Heart work and heaven work

Robert White portrait of George Herbert painted 41 years after his death.

Robert White portrait of George Herbert painted 41 years after his death.

Today is the feast day of George Herbert, the seventeenth-century Anglican poet and priest whose remarkable verse was inseparable from his prayer life. As one admirer put it, “Herbert wrote most of it, but God wrote quite a lot.” That’s a proportionality to which every creative, and every priest, might aspire.

Izaak Walton tells a story about a time Herbert set out for a walk with some friends. Suddenly, without saying why, he excused himself and returned to his church. His friends assumed he’d only be a moment, but they waited and waited and he still didn’t come back out. So they went up to a window and peered in. As Walton relates, they “saw him [lying] prostrate on the ground before the Altar; at which time and place (as he after told [his friend Mr. Woodnot] he set some Rules to himself, for the future management of his life.”

The “holy Mr. Herbert,” they called him around his parish. It was a term of affection. In his late thirties he had given up worldly ambitions to enter the priesthood, and he spent the rest of his life at a country parish in the English village of Bemerton. He died of consumption only four years after being ordained. But his famous manual of advice to country parsons proved a lasting legacy, shaping the self-understanding of clergy for generations to come.

And his poetry! Such astonishing verbal images in a century famous for great language, where words could be bent to the subtlest purposes without losing a speck of passion or truth. Herbert’s art, as the Puritan Richard Baxter put it, was “heart work and heaven work.”

He was both poet and priest; indeed, he showed that poet and priest have similar business, the sacramental work of paying close attention, and enabling others to do the same. Another poet, Mary Oliver, has put this perfectly: “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is, but I do know how to pay attention.”

Herbert liked puns. It wasn’t just a cleverness with language. It was the way he saw the universe: one thing becomes another, like bread becoming God. He often starts with a word or an image, and morphs it into a multiplicity of resonant meanings, or as one critic put it, “he breaks the host of language.” The one is broken into the many so that all the scattered fragments may one day again be made one when God is all in all.

In ‘Church Monuments,’ he’s sitting in church, his mind wandering, and he starts looking at the big marble tombs all around him. First he thinks of his own mortality, “this heap of dust,” but in a few more lines he makes us see the marble monuments themselves crumble into dust, pressing upon us the awareness that everything on this earth must pass away. We are all passing away. And then in one stunning final image, Herbert makes our dust to be the sand in an hourglass, where time is always running out.

flesh is but the glass, which holds the dust
That measures all our time; which also shall
Be crumbled into dust… (‘Church Monuments’)

And in the process he makes a nice pun: “flesh is but the glass” makes the biblically literate reader think of “all flesh is grass,” one of the most vivid evocations of mortality in all of literature.

Herbert believed in words. Language was held more dear in his day, and he used it as a ladder to bridge earth and heaven. Grammar itself became a finely tuned instrument of praise. In ‘Prayer I,’ there are almost no verb forms. It’s mostly nouns, conveying a changelessness transcending the busy world of doing: Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age, Gods breath … The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage … Engine against th’ Almightie, sinner’s towre, Reversed thunder … Heaven in ordinairie, man well drest … The land of spices, something understood. And in ‘The Call,’ it is nouns that dominate both the stresses and the structure of every verse: Way, Truth, Life  … Light, Feast, Strength … Joy, Love, Heart.

Some of Herbert’s imagery speaks of humankind misreading or misspelling reality, and it was the poet’s job to put it right, to give everything its proper name once again.

We say amisse
This or that is:
Thy word is all, if we could spell. (‘The Flower’)

When Herbert lay dying, he entrusted his poems to his friend Nicholas Ferrar. They were, he said, “a picture of the many spiritual Conflicts that have passed betwixt God and my soul, before I could subject mine to the will of Jesus my master, in whose service I have found perfect freedom.” As to whether to publish his manuscript, he left that to Ferrar. “If he think it may turn to the advantage of any poor dejected soul, let it be made public; if not, let him burn it.” Thank God for Ferrar’s good judgment!

The Herbert whom we meet in his poems is a person very much in process: unfinished, imperfect, always aspiring to something higher. He cared deeply about formation and growth – his own as well as that of his congregation. As poet and priest he used all possible art to move those with ears to hear.

Hearken unto a Verser, who may chance
Ryme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may finde him, who a sermon flies,
And turn delight into a sacrifice. (‘The Church Porch’)

As the subject of many of his poems, he used his own life, his own wrestling with God, as a lens for examining the frailty of mortals and the workings of grace. And as his own audience, he used the very process of writing as a form of prayer and self-examination. His poems are both the record of a soul and a source of instruction.

Herbert was extremely honest – even ruthless – about his prayer life. His mind was a “case full of knives,” as he put it, and he was no stranger to doubt, particularly doubt about traversing the abyss between human frailty and divine glory.

He wrestled with God, he wrestled with his own frail and mortal nature. “My searches are my daily bread,” he wrote, “but never prove.” He doesn’t get proof. He gets something better – faith.

Perhaps his signature poem is ‘Love III,’ which Simone Weil called “the most beautiful poem in the world.” I often use it to begin the liturgy of Maundy Thursday, with the congregation taking the part of the guest, and a solo voice speaking for Christ the host.

In the poem, the guest is full of self-abasement: not worthy to be here, not worthy even to look upon the One who invites him to the feast. And yet, the calmly insistent voice of Love will not be denied. There is nothing the guest can say or do that can ever separate him or her from that Love.

Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, obeserving me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.

A guest, I answer’d, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

The Desert and the Flood (Homily for Lent 1)

Death Valley flowers

Today’s Old Testament reading takes us to the end of the great Flood in Genesis. Many people have trouble with this story, because they read it as a tale of crime and punishment, with an angry father god who will get us if we don’t behave.

But the rest of Scripture won’t let us read it that way. The rest of Scripture, including the ending of the Flood story itself – the rainbow and the promise – shows us the face of God as the face of love. God doesn’t want to kill us. God wants to make a covenant with us. God wants to marry us.

So what is the Flood story really about? It actually generates a multitude of meanings, but one of the central ones has to do with violence. Genesis says that God looked upon the earth and saw that it was filled with violence. Sound familiar?

Violence is what happens when we put ourselves in the center instead of God, and try to make the world over in our own image. We are unable to honor or even see the existence of other beings as independent of our own desire. We lose all curiosity for anything outside ourselves.

Violence is intolerance of difference: other selves, other perspectives, other cultures are treated as obstacles to our desire, and must be made either to serve us or be swept away. This intolerance of difference, of otherness, may be seen in the rhetoric of terrorists, as well as its mirror image in the anti-Muslim ranting of certain American politicians. It is may also be seen in the recent outbreaks of overt racism in this country. Fear and hatred of those not like us has become far too common.

Such boundless self-assertion, says the Bible, is the foundational violence that threatens to swallow the whole earth. The Flood is not a punishment imposed from the outside; it is what we have made of ourselves.

When we are hostile to those who are not like us, who are not useful in the boundless expansion of our swelling desire, we destroy the balances and boundaries of which the world is made. You can see this violence in relationships, on the freeway, in the crucifixion of Nature, in the current phenomenon of endless war. If we let creation’s harmonious balance be smashed by human violence, we will all be washed away, the innocent and guilty alike. Not even the billionaire profiteers will be able to hide on that day.

A world drowning in its own violence.
Is this an ancient myth, or the daily news?

But the Flood story has a surprise ending. Instead of destruction, new possibility. Instead of anger, love. Instead of violence, reverence for all beings with whom we share the planet. God tears up all the sad old tragedy scripts and gives us a comedy instead. God invites us to join in the re-imagination of the world. God writes a new story in our hearts.

This is why the Epistle of Peter links the waters of the Flood to the waters of baptism. Both are the ending of an old story and the birthing of a new one. When our old selves drown in the depths of the font, we are reborn in Christ. No longer I, but Christ in me, as Paul says.

But before Christ could become our future, he first had to become himself. We are all tempted to live some other life than our own, to wear other people’s faces instead of becoming what God made us to be. Jesus was no exception. He could have lived some other life. Tradition says that he was tempted to dominate others and to escape the Way of the Cross.

“You don’t have to suffer,” Satan told him. “Not you. You were born King of the World. Think of the good you could do with all that power.”

But if Jesus had not lived with the poor and the outcast, if he had spent his time making rich and powerful friends, would he have been Jesus? If he had led a violent uprising to overthrow Roman tyranny, if he had devoted his life to reforming the religious establishment, would he have been Jesus? If he had turned stones into bread, or not risen from the dead, would he have been Jesus?

“Ask me whether what I have done is my life.”
writes poet William Stafford.[i]
Ask me whether what I have done is my life.

