“I Once Was Lost”: Rethinking Jesus’ Most Beloved Parable

Alexander Sokurov, “Lc. 15:11-32” (Prodigal Son installation, 2019). Sculptures by Vladimir Brodarsky & Katya Pilnikova.

 Life is a dialectic of dwelling and wayfaring, in the world yet not of it.

––– Erazim Kohák

I once was lost, but now I’m found.

––– John Newton

 

Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son is the Bible’s preeminent tale of forgiveness and reconciliation. The welcoming father’s embrace of his foolish and errant son is a vividly concise summary of the gospel message: We can never be so lost that we cannot be found. We can never be so wrong that we cannot be loved.

Rembrandt’s celebrated painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, would be one of his final works. He was bankrupt, his style no longer in vogue. His wife and three of their children were long dead, and he would have to sell his wife’s grave to pay his debts. His only surviving son Titus, age 27, died of the plague even as the parable’s “lost son” was taking form on canvas. As Rembrandt struggled with his own sadness and despair, he created the most indelible image of mercy in the history of art.

Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1167-1669).

Father and son emerge from a world of shadows, for compassion is the light of the world which no darkness can comprehend. The arch formed by the father’s welcoming arms is echoed by the arched doorway in the background, showing love to be the true way home. And unlike most other artistic depictions of this scene, there is no happy glance between the reunited pair. The prodigal’s repentant posture delays the moment when their eyes will meet.

Kierkegaard wrote at length about the “infinite qualitative abyss” between God and humanity, a condition due not only to the uncrossable difference between finite and infinite, but also to the profound estrangement from the holy wrought by human sin. Given the magnitude of the gulf between ourselves and the divine, how could we ever be in relation with One who is so totally other? “The danger,” said Kierkegaard, “is that God becomes so dreadfully and irreconcilably Other to the self that one is swallowed up by the horror of this infinite qualitative abyss.” [1]

The modern solution to the gulf between human and divine has been to ignore (or forget entirely) the Holy Other and concentrate on the human situation in solely human terms, permanently severing the problem of earthly existence from the problem of God. How well that works is a matter of some debate, but for the faithful, such a strategy omits far too much of value. Exiling God from the world is not a solution for our own condition of exile.

The Prodigal Son under the melancholy gaze of Rembrandt’s “Portrait of an Old Woman” (1654) in Sokurov’s installation.

We all long to go home, to find the place where we are loved and known and welcomed, the place where all wanderings cease, and we can finally know what it means to dwell. But with the longing comes doubt. Is there such a place? Can we ever get there? And how will the journey change us?

For the unbeliever, human life concludes with annihilation. After our last breath––nothing. But the future of the believer may also be described as a kind of annihilation. As we draw near the absolute center of all that is, the egocentric self can no longer maintain its pretentious fictions. The really Real exposes our own unreality. The gaze of God is fatal to our illusions.

When Moses asked to see God’s face, God told him that “no human may look upon Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). This crucial Hebrew text reflects an ancient fear of direct contact with the divine, whose infinite voltage could fry the circuits of finite beings. But the biblical God posed an additional, even greater threat: the penetrating gaze which sees us for what we are.

Day of wrath! . . .
What a great tremor there will be,
when the Judge is to come,
who will examine all things strictly  . . .
I groan, as if accused;
my face blushes because of my fault . . . [2]

Who among us is ready to have every story told, every failure examined, every blemish known? Therapeutic honesty is hard and painful work. Kierkegaard wrote in his Journal that “to see yourself is to die, to die to all illusions and all hypocrisy––it takes great courage to look at yourself.” And, he added, this “can only take place in the mirror of the Word.” [3]

The Christian goals of illumination and divine union must be preceded by confession and purgation. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Even the saints are not exempt; the best of them are brutally honest about their own incompleteness. St. John of the Cross, speaking from personal experience, said that the journey of faith “does not consist in consolations, delights, and spiritual feelings, but in the living death of the cross, sensory and spiritual, exterior and interior.” [4]

This annihilation of self––“the living death of the cross”––is not morbid self-hatred (fixating on my sin is just another form of ego), but the abandonment of everything false or misshapen as the necessary prelude to profound transformation. The death of self becomes the beginning of Self.

I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares
forgotten among the lilies. [5]

In Rembrandt’s painting, the Prodigal Son presses his face against his father’s comforting body. He is still in the confessional stage, kneeling with downcast eyes, not yet daring to stand face-to-face with the one he has hurt so deeply. But consciousness of his fault is overcome by grace––the leap of faith which accepts the “impossible possibility” of being forgiven. Only by knowing ourselves as sinners needing mercy can we become aware of forgiveness. The eyes which were cast down by shame will soon be raised up to see the welcoming father face-to-face. “By surrendering its despair before God, the self becomes open to forgiveness: the gift from the divine which is the impossible possibility of coming to know oneself as one is known by God.” [6]

The Kierkegaardian surrender of existential despair in order to receive the gift of mercy applies perfectly to Rembrandt’s painting:

“Justice looks judgingly at a person, and the sinner cannot endure its gaze; but love, when it looks at him––yes, even if he avoids its gaze, looks down, he nevertheless does perceive that it is looking at him, because love penetrates far more inwardly into life, deep inside life, in there where life emanates, than justice does, which repellingly establishes a chiasmic abyss between the sinner and itself, whereas love is on his side, does not accuse, does not judge, but pardons and forgives.” [7]

The Return of the Prodigal Son, acquired by St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum over 250 years ago, has long haunted the imagination of Russian visual artists. In his metaphysical sci-fi film Solaris (1972), Andrei Tarkovsky returns his cosmonaut protagonist from the “far country” of outer space to the door of his childhood house, where he is embraced like Rembrandt’s prodigal. But his father, we have learned, is deceased, and his son remains somewhere out in space, light years from earth. Tarkovsky’s moving image of ultimate reunion with both parent and planet earth turns out to be only memory or dream. It is in fact “impossible”––which only deepens the desire to make it so.

The son returns home (in his imagination), from the closing scene of Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” (1972).

Another Russian filmmaker, Alexander Sokurov, included Rembrandt’s actual painting in Russian Ark (2002), a meditation on Russia’s troubled history filmed entirely inside the Hermitage in a single 87-minute shot, with the camera moving through the galleries to encounter both paintings and people from different centuries. The pensive French aristocrat we follow from room to room stops for a long time in front of Rembrandt’s great canvas, silently paying homage to its power. For the Russian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Sokurov himself returns to the painting, rethinking its themes with sculpture, video, music, lighting, a mirror, and various objects from an artist’s studio. His installation is called “Lc. 15:11-32,” after the biblical citation for Luke’s telling of the parable.

The sorrowful father in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”

In the first of two dark rooms, father and son stand far apart in the gloom. It is not clear whether they even see each other across the black abyss that separates them. Behind the father are two large video projections representing a world gone wrong. One shows a blurred image of a city dissolving in flames, like an apocalypse by Hieronymus Bosch. The other shows Christ sitting in a desert as soldiers enter with flame throwers to fill the screen with fire and smoke. We realize that not just the son, but the whole world has gone astray. Not even a divine father can fix it. Grace and redemption remain an impossibility in this terrifying darkness.

Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, “Christ in the Wilderness” (1872).

The Christ in the video image is taken from a nineteenth-century Russian painting, Christ in the Wilderness (1872), by Ivan Nikolaevich Kromskoy, whose humanized Jesus, unlike the serenely transcendent Savior of Orthodox iconography, reflected the revolutionary and questioning mood of the painter’s generation. In an age of religious doubt, traditional understandings seemed out of touch with experience. For Kromskoy, a self-assured Christ radiant with divinity was too detached from human suffering. “My God––Christ––is the greatest of atheists,” he said, “a person who has destroyed God in the universe and shifted him directly to the center of the human spirit and who, therefore, goes calmly to his death.” [8]

One of the video projections in the first room of Alexander Sokurov’s installation, “Lc. 15:11-32.”.

But how calm can such a Christ really be, sitting now, according to Sokurov, amid the flames and smoke of our endless desert wars? He may be the “fellow sufferer who understands,”[9] but he appears to be as lost as the Prodigal Son, exiled to the far country of human sin. His inheritance of divine power has been squandered by incarnation. He may share our griefs––does he also share our helplessness?

