch on what they provide the playa. At one point, a playa friend and I looked up at a 40-foot speaker tower with pyrotechnics shooting off on a regular basis. We agreed that running that sound stage—one of eight or so on that street alone—must cost a quarter of a million dollars by the end of the week. Indeed, the total cost of gifts to the playa had to be in the hundreds of millions.

Mostly, however, the event metes out its lessons in relationship. “Burning Man is hard,” a popular saying goes, and I left the playa carrying a pin emblazoned with it. For some people, the heat is what breaks them. For others, it is the fine powdery dust that gets into every nook of the body, clothes and gear. For still others, it is the sleep deprivation—there is not a single place or time on playa without music of a decibel level that renders sleep difficult at best.

As nature scenes and kaleidoscopic abstractions appeared along to music, I seamlessly entered an ongoing state of dialogic prayer. “Do you love me?” I asked God.

But even those who overcome all these obstacles to the comfort that facilitates agreeability must navigate interactions with people who are not overcoming them. Every emotion is invited to the surface: anger, fear, joy, shame and sadness. Because, as should be clear by now, everything happens at Burning Man: births and deaths (both biological and spiritual), engagements, weddings, divorces, funerals, new friendships, love, heartbreak. All this gives content to what might otherwise come across a mere cliché: “Burning Man is life.”

For my own part, I came with the “intention” (the word burners use) or “hope” (in the theological sense) of experiencing God’s love—a recurring sticking point in my life—and of becoming a more equanimous, solid leader. My first night on the playa, I participated in a group virtual reality session, six of us total inhabiting the small hexayurt. As nature scenes and kaleidoscopic abstractions appeared along to music, I seamlessly entered an ongoing state of dialogic prayer. “Do you love me?” I asked God. And later, in a tone so childlike it surprised me, “What are you thinking?”

I felt the response, “Not only do I love you, but I love all your friends, and this is what it looks like.” The ensuing visual was a white orb of light with six magenta lasers shooting toward me, or, I guess, toward us. I lay there agape at the parallel between the six lasers and the six of us in the session.

Of course, that was rather direct, but the fulfillment of both hopes—experiencing God’s love and becoming a calmer, stronger leader—came by more roundabout means as well. In particular, Burning Man rendered more acute the bizarre and sometimes lonely reality that I inhabit two worlds, with their concomitant communities. On the one hand is a world of cheerfully rebellious drug policy reform advocates with, usually, far-left political views and an abiding distaste for organized religion. On the other hand is the world of the historical and institutional Catholic Church and broader Christianity that is certainly not defined by conservatism, but includes conservatives. I am very comfortable in each of these worlds—until, that is, I remember that I am also comfortable in the other, and that these two worlds are not comfortable with each other.

Sunday at twilight, thousands of us gathered at 12:00 for the Temple Burn, a playa-wide funeral.

And yet I came to Burning Man imagining it would somehow augment my faith. In preparing to make the trip, I received lots of advice about being open and bringing my full self to the event. Along with “gifting,” one of the principles of Burning Man is “radical self-expression.” Usually, the latter takes the form of things like psychedelic spandex pants and faux-fur coats with embedded Christmas-tree lights. But what if the self I express and bring to the event is—in complicated ways I am still grappling to understand and integrate—Catholic?

Stepping into the dust for the first time, armed with my question, “What here is Catholic?”, I immediately thought to myself, “What here is not Catholic?” I was joking—sort of. What I have always loved about the Catholic Church is its sacramentality—its celebration of the fact that the physical is spiritual, that God’s fingerprints are on everything. Even if much of the festival is very un-Catholic, at Burning Man, too, materiality is intentional and systematic. It is part of what makes both Catholicism and Burning Man what they are, and it shapes everything else they have to offer.

There are some obvious incompatibilities, however. I knew before I even entered the desert that Burning Man and the church would, perforce, part company on a few of the event’s 10 principles. Both the aforementioned “radical self-expression” and, even more so, “radical self-reliance” are likely to abrade the church’s emphasis on solidarity. Particularly uncomfortable in connection with this is Pope Francis’ encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” which warns of “the drive to limitless consumption and expressions of empty individualism” and declares “there is no life when we claim to be self-sufficient and live as islands: in these attitudes, death prevails.” Consumption and individualism are definitely in effect at the event.

Then again, the individualism is also what makes the conflict between Burning Man and Catholicism less of a problem. Everybody’s burn is what they make of it; your burn is yours and mine is mine. If I want to have a Catholic burn with Catholic questions and Catholic struggles, I can do that and people respect it, even if they don’t understand it or are triggered by it.

Burning Man’s individualistic principles are offset by its collectivist ones: “gifting,” “communal effort,” “civic responsibility.”

Moreover, Burning Man’s individualistic principles are offset by its collectivist ones: “gifting,” “communal effort,” “civic responsibility” and “participation” (everyone must contribute to the culture of the event). All of these have touchstones in Catholic social teaching. Similarly, Francis’ intuitions about technology and the environment in “Laudato Si’” can find much to appreciate in “decommodification” (the elimination of branding from the event) and “leaving no trace.”

It was the less official parallels that really struck me, though. During my three-hour jaunt up the mountain on the “Burner Express” bus, the man in the seat next to me spoke about “playa magic” (a.k.a. “the playa provides”). “Somehow,” he said, “the playa always provides—maybe not what you want, but what you need, in the exact moment you need it. That’s playa magic.” I saw it in action the next day when a friend and I were returning to camp. She confided that she struggles with making small talk. As I was giving her tips, we passed a camp whose greeter announced its gift: conversation lessons in their “conversation café.” We looked at each other with irrepressible smiles and mouthed, “playa magic.”

Now, obviously, people at a post-Christian event, many of whom have suffered more than their share of religious trauma, are not going to say, “God provides” or anything like it at their irreverent bacchanal, but I could not help but think this “playa magic” idea felt a little familiar.

My Burner Express comrade explained, “Another thing we say is ‘F— your burn.’ That’s when somebody’s complaining about their experience at Burning Man. Like you’re so important that you deserve to be the only one whose burn goes just like they want it to. So we say ‘F— your burn.’” I would later change the “your” in this formulation to “my” on several occasions; it reminded me of the Christian concept “death to self.”

Probably the most religious moment at Burning Man is also a deeply human one. Sunday at twilight, thousands of us gathered at 12:00 for the Temple Burn, a playa-wide funeral. The temple is a giant piece of sacred geometry (sometimes a pyramid), in which people throughout the week place photographs of recently deceased loved ones or objects representing things they are ready to leave behind. Earlier in the week, I saw six burners holding up a (presumably empty) coffin in one part of the structure while they eulogized a shared friend.

But at Temple Burn, the crowd was quiet, somberly awaiting the fall of night, when torches would set the edifice ablaze. Suddenly, one man screamed out what was in his heart, followed by hundreds of burners repeating the same words, one by one, like a mile-long chain of dominoes knocking over, until the voices quietly petered out. Were they speaking to those who had died, to all of us, to God? I was not sure, but I stood there thinking how appropriately the words summed up the whole event: “I love you.”

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