Well, what Jesus did was his life. So, we may wonder, how do we do our own lives? To answer that question, we must go, with Jesus, to the desert.

The desert is the emptiness where there’s no place to hide. In the desert, you come face to face with yourself, your demons, and your God. Nothing is defined there, nothing known in advance. Your scripts are no good in the desert. Your evasions are futile. Whatever makes you want to turn around and run back to the safety of your old illusions is the very thing that is trying to kill you.

Only in the desert is the silence deep enough for you to hear the whisper of your innermost heart. And what is your heart trying to tell you? Listen. Listen to your heart.

As Parker Palmer says:

“Before you tell your lives what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you … Vocation does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening. I must listen to my life and try to understand what it is truly about – quite apart from what I would like it to be about… Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am…”[ii]

We’re always making up stories about ourselves. Sometimes we’re heroes, sometimes we’re victims. But all of these stories are fictions that make us deaf and blind to what our life is actually trying to tell us. What are the stories that you need to let go of in order to let your life speak? If you are going to give up anything this Lent, give up those tired old stories about yourself. They are no longer true.

When we are baptized, we die to our old fictions; we let go of the old stories by which we try to direct our lives. That’s why the Flood story is one of the great images for baptism. There are all those people of Noah’s time clinging to their own fictions, sinking down under the weight of their false identities just as we ourselves sink under the weight of our own fictions.

And when in baptism we are freed from the burden of our false selves, we rise, newly buoyant, to the surface; we are pulled out of the water and given a new story, a new name, which is our true self, our true life, which has been wanting to speak to us all these years.

That is the work we have come to do, as we begin our long Lenten journey, as we step out into that desert where every fiction will be stripped away. At first it will feel like loss, like too much giving up. We may even want to turn around and quit, like the Israelites who complained in the midst of their own desert journey: Let’s go back! It wasn’t so bad, being slaves in Egypt!

But with God’s help, we will keep going, deeper and deeper into that desert, determined to save the only life we can save,[iii] and there will come a day, some 40 days hence, when we will reach the other side. And there we will hear a voice, a voice that calls us each by name.

Come to the waters, the voice will say.
Come to the life-giving pool of the baptismal font.
Come to the Easter waters, and dive in.
Wash yourselves clean of the old fictions, the tired stories,
and rise again out of the watery depths,
newborn, with a new name,
a name which is: Not I but Christ in me.
And this new name, this new self,
is what our life has been trying to tell us all these years.

As Derek Walcott describes it,

The day will come when with elation you will greet
yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror,
And each will smile at the other’s welcome
Saying, “Sit here, eat, you will love again
the stranger who was yourself …
the stranger who has loved you all your life …
who knows you by heart.[iv]

The desert is wide, the journey long, but keep on keeping on, because it will lead you, step by step, into the heart of the Beloved who has loved you all your life, who knows you by heart.

And when we finally draw near the end of our Lenten journey, everything that the desert is about, everything the Christian faith is about, everything our very lives are about, will be intensified and distilled in the incomparable passage from death to life which we call the Paschal Mystery: the life-giving mystery experienced both ritually and personally in the Great Three Days of Holy Week: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil.

Right now, in these first lean and hungry days of the Lenten desert, the transformative joy of the Easter feast may seem unimaginable. But beyond the hunger and thirst, beyond the trials and temptations, the doubts and the stumbles, beyond even the faded Hosannas and the terrible shouts of “Crucify! Crucify!,” there will rise the jubilant Alleluias of the Easter Vigil, breaking at last the stony silence of defeat and death.

The great journey begins here. Now.
And when it’s over,
you will be somebody else:
Not I, but Christ in me.

[i] William Stafford, “Ask Me”

[ii] Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 2000) 3-4

[iii] Mary Oliver, “The Journey”

[iv] Derek Walcott, “Love after Love”

Solitude (Part 2)

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

This evening, an inner light shone up from within, and a voice called, “Come to me, trust me, depend on me. You cannot do it yourself. You’re trapped where you are, and your struggling efforts to free yourself enmesh you more deeply. Come to me.” “Yes,” I answered, and surrendered. Yet my pride was soon fighting back. This is the work I came to do.

— Robert Kull[i]

In Solitude (Part 1), I described one man’s experiment of living in total solitude for one year on a remote island in southern Chile. On this Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the 40-day Christian retreat from habitual living and pesky attachments, it seems a good time to ask what Robert Kull’s experience might teach us about spending time in the “desert.” What happens out there? Will it change us?

Kull has few pretensions about being a hero. One of his first journal entries expresses a feeling of utter weakness and vulnerability: “Alone. A tiny solitary speck completely vulnerable in the face of an infinite universe intent on my annihilation.”[ii] Over the next twelve months he suffers frequent bouts of anxiety, loneliness, rage, depression, emptiness, grief, and self-doubt – all those demons that have nowhere to hide without the constructions and distractions of the social world. “What is this core I’m knotted around?” he wrote after three months. “What painful wound am I protecting? I want nothing to touch me there – but rain, wind, cold, and Cat [his feline companion] keep battering the walls I build.”[iii]

The solution, as he must learn over and over, is not to fight and overcome his human condition, but to surrender: “My goal in the wilderness was not to conquer either the external world or my own inner nature, but to give up the illusion of ownership and control and to experience myself as part of the ebb and flow of something greater than individual ego.”[iv]

He was never entirely free of the hero’s quest to attain a goal, to find the Holy Grail of a perfected self. “It’s painful to feel I’m failing,” he wrote halfway through his year.[v] He worried he was just going round in circles instead of making real progress. He felt like Sisyphus. But isn’t that how the soul dance goes? It’s not the attainment of a final cure for what ails us, but a lifelong process of continual care and self-compassion. As the monks say when asked what they do all day in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up.” Or as a Zen patriarch once put it, “One enlightened thought and one is a Buddha, one foolish thought and one is again an ordinary person.”[vi]

We should rejoice that enlightenment and foolishness (or grace and sin) remain so intertwined in this life. It reminds us that grace is a gift, not a possession. It frees us from pretension and pride, and makes us ever grateful.

In his last days on the island, Kull wrote:

I’m not sure what enlightenment is, but I believe there have been moments. If so, enlightenment is not something I can get. It’s the process of abandoning myself to the world. There have been times when, like a clear bell, I could hear the sound of one hand clapping and feel the sacredness of everything. It’s the sound of the world, once I remember in my heart that there is truly nothing to get. What I’m looking for, I already have.[vii]

In his year of solitude, Kull experienced many moments of enlightenment to go with the many foolish ones. Some of his best thoughts are framed in the language of his adopted Buddhist tradition, but his struggles with self-will and ego are resonant with Christian spirituality as well. “Surrendering the ego to Something Greater is at the heart of spiritual practice, and the process is endlessly subtle and challenging.”[viii]

Kull’s wilderness year did not fix him. He returned home still a work-in-progress. But he had definitely been changed by his sojourn in solitude, and the meaning of that change will only be revealed over the rest of his life. As I often heard when I walked the Camino de Santiago, “when you reach Santiago, your real Camino begins.”

Kull’s relationship with the wind is my favorite example of his spiritual growth. When he began his year in the southern summer, the winds were intense and seemingly endless. If you have ever camped in high winds, you know how wearying, even terrifying, a continuous barrage of turbulence can be. For a long time, Kull regarded the wind as his enemy – an attacking, malevolent force trying to break him down. But as he gradually learned to surrender to the world, to accept the way things are and not take them personally, he recognized the wind had been his teacher all along. In his final weeks on the island, he began to fly a kite on calmer days. The wind had become his playful companion.

For those of us beginning our Lenten retreat today, Kull’s valuable experiment in solitude has much to teach us. The subtractions of retreat – doing without, giving up, setting aside, getting away – can free us from the clutter, noise, addictions, distractions and deceptions that drown out the still, small voice calling our name in every moment. And the unaccustomed hardships of the “desert” – severity, deprivation, emptiness, loneliness, demons – can break the spell of self-sufficiency, returning us to the honest condition of primal need. Few of us will spend a year on a Patagonian island, but a faithful keeping of Lent may take us to a place of similar learning and growth.

Perhaps the best thing we can take from Kull’s journals is the gift of self-compassion. We don’t have to be heroes. We don’t have to be cured. We don’t have to pretend at spiritual competence or perfection. We don’t even have to be “good,” as Mary Oliver reminds us. We “only have to let the soft animal of [our] body / love what it loves.”[ix] And every now and then, as Kull duly notes, we get it: “Finally I am – if only briefly – the flowing All.”[x]

Tonight I will kneel in church for the imposition of ashes. A priest will trace a charred cross on my forehead and say to me, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

What a relief! Only dust, neither hero nor angel. And yet, is not dust the very material God selected to fabricate a physical image of the divine self? This dust may yet shine with glory not its own.