In the vast first room of Sokurov’s installation, estrangement is absolute and unchanging. But beyond it lies a second room, like a small cave, where the abyss of sin and separation is overcome at last. In a sculpted restaging of Rembrandt’s painting, the lost son comes home to the father’s compassionate embrace.

In the second room of Sokurov’s installation, father and son are reunited.

Behind the figures there is a large mirror, whose reflected image repeats the scene, reminding us that every retelling of the parable is but a version of an original which cannot be grasped directly, but only experienced in the second-hand reflections of Luke, Rembrandt, Sokurov, and all the rest of us who engage Jesus’ story. The mirror’s surface is slightly wavy, and it sways slowly back and forth, producing a continuously distorted image, suggesting the instability and uncertainty of every interpretation.

The figures are reflected in a distorting mirror.

The mirror also includes the viewer, allowing each of us to know ourselves as witnesses to the impossible mystery of divine mercy. But such seeing does not always come naturally. While I stood transfixed in this cave of revelation, two young women entered. After a brief glance at the sculpture, they became absorbed with photographing their own misshapen reflections in the mirror, giggling at the funhouse gag.

In my mind, I judged their heedless frivolity, and the moment I did so I became equally blind to the meaning of The Return. I forgot my own prodigal culpability, my own need to kneel with downcast eyes. I forgot the unconditional nature of the father’s embrace. I had become the elder brother.

No matter, says the parable. The prodigal, the proud, the penitent, the foolish––we’ll all be gathered in eventually. And the conclusion of all our wandering stories will be a home of abiding welcome. The door is open. The feast is ready. Love is waiting. Come.

 

 

 

Related Posts:

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Venice Biennale 2019: “A wound in a dance with love”

 

[1] Søren Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Simon D. Podmore, Kierkegaard and the Self Before God: Anatomy of the Abyss (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2011), 8.

[2] Dies Irae (“Day of Wrath”), a thirteenth-century Latin poem about the Last Judgment and our collective plea for forgiveness. It became a traditional part of requiem masses, but its vivid images of doom and “wrath” sound jarring to modern ears accustomed to a kinder and gentler eschatology. However, when we consider the moral and apocalyptic implications of climate change, the notion of a “day of reckoning” when “nothing will remain unpunished” and “even the just can scarcely be secure” seems uncomfortably apt, as does the poem’s anguished cry for rescue and “the gift of forgiveness.”

[3] Kierkegaard Journal, cited in Podmore, 155.

[4] John of the Cross, cited in Hans Boersma, The Beatific Vision in Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 184.

[5] John of the Cross, “The Dark Night,” cited in Boersma, 178.

[6] Podmore, 179.

[7] Kierkegaard, Without Authority, cited in Podmore, 173-174.

[8] Ivan Kromskoy in a letter to a friend, quoted in Walther K. Lang, “The ‘Atheism’ of Jesus in Russian Art: Representations of Christ by Ivan Kromskoy, Vasily Polenov, and Nikolai Ghe,” I recommend the entire article for those interested in art and faith. It is found on the website Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide: http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn03/272-the-qatheismq-of-jesus-in-russian-art-representations-of-christ-by-ivan-nikolevich-kramskoy-vasily-polenov-and-nikolai-ghe

[9] Alfred North Whitehead’s famous description of God has provided a moving and influential image of a divinity deeply affected by human suffering, a God who takes our pain into Godself. Critics of such theology wonder whether too much divine power has been relinquished. Can a vulnerable God still save us?

Venice Biennale 2019 –– “A wound in a dance with love”

Lorenzo Quinn (Italy), Building Bridges (2019).

I think that art is a wound in a dance with love.
And if the wound and the love are the same size,
they can dance well.

–– Sean Scully

At the 2019 Venice Biennale, “May You Live in Interesting Times,” nearly 200 artists from around the world engage and illumine the human condition and the historical moment in a multitude of creative and challenging ways. By the time you complete a multi-day journey through two large exhibition spaces as well as dozens of installations in churches, palazzos and warehouses throughout Venice, you will have been repeatedly delighted, deepened, bewildered, provoked, amused, annoyed, educated, bored, enriched and inspired.

“Perhaps art can be a kind of guide for how to live and think in ‘interesting times,’” says Biennale curator Ralph Rugoff. “It invites us to consider multiple alternatives and unfamiliar vantage points.” And the meaning of art, he adds, does not reside principally within a given work, but in the conversations which the artist’s intuitions and labors bring into being.

I visited Biennale a couple of weeks ago (it runs from May to November), and found a wealth of imagination, conviction, and––even in these dark and troubled times––beauty and hope.

Lorenzo Quinn’s “Building Bridges” (pictured above), with its six pairs of arms reaching across a watery divide, is a powerful monument to connection and communion in a world obsessed with borders and uncrossable difference. Its immense scale, dominating both the eye and the public space, registers as playful and celebratory rather than gigantically repressive. And with no two hands meeting in the same way, there is union without uniformity.

 

A contrastingly somber approach to boundaries is an untitled kinetic work by Shilpa Gupta: a residential security gate swings back and forth, slamming into a wall every 30 seconds. Gupta, who lives in Mumbai, uses her art to address the dehumanizing divisions between nations, ethnicities, religions and classes. The wall makes it a gate to nowhere, but over the seven months of the exhibition the wall is gradually being broken down. Is this a metaphor for pointless violence, or the persistent and patient work of liberation?

Gupta’s other installation at Biennale, For, in your tongue, I cannot fit, has rows of metal spikes, each one piercing a piece of paper with the names and words of 100 poets, from the 7th century to our own time, who were imprisoned for their works or their politics. A microphone is suspended above each of these pages, as though waiting for the poets to speak again. These microphones have been turned into speakers, so that we hear a multitude of the silenced voices, filling the dimly lit room with poetic speech and protest.

Shilpa Gupta (India), For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (2017-18).

Words of an imprisoned poet in Shilpa Gupta’s installation, For, in your tongue, I cannot fit (2017-18).

Some of the texts were anguished, but many of the poets refused to mirror the violence they suffered. “Sing, Tar, sing,” wrote Musefig from his cell in 1937. “How can they forget you once they’ve heard you sing?” Of all the lines I read, my favorite was this by Dennis Brutus (detained 1963): “But somehow tenderness survives.”

Murielle Argoud (Switzerland), Homage to Heraclitus . . . everything flows (2018).

In such a damaged social imaginary as ours, art which is unapologetically beautiful and/or spiritual may suffer critical suspicion, but Murielle Argoud’s ravishing canvases offer a persuasive––and deeply moving––reacquaintance with the transcendent. Using an “alchemical” mixture of oil, sand, lava and gold leaf, Argoud strives to convey both the world’s liquid materiality and the hidden depths within it. On her website she describes her art practice as a search for the beginning of everything, an opening of the heart to receive the mystery of the world. In a poem accompanying her Biennale paintings, she says:

Where words cannot touch, the life of colour can
merge with the heart of the beholder. . .

Creating stillness for the song of the painting
to become audible.

Creating stillness for deeper contemplation ––
no wish to analyse or understand. . .

Mario Basner (Germany/USA), Beelitz Heilstätten Sanatorium (2016).

Mario Basner’s haunting photographs of a 19th-century tuberculosis sanatorium, now an abandoned ruin south of Berlin, are infused with his deeply personal response to the spirit of place: “This is a place where people faced life and death, love and loss, hope and despair; it was a structure where people fought for their utter existence.” The elegant beauty of the building reflected a compassionate respect for the dignity and worth of its patients. Their struggle for life was honored by the nobility of the architectural design.

To see that grandeur in decay moves us twice over, not only by memorializing the aspirations and ministrations of a vanished age, but also by imaging temporality so tenderly. The room in the photograph is full of human absence. The floor––littered, wet and muddy––indicates long neglect. Like the pool of water in the middle, the room seems cut off from life. The space is suffused with the pastness of things left behind.

And yet the room is not utterly dead or devoid of beauty. The light from outside is soft and comforting. The watery floor, like the moist and dripping interiors in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, is a richly ambivalent symbol. It can indicate stagnation and decay, as nature begins to erase the structures of human habitation. But it can also be a maternal sign of life-giving power, a source which sustains and nurtures. The triptych of windows resembles a church, with the central bay the chancel and the lone cot the altar. The pool of water, like a baptismal font, suggests purification and rebirth.

Shoplifter / Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir (Iceland), Chromo Sapiens (2019).

The Icelandic artist known as “Shoplifter” (Hrafnhildur Arnardóttir) takes us to a place of pure happiness, a technicolor cave made of synthetic hair. The artist describes the riot of color as “euphoric kinetic synesthesia.” Deeper into the cave, more soothing whites and pastels replace the neon hues to make “a fluffy heavenly nest that cradles you into a sense of serenity and sublime gentle bliss.” You can’t spend time in here without smiling.

Alexander Sokurov (Russia), detail of Prodigal Son installation (2019).

Alexander Sokurov’s installation inspired by Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, was my most powerful Biennale experience. It will be the subject of my next post, so I only mention it in passing here.

Federico Uribe (Colombia/USA), Plastic Reef (2019).

Environmental degradation is a recurring subject at Biennale, but Federico Uribe’s Plastic Reef is unique in its whimsical approach, using recycled plastic items to make a playful undersea world.

Federico Uribe (Colombia/USA), Plastic Reef (2019), made from recycled plastic waste.

When you enter the gallery, filled with lighthearted ambient sound, your initial reaction is delight. Then you look more closely, and the irony hits home. The plastic parody of marine life prophesies the potential collapse of the earth’s largest ecosystem. 8 million tons of plastic are dumped into the sea every year, and there is now more plastic than plankton in our oceans. The joy with which you entered begins to seep away.

Elizabeth Heyert (USA), The Idol (series, 2018-19).

American artist Elizabeth Heyert critiques contradictory (male) gazes of women in her pairing of close-ups of old Marian statues from southern Spain with “bad girl” images from American pop culture. When I showed this particular example to a priest friend, he wondered how the meaning might change if the quote came from the saint instead of the actress.

Raoul “Iggy” Rodriguez (Philippines), detail from Hallowed Be Thy Name (2019).

This hellish imagery from Raoul Rodriguez mimics the genre of Catholic altarpieces, with saints replaced by grotesque figures who worship a swine-like beast hovering above them. The beast’s halo is made of bullets, and his throne is the crushed form of one of its victims. Some of the figures are harming themselves––doing the beast’s work for him––while another takes a selfie of his own agony, unable to envision any alternative. I couldn’t help seeing this horrifying canvas as a portrait of Trump’s America––that evil carnival of absurdity and self-destruction.

Daniel Pesta (Czech Republic), Chain (video, 2018).

Even more disturbing was Daniel Pesta’s video of eight men seated around a table in a deserted factory, their hands and forearms thickly bandaged. They are as still as monks at prayer, inexpressive and wordless, bound together by some secret purpose. Then the man at the head of the table holds one hand over a candle until his bandage bursts into flame. This fire is passed from hand to hand around the table until all their hands have become torches. Finally, they beat their hands on the table, an infernal drum circle, until the flames are at last extinguished.

Daniel Pesta (Czech Republic), Chain (video, 2018).

A group of white men with torches immediately conjures the collective madness of Nazis past and present, but here the hands themselves are the torches. Hands are supreme emblems of individual will––reaching, touching, making, choosing, taking, receiving––but at this table of demonic communion the hands are surrendered to a terrible force which consumes human freedom. Pesta wanted to depict the mindless dynamic of totalitarian societies whose “servility, weakness and desire to allow themselves to be controlled, testifies as to how far a person is prepared to go in pursuit of his own humiliation or self-destruction.”

Had I had enough of hell by now? Not quite. Accompanied by fellow artist/priest Neil Lambert, an English vicar and kindred spirit I first met in a Prague beer hall, I went in search of In Dante Veritas, a multi-media experience of the Inferno by Russian artist Vasily Klyukin. Using sculpture, video, sound, and a wide variety of materials and objects, Klyukin reimagined Dante’s nine circles of hell in terms of environmental collapse amid the chaos of misinformation and malignant desire. Through his vivid presentation of a world gone wrong, he poses the question, “Are we capable of change?”

Arsenale Nord, site of Vasily Klyukin’s Inferno installation at the Venice Biennale 2019.

The installation was said to be in a huge warehouse at the edge of Venice’s old shipyard, the Arsenale. Neil and I made a circuitous journey by boat and on foot (there are few direct routes in labyrinthine Venice), but when we finally reached the entrance to hell, it was locked. We peered through a crack in a curtained window. The vast space was totally empty. Hell had gone out of business. Or moved to a new location.

Abandoning all hope of experiencing Klyukin’s vision, we wandered the byways of Castello, one of the quietest and emptiest parts of Venice, conversing as we went. At one point I was describing to Neil a film I made years ago about a man assigned by a modern-day government to investigate a potential troublemaker named Jesus. As he hears about Jesus from various people whose lives have been touched and changed by him, the investigator becomes intrigued. But before he can ever meet him, Jesus is executed.

Distraught, the investigator goes to the soup kitchen where Mary Magdalene works (we shot this at the Catholic Worker on L.A.’s skid row). “I so wanted to meet Jesus,” he tells her. “You will,” she replies, and takes him to an upper room where Jesus’ friends are sitting around a table sharing bread and wine. The film ends with one of them offering the investigator a piece of bread.

This film was made to create conversation in church settings, but congregations with minimal sacramental life complained that there was no risen Christ at the end. Sacramental churches, on the other hand, embraced the image of the offered bread as a satisfactory sign of the Resurrection.

And at that precise moment in my story, we were passing a little church with a bronze plaque by the  door. We stopped to read it: “The Church of Christ the King. Adoration of the Eucharist daily.”

Plaque at the entrance to the church of the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King, Venice.

Inside, the Franciscan Sisters of Christ the King had begun their daily adoration of the Blessed Sacrament just minutes before. We had arrived at the right place at exactly the right time. Unable to gain admission into hell, we had stumbled on heaven instead––whether by accident or grace I cannot say. We slipped inside the small church. A dozen nuns in white robes sat in silence before the monstrance displaying the consecrated Host. One of the sisters looked around when we opened the door, casting a stern glance to warn off heedless tourists. When we knelt to pray, she relaxed, returning her attention to the Host.

Jacopo Tintoretto, The Last Supper (1592-94), and Sean Scully, Opulent Ascension (2019, in San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

Earlier that day, we had seen Tintoretto’s great Last Supper painting which flanks the altar of San Giorgio Maggiore. The very air in that painted upper room seems charged with angelic energy and Godly presence, manifesting the infusion of divinity into matter which Christ and his eucharist are all about. Tintoretto’s painting represents the present as well as the past. The world continues to be charged with the grandeur of God, and every eucharist makes this explicit. The Host we adored in that little church of Christ the King was a sure sign of continuing presence, but not exclusively so. For the attentive soul, the signs are everywhere.

But divine presence is elusive, and the social imaginary of our secular age makes it especially difficult to perceive. We can spot hell easily enough, as so much of Biennale attests. Heaven, however, can be harder to find. But spiritual longing, however sublimated or misdirected, remains. And Sean Scully’s “Opulent Ascension,” a temporary installation in the same church as the Tintoretto, expresses that longing perfectly.

Sean Scully (Ireland/USA), Opulent Ascension, in Andrea Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice.

Inspired by Jacob’s dream of a ladder to heaven (Genesis 28:12), Scully’s stack of colored slabs rises more than ten meters toward the luminous dome of Palladio’s Renaissance church. Amid the subdued grays and whites of the interior, the miraculous colors exude the vitality of spiritual aspiration, like spring flowers renouncing winter’s drabness. But such faith in a welcoming and obtainable transcendence is not universally shared.

Alexandra Bircken (Germany), Eskalation (2016).

Another Biennale installation, Alexander Bircken’s Eskalation, posits Jacob’s dream as ladders to nowhere. Forty figures, made from calico dipped in black latex, are scattered from floor to ceiling on rungs and rafters. Their collapsed and lifeless forms bear witness to the futility of the ascent.

Alexandra Bircken (Germany), Eskalation (2016).

This solitary figure at the base of one ladder is an indelible image of spiritual death. Its back is turned to the ladder, as if rejecting even the dream of transcendence. The ladder of ascent no longer holds any meaning. It has become illegible. The figure slumps into despair. No, not even that. Despair requires hope, a memory of paradise lost. Here we have sunk deeper than despair, into the abyss––absent all traces of desire.

Let us counter this bleak image with Scully’s Opulent Ascension. Does this juxtaposition set before us a strictly binary choice between utterly separate narratives, or is the human condition more complicated than that? Scully says that art is a wound in a dance with love. So, perhaps, is life.

Sean Scully (Ireland/USA), Opulent Ascension (2019).

Backpacking with the Saints (Part 3)

Osservanza Master (Siena), St. Anthony the Abbot in the Wilderness, c. 1435

“The saints I travel with are more than companions on the trail. When I’m backpacking, I listen to their silences, their laughter, their readiness to jolt me out of my distractions. Back home I ask them for their prayers, for help in understanding and interpreting them aright. We even work together at letting the wilderness take us places where neither of us might have gone before in our thinking. Ours is a vigorous, intimate discourse. We wrangle back and forth; they humble me by the depth of their passion. I sense the weight of my responsibility to them, but I love them as well. The ‘communion of saints’ is far more than a line in the creed for me. These endearing trail-weathered mavericks are my teachers––giant sequoias that fill me with awe.”

–– Belden C. Lane

The fourth and final theme of Belden C. Lane’s Backpacking with the Saints returns us to the place where we started. But we are no longer the same. The journey has changed us. “Delight (Returning Home with Gifts)” invokes a quartet of spirited and joyous saints to help us discern the gifts we have found in the wild, not only for ourselves but for the whole human community.

Lane’s first gift for the return is discernment, the clarity to realize our deepest desire. And our teacher here is the thirteenth-century Sufi poet and God-intoxicated mystic Jelaluddin Rumi, whose playful and earthy metaphors sweep us past our distractions and evasions to take us where more cautious and “serious” language cannot go. We are flutes blown with divine breath, or dry tinder for Love’s fire. We are chickpeas tossed into a boiling pot until we are made soft and flavorful. We are lovers crazy to get lost in the Beloved. “I became Him,” Rumi said. “Then he threw myself out of me.”

For both the mystic and the soulful hiker, God is everywhere, including the inmost self. A pilgrimage out into the wild is also a journey inward, toward the revelation of our true desire. Once we drink from the source of all our yearning, we can return with an awakened heart. “You are the Kaaba,” Rumi tells us. “Walk around yourself in wonder.”

Palouse Falls, Washington (August 21, 2014)

The second gift to take home is community, and Lane’s teacher is Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), the Jesuit scientist and theologian who saw Christ as the strong force of the cosmos, drawing all things together in an evolutionary process of convergence. “Love alone,” he wrote, “is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves.”

Teilhard was officially silenced by a hierarchy uneasy with his visionary breadth, but he never ceased to celebrate the holiness woven into every atom and every star. As disciples of the one who said, “This is my body,” we must treat matter with proper reverence, he insisted. “By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagined it as distant and inaccessible, when in fact we live steeped in its burning layers.”

God is the mystery of the world, whose interdependent ecology mimes the trinitarian dance of eternal self-offering. Everything depends on everything else. Community in its purest form is communion. The wilderness wants to tell us this, and Lane is a good listener. Out in the wild on a starry night, a raucous Compline of bullfrogs and peepers signifies for him the perpetual liturgy of praise in which we all have a voice. “We join together as fragments of a greater whole, standing in awe at the immense and holy company that constitutes our common life.”

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1837)

Mohandas Gandhi is the next guide, and the gift is justice. Gandhi’s reverence for all living things, his compassionate attention to suffering, and his willingness to put himself at risk to restore community, all model just and loving practice in our endangered global habitat.

It’s hard not to spend time in the natural world without falling in love. Like all love affairs, it brings joys and blessings, but also great responsibility. Love is a fierce protector. We who love Creation must guard what is vulnerable and restore what is damaged. We must confess our complicity in the wounding of Creation, and refrain from further harm. We must speak and act on behalf of the whole community of created beings, loving our neighbors––both human and nonhuman––as ourselves. We must walk gently and reverently upon God’s earth.

Lane argues that a passion for earth justice is one of the greatest gifts we bring home from our wilderness encounters. His quote from Edward Abbey says it all: “Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul.”

Fernandez Pass, west of the Minarets, Yosemite National Park (Sept. 8, 2008)

Holy Folly is the final gift, and Thomas Merton is the perfect guide. When Merton became the most famous monk of the twentieth century, his comic spirit laughed off the demon of self-importance. “If you see a meditation going by, shoot it,” he said.

Lane calls Merton a “Zen clown,” and links the monk’s notorious playful side to the tradition of holy fool, whose vocation is to mock our complacencies, subvert every oppression, and celebrate surprise. As Lane says, the holy fool “invites you to laugh at yourself and the silly pretensions that crowd your life. The gift of the fool may be the most telling of all the benefits that derive from backpacking as spiritual practice. There’s no end to the stories you can tell of dumb mistakes you’ve made on the trail. Self-effacement is easy, even for gearheads and hard-core hikers.”

Every spiritual journey is an embrace of profound folly. You leave the safe harbor of the familiar for the wild sea of unknowing. You trust in something you can’t see or even name. You sail off the edge of the maps, into God knows where.

From Via Negativa: A Worship Installation (text adapted from Richard Shelton)

My vicarious walks with Lane through the wild terrain of his book have illumined not only my hiking life, but the rest of my story as well. And what moves me most about him is a hard-won ability to embrace the gifts of the wild with both humility and courage.

He tells a story of going on a men’s retreat with Franciscan contemplative Richard Rohr in the Arizona desert. Rohr sent each of the group into the dry depths of Aravaipa Canyon for a solo overnight, a kind of vision quest. He told them to listen to whatever teachers might appear, and not to be surprised if they are given a new name in their place of solitude.

After dark, the desert wind kicked up, the kind of wind that bores into your nervous system with “an incessant, disturbing presence.” Unable to sleep, Lane suddenly “felt an urge to tell a story, as if the stars and whirling cottonwood leaves were asking for relief from the monotony of the wind.”

Perched on a sandstone ledge, face to the tempest, he began to recite every story he could think of, plus the many more which welled up from the forgotten places in his mind. “Then,” he writes, “in the darkness before dawn, I heard it.”

“A voice carried on the wind that seemed to speak inside my body. I didn’t think it. I simply received it, with an undeniable certainty. Four words addressed to me: “Speaks with the Wind.” Nothing more. But I knew in that moment that I had been called . . . I had been named.”

His account deflects the solemnity of that wilderness baptism with some self-deprecation. Who did he think he was, Kevin Costner dancing with wolves? But he knew the voice within spoke truly. And, to our great benefit, he consented to be “one that could speak in, with, and for the places I had learned to love and the saints who had taught me there.”

“It wasn’t about me,” he says. “But it required me.”

 

Joe Golowka, my backpacking mentor, Sespe Creek Wilderness (March 29, 1981)

All quotations are from Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice by Belden C. Lane (Oxford University Press, 2015).

 All photographs by Jim Friedrich

 

Backpacking with the Saints (Part 2)

Death Valley National Park, Holy Week 2005

You do not go into the desert to find identity but to lose it, to lose your personality, to become anonymous. You make yourself void. You become silence. It is very hard to live with silence. The real silence is death and this is terrible. It is very hard in the desert. You must become more silent than the silence around you. And then something extraordinary happens: you hear silence speak.

–– Edmond Jabés

In Part 1 of my commentary on Belden C. Lane’s book about “wilderness hiking as spiritual practice,” we explored his first two themes: Departure and Discipline. Here we shall look at his third theme.

The Philosophical Promenade, Keith Beckley / Dennis Evans (Seattle’s I-90 Trail, March 17. 2014)

Descent (When the Trail Gets Rough)

As a longtime backpacker, Lane knows that not every hike is a victory march. In fact, if you don’t encounter obstacles, setbacks, tribulations and the occasional failure, you’re kind of missing the point. Dante, history’s most famous trekker, discovered on his very first day in the wild that the experience of “descent” is not only inevitable, but necessary. Over the years, Lane has learned to welcome the hard parts as his teachers.

“Backpacking as a spiritual practice is about making yourself vulnerable in order to be stretched into something new. It’s the need to recognize your limits, to be taken to the end of yourself where resources are exhausted and you stumble in blind faith toward that which is more than you. In the beauty-mixed-with-terror of a backcountry wilderness, you begin to discover that for which the mystics had no language.”

Fear, failure, and death are Lane’s categories of descent. As with his other subjects, he chooses appropriate saints to guide him. His companion in the way of fear is John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic who spent nine months locked in a dark space too small to stand up in. Abused by his ecclesiastical captors and frequently beaten, he struggled with boredom, doubt and despair. When he was close to death, he made a miraculous escape in the dead of night. But his cruel experience of confinement ultimately clarified and deepened his praise of the soul’s “dark night” as the passage into the place where love abides.

To reach the place you know not, John realized, you must go by a way which you know not. Satisfaction, assurance––even divine presence––will seem to go missing in the dark night, because whatever you “know” and the consolations you’re attached to are being stripped away to make room for something unimaginably greater. As T. S. Eliot would put it four centuries later, “wait without hope, for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.” Only thus did the suffering saint become the passionate singer of divine love.

When you are in the dark night, you don’t yet know it to be a passage into the light. The darkness feels real and absolute, full of terror. You are not yet the future self who has made it through. When Lane hiked the Maze, a bewildering and dangerous array of interlocking canyons in Utah, its confusing paths and frequent dead ends triggered an unsettling engagement with his personal demons. A confined, horizonless space where you can get permanently lost, or washed away by a flash flood, was the perfect place to descend to one’s inner depths.

The suicide of a father when Lane was thirteen, his mother facing death with Alzheimer’s, a mentor taken by cancer, the heart attack of a close friend––all the terrible losses came to visit in that arid canyon, whispering their ancient fears. But that’s not where the story ends, because the dark night doesn’t just take away. It also gives, and as John of the Cross discovered, it seems to know exactly what you need. Lane’s own story bears witness:

“There in the dark night, wandering through a maze, the impossible may happen. You find yourself moving beyond the fear and confusion you’ve been carrying for years. It’s no longer necessary to ‘fix’ what was unresolved in your parents’ lives. You can leave the past––there at the canyon wall, on the floor of the Maze, finally and for good.”

Mt. Whitney summit, 30 minutes before lightning and snow (September 5, 1998)

Failure is the next layer in Lane’s archaeology of descent. His pilgrimage to climb the highest American peak outside Alaska came short by 1700 vertical feet. California’s Mt. Whitney (14,505’) may not pose the same technical challenges as the glacial summits of higher or more northerly mountains. In summer the trail can be snow-free all the way. But the air is thin, the way steep, and the weather fickle. When I climbed Whitney twenty-one years ago, the sky went from sunshine to lightning to snow in half an hour.

Lane ascended Whitney with a friend in late spring, when lingering snow made footing unsure and an enveloping cloud reduced visibility to zero. He could barely see his own feet, and a sudden panic about falling into an unseen abyss forced him to turn back. His friend continued on, and later reported on the stunning views Lane had missed. To make it worse, some 12-year-old boy scouts back at base camp regaled him with their own tales of reaching the top. “Failure,” Lane writes, “felt like an indictment of my own worth as a person, confirmation of a deeper defect in character.”

His unsuccessful climb has stuck with him as a vivid metaphor for his own struggles to prove himself. Whether he was feeling out of place in a demanding graduate school, or worrying about being good enough as a teacher or writer, he felt the pressure of high expectations. Whether we’re trying to live up to our own ideas of perfection or somebody else’s, the pinnacle of “success” is a killer climb. What happens when you just can’t go all the way?

Martin Luther is Lane’s companion on this particular trail. Tortured by angst, guilt and a damaging penitential system, the great reformer learned the hard way that when we come short, when we mess up, we remain the beloved of God. “All of his life, Luther had feared an angry, demanding God, only to discover in the end that God had been wanting to love and forgive all along.” The life of grace has nothing to do with striving for perfection. It is, rather, an economy of perpetual forgiveness and compassion. God’s love is not earned, nor is it ever withdrawn. All we have to do, as Paul Tillich said, is to “accept our acceptance.”

For Lane, the most important mountains are the ones we don’t climb. “Every failure is an invitation to growth. Mistakes are occasions for grace, opportunities to choose a different path. They make forgiveness possible. Only in the absence of success can you know yourself to be loved without cause.”

Banff National Park, Alberta, Canada (August 21, 2012)

Lane’s trajectory of descent concludes with death, the point of no return. The literal end of our mortal span is not the only death we face. We all experience many little deaths throughout our life, as one stage or condition ends and another takes its place. And for the spiritually adventurous, there is the hardest death of all: the annihilation of the inauthentic self.

Letting go of the old life, the old self, or the old story is always challenging. Sometimes we have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new life, even if it’s infinitely better. What Lane calls “the wild and reckless beauty” of untamed places can help us transcend our limiting self-descriptions and receive an identity far more luminous and vast.

“Inherently we sense that the uncaring majesty of wilderness has the potential of breaking us open to love. Each passage to a new self begins with an allurement that threatens to kill, even as it ignites a new fire within.”

A few years before his retirement from thirty years of university teaching, in the company of his dog and the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, Lane ascended a wild section of Missouri’s Ozark Plateau to undergo a ritual death, releasing his hold on an identity which was passing away. On Mudlick Mountain, named for some of the oldest exposed rock in the world, he chose a primitive stone shelter as his “death lodge”––a place to bid farewell to the old life and prepare himself for the new.

“My hope was to trade the mind of the scholar for the heart of a vagabond poet. . . In my backpack I’d brought along the last few pages of a scholarly book I’d been writing. I read these to the dog and the hickory trees, offered thanks for the work I’d been given, and then burned the pages in the fireplace.”

Finally, like the prophet Ezekiel, he shaved his head to welcome old age and celebrate his imminent freedom from “impression management.” It’s a poignant image. The aging scholar consenting to vanish. The ashes of his writings now cold in the fireplace. His faithful dog––whose  last breath would come during Lane’s drafting of the death chapter––quietly living in the moment.

It’s like a quatrain from Li Po, an 8th-century poet cited in Lane’s book. On a mountain overlooking China’s Shuiyan River, Li Po wrote:

The birds have vanished into the sky,
and now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and I,
until only the mountain remains.

Sunrise view of Mt. Whitney from Trail Camp at 12,000′ (September 5, 1998)

 

Except for the epigraph, all quotations are from Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice by Belden C. Lane (Oxford University Press, 2015).

All photographs were taken on my own hikes.

 Lane’s final theme, Delight (Returning Home with Gifts), will be the subject of my next post.

Backpacking with the Saints (Part 1)

Sky Top Creek carries glacial meltwater from Montana’s highest peak.

I am going to allure her, and bring her into the wilderness,
where I will speak tenderly to her heart.

–– Hosea 2:14

We all need to get away––beyond the noise of history and culture, the deafening roar of the social imaginary, the insistent obsessions of the constructed self, the blinding glare of the familiar. We all need to go into the wild. But the exodus “away from here” is not merely escape. It is also quest. We lose in order to find.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers knew that the trouble with wilderness is that you risk meeting God there. That’s exactly why they went. Celtic monks put to sea in rudderless boats, surrendering personal control to the unpredictable wildness of wind and tides. Only a power beyond themselves could show them the way to an unmapped reality. John Muir had to disappear into California’s Sierra Nevada to find a “church” commensurate with his praises. True pilgrimage always takes us away from here. And even should we return, we will be somebody else.

Belden C. Lane, an American theologian and scholar, writes about the deep connections between geography and spirituality. Landscapes of the Sacred (1988) examines the “spirit of place” in various American religious movements and traditions. The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998) focuses on the physical and spiritual extremes of desert and mountain. Backpacking with the Saints (2015) draws on his personal outdoor adventures to explore “wilderness hiking as a spiritual practice.” His most recent book, The Great Conversation: Nature and the Care of the Soul (2019), models the vital and necessary dialogue between the human soul and all the voices of creation.

