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.

Epiphanies in the Temples of Wonder

Grand Teton National Park, Winter 1979 (Photo by Jim Friedrich)

We have seen the Creator as Light and the Spirit as Light,
guiding with light the whole creation.

–– Byzantine matins, Feast of the Transfiguration

One senses something more than the natural…What these paintings seem to depict is not so much discrete things – trees, fields, figures, buildings – shown in particular configurations – but something that subsumes or, in potentiality, contