“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

Fight Like Hell, Love Like Heaven

Alphonse Mucha, Design for June cover (1899)

Springtime glories round us teeming,
Fill our hearts with joyous cheer,
Sunshine brightly o’er us beaming,
Makes all nature glad appear;
Lovely season bright and vernal.
Ever welcome to our clime,
Emblem of a growth eternal,
And of destinies sublime.

–– Shaker hymn

 

The First of June. This morning’s cloudy sky and cool air cannot refute the calendar. The sun gains strength daily, and the blooming riot of spring yields to a more tranquil verdancy. Summer is i-cumen in.

Half a century ago, Hal Borland reported the news from the natural world for the New York Times. His descriptions were local to the northeastern United States, but not so singular as to prevent translation into our own habitats. His June dispatches are a canticle of praises sung at summer’s dawn:

June is really a time of relative quiet, serenity after the rush of sprouting and leafing and before the fierce heat that drives toward maturity and seed. June’s very air can be as sweet as the wild strawberries that grace its middle weeks, sweet as clover, sweet as honeysuckle.

The rasping that is July, the scraping of cicadas and all their kin, is yet in abeyance. June doesn’t assault your ears. It flatters them, then softens the sound of frog and whippoorwill, and is a joy.

These things we know each June. We learn them all over again in the first week, and we wonder how we ever could have forgotten them. For June is peonies as well as roses. June is the first kitchen-garden produce as well as flower beds. June is a happy memory rediscovered and lived again.

June is cornflower blue and day-lily gold and white lace of daisies in the field. June is bridal wreath and mock orange and the scent of sweet peas on the garden fence.

June is strawberries, red and juiceful and tantalizing …. June is peas in the garden, late June, for the favored gardener. June is first lettuce and baby beets, and string beans in blossom and susceptible to both beetle and blight. June is corn, both sweet and field varieties, pushing green bayonets toward the sun. June is scallions.

 Now come some of the pleasantest nights of our year, nights when you can almost hear the grass growing and the rosebuds straining at their seams…The world has a green, growing fragrance, a hundred odors mingled into one. A late Spring rushes into full leaf and opening bud, and June comes over the hills in the moonlight.[i]

Our hawthorn tree – one of my friends to love and protect.

This is the news we absolutely need to hear. This is the day which the Lord has made. Let’s go outside and see what’s happening in the garderns, fields and woods of our own neighborhoods. It’s time to pay more attention.

In Borland’s entry for June 1st, he delivers a homily on the meaning of the season:

June and Summer bring the undeniable truth of growth and continuity. Each Summer since time first achieved a green leaf has been another link in the chain of verity that is there for understanding. Every field, every meadow, every roadside is not rich with the proof of sustaining abundance, evidence that the earth is essentially a hospitable place no matter what follies [humanity] may commit. June invites [us] to know these things, to know sun and rain and grass and trees and growing fields. It is a season for repairing the perspective, for admitting, however privately, that there are forces and rhythms that transcend man’s particular and transient plans.[ii]

I want to believe that. I really do. But we live in the shadow of apocalypse. Does nature still have the capacity to transcend human folly? Will the earth remain a hospitable place?

After writing that last sentence, I checked HuffPost to see whether the White House had issued its expected decision on the Paris Climate Agreement. This is what I saw:

HuffPost headline (June 1, 2017)

 

What is all this juice and all this joy?
A strain in the earth’s sweet being in the beginning
In Eden garden.––Have, get, before it cloy,
Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning . . .[iii]

Is Eden doomed, soured by sin? Must we begin to lament its inevitable destruction?

Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement makes little economic or political sense. The rest of the world understands the stakes, and a clear majority of American voters know we need to get serious about climate change. Even oil companies are against abandoning the agreement. So why does Trump refuse to give in to the growing consensus––and life or death urgency––on this planetary crisis? Is it simply his inability to admit any error? That is no doubt part of it. But the scale of his suicidal ignorance is so vast that I have to wonder: are we witnessing a performance of pure, unadulterated evil?

In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is enraged to find that he is not the One to whom every knee on heaven and earth should bow. Rather than live in a created order where he is not the center of attention and worship, he chooses to be the lord of hell and chaos––no mere servant in heaven–– and dedicates himself to “study of revenge, immortal hate, / And courage never to submit or yield” (1.7-8).