Believing that transformative works are best read in transformative places, Lane always throws a spiritual classic in his backpack before setting out. In my own 49 years of backpacking, I too have taken other voices along, and Backpacking with the Saints, drawing on a variety of wisdom teachers from St. Columba and John of the Cross to Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh, has been my choice for a number of backcountry walks, including a recent week in the Beartooth Mountains of Montana. Even though it’s only available in hardback (1 pound!), its abundant riches are worth the extra weight.

In each chapter, Lane links a personal wilderness experience to the life and writings of a particular saint. Whether a venture into the wild produces fear or wonder, discouragement or exhilaration, joy or grief, the saints know what he is going through. But the holy teachers are not always consoling. Sometimes Lane feels the reproof in their words, which can “slap me upside the head as may be required.”

After an introduction to the virtues of walking, reading and being in places of silence, solitude and natural beauty, Backpacking explores the fourfold pattern of wilderness spirituality: Departure, Discipline, Descent, and Delight.

Badger Pass Trail, Banff National Park, Canada (2012).

1) Departure (Leaving the trailhead)

The call to venture out may come from dissatisfaction: something is wrong, or something is missing. Or its source may be a hunger for mystery, a thirst for renewal. “The mountains are calling and I must go,” said John Muir. But getting out of the house (or routine, or to-do list) can be the hardest part. I keep a walking stick by the front door to remind me that the path is always waiting just outside. But the gravitational pull of the safe and familiar is a strong force. Sometimes a great leap is required.

Lane draws on the Celtic wanderers to help him out the door and into the wild. “Well does the Fair Lord show us a course, a path,” they said. The Sufi poet Hafiz employed a more violent image: “Love wants to reach out and manhandle us, breaking all our teacup talk of God. . . It wants to drag you by the hair and rip from your grip all the toys in the world that bring you no joy.” Whether the leaving is gentle or wrenching, there’s a lot of letting go and leaving behind, if one is to travel light and venture far.

But once you are on your way, disillusionment will greet you sooner or later. You’re not the hero you imagined. You make mistakes. You get tired. Romantic illusions crash and burn. There are no shortcuts. As the mountaineers warn, ““It’s always farther than it looks. It’s always taller than it looks. And it’s always harder than it looks.”

Lower Aero Lake and Mt. Villard, Beartooth Mountains, Montana.

Feeling strangely vulnerable in the “vast loneliness” of a Wyoming peak after dark, hemmed in by the impenetrable shadows of a place where humans don’t belong, Lane had the sensation of being watched, of being exposed to a dread he couldn’t name. “[M]y image as professor, spiritual seeker, and self-styled ‘wilderness backpacker’ counted for nothing.” I’ve had similar experiences out in the lost and lonely places. Nature doesn’t always smile back.

Lane found comfort in Thérèse of Lisieux, the “warrior saint” whose desire for spiritual greatness was tempered by an acceptance of her own littleness. In the last months of her short life, her characteristic lightness gave way to desolation. “If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into. . . the night of utter nothingness! I feel no joy. I sing only of what I wish to believe.” But Thérèse’s dark night of abandonment was where she became best acquainted with divine mercy.

Once disillusionment has stripped us of grandiosity, we can begin to examine our desire. The first step is to release our attachment to all the “unmet desires of the past,” that insatiable “yearning that lingers in unhealed wounds.” Just as the forests act as a sink for carbon emissions, the “quiet presence” of trees is also “able to receive whatever we need to release in terms of misspent passion.”

Born into a family shadowed by disappointments, failures, betrayals, abandonment, alcoholism, sexual abuse and suicide, Lane’s testimony to wilderness healing is authentic and moving.

“We hike into wilderness with the accumulated desires of the past. We carry our own twisted longings and those of our parents, our lovers, and our children as well. We’re the ‘walking wounded,’ battle-scarred by desires we’ve carried throughout our lives. More than once I’ve lugged a wounded father on my back up Rockpile Mountain. Father and mother wounds are handed down to us, filled with frustrated desires we still try to satisfy.”

Over time, Lane says, he has been able “to release these wounds back into the wilds. I let them go, like injured animals. . . It’s not far wrong to think of our wounds as creatures who’ve wandered into our lives from out in the wilds. Doing so gives them the respect they deserve. It also allows us to identify ourselves as separate from them.” And once we do that, our deepest desire––for the one true thing worth having––begins to speak.

Pink monkey flowers along Sky Top Creek.

2) Discipline (The practice of the wild)

Just like the Christian life, it is possible to drift unchanged through a wilderness walk. You may enjoy it, or learn from it, and still return pretty much the same as when you left. If you want to invite a deeper transformation, the saints would encourage you to practice certain disciplines: solitude, simplicity, and mindfulness.

Kierkegaard is Lane’s saint of solitude. The 19th-century Danish theologian refused to be part of the herd. He sharply criticized both church and culture, and was ridiculed and scorned in return. He even broke his engagement to the love of his life, choosing “to stand like a lonely pine tree” for the rest of his life. But his personal solitude produced the existentialist understanding of Christian faith as no collective generality, but a specifically personal risk––demanding no less than everything.

Solitude, in its freedom from external forces and the need for approval, makes space for our truest self to emerge. “I want to be the person that I am when I’m alone in wilderness,” says Lane. At the same time, solitude can remove the hindrances to a deeper communion with the mystery of God and the interconnectedness of creation––“the common life that binds our separate solitudes into one.”

Traveling light is the second essential discipline in the wild. “The only indispensable item I pack is a capacity for amazement,” Lane writes. As a hiker who carries more than one book, journal, camera, binoculars, bear canister, tent, sleeping bag, rain suit, cooking gear and a few extra treats beyond the basic meals, I have yet to attain ultra-lightness. I have, however, trimmed 2 inches from the end of my toothbrush as well as the white space from the edges of my maps.

Dag Hammarskjöld, the United Nations Secretary-General whose profound inner life was unknown to the world until his spiritual testament, Markings, was discovered after his untimely death. As a powerful and famous world figure, he wrestled with both self-importance and despair. But his mountain hikes, and his writings, helped him to release those burdens.

“To be free,” he wrote, “is to be able to stand up and leave everything behind––without looking back––to say ‘Yes’ to whatever comes.”

Traveling light not only means to leave behind burdens, hindrances and negativities. It also means to renounce expectations and outcomes. I’ve met walkers on the Camino de Santiago and the Pacific Crest Trail who were in such a hurry to accomplish the journey that they missed exquisite moments of Now along the way. And perhaps we could even renounce language––stop naming and labeling what we see, receiving everything in its indescribable fullness. As Hammarskjöld put it, “In the point of rest at the center of our being, we encounter a world where all things are at rest. . . Then a tree becomes a mystery, a cloud a revelation.”

The third discipline in Lane’s wilderness praxisis mindfulness, “a rigorous practice of welcoming the moment, whatever it brings.” Be present to the presences around you. Don’t let your feet take a walk without you. Receive the bird’s song, cloud’s shadow, wildflower colors, sunlight on your skin, wind in the pines, the steepness of the trail––all the gifts of the moment––as they happen. Do not grasp, but “catch and release.”

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle,” says Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. “But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.” Whenever I climb a steep trail, I try not to think of how hard it is, or how far I have to go. I simply attend to the act of lifting my foot, swinging my leg, lowering my foot, step by step. If I am fully present to these actions, I am free from longing for a future state of rest.

Walk “as if you are kissing the earth with your feet,” Hanh says. Mindfulness is the best form of reverence. And it is also the key to perfect presence. In the words of an old Celtic prayer,

May I arrive at every place I enter.

In my next two posts, I’ll cover Lane’s final two pillars of wilderness spirituality: Descent (When the trail gets rough) and Delight (Returning home with gifts). But for now, I leave you with my favorite story from Backpacking with the Saints.

In the chapter on desire, the saint is Thomas Traherne, a 17th-century Anglican metaphysical poet whose Centuries of Meditations celebrates unbounded desire and delight. “You must Want like God,” he urged, “that you may be satisfied like God.” For Traherne, enjoyment of God and God’s world was not a matter of feelings, occasional and intermittent like gusts of wind. They were chosen practices, a form of faithful participation in divine delight.