Whether I flie with angels, fall with dust,
Thy hands made both, and I am there;
Thy power and love, my love and trust,
Make one place ev’ry where.[xi]

[i] Robert Kull, Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes – A Year Alone in the Patagonian Wilderness (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008) 98

[ii] Kull, 4

[iii] Kull, 70

[iv] Kull, 47

[v] Kull, 141

[vi] Hui Neng, Sixth Zen Patriarch, q. in Kull, 288

[vii] Kull, 293

[viii] Kull, 271

[ix] Mary Oliver, “Wild Geese,” in New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992) 110

[x] Kull, 283 (italics mine)

[xi] George Herbert, “The Temper”

Solitude (Part 1)

St. Onuphrius

St. Onuphrius

Go, sit in a cell, and your cell will teach you everything.

— Abba Moses (4th century)

Great liking I had in wilderness to sit, that I, far from noise, sweetlier might sing, and with quickness of heart likingest praising I might feel.

— Richard Rolle (14th century)

A man that Studies Happiness must sit alone like a Sparrow upon the House Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness.

— Thomas Traherne (17th century)

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

— Henry David Thoreau (19th century)

In the seclusion of a cell… the troubled waters of the mind grow still and clear, and much that is hidden away and all that clouds it floats to the surface and can be skimmed away; and after a time one reaches a state of peace that is unthought of in the ordinary world.

— Patrick Leigh Fermor (20th century)

I wondered how I could stop feeling attacked by the elements, and then remembered that I came here to be shaped by the experience of solitude in nature. In that moment, I relaxed my grip on who I think I should be and how the world should treat me, and opened myself to the process of change and growth.

— Robert Kull (21st century)

We don’t know the names of the first hermits, or exactly what drove them to flee their social world for the solitude of wilderness. Not every reason was spiritual, nor did every hermit aspire to higher consciousness. The woods and wastelands have seen their share of outlaws and misanthropes. But for many whose names we revere (such as Moses, Buddha and Jesus), as well as for countless saints who have successfully achieved anonymity, the desert, the mountaintop, the island and the forest primeval have been crucial habitats for the work of the soul.

You go to the wilderness both to lose and to gain. You lose habitual patterns and social roles, along with addictive comforts, clocks, calendars, distractions, noise, news, and the various stresses of public and personal life. You gain time, silence, solitude, freedom, wild nature, and the occasional attention of both angels and demons. If you don’t leave too soon, you may also discover a voice which has kept you company since the day of your birth, a voice which has waited patiently until your inner silence grew deep enough to hear it.

When Robert Kull was a young man, an American expatriate living in Canada, he quit his logging job and paddled a canoe deep into the interior of northern British Columbia, where he lived alone for three months. Psychologically and spiritually unprepared for such extended isolation, he almost “lost it” out there, consumed with fear of the vast unknown as his stable sense of self began to crumble. One night he left his campfire to lie down unprotected in the forest darkness. When a bear drew near, he was terrified, with no recourse but to call upon a higher power. “In that moment of surrender, I felt lifted and found myself floating in a pool of clear light. Looking down, I sensed myself lying peacefully on the forest floor. The world was no longer a hostile alien place, but my home. No true separation remained between me and the world.”[i]

During the weeks that followed, Kull felt so joyful, so “deeply integrated into the universe,” that he resolved to spend an entire year in wilderness solitude at some future time. But soon after returning to the world, “I lost my way, and the clear inner light faded.” It would be 25 years before he would keep that promise to himself, a long stretch during which he sought to recapture that original but elusive state of grace through meditation, self-analysis, and spiritual exploration.

Finally, in February, 2001, Kull set up camp on a remote island off the coast of southern Chile, where he would spend a year alone in the Patagonian wilderness. An abridged form of his journals, interspersed with later reflections about the experience, was published by New World Library in 2008 as Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes. It’s a marvelous read. By shunning a grand narrative thread or an authoritative single voice, Kull let his recorded thoughts, observations and experiences stand just as they were written, paragraph by paragraph, full of changing moods and contradictory voices. This documentary restraint allowed me to be in the moment with him. Each time I picked up the book over the past few weeks, I was immediately returned to that island solitude, its hardships and its beauties, its frustrations and its revelations. When the “year” was finally up and I resumed my accustomed life, I was left with the same question that Kull returned with: what happened out there, and has it left a permanent mark on me?