If Satan can’t rule creation, he will destroy it to satisfy his infantile rage against everything good, true and beautiful. If he can’t have victory, he’ll settle for revenge.

And now
Through all restraint broke loose he wings his way….
Directly toward the new created World,
And Man there plac’t, with purpose to assay
If him by force he can destroy or worse,
By some false guild pervert; and ashall pervert
For man will hark’n to his glozing lyes [flattering lies]. (3.86-93)

Sour with sinning, indeed. Let every American feel the shame and horror of what the Faither of Lies has done this day. Let us weep and wail as we must. Let our anger and disbelief erupt in fierce and unrelenting action.

But do not forget the other news––the news right outside your door. Do not forget to cherish the beauty of this day, this June, this “wild and precious life.” Always remember why this God-given world matters so much. Whatever responses and actions we commit ourselves to on this Day of Infamy, let them come not from hate or fear, but from love.

Obsessing over evil will only suck us into the dark vacancy of its chaos. Everything we do to protect and preserve Creation must be grounded in the divine Love without which nothing at all would exist. Fight like hell, but love like heaven.

 

 

 

[i] Hal Borland, Sundial of the Seasons: A Selection of Outdoor Editorials from the New York Times (Philadelphia & New York: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1964), 78-83.

[ii] Ibid., 78.

[iii] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring”

 

Gone for a walk

Sunset in Montana's Beartooths range (August 2015)

Sunset in Montana’s Beartooths range (August 2015)

Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. (John Muir)
I am taking Muir’s advice, as I do every summer. The season would be incomplete without a wilderness sojourn. So instead of writing a new post, I am loading my backpack for an early start tomorrow deep into the Cascades. I’ll be back with some new writing in a week or so.
Meanwhile, you might enjoy reading this post about a previous hike: “The Ministry of Nature.”
As always, thanks for visiting!

Merry it is while summer lasts

August Sunflower by Jim Friedrich

August Sunflower by Jim Friedrich

Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.

— Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

Mirie it is while somer y-last. “Merry it is while summer lasts.” So goes the 13th-century lyric, one of the earliest known secular English songs (the other being Summer is icumen in). But while such praise of summer lacks the explicit theological or liturgical character of its pious predecessors, is not the idealized notion of a happy summer a plausible echo of the joys of Paradise? History takes a vacation. Ambition is deposed. The temporal flow slows its onward rush, deepening into a placid pool of unhurried being. The poet’s longing for “world enough, and time” is fulfilled at last in a sabbath of playful ease. Children romp in the sea, lovers stroll bright gardens, readers open their books, friends converse at evening. Mirie it is.

It should always be so in August, that we might agree with Emerson: “this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life.” But of course Thoreau did a better job than his bookish friend at getting outside to see what summer was actually doing day by day. Summer in fact is not a general idea, but an aggregate of particulars.

On this date in 1856, Thoreau wandered the fields and woods of Concord, Massachusetts. His Journal tells us that “Ambrosia pollen now begins to yellow my clothes.” He was surprised to find the cassia “so obvious and abundant.” In an old garden gone wild from British days, he became “intoxicated with the fragrance” of spearmint, hounds-tongue, and bergamot. He named those plants he could, while each new discovery filled him with curiosity and wonder. He bathed in the river, registering how strong the current seemed for mid-August. And he lamented the recent dampness of the weather, causing his pressed plant specimens to mildew. “Give me the dry heat of July,” he wrote.

Reading Thoreau’s Journal entry prompted me to look up August 16 in my own yearly journals. It turns out that I honored the spirit of August by playing more than writing, but I did find one entry for this date in 1989, when I hiked at sunset to the top of Mt. Tallac, a 10,000’ peak above Lake Tahoe in California’s Sierra range, to watch the rise of a full moon in total eclipse. I carefully noted the changes as the reddish lunar disc slipped slowly out of the earth’s shadow to flood the mountain with intense milky light. Then I descended through a ghostly forest of moonlit junipers, grateful to have been present to see and to know. If I had not been there, that night would not have become part of me, nor I of it.