“Your enjoyment of the world, is never right, until every morning you awake in Heaven. . . You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars. . . Yet further, you never enjoy the world aright, till you so love the beauty of enjoying it, that you are covetous and earnest to persuade others to enjoy it.” (Centuries I: 28-31)

When Lane tossed Centuries into his pack for a Good Friday overnight in the St. Francois Mountains of southeast Missouri, he was not in the best of moods. Out of sorts physically (a tiring trail, empty stomach, headache and sleeplessness), stressed by thoughts of work and family, and feeling the Holy Week darkness of crucifixion and tomb, he “grudgingly read Traherne by candlelight,” as if daring the poet to cheer him up.

The next morning, his body felt better, but his soul was bored, restless, fraught with “all the unsatisfied longings of the past.” Still, he resumed his reading of Centuries, on a sloping rock at the edge of a “shimmering pool.” Traherne reminded him that those who “put off felicity with long delays are to be much suspected.” It was like a resurrection summons to Lane’s buried heart.

Sky Top Creek on my last night in the Beartooths.

“He was urging that I give myself to Joy,” Lane says. “To embrace what he called felicity despite a world of endlessly unmet needs.” His mind stubbornly resisted the call, but his body could not. He found himself pulling off shoes and clothes. But in his haste, he failed to notice the precarious balance of the book on the sloping rock.

“To my horror, the university library’s copy of the Clarendon Press edition of Traherne’s Centuries began sliding down the rock and into the water ahead of me! As if the author and his book were crying out, “HERE’S how it’s done!! THIS is what felicity looks like!! Wheeeeeeee, follow me!!” And so I did, screaming as I hit the ice-cold water, grabbing the book before it sank out of sight.”

Lane spent the next hour naked on that rock, sponging the book cover to cover with his T-shirt: “I imagined Traherne laughing with me on every page.”

 

 

Most quotations, either by Belden C. Lane or the saints cited, are from Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 2015)

All photographs are by Jim Friedrich. Except for the the Canadian Rockies trail, they were all taken last month on my backpack in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains. 

Related posts: 

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

The Mountains Are Calling and I Must Go

Dear reader –– I am taking a break for a couple of weeks to walk in the mountains, something I have done almost every summer for nearly fifty years. In the last two years, however, my annual wilderness pilgrimage has gone awry. In 2017, an equipment failure derailed my backcountry adventure on the first day. Last year, wildfire smoke from Canada to California eliminated all my best options for an extended outing. But each of those cancelled treks, as it happened, got replaced with a day hike of surpassing beauty. And as John Muir once testified, the blessings of a single mountain day are sufficient for a lifetime.

Some of those riches can be seen in the photos I posted afterward: “Every Common Bush Afire with God,” and “Mountains to Try Our Souls.”

Thwarted plans sometimes turn out to be a gift. In his marvelous book about wilderness hiking and spirituality, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, Belden C. Lane puts this perfectly:

It can, and often will, happen. You forget to bring the matches. You fail to notice the poison ivy surrounding your chosen tent site. Mosquitoes send you home, or blisters make it impossible to go any further. You spend a night without sleep, seeking warmth in a wet sleeping bag as wind whips through your torn and tangled tent. Every backpacker has a story like this to tell. 

In your wilderness journey, the Desert Christians warned, you will be wounded. The desert will take away everything you hoped to keep––your reputation, your confidence in your ability to achieve, your sense of who you are. You’ll know fear. You’ll fail. You may even have to died to what you counted on most, being dragged out feet first from that wild terrain (at least metaphorically). 

But in the process, you may discover your greatest joy in having survived the night, in finding resources you never knew you had, falling back on a strength that was more than yours. You experience a new identity, a fearlessness in the face of terror. You know a love that would never have been yours without passing through the dark night. From then on, you look back upon every failure as a gift, every mistake as an occasion for the miracle of grace. 

Read the whole book! Each chapter uses one of Lane’s personal wilderness experiences to explore the wisdom of a different saint. I’m putting my hardcover copy in my backpack. It’s well worth the extra weight.

Forty–five years ago this month, I completed a 150-mile trek in California’s Sierra Nevada from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows. After twenty days in the wilderness, I returned to civilization the very day President Nixon resigned. Since I had also been backpacking when Vice-President Agnew resigned in the previous year, I began to wonder about cause and effect. I’m only backpacking for a week this time, but the way things are going, who knows what news I may hear upon my return?

 

 

Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, by Belden C. Lane, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015.

 

 

Bushy the Squirrel: A Justice Parable

My father, an Episcopal priest and producer of Christian media, made a series of filmstrips called Parables from Nature in the 1950s. Based on a children’s book by John Calvin Reid, they retold the parables of Jesus using characters from the natural world. One of these was “Bushy the Squirrel,” inspired by Luke 12:13-21 (the Lectionary gospel for Proper 13, 8th Sunday after Pentecost). The illustrations were painted by Hollywood animation artists, and some of them are included here.

Once upon a time there was a squirrel named Bushy. He was a fine little squirrel, but as he grew older everyone began to notice a change in him. All he cared about was gathering nuts. Every day you could hear his voice ringing through the forest: “Gotta get more nuts! Gotta get more nuts!”

As soon as he stored the nuts he had found, he’d run off to find some more. “This is not enough. Gotta get more! Gotta get more!” Bushy was so obsessed with getting more nuts, he drove all his friends away. And when anyone came to his door collecting for the needy, he just said, “Aw, don’t bother me now. I’m too busy getting nuts.”

After a while, he had so many nuts, he needed a bigger place to put them. And one day he saw an old hickory tree with a big hole in it. It was perfect. But some woodpeckers had made their home in that tree. That didn’t stop Bushy. He kicked the woodpeckers out, and filled the tree with nuts.

Bushy’s neighbors had a hard time finding any nuts left for them to eat. But Bushy didn’t care. He had what he needed. The other squirrels were not his problem.

When winter came, Bushy relaxed in his tree, the happy owner of all those nuts. He didn’t have a care in the world.

Then one night, when he was fast asleep, a wind began to blow, and the wind was so powerful, it broke his tree in half and sent Bushy tumbling into the lake.

“Help me! Help me!” Bushy cried. Mr. Bear heard the shouts, and called the other animals of the forest to the rescue. Suddenly Bushy found that he was not the only person in the world – luckily for him! He needed the others and they needed him.

Bushy’s heart was changed by his experience, and he became a new squirrel, sharing everything he had with anyone who needed it.

The story of Bushy is like a parable Jesus told: There was once a rich man who had a problem. He had too much stuff and didn’t know where to put it all. So he built bigger and bigger storage units. But that didn’t solve his problem, because his appetite for acquisition could never be satisfied. “Gotta get more nuts, gotta get more nuts!”

So is Jesus trying to be Marie Kondo here? Is he offering a useful method of self-help so we can reduce our clutter and make our lives more beautiful and satisfying? Is that why he tells this story––to foster self-improvement? Or is he doing something more radical, more demanding?

What if Jesus had said, “This story is not about you––it’s about us. It’s a story about the foolishness of trying to live as though ‘I’ am the only person in the world. It’s a story about the foolishness of being oblivious to community.” Well, he didn’t say those words, of course. He just told the story, trusting us to have ears that hear.

A certain rich man’s lands brought forth bountiful crops. And he deliberated within himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I do not have a place where I may gather my fruit?”

He deliberated within himself” is a telling image of isolation, suggesting a self utterly cut off from other voices, other perspectives. And notice how he seems surprised by the size of the harvest. As a rich man, he would already possess considerable storage space. But this harvest is bigger than he ever expected or imagined. And when the Bible talks about abundance that is excessive and surprising, that usually means one thing: God is involved, showering down blessings.

A first century listener, steeped in the stories of God’s miracles of generosity, would have picked up on this. And they would have noticed that the rich man’s first response is not one of gratitude or wonder. Does the rich man thank the Creator for the miraculous harvest? Does he laugh in wonder at such a gift? No. His first thought is, “I’ve got a problem. Where am I going to put it all?”

Then he gets an idea:

“I will do this: I will tear down my granaries and build larger ones, and I will gather there all my grain and all my goods and I will say to my self, ‘Self, you have many good things stored up for many a year. Eat, drink, and be merry!’”

In a world full of hungry people, here’s a man who has more than he knows what to do with, and it never occurs to him that he could feed all those hungry people.

