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.

 

 

“You say goodbye, I say hello”: A Requiem Sermon

Joe and Phyllis Golowka (1940s)

I’ve brushed the dew on Jordan’s banks, the crossing must be near.

– Jefferson Hascall, “Angel Band” (1860)

This winter, my dear friends Joe and Phyllis Golowka died five weeks apart in their 71st year of marriage. I was privileged to preach the sermon today for their Requiem Eucharist at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Cambria, California.

In his younger days, Joe Golowka led teen backpacking trips in California’s Sierra as part of the camping program for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. I had the joy of being the chaplain on those hikes. At some point time caught up with Joe, and he decided to let a younger generation take over, but not before taking one last big trek. We made it a good one: a 10-day traverse of the Sierra Nevada, ascending the western slope along the Middle Fork of the Kings River, crossing two high passes at the crest of the range, and descending the steep eastern escarpment to the Owens Valley. It was one of those revelatory walks which, as John Muir once put it, open a thousand windows to show us God.

On our sixth day, we stopped around noon to make camp along a stream, Palisades Creek, so we wouldn’t have to make a steep climb to our next lake in the heat of day. Instead, we would get up at 4 the next morning, walk by the light of the full moon and a rosy dawn, and reach the lake at sunrise.

With the rest of the day suddenly free, Joe went fishing. He wandered down the stream until he found a pretty good spot, but after a while he got restless, and went looking for some place better. But the second place also failed to satisfy his longing for that holy grail of fishermen: the perfect fishing hole.

As the fairy tales teach us, the magic is always found in the third place––in this case, a slope of smooth granite where the stream rushed down into a quiet, shaded pool. As Joe approached, he saw golden trout leaping out of the pool into the cascade, only to be swept backward by the swift volume of water. Over and over again, the fish threw themselves against the stream’s powerful flow. But none of them could breach the crest of the cascading whitewater.

As Joe watched this spectacle of fierce desire, so thwarted yet so relentless, he felt the call to intervene on life’s behalf. He cast his barbless hook into the deep blue pool, and almost immediately, a trout tugged on his line. He pulled it out, slipped it unharmed off the hook, and tossed it upstream, beyond the cascade, where it could continue its hero’s journey. Again, Joe cast his line, and the same thing happened. Over and over, a trout would bite almost immediately, surrendering to Joe’s saving presence. It was as if the fish somehow understood that the fatal hook would prove to be the instrument of life, not death.

In the space of forty minutes, Joe caught and released thirty-four golden trout. Overcome by the sheer wonder of it, he finally had to stop. Miracles send a lot of voltage through your body. You need to step away and recover. He returned to camp shaking. When he finally shared his story at the evening campfire, it struck me that he had been privileged, for a moment, to share the work of our Creator and Redeemer–– rescuing the hopeless from the depths, casting living seeds into the future, turning a dead end into a gate of life.

And now, forty years later, Joe himself has gone through that gate, with his beloved Phyllis right behind him. They are in glory now, but what about us? Who will wipe the tears from our eyes?

Joe and Phyllis walked this earth for nearly a century. A presence we always took for granted has suddenly been withdrawn. The empty chair, the empty room, startle us with absence, and trouble us with longing.

There Is a time to be born and a time to die––this is the inescapable human condition––but acknowledging our mortal nature does not lessen our grief. Indeed, grief is the price of love, whenever that time comes when we must take the parting hand.

How we wish it were otherwise. Couldn’t we have had them just a little longer?

There’s an Irish song called “The Parting Glass.” They sing it in pubs at closing time. Its minor key and wistful words express the sorrow of ending the evening’s camaraderie as people go their separate ways into the night––a sorrow which feels like a rehearsal for the end of life itself:

Oh, all the comrades that e’er I had,
Are sorry for my going away.
And all the loved ones that e’er I had
Would wish me one more day to stay.
But since it falls unto my lot
That I should rise and you should not,
I’ll gently rise and softly call,
“Goodnight, and joy be with you all.”

I love that last line. The singer doesn’t just say farewell and disappear. He pronounces a blessing upon those who remain: “Joy be with you all.” Yes, we honor our dead by the tears we shed. We honor them even more by embracing the joy they wish for us.

The Bible describes the company of heaven as a great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on from above. The novelist George Eliot called the departed “the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.”[i]

Give your sadness all the time it needs, but remember to hold a space in your heart for the ways the departed will return to you––the choir invisible whose music is the gladness of the world.

For the absence of a loved one in a bodily and temporal form
is succeeded by new forms of presence.