So now I must leave my desk to see what this summer day wants to offer the senses. I will linger in the shade of the peach tree with a book, keeping my eye on the finches, chickadees, juncos and hummingbirds who shelter and sing in its branches. I will praise the sunflowers, each a miniature daystar, towering above the flower garden, and hear the soft music of quivering aspens. I will taste blackberries ripening beyond the drying lawn, plus whatever strawberries the squirrels have spared. My skin will feel the reddish warmth of the late sun as it drops between the Douglas-firs. And when night comes, I will stroll among the lilies and dahlias, so white—and fragrant!—beneath the gibbous moon. Mirie it is.

 

Related Posts

Paying Attention

The Summer’s Final Mass

Summer Knowledge

The summer’s final mass

A perfect summer moment: Blue moon rises on the last day of July 2015.

A perfect summer moment: Blue moon rises on the last day of July 2015.

T-shirts, cut-offs and a pair of thongs,
We’ve been having fun all summer long.

– Brian Wilson & Mike Love

Piecemeal the summer dies ….
The field has droned the summer’s final mass.

– Richard Wilbur

In seventeenth century landscape painting, there was a tendency to idealize, to suspend change and death by capturing an eternal present. Through meticulous depiction of nature’s details, the fantasy of a deathless Arcadia was made concrete for the viewer. Inside the frame, there was no time, no death. Gazing upon one of these pictures, a character in Dostoevsky exclaims,

Here lived beautiful men and women! They rose, they went to sleep, happy and innocent; the groves rang with their merry songs, the great overflow of unspent energies poured itself into love and simple-hearted joys… The sun poured its rays upon these isles and the sea, rejoicing in its fair children. Oh, marvelous dream, lofty illusion![i]

The painting in question was Claude’s “Acis and Galatea.” And indeed, as the lovers embrace in their tent along the shore of a lovely harbor, it seems a perfect moment of harmony and bliss. But will it last? Claude has placed subtle harbingers of change within the scene. The sun is about to set. Polyphemus, the giant who will soon despoil the lovers of their happiness, lurks in the distance – not yet arrived, but on his way. Claude seems to find a heightened sweetness in such mortality; brevity breeds intensity. But Acis and Galatea might take a different view. We’ve been having fun all summer long. Why can’t it go on forever? But there you have it: golden ages, lovers, summer idylls, T-shirts, cutoffs, thongs – all carried off by time’s merciless flow.

Last night another summer slipped away. I was sorry to see it go. If only I could make it stay a little longer. And in fact, here on my island, these first hours of autumn seem no less radiant than yesterday. A warm afternoon is promised. But the idea of summer – marvelous dream, lofty illusion! – is unsustainable. Days shorten. Vacations end. Travelers return. Work calls. Schedules resume. The Sabbath rest of carefree hours and idle days is overruled by necessity. We can no longer enjoy the fiction of having all the time in the world.

In “real” life, a perfectly carefree interval of beach time, lawn parties and magical vacations is an unattainable myth. But now and again, when we do pause to breathe, to notice, to play, to be; when we forget time, giving ourselves wholly to the present moment; when we are attentive and receptive to whatever the universe wants to show us, summer draws near to bathe us in radiance.

All we need is the gift of reverie. Henry David Thoreau spent many a summer morning by his cabin door at Walden Pond, sitting quietly in the sun, listening to birdsong, feeling the warmth on his skin. To those afflicted by the pressures of a 24/7 world, this may seem an incredible waste of time. But like the saints who aspired to pray without ceasing, Thoreau dreamt of even more radical experiments in multi-sensory contemplation:

Would it not be a luxury to stand up to one’s chin in some retired swamp for a whole summer’s day, scenting the sweet-fern and bilberry blows, and lulled by the minstrelsy of gnats and mosquitoes?… Say twelve hours of genial and familiar converse with the leopard frog. The sun to rise behind alder and dogwood, and climb buoyantly to his meridian of three hands’ breadth, and finally sink to rest behind some bold western hummock. To hear the evening chant of the mosquito from a thousand green chapels, and the bittern begin to boom from his concealed fort like a sunset gun![ii]

It’s a comic exaggeration, typically deadpan New England humor, but it makes a point. The luxuriance of summer is a standing invitation to surrender to sensation, to unlearn the cultural imperatives of useful employment in order to pay close attention, moment by moment, to the poetry of the given world. Don’t just look. Dive in and get soaked.

