“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

Solitude Revisited

img_7459

Aloha! I’m taking a break in Hawaii at the moment, but will be back with a new post next week. Meanwhile, here are a couple of posts from February 2015 about a rather more serious – and more rigorous- getaway from civilization.

Solitude (Part 1)

Solitude (Part 2)

Solitude (Part 1)

St. Onuphrius

St. Onuphrius

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

— Abba Moses (4th century)

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

— Richard Rolle (14th century)

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

— Thomas Traherne (17th century)

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

— Henry David Thoreau (19th century)

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

— Patrick Leigh Fermor (20th century)

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

— Robert Kull (21st century)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like to imagine Merton laughing in agreement.

To be continued in the next post

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

[ii] Kull, 54

[iii] Kull, 214

[iv] Kull, 103