Backpacking with the Saints (Part 3)

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

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

–– Belden C. Lane

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

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

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

Palouse Falls, Washington (August 21, 2014)

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

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

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

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1837)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 All photographs by Jim Friedrich

 

Backpacking with the Saints (Part 2)

Death Valley National Park, Holy Week 2005

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

–– Edmond Jabés

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

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

Descent (When the Trail Gets Rough)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

All photographs were taken on my own hikes.

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

Backpacking with the Saints (Part 1)

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

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

–– Hosea 2:14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1) Departure (Leaving the trailhead)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pink monkey flowers along Sky Top Creek.

2) Discipline (The practice of the wild)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May I arrive at every place I enter.

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

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

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

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

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

Sky Top Creek on my last night in the Beartooths.

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Related posts: 

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

Mountains to Try Our Souls

The author in the North Cascades, August 2018.

For once I stood
In the white windy presence of eternity.

–– Eunice Tietjens, “The Most-Sacred Mountain”

 

For most of European history, people found little pleasure in mountain landscapes. Mountains were a nuisance––obstacles to travel and economically unproductive. And they had little value as scenery. Their artless, irregular shapes disturbed classical ideals of order. Christians of the Middle Ages would allegorize the chaos of wild wastes and broken stones as the unsightly rubbish of a fallen world––the postlapsarian antithesis of Eden’s gentle and harmonious garden. As late as the eighteenth century, travelers crossing the Alps drew the curtains of their carriages to prevent any upsetting glimpses of geological chaos.

Yet the theological mind has long been lured by the sacredness of mountains––the places where earth dares to reach for heaven, and the solidity of matter converses with clouds. Their alien, forbidding environment evokes the mysterium tremendum, that dangerous energy “beyond our apprehension and comprehension, not only because our knowledge has certain irremovable limits, but because in it we come upon something inherently ‘wholly other,’ whose kind and character are incommensurable with our own, and before which we therefore recoil in a wonder that strikes us chill and numb.” [i]

Dante and Virgil as the foot of Mount Purgatory (after a 14th century illumination)

Dante’s Purgatorio provides the supreme western model of physical ascent as transformative spiritual pilgrimage. Its seven-story mountain offers neither picturesque scenery nor recreational adventure. It’s no place for the casual or careless visitor. It exists only as a rigorous ordeal of purgation and rebirth. Such mountains are best avoided unless you want to change your life.

In contrast, Dante’s Italian contemporary, Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) left us a rare record of medieval mountain walking as an appreciative outing unburdened by excessive meaning. When he ascended Provence’s Mount Ventoux in the spring of 1336, he became “the first to climb a mountain for its own sake, and to enjoy the view from the top.” [ii] That may be a slight exaggeration, but Petrarch’s enthusiastic write-up of his day-hike does feel closer to Wordsworth than to Dante. He took pleasure in the nearness of drifting clouds and the distant vistas of snowy Alps and the Mediterranean blue.

Petrarch remained medieval when he reflected on the allegorical dimensions of his walk. “What thou hast repeatedly experienced to-day in the ascent of this mountain,” he told himself, “happens to thee, as to many, in the journey toward the blessed life.” And when he opened the copy of Augustine’s Confessions he always carried with him, the passage that caught his eye made him worry whether he had been enjoying the creation more than its Creator. If only he had brought Mary Oliver instead!

But still, the Italian humanist couldn’t really renounce the pleasure of that walk. “My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer,” he wrote. Centuries would pass before it became common practice to climb mountains simply because they are there, and embrace the experience as an invigorating challenge. [iii]

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

In Anglican theologian Thomas Burnet’s response to the Alps in 1671, we can foresee the emergence of a more modern sensibility. But it didn’t come easily. Still deeply imprinted with Europe’s cultural aversion to mountains as the “ruins of a broken earth” and “a dead heap of rubbish,” Burnet was appalled by the Alps’ “ghastliness,” disorder, deformity and lack of symmetrical balance. They threatened his understanding of God as the Great Architect whose glory shone in Creation’s meticulous design. “I was not easy,” he confessed, “till I could give my self some tolerable Account how that Confusion came in Nature.” [iv] But at the same time, he was unable to dismiss the Alps’ emotional impact.