I once asked a group of high school students to write their own epitaph, and this is what one seventeen-year-old girl proposed for her imaginary tombstone:

You say goodbye,
I say hello.

The people who matter have a way of sticking around. Although death changes the relationship, it doesn’t end it. The dead continue to occupy our thoughts. They remain present to us in stories, memories, emotions, DNA (in some cases), and whatever else they left us with.

Our beloved Joe and Phyllis are no longer in one particular place. They are in every place we remember them. They are present when their voices echo in our ears, or in those places where we shared special times together. They are present whenever we think of them, or speak of them, or tell the stories that were their lives.

When C.S. Lewis wrote about the grief process after the death of his wife, he said that as the acute sense of loss began to fade, he wondered whether he was starting to forget her by being happy again, or whether he might betray the rich complexity of her being by reducing her to a fixed set of memories.

But once he just stopped worrying about it, he found that, as he put it, he “began to meet her everywhere.” It wasn’t a voice or an apparition, or even a big emotional experience. It was, he said, “a sort of unobstrusive but massive sense that she is, just as much as ever, a fact to be taken into account.”[ii]

Michael Smith, a folksinger from Chicago, described a similar sense of presence in a song about his late father.

I brought my father with me
I hope that you don’t mind
I couldn’t find it in me
To make him stay behind…

There are some ways I’m just like him
Some ways he was just like me
And sometimes when the mirror’s dim
His face is clear to see
Tonight the winds of heaven
Blow the stars across the sky
I brought my father with me
I couldn’t say goodbye [iii]

We have all  brought Joe and Phyllis with us this morning. And they will remain with each of us in countless ways. I can’t go on a hike without hearing Joe’s voice, telling me to pay attention, to take in the beauty offering itself in every moment. Don’t just stare down at the trail! Look around!

We carry Joe and Phyllis with us. But we also grieve their absence. They’ve been a presence in our lives for so long, It’s hard to believe they are gone. Our hearts go out to their family, especially to their children. Losing one’s parents is one of the hardest things we ever do, no matter how old they were or how old we are. There is great sorrow in that. It is a time to weep.

But it is also a time to dance.
We lament today, but we also praise.

Thank God we had Joe and Phyllis in our lives for so long.
Thank God that Joe was what only Joe could be,
that Phyllis was what only Phyllis could be.
Thank God for what Joe and Phyllis could only be together.
Thank God for what they gave us.
Thank God for the ways they loved and mentored and befriended us.
Thank God for the ways they blessed us.

Joe and Phyllis will live on in memory and story, and we take great comfort and pleasure in that. But we also make a deeper claim here. Joe’s life, and Phyllis’ life, are not just something we remember––because their journey is not over and done. They still have a future––with Christ and in Christ in the company of heaven. God loses no one.

Death is not the last word, the final chapter. It is, rather, the passage into the unimaginable fullness of unending life in God.

Death, be not proud. though some have called thee 
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so; 
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow 
Die not . . .
One short sleep past, we wake eternally 
And death shall be no more . . .[iv]

So said John Donne, 17th century Anglican poet and priest, because he knew how the story goes: Love wins and death dies.

This is the story that God’s friends stake their lives on:
God has loved us into existence.
God sustains us every step of our life’s journey.
And even after our bodies give out,
God loves us too much to let us go.

This Requiem eucharist is above all a celebration of resurrection. In our hymns and our prayers we proclaim the God of life who has made death into the gate of heaven.

Everything we sing and pray today comes down to this: We are here to celebrate the entrance of Joe and Phyllis into the land of light and joy.

Some of you know how I love American shape note hymns. They were written at a time when people with shorter life expectancies had to look death in the face every day, and they still managed to proclaim the victory of life. Even at the grave, they made their song:

Why do we mourn departing friends,
Or shake at death’s alarms?
‘Tis but the voice that Jesus sends
to call them to his arms.[v]

Filled with delight, my raptured soul
Would here no longer stay,
Though Jordan’s wave around me roll,
Fearless, I’d launch away.
I am bound for the Promised Land,
I am bound for the Promised Land![vi]

Farewell, my friends, adieu, adieu,
I can no longer stay with you;
My glitt’ring crown appears in view,
All is well, all is well.[vii]

About the same time those hymns were written, Henry David Thoreau was on his deathbed in Concord, Massachusetts. A few days before he died, a family friend said to him, “You seem so near the brink of the dark river that I almost wonder how the opposite shore may appear to you.”

And Thoreau, who had spent his life carefully observing and describing what he saw in the fields and woods around Walden Pond, replied simply, “One world at a time.”[viii]

However curious we may be about what it’s like across that dark river between the worlds, we can’t see it from here. But I would venture to say that heaven is not so much a place as it is a relationship. We live in God and God lives in us. And that is true on both sides of the river. Whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.