As hunger experts point out, hunger is not a problem of supply; it’s a problem of distribution. But distribution is the last thing on this man’s mind. He isn’t just ignoring other people. He seems oblivious to their existence. He is the perfect expression of rampant individualism – untroubled by any sense of interdependent community.

The story makes fun of his isolationism, by having him talk only to himself.

“I will say to myself, ‘Self, you have many good things…”

A narrator would say something like: “Then the man said to himself, ‘Self, you have many good things…’” Instead, the rich man takes over his own narration: “I will say to myself, ‘Self …” and so on. Do you see the difference? This guy doesn’t need anyone, even a narrator. He takes over the telling of his own story. He’s in control, totally self-sufficient.

Whatever the future may bring, he can deal with it, no problem. Just kick back and “eat, drink, and be merry.”

Isn’t this the ideal to which consumerism aspires? Those of us with enough money can acquire everything we need to be self-sufficient. The fundamental unit of our culture is not the tribe or the village, but the single family home. We each have our own rooms, our own food supply, our own car, our own entertainment center, our own set of tools and appliances, our own insurance policies.

The only reason we need to leave the house is to earn the cash in order to maintain the autonomy of our domestic units. If we get rich enough, we don’t even have to do that.

The whole trajectory of the consumerist dream is to declare our independence from the traditional supportive networks of extended family and neighborhood community.

Vincent Miller, a Catholic ethicist, points out that the cash demands of the single family home encourage people to act selfishly:

“Social isolation and the burdens of maintaining a family in this system make it unlikely that other people’s needs will ever present themselves. If and when we do encounter them, we are likely to be so preoccupied with the tasks of maintaining our immediate families that we will have little time and resources to offer. The geography of the single-family home makes it very likely that we will care more about the feeding of our pets that about the millions of children who go to bed hungry around us.” [i]

When we live in isolation from one another, when we fail to nurture the vital aspects of interdependent community, we minimize the ways in which we can either offer help or receive it. Even if we have all the goodwill in the world, we remain trapped within the cash-intensive demands of the consumerist dream. “Gotta get more nuts!”

Ideally, a local church can function as a support system for its members. If someone gets sick or has a family emergency, others in the community step up to provide meals and other forms of assistance. But this kind of support system is exceptional in a society based largely upon isolated autonomous households.

If you don’t have the cash to keep a roof over your head, there is no village to take you in. Maybe you have some relatives somewhere, but they’re probably scattered around the country. And they’re probably running on a tight budget themselves, and don’t have any spare rooms. We’re a long way from the traditional support systems of former times and simpler cultures. Just ask the homeless to tell you their stories.

In American mythology, this is the country of the Lone Ranger, the self-made entrepreneur, the hard-boiled detective with no attachments, or the trucker rolling down that endless highway, free as a bird––and lonesome as hell.

When vast numbers of Vietnamese refugees settled in southern California in the 1970s, they found American culture to be fatal for something they had always taken for granted: the supportive network of extended family. They had to learn, as one writer puts it, that the land of the free means “the perfect freedom of strangers.” [ii]

So Bushy the Squirrel, and the rich man with the storage problem, might be seen as the products of a consumer culture. They don’t need neighbors. They don’t need community. They’ve got everything they need close at hand. There’s nothing for them to do but eat, drink and be merry.

But then what happens? Just when Bushy settles in for a long sleep, a storm breaks open his tree and casts him into the raging waters. In the Bible, whenever something breaks open your neat little world, you can be pretty sure that God is in that storm.

But in Jesus’ parable of the rich man, God intervenes even more explicitly, not with a storm but with words. God speaks to the rich man. In fact, this is the only one of Jesus’ stories where God appears as a character within the story.

And what does God say to the rich man? “Fool!” God says. “Fool!” Now that’s something to wake up your prayer life––to hear God calling you a fool.

Do you remember the most famous use of the word “fool” in the Bible? It’s in the first verse of Psalm 14: The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’  The fool is the one who denies God’s presence, who thinks he or she can grab the gift without acknowledging the Giver––or the Giver’s way, which is not the self-possession of me/myself/and I, but rather a ceaseless pouring out of self.

“Fool, on this night they will demand your life from you.
And all the stuff you have stored up, to whom will it belong?”

In an instant––“this very night”––the rich fool discovers that his autonomous life is not only unstable––it is unsustainable.

He had thought that life was a commodity that could be owned and held onto. But he discovers that God operates a very different kind of economy. God’s economy, which we call the Kingdom of God, is a gift economy, where everything is received and nothing can be held onto.

Everything is like the air we breathe. We take it in, we receive the life it gives us, and then we give it back again. Breathe in, breathe out; receive, give back.

A commodity-based economy is an attempt to hold your breath. You take possession of God’s gifts, you take them out of circulation, you lock them away where others can’t use them.

Whereas a gift always keeps moving from hand to hand, a commodity is grasped and hoarded. And to grasp and to hoard is to live outside of God’s economy, where the gifts are always in circulation, always being given away as fast as they are received. If you reject God’s gift economy, and try to live apart from the interdependent circulation of life’s gifts, you are in effect denying the Trinitarian reality––the eternal self-offering, the ceaseless circulation of gifts, that comprises the heart of God.

That is why the Bible insists that if you try to live as though you were the only person in the room, if you try to exempt yourself from interconnectedness and interdependence, from the need to both give and receive, then you are indeed a fool, trying to live against the way we are made to be as images of the divine reality.

The divine reality is a circulation of gifts. When you are oblivious to the presence of your neighbor, you are oblivious to God as well. When you deny communion, you deny God.

On this night they will demand your life from you.

Most translations use the passive voice: “your life will be demanded of you.” But the original Greek verb is in the active third person plural: “They will demand your life from you.” So who might “they” be? The plural language could be a remnant of archaic mythological imagery, a way of speaking about death as the operation of avenging spiritual powers. But this is not really that kind of story. It’s not steeped in old-fashioned apocalyptic imagery like the Book of Revelation. For all we know the rich man dies in his sleep, without any thunder from heaven.

But what if the “they” who demand his life refers to everyone else in the world, all those neighbors whose existence has been ignored by the rich fool? Other people didn’t exist for him. He took what belonged to his fellow beings and kept it for himself. Now they want it back. As the story puts it, they “demand” his life. Is this punishment, or just a realistic understanding of how God’s universe works?

The story does not have God say, “I will demand your life…” The man’s fate is not an apocalyptic intervention from heaven. It’s simply the way things are in an interdependent reality.

The rich man tried to live outside the way of things, outside the economy of God, and in the end it all caught up with him. In the gift economy in which we live and move and have our being, he discovered that you have to keep the gift moving. You have to give everything away, even your very life.

The parable ends with a question:

What will become of everything that you have stored up?
To whom will it belong?

The question is being posed to the rich man in the parable. But it is also being posed to us. To whom does our wealth belong? Not just our money and our stuff, but every good gift we have been given since God put us on this earth, including our souls and bodies, and every breath we take––to whom does all this belong?

In a country plagued with obscene economic inequality, where the rich and powerful will even take food from the mouths of children to gather more wealth for themselves, how shall we respond to this parable? How do we answer its disturbing question?

Maybe greed is normal now. Maybe selfishness is normal now. Maybe crushing the poor and killing the planet for profit are normal now. But Jesus came to tell us that such things are decidedly not normal––not in God’s world. And we would be fools to think otherwise.

In my father’s filmstrip, Bushy learns his lesson and repents of his selfish ways. Its happy ending was meant to encourage the children who watched it in Sunday School. But Jesus concludes the original parable more ambiguously. He leaves us hanging, without knowing the ultimate fate of the rich man.

I suspect that Jesus is inviting us to finish the story ourselves, to construct a happy ending out of our own actions, as we work together to create a world whose blessings are not hoarded, but freely shared; a world where no need goes unmet, and all God’s children can flourish and thrive.

God, bring that day closer!

 

 

 

[i] Vincent J. Miller, Consuming Religion: Christian Faith and Practice in a Consumer Culture(New York, Continuum, 2004), 50.

[ii] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World(New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 88.

This homily for Proper 13, Year C, will be preached August 4, 2019, at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church, Bainbridge Island, Washington.