As the Lenten journey into metaphoric wilderness looms near, I want to explore the implications of Kull’s spiritual experiment for the rest of us. I will do this over the course of a few posts. Let me conclude this first installment with some thoughts about his approach.

Raised as a fundamentalist Christian, Kull eventually migrated to Buddhism. He still uses the word “God” at times, but speaks more often of a felt Presence, Something Greater, or mystery. His favorite term is alive or aliveness, always rendered vibrant with italics. Shorn of traditional theist attributes which might divorce the divine from the given world, this Presence is often interchangeable with “nature” or “universe.” Sometimes it has a voice, and responds to our attention, while sometimes it seems a more impersonal, all-embracing flow.

But constructing a coherent systematic theology is not Kull’s design. While he brings his own presuppositions to his observing, as do we all, his aim is ontologically humble. He is not trying to make an objectively comprehensive model of Being, but to describe his own experience when he opens himself to larger spiritual realities. While he draws on the wisdom of various teachers, his knowledge remains largely personal.

As he tells us, he wanted “to explore, through living, the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual effects of deep wilderness solitude.”[ii] Formally, his project was an academic study for a doctorate at the University of British Columbia. But as he later wrote, “although my intention at the beginning of this retreat was to explore solitude through a purely secular lens, [I] have had to admit that I cannot fully live nor write about what is happening without using spiritual terminology.”[iii]

A Christian of the last century, having spent considerable time praying in a cave in North Africa, said that “the trouble with going to the desert is that you risk meeting God there.” And as the series of epigraphs at the top of this post demonstrate, there have always been a few of us willing to take that risk. Those who stay home are all grateful for anything they can tell us afterward.

What Kull learned on that Patagonian island is valuable for several reasons. One is the sheer length of his solitude. The Desert Fathers had visitors, and said mass together on Sundays. Thoreau also enjoyed visitors, and dropped off laundry at his mom’s house in town. But Kull had only one brief visit from park rangers. The rest of the time he was entirely bereft of human presence. He thus provides an uncommon source of data about human consciousness.

Such data is hard to come by. I once heard the scholar-writer Stephen J. Pyne read a brilliant paper on the otherworldly environment of Antarctica. White on white, often without any visible separation between ice and sky, the polar landscape is stripped of the visual cues and details by which we orient ourselves in space. Being there is like dwelling in an abstract painting. I asked Pyne whether prolonged exposure to such strange phenomenology might produce interesting forms of consciousness. Shouldn’t the polar outposts be treated like monasteries where the far edges of human perception could be explored? “Maybe,” he laughed. “But the fact is, everyone just stays inside the sheds watching videos and drinking.”

Kull’s experiment is also valuable for his suspicion of preconceptions. He tried to stay open to whatever happens, as free as possible from abstract ideas about the nature of psychological and spiritual experience. Of course this is not entirely possible. We are all products of culture, language, personal history, social location and other contextual factors. But while I would be interested to see what a theologian could do with the raw data, I am glad it was Kull and not the theologian (myself included!) who did the empirical work. Fewer ideas to get in the way.

Finally, Kull’s report is imbued with his own frailty and vulnerability. He’s neither saint nor guru, just a slob like one of us. Afflicted at times by feelings of spiritual failure, and liable to follow an experience of the oneness of all beings with an angry swipe at his whining cat, we feel the camaraderie of a fellow beginner. When he comes across Merton’s sweeping assertion that the “hermit’s whole life is a life of silent adoration…. a prolonged communion … ever in the presence of God,” Kull can’t contain himself: “[N]owhere does Merton’s statement find support,” he argues. “On the contrary. The mind and heart are all over the place, from the most trivial, mundane, and negative to the joyful, peaceful, and sacred. Solitude is like the rest of life, only with less opportunity for escape into diversion.”[iv]

I like to imagine Merton laughing in agreement.