If you want more details, the Scriptures provide so many vivid images of what it means to be in God’s presence:

Isaiah says that wherever the oppressed begin to hear good news, and the prisons go out of business, and the tears of the brokenhearted are replaced by the oil of gladness, heaven is already happening. (Isaiah 61:1-3)

St. Paul assures us that nothing––neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor presidents, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. Not now, or ever. (Romans 8:38-9)

Today’s Epistle declares: “God will dwell with mortals, and they will be God’s family… Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)

And Jesus our Brother tells us, “It is the will of the One who sent me that I shall lose nothing of all those entrusted to me. . . and I will raise them up on the last day.” (John 6:39-40)

By the way, when I think of the Last Day, I imagine it’s something like the shock of your first morning on a backpack with Joe. You’re in a peaceful sleep, snug in your down bag, content to postpone the shock of the cold mountain air.

Then, as sudden as the angel’s resurrection trumpet, a hand shakes you awake, and a voice shouts, “Rise and shine! Come out of that fluffy cocoon. This is the day which God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” Those may not have been Joe’s exact words, but some of you were there on those mornings. You know what I’m talking about. The Day of Resurrection!

In a few minutes, we will collectively perform our central image for life in God:
We will gather around a table where Love bids us welcome,
to be richly nourished by the food of heaven.

There’s a place for everyone at God’s feast.
No one is excluded or banned or forgotten.
As they say at heaven’s gate, “Weary pilgrim, welcome home.”

One last thing.

Joe and Phyllis were both blessed to die at home, in hospice care, with family keeping vigil. My father-in-law, Arthur, did the same at the end of January, and I found a strangely beautiful grace in those last days. The soul’s departure is an awesome and holy thing to witness. It is life’s profoundest mystery.

When the time comes, people seem to know exactly what to do: their body gradually letting go as their attention shifts from this world to the next.

And as they depart from us, this is how we pray for them:
Receive them into the arms of your mercy,
into the blessed rest of everlasting peace,
and into the glorious company of the saints in light.[ix]

The contemplative monk Thomas Merton said that death is not something that just happens to us as passive recipients. It is, rather, something we do, an act of self-offering, what Merton called “the last free perfect act of love which is at once surrender and acceptance.”[x]

In other words, in the act of dying, we let everything go
and give ourselves over completely into the hands of God.
That is what Joe has done; that is what Phyllis has done.
And one day, you and I will do the same.

And God, as promised, will prove to be “mercy clothed in light.”[xi]

O glorious day! O blessed hope!
My soul leaps forward at the thought:
When, on that happy, happy land,
We’ll no more take the parting hand.
But with our blessed holy Lord
We’ll shout and sing with one accord.[xii]

 

Related post: Fathers, we must part

 

 

 

[i] From her poem, “O May I Join the Choir Invisible,” q. in All in the End is HarvestL An Anthology for Those Who Grieve, ed. Agnes Whitaker (London: Darton, Longman, & Todd, 1984, 1995), 83

[ii] C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, q. in All in the End, 105

[iii] Michael Smith, “I Brought My Father With Me,” on his album Time, 1994

[iv] John Donne, Holy Sonnets X in John Donne, The Complete English Poems, ed, C.A Patrides (London: Everyman’s Library, 1991), 440-1

[v] “China” in The Sacred Harp 163b (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991)

[vi] “The Promised Land” in ibid., 128

[vii] “All Is Well” in ibid., 122

[viii] Malcolm Clemens Young, The Spiritual Journal of Henry David Thoreau (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2009), 8

[ix] Ministration at the Time of Death in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 465

[x] From posthumous publication, Love and Living (1979, p. 103), q. in The Thomas Merton Encylopedia (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 107

[xi] Jane Kenyon’s sublime image is from her poem, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Jane Kenyon: Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

[xii] “Parting Hand” in The Sacred Harp, 62

Fathers, we must part

Joe Golowka at 93

Joe Golowka at 93

Still, if it is a dream, let us indulge it a moment longer. Let us believe that some things last,
and some places and some people are not touched by change.

– Virginia Woolf[i]

When anyone spends nearly a hundred years on this earth, their departure hardly feels untimely. But it leaves a hole which is hard to get used to. They were always there––and now they’re not. When my mentor and fatherly friend Joe Golowka died in his sleep around dawn yesterday, a month before his ninety-ninth birthday, I knew it was coming. But I still felt the shock of sudden absence.