Marjorie Hope Nicolson, in her classic study of the “aesthetics of the infinite,” describes the drama of Burnet’s fierce struggle between head and heart:

“Whenever we look among his passages on wild nature, we find conflict between intellectual condemnation of asymmetry and emotional response to the attraction of the vast. . . If Burnet could not forgive Nature for her confusion, he could not deny the effect of her vastness. . . The emotions he felt among the Alps were enthusiastic, primitive, and violent and as such repellent to a disciple of Reason.” [v]

Burnet tried to resolve his inner conflict by writing The Sacred Theory of the Earth (1684), blaming Creation’s visual disarray on the Flood––and the human sin that caused it. The post-diluvian mess of mountains and other wastelands was therefore no failure of intelligent design. The Divine Architect was off the hook. Neat, but I suspect that the unnerving wildness of the Alps continued to haunt Burnet’s dreams.

North Cascades National Park (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

By the eighteenth century, such lingering resistance to the sublime began to collapse. When poet Thomas Gray toured the Alps in 1739, he looked upon the same “magnificent rudeness” which had so disturbed Burnet, but he fell for it utterly. “You here meet with all the beauties so savage and horrid a place can present you with,” he wrote in his journal. Rocks, cascades, ancient forests “all concur to form one of the most poetical scenes imaginable.” [vi]

As if the ancient curse had been forever lifted, the mountains would become for nature lovers like John Muir an inexhaustible source of joy and blessing. “Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” he wrote about his beloved Sierra in 1911, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” [vii]

But if the mountains can bring such joy, has their wild otherness been forever tamed? Those who climb say otherwise. My friend Robert Leonard Reid, an experienced mountaineer and one of my favorite writers, sees engagement with the high country as inherently spiritual:

“No sport that I know of has spawned a literature as introspective, as probing, or ultimately as religious as mountaineering. The sport causes climbers to experience unimaginable hardships and then, at the ends of their ropes, to plumb their souls for meaning. They emerge from their excursions to the edge of unknowing with insights into their spiritual natures that transcend the possibilities of mere sport. The literature is replete with tales of magic and mystery, of wild humor and terrible sadness and loss and then rebirth––all integral to the practice of climbing, all the result of protracted contact with the unseeable.” [viii]

 

Dante carried upward in a dream to Purgatory’s gate. (Gustave Dore)

I fell in love with mountains as a boy on family vacations at Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada range. There’s a 10,000’ peak above the lake, and the steep scramble to its summit was one of my favorite adventures. I’ve rambled the high country ever since, including Mt. Agazziz (13,899’), Mt. Rainier (14,411’), and Mt. Whitney (14,505’).

I am drawn to the way mountains mean. I sometimes carry a copy of Purgatorio in my backpack. It’s a perfect guide for the pilgrim who seeks “the mountain where Justice tries our souls” (Purg.iii.3).  And a holy mountain was the subject of my first film as writer/director. It was a Pilgrim’s Progress ascending through a series of obstacles, ordeals, distractions and temptations. As the climber nears the summit, a suave Satanic figure urges him to be reasonable and admit the folly of his spiritual ascent. In our disenchanted world, what does the search matter when there’s nothing really to find? [ix]

“The mountain of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb,” said Gregory of Nyssa.[x] He used the word epiktasis (“straining forward to what lies ahead”) to describe the goal of human life, in this world and the next, as the endless pursuit of God’s inexhaustible mystery. Never knowing what’s beyond us is the life of faith. It’s why we keep climbing.

When Moses summited Mount Sinai, he disappeared into the Cloud of Unknowing, the dazzling darkness of divine mystery. Whatever happened to the Hebrew prophet up there, the mountain itself became a foundational archetype for every spiritual ascent. The Arabic name for Mount Sinai is Jebel Musa, “Moses’ mountain.” Although not the tallest of the region’s peaks, its volcanic mass, “rearing its giant brow above the plain, as if in scornful contemplation of the world beneath,” proved a persuasive indicator of its biblical authenticity. [xi] Two millennia of Christian pilgrimage have further burnished its sanctity.

An English pilgrim’s description of its “savage grandeur” in 1885 speaks the language of the serious mountaineer: “The whole aspect of the surroundings impresses one with the conviction that he is here gazing on the face of Nature under one of her most savage forms, in view of which the idea of solitude, of waste, and of desolation connect with those of awe and admiration.” [xii]

There are more difficult ascents, but none more serious. St. Stephen, a 6thcentury monk at Sinai’s monastery of St. Catherine, would stand at the “Shrive Gate” where the 3000-step Stairway of Repentance began, posing to every aspiring climber the challenge of Psalm 24:

Who shall ascend unto the hill of the Lord?
Or who shall stand in God’s holy place?

You needed to make the correct response if you wanted to set foot on the holy mountain:

Those who have clean hands, and a pure heart,
who have not lifted up their soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully.
They shall receive blessing from the Lord,
and righteousness from the God of their salvation. [xiii]

I climbed Mt. Sinai in 1989, reciting the Jesus Prayer as my tired legs slogged up the final 750 steps: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” At the summit, I celebrated Holy Eucharist with a community of Anglican and Catholic pilgrims. I also managed to drop my binoculars off a precipitous ledge. I had to laugh at this unwilled offering to the mountain. Their untimely end seemed a fitting metaphor for the mystic’s loss of natural sight in the presence of the holy

When I climbed Mt. Whitney nine years later, there would be a sudden burst of sunshine to brighten the cloud-shadowed summit, followed quickly by lightning and snow. But Mount Sinai provided no comparable display of power and might. Whatever the mountain of God wanted to tell me, it whispered in an unknown tongue. When I returned to the world below, this is what I set down in my journal:

Egeria, that talkative 4th century pilgrim to the Holy Land, is strangely mute about her experience on Mount Sinai. “Now that we had done all we wanted,” she wrote, “and climbed the summit of the mountain of God, we began the descent.” We have to wonder: what happened to her at the top? We long for a more eloquent reporter, perhaps a John of the Cross, who could write of his own spiritual progress,

 “The steeper upward that I flew on so vertiginous a quest,
the humbler and more lowly grew my spirit,
fainting in my breast.”

And what did experience at the summit? Hmm––Egeria was right. You can’t talk about it. Whatever I felt is irrelevant. The mountain is not about me; it pays no attention to my comings and goings. And whether such sublime indifference is a matter of annihilation or splendor is the question over which faith hangs suspended. [xiv]

Perhaps silence is the best homage we can offer our holy mountains. What is most valuable can never be possessed. What is most real can never be fully seen. Louis Golding makes the point perfectly in his 1937 account, “I Stood Upon Sinai”:

“I found I had got to the top of Gebel Musa, a grand mountain commanding grand views, but not to the top of Mount Sinai. For the Holy Mountain is a spiritual, not a physical experience. Few men have ever reached the summit, and few will get there again. Perhaps it is only when the Mountain is veiled round with impenetrable cloud, that the Mountain begins to be visible at all.” [xv]

 

The author on the summit of Mount Sinai, 1989.

 

Related Post: “Every common bush afire with God”

[i]Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy(1923), 28.

[ii]Kenneth Clark, Landscape into Art(1949), 23.

[iii]You can read The Ascent of Mount Ventouxhere: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/petrarch-ventoux.asp

[iv]q. in Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory: The Development of the Aesthetics of the Infinite (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1959/1997), 207.

[v]Ibid., 213, 215, 220.

[vi]Ibid., 356.

[vii]John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra.

[viii]Robert Leonard Reid, “The Mountain of Love and Death” in Mountains of the Great Blue Dream(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 15-16. Reid’s writing about the high country is full of wit and wonder. His latest collection of writings, Because It Is So Beautiful: Unraveling the Mystique of the American West,just came out in paperback.

[ix]Ignatz(1972) is not currently available, but I’m working on it. I took the protagonist’s name from the mouse in Krazy Kat comics, with a simultaneous nod to Ignatian spirituality and the German term for a holy fool. The blockhead game played by the man in black references Death’s chess game in Bergman’s Seventh Seal.

[x]Life of Mosesii.46, in Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 106.

[xi]Edward Palmer in 1871, q. in Mount Sinai, Joseph J. Hobbs (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995), 100.

[xii]Edward Hull, in Hobbs, 123-24.

[xiii]Hobbs, 234.

[xiv]Personal journal, May 12, 1989.

[xv]Geographical Magazine6 (1937), q. in Hobbs, 239-40.

“Every common bush afire with God”

Weatherbeaten pines near the summit of Mt. Tallac.

Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware…

–  Elizabeth Barrett Browning

 

August 6th marks the Feast of the Transfiguration, that strange moment in the gospel narrative when the divine glory in Jesus is glimpsed by three disciples on the summit of a mountain. Scholars have puzzled over the strange mysticism of the story, an anomalous intrusion into the more historical tone of the gospel texts. Was it a misplaced post-resurrection story, or did the glory of heaven really blaze for a moment in an ordinary place on an ordinary afternoon?

Although some scholars locate the event on the higher, wilder summit of Mt. Hermon (9232’), tradition commemorates the story on the gently rounded crown of Mt. Tabor, a solitary knob rising 1500 feet above the Galilean plain. To the romantics among us, in love with the sublime majesty of high mountains, Tabor’s humbler setting seems an uninspired choice for a manifestation of the divine. Doesn’t the experience of divine presence require the less accessible, more transcendent heights of a Mt. Sinai, reached only with bleeding feet and gasping breath?

The lectionary readings for the Transfiguration don’t seem worried about the comparison. Sinai and Tabor are both remembered as summits where the divine presence was revealed to mortal sight. The gospel description of a cloud overshadowing the mount of Transfiguration is clearly meant to echo the theophany at Sinai. But the two mountains are in fact very different places.

Sinai is austere, barren, and forbidding, rising out of a desolate landscape that Deuteronomy aptly describes as “a terrible and waste-howling wilderness.” The mountain consists of 580 million year old red granite, overlaid by dark volcanic rock of more recent origin (ten million years ago).Travelers over the centuries have spoken of Mt. Sinai as “dark and frowning”, with its “stern, naked, splintered peaks.” One 19th century pilgrim said, “I felt as though I had come to the end of the world.”

For Moses and his people, its summit was wrapped in the Cloud of Unknowing, where human sight must become blind before it can see the divine light. It is a place apart, inhospitable to ordinary life and everyday knowledge. Its mystery remains hidden from the casual quest. “The knowledge of God,” said Gregory of Nyssa, “is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb.”

The Israelites were smart enough to know this. They stayed down in the valley where it was safe. Even there, the thunder and lightning around the peak made them shudder. The Exodus text says that just touching the edge of the mountain could kill you. So they were happy to let Moses go up alone. As one ancient writer put it, he “left behind every divine light, every voice, every word from heaven, to plunge into the darkness where the One dwells who is beyond all things.”

Medieval mystics said that on the summit, inside the cloud, Moses fell asleep in a supreme self-forgetfulness. Whatever he saw up there was beyond words, but the description of Moses descending is unforgettable: the skin of his face shone because he had been talking to God. The Israelites were afraid to come near him until he had veiled his face.

This is a story about the otherness of God, the one whose incomprehensible mystery is utterly beyond our world, beyond our knowing, beyond our grasp.

In choosing Tabor as the site to commemorate the Transfiguration, tradition has invoked God’s less forbidding aspect. Tabor is what geologists call a monadnock, a native American word for “mountain that stands alone.” Resistant to the erosion that reduced its surroundings to a low plain, its solitary rounded shape draws the eye from miles around. Set in a fertile portion of the Galilee, it is adorned with grasses, shrubs, and groves of pine, oak, and cypress. Where Sinai is fierce and forbidding, Tabor is gentle and welcoming, pleasant and hospitable. Its modest scale and cheerful greenness made me feel at home when I climbed it nearly thirty years ago.

The attributed setting of the Transfiguration is very different, then, from Sinai; but so are the details in the gospel text. Instead of a dark cloud, there is a clear, bright light. Instead of an unspeakable mystical experience by a solitary Moses, there is a describable vision to which several disciples are witnesses. And instead of requiring a long and arduous pilgrimage to a distant place, the Transfiguration takes place in the familiar geography of the disciples’ home turf.

In other words, this gospel story is about the immanence of God, the presence of the divine in the very midst of our stories, not just at their remotest edges. We don’t have to leave where we are in order to find God. God can be found right here, where we are living our lives. Epiphanies come in unexpected places. God may be found in the humblest dwelling.

Recently I climbed one of my own favorite summits––Mt. Tallac, which at nearly ten thousand feet towers above Fallen Leaf Lake in California’s Sierra Nevada. When I was a child, we took family vacations at the lake, spending a week every summer in a rented cabin. While we rarely ventured far from the water, Tallac always loomed above us like a beckoning power, and even as a small boy I felt its summons. I was about ten when I finally made it to the top, and I have returned a number of times since. As a young man, I went up by moonlight to watch the sun rise over Lake Tahoe. In middle age, I ascended at sunset to view a lunar eclipse.

This time, there was no celestial display, and certainly no mountaintop theophany. The only words I was given at the top came from a conversation between two young women who were starting back down. As they passed me, I only heard one sentence: “Was she drunk at the time?” What could I make of such an oracle? On this hike, all my mountain revelations would turn out to be nonverbal.

“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days,” exclaimed Sierran saint John Muir, “inciting at once to work and rest! Days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God.” And on my 12-mile Tallac pilgrimage,  there were many windows indeed.

The journey up the mountain begins gently, along the banks of Glen Aulin.

Checker-mallow halfway up Mt. Tallac.

Jeffrey pine west of Tallac.

Wooly mule ears, looking west from Mt. Tallac.

A marmot at the summit.

Lake Tahoe from the top of Mt. Tallac.

More than halfway down the steep side, a view of Fallen Leaf Lake and journey’s end.

Anglican poet-priest R. S. Thomas described a natural epiphany of his own in “The Bright Field.” At first it seemed a common enough sight: the sun breaking through clouds to illuminate a small meadow. The image quickly slipped from his mind as he went on his way. But in retrospect he realized that the gift of that moment had been “the pearl / of great price, the one field that had / the treasure in it.” If only he had been prepared to give it his full attention.

Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

If only we too would turn aside from our headlong forward rush to notice the illuminations strewn along our way. As I made my descent from Tallac’s summit, taking a steeper, shorter return route to Fallen Leaf, I was less prone to dally. There were snowfields and rockslides to cross, and I needed to reach Fallen Leaf Lake before sunset. Halfway down I spied a magnificent corn lily nested in a thicket about twenty feet from the trail. In my haste I almost passed it by. But then my soul stepped on the brakes, and I turned aside to behold the miracle of its beauty. I waded through the brush for a closer look. Was it “only” a corn lily, veratrum californicum, or was it, as the poets and mystics say, an epiphany “afire with God?”

Corn lily on the southern slope of Mt. Tallac.

 

Related posts:

The Light We May Not See: Thoughts on Dust and Transfiguration

The Woven Light: Reflections on the Transfiguration