To be continued in the next post

[i] Robert Kull, Solitude: Seeking Wilderness in Extremes (Novato, CA: New World Library, 2008) xiv

[ii] Kull, 54

[iii] Kull, 214

[iv] Kull, 103


Early morning on the Camino de Santiago

Early morning on the Camino de Santiago

To walk [somewhere] is to earn it, through laboriousness and through the transformation that comes during a journey … We are eternally perplexed by how to move toward forgiveness or healing or truth, but we know how to walk from here to there, however arduous the journey…. In pilgrimage, the journey is radiant with hope … geography has become spiritualized.  – Rebecca Solnit[i]

Henry David Thoreau, reflecting on the verb “to saunter,” suggested two possible word origins. Sans terre, meaning “without land or a home,” describes those who are perpetually on the road, literally or metaphorically. Sainte Terre, meaning “Holy Land,” was applied in the Middle Ages to pilgrims with a specific destination, on their way to the place where the Sacred has uniquely showed itself. Anyone who has been on pilgrimage, or who understands life itself to be one great pilgrimage, would acknowledge both meanings at work in their own sauntering.

As the Bible says, we are all “strangers and aliens on this earth,” ever “in search of a homeland.”[ii] The first humans exiled from Eden; Abraham called to abandon country, home and kindred; the Hebrews wandering in the wilderness; the displaced Israelites weeping by the rivers of Babylon; Jesus having no place to lay his head; Paul continuously on the move or on the run: so many biblical stories display an abiding sense of being on the way to God knows where.

The actual place of arrival often remains beyond the horizon and over the rainbow – distant, unknown, unattained, not here, not yet. The Dark Age Celtic monks adopted this biblical outlook in their own far flung travels. Setting out on wild seas in little rudderless boats, they entrusted their journey to the (providential) vagaries of wind and currents. They had no idea where they would finally land. They simply set out “away from here” and left the rest to God.

I once told a fellow priest what I had read about those monks, and he liked their example so much he tried preaching about them to an upscale congregation of economically empowered people enjoying a high degree of control their own lives. They hated his sermon. Those crazy Celts, consenting to be swept away by larger, unpredictable forces, made them very uncomfortable.

But the monks, like their ancestors in the faith, were never headed for nowhere in particular. They were always looking for the Promised Land, wherever and whenever that might be for them. The last book of the Bible calls this place the new Jerusalem, a new heaven and a new earth, paradise restored. The Celtic wanderers called it “the place of resurrection.”

It is the place we were made for. We’ll know it when we get there. As Frederick Buechner famously describes it, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[iii] This sense of ultimate destination and purpose, however indeterminate in time or space, made those seafaring monks more than sans terre. They were Sainte-Terrers as well, Holy-Landers bound for glory.

And so are we all. Even though Thoreau claimed to have met “but one or two persons” in his life who had a “genius” for sauntering, his exhortation to the “faint-hearted” majority expresses the hope that we may all hear – and obey – the call to pilgrimage.

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return – prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms. If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again, – if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.[iv]

I keep a walking stick by our front door as a perpetual reminder that the pilgrimage road always begins just outside the house. For years it was a pine branch I first used to traverse the Sierra Nevada mountains of California in 1976. Now it is the sturdy staff I acquired last April in St. Jean Pied-de-Port for my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (dispatches from that journey may be found in this blog’s April and May archives).

In Lord of the Rings, Bilbo Baggins began his fateful journey out of the Shire with a song: “The Road goes ever on and on, / Down from the door where it began … Until it joins some larger way / Where many paths and errands meet. / And whither then? I cannot say.”[v] But Bilbo already knew the risks of setting out into the unknown and unfamiliar: “It’s dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.” But he went anyway. It’s what pilgrims do. To refuse the journey is to refuse our story.

We may not always know where the road leads or what will happen along the way. But with the best and longest journeys, that kind of knowledge can fade to insignificance. For every saunterer, the road itself, with its perpetual motion “away from here” toward the land of promise, provides a greater sense of belonging than whatever we left behind. I walk, therefore I am. As Catherine of Siena put it, “All the way to heaven is heaven, because Jesus said, ‘I am the Way.’”

For many years I worked with a wonderful storyteller, Angela Lloyd, on creative variations of the Exodus narrative performed at the Easter Vigil liturgy. And one year she played an Israelite who was starting to wonder how long they would have to wander before they finally arrived at the place God had prepared for them. She pulled out a battered postcard and held it up. “I’ve been carrying this postcard a long time,” she said, “I was planning to mail it when we got to the Promised Land. But now I think I should just mail it from here. And you know, maybe it doesn’t matter where I mail it from. Maybe everywhere we stand is already holy ground.”

[i] Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (NY: Viking Penguin, 2000) 50

[ii] Hebrews 11:13-14

[iii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (NY: Harper & Row, 1973)

[iv] Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” The Natural History Essays (Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith, Inc., 1980) 94

[v] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring (London: The Folio Society, 1977) 51