I first met Joe six years after losing my father. Heart attack, 62 years old. Fatherless in my twenties, I needed considerably more mentoring, and Joe supplied it with gentleness and warmth. His family welcomed me as one of their own, and I cherish many happy memories of hanging out at their house for barbecues, swimming and cheering on the Dodgers and Lakers. I had a priestly role in two family baptisms and a wedding, and the whole clan drove a thousand miles to celebrate my own marriage. Whenever I visit them, I don’t need to knock before entering.

Joe enjoyed many things, but his love for the California mountains was our closest bond. He started teenage backpacking adventures in the Sierra for the Episcopal dioceses of Los Angeles and San Diego, and we first met in 1972 when he recruited me to be chaplain for his annual excursions. I possessed a little backpacking experience at the time, and had been training my eyes and heart for nature by reading Thoreau and John Muir. But Joe soon became my best teacher in the physical and spiritual dimensions of wilderness walking.

He gave a master class in the art of paying attention. Don’t race down the trail. Take your time. Stop and look. Wait patiently for nature to show itself. Get down on the ground, climb a tree, try a different angle. From the tiniest orchid to the grandest sunset, he wouldn’t let you miss anything of what John Muir called “these vast, calm, measureless mountain days … opening a thousand windows to show us God.”[ii] Joe’s voice––Don’t forget to look!––still keeps me company when I hike alone. And hundreds of his other trail companions would tell you the same.

There is a Zen story about a monk who was meditating by the window of his mountain cabin when a thief broke in. The monk did not react, but just kept on meditating. His eyes were not on the thief, but on the full moon passing between the pines. The thief took what little there was, then slipped back into the night. “Poor fellow,” said the monk. “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.” Joe was like that monk. He gave us the moon, and so much more.

In 2003, I planned an eight-day solo hike in the eastern Sierra. Since I would finish many miles south of my starting point, I needed to leave my car at the hike’s terminus (the bottom of a 9-mile, 6000’ descent to high desert from 12,000’ Taboose Pass), and then get myself 17 miles up the highway to the trailhead at Big Pine Creek. As it happened, Joe was on a fishing trip in the area, and he offered to provide my shuttle ride.

In his mid-eighties at the time, Joe had reluctantly given up mountain hiking a few years before. But during his fishing trips in the Owens Valley east of the Sierra, he would sometimes visit his favorite trails, walking a short stretch to bid them farewell. So when I began my walk, Joe kept me company for the first mile, until we reached a bridge below a grand cascade. We stood on the bridge for a while, leaning on the railing in wordless contemplation of the roaring falls. Then we crossed to the other side, where the trail began a steep ascent into a forest of incense cedar and Jeffrey pine. Joe had gone as far as he could. He looked down at the trail for a moment, and offered his regrets. “I wish I could come with you”, he said. It wasn’t just me he was addressing, but the trail itself. How hard to surrender something you love so much.

To live in this world you must be able to do three things, says Mary Oliver.

to love what is mortal;
to hold it against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.[iii]

Nine days ago, my wife’s father, Art, died peacefully in hospice at his home, surrounded by his children and grandchildren. When his body began to give out last fall, he did not talk much about what lay ahead, but once his last days arrived, he seemed to know exactly what to do. His attention began to shift from this world to the next as he went inward, responding less and less to the empirical world in which he had lived and moved for 87 years. He was letting go. Going home.

I’ve almost gained my heavenly home,
My spirit loudly sings.
Behold, they come, the holy ones,
I hear the sound of wings.[iv]

In Art’s last hours, his family laid hands on him as I said the Last Rites: Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world . . . Then my wife Karen, wearing a stole she had just brought back from a Holy Land pilgrimage, anointed her father with oil. As evening fell he breathed his last, and departed in peace.

It is no denial of grief to mark the holiness of such a dying. Absent the tragedy of an untimely death, or the anguish of a painful one, we may glimpse even through our tears what a solemn and beautiful mystery it is to pass from the temporal to the eternal.

Jerusalem, my happy home,
When shall I come to thee?
When shall my sorrows have an end,
Thy joys when shall I see?[v]

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

Jeffrey pines, Sierra Nevada

When Joe and I parted at that Big Pine Creek trailhead, he blessed me with an affectionate hug, and I began my long climb. As I trudged upward, he called out after me, giving the same admonition I’d first heard in his gruff voice thirty years earlier: “Don’t stare at the trail! Your feet can see the trail just fine. Look around, see everything, enjoy everything.” Then he turned and started back toward the trailhead. I stopped to watch until he disappeared into the trees.

In the space of eight winter days, I have lost two fathers. Joe’s departure was like Art’s––peaceful, in his own bed, surrounded by family. When I got the news by phone, it was snowing outside. Suddenly the power went off and the call dropped. It felt like Joe’s final message to me: Hey Jim, get off the phone and go outside. This snowfall is too beautiful to miss!

 

 

 

 

 

 

[i] Virginia Woolf, The Second Common Reader (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1960)

[ii] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), Chapter 2, June 23, 1869, p. 35

[iii] “In Blackwater Woods,” Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 178

[iv] “Angel Band,” text by Jefferson Hascall (1860), tune by William Batchelder Bradbury (1862). This is one of the songs we sang at Art’s bedside.

[v] c. 16th century, The Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (New York: Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), #620

One vast miracle

Perseids (sm)

Tonight after sunset I will drive over the Cascades to a dark plain 200 miles east of Seattle to watch the Perseid meteor shower, summer’s great nocturnal spectacular. This will be the best one in five years, as there will be no moon to dilute the blackness of space. A night sky free from city lights is an awesome sight. Throw in up to 100 meteors per hour, and it is pure wonder.

Loren Eiseley, a scientist whose nature writings deeply shaped my own sensibility toward the natural world, said that “the word miraculous has been defined as an event transcending the known laws of nature … We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness. We forget that each of us in [our] personal life repeats that miracle.”

Whether lying in an August meadow with my father as a boy, or trekking to an 11,000′ mesa to keep watch till dawn, I have been religious about keeping my appointment with the Perseids. The photograph above was taken two years ago, when I set my camera to make a series of 30-second exposures starting at midnight. This year’s peak should be about 1 am. I will keep my eyes open as best I can until first light, then drive into the rising sun to spend a week in an alpine lakes basin north of Yellowstone.

I have backpacked in the mountains of the West almost every summer since 1971. It is a week of holy obligation, a blend of adventure, beauty and silence without which my year would be incomplete and my soul undernourished. As a young priest, I helped lead many teenage backpacks in California’s Sierra Nevada. Toward the end of those week-long hikes we would devote an evening to campfire reflections followed by quiet time under the stars.

The first time we did this, I read them a passage from Loren Eiseley’s The Immense Journey, describing one of his bone-hunting expeditions in the Dakota badlands. “Fifty million years lay under my feet,” he wrote, “fifty million years of bellowing monsters moving in a green world now gone so utterly that its very light was travelling on the farther edge of space.” He then listed the chemicals in the soil of that dry and barren land, imagining the strange wild creatures they had once constituted. “The iron did not remember the blood it had once moved within, the phosphorous had forgot the savage brain. The little individual moment had ebbed from all those strange combinations of chemicals as it would ebb from our living bodies into the sinks and runnels of oncoming time.”

But then Eiseley looked up, and saw in the last light of day a flock of warblers hurrying across the sky. Like their extinct ancestors, those birds were also complex combinations of chemicals. And the very fact of their animate life in a “dead” land struck him as a perfect instance of nature transcending “night and nothingness.”

As I read, the campers’ young faces glowed with rapt attention in our circle of firelight. Everything we had experienced together in those mountains seemed transfigured by Eiseley’s words. The “natural” world, in which we lived and moved and had our being, felt radiant with wonder under the spell of his poetic perception. After the reading, we sang a few songs, then dispersed into the darkness beyond the fire to keep a time of quiet.

When I first announced that we would have a “quiet night,” some of the teens expressed concern. At other church camps, they had experienced enforced silence as somewhat uncomfortable. Being alone with one’s thoughts, particularly in the company of others, could feel awkward and unnatural. I assured them that absolute silence was not necessary, that conversations were fine, as long as they maintained the reflective spirit of the evening. So while some did go off by themselves, others engaged in thoughtful exchanges sotto voce. As bedtime neared, I returned to the fire one more time. Two girls were quietly reading to each other from my copy of The Immense Journey:

I had lifted up a fistful of that ground. I held it while that wild flight of south-bound warblers hurtled over me into the oncoming dark. There went phosphorous, there went iron, there went carbon, there beat the calcium in those hurrying wings. Alone on a dead planet I watched that incredible miracle speeding past. It ran by some true compass over field and waste land. It cried its individual ecstasies into the air until the gullies rang, It swerved like a single body, it knew itself and, lonely, it bunched itself close in the racing darkness, its individual entities feeling about them in the rising night. And so, crying to each other their identity, they passed away out of my view.

… As I walked into my camp late that night, one man, rousing from his blankets beside the fire, asked sleepily, “What did you see?”

“I think, a miracle,” I said softly, but I said it to myself. Behind me that vast waste began to glow under the rising moon.