Jesus said, “Unless you throw away your phones and cancel your appointments, unless you go outside and let a wandering cloud be your guide, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

As a child, Mary Oliver “spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught.” When she was summoned back to the chalky classroom in the fall, she still treasured the epiphanies of leisure in her heart:

the way the river kept rolling its pebbles,
the way the wild wrens sang though they hadn’t a penny in the bank,
the way the flowers were dressed in nothing but light.[iii]

And if the rest of us have been likewise receptive, we too will exit the summer laden with the gifts of deeply-lived moments. Some will call them memories and be done with them, but that would be a mistake. They can endure within us as a renewing source. Wordsworth called them “spots of time,” potent concentrations of aliveness by which we are ever “nourished and invisibly repaired.”[iv] And as Emerson recommended, on every such epiphany we should “rear a temple of wonder and joy.”[v]

This summer I never stood neck-deep in a swamp to hear mosquitoes chant, but I did keep watch in a field from midnight to dawn as meteors fell from an August sky. Some were brief flashes in the corner of my eye. Others left bright fiery trails lasting long enough for a good look. The profound nocturnal silence was broken only twice. A coyote howled in the brush around three a.m., and at four-thirty an owl whooshed close over my head – twice. That was it. Nothing much “happened.”

Or everything happened, and that night became a temple of wonder and joy I can return to again and again. Even now, as autumn sweeps in with all its portents of vanishing and loss, there is still a summer inside me.

[i] Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Devils

[ii] Thoreau’s Journal, June 16, 1840

[iii] “Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer,” in Mary Oliver, Long Life: Essays and Other Writings (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2004), 35

[iv] William Wordsworth, The Prelude (1799: 1.288-294)

[v] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lecture (Dec. 19, 1838) in Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 8

Paying attention

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Summer day, Deschutes River, eastern Oregon.

Day creeps after day, each full of facts … And presently the aroused intellect finds … that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.     – Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of today’s first facts was a blackberry that called to me as I ran by at dawn. Blackberries normally ripen in August, but here was one, dark and soft to the touch, ready for harvest in mid-July. Like Moses turning aside from his path to investigate a revelatory shrub, I interrupted my run to taste that precocious berry. How delicious! Sweet sacrament of summer.

This is the day I was born, long ago in another century, and I am celebrating by setting aside tasks and plans to slow down and take time, giving over the hours to what poet Mary Oliver calls “noticing and cherishing.” There are birds to watch, poetry to read, music to play, water to swim in, trails to explore. Or maybe, like Thoreau in his cabin’s sunny doorway, I will just sit among the trees, rapt in reverie, “in undisturbed solitude and stillness.”

After the blackberry, what else will offer itself to my attention?

Never in eternity the same sound –
a small stone falling on a red leaf.

So wrote Jane Kenyon in her poem, “Things,” which shares Emerson’s awareness of facts as epiphanies. But Kenyon, whose own time on earth was all too brief, was keenly aware that such joys are always on the verge of disappearance.

Things: simply lasting, then
failing to last: water, a blue heron’s
eye, and the light passing
between them: into light all things
must fall, glad at last to have fallen.

So much beauty, so many epiphanies. Do we have enough time? Robert Louis Stevenson said that “you have no idea, unless you have tried it, how endlessly long is a summer day.” So today I will try it. I will make an experiment in attentiveness and wonder, gratitude and joy. It is, I know, a luxurious waste of time. But it seems “meet and right so to do.” As photographer and writer Walker Evans reminds us, paying attention is what we were made for:

Stare. Educate the eye.
Die knowing something.
You are not here long.

Solitude (Part 2)

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

Camino de Santiago pilgrim, Museum of the Pilgrimage, Astorga

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

— Robert Kull[i]

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

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

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

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

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

In his last days on the island, Kull wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[ii] Kull, 4

[iii] Kull, 70

[iv] Kull, 47

[v] Kull, 141

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

[vii] Kull, 293

[viii] Kull, 271

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

[x] Kull, 283 (italics mine)

[xi] George Herbert, “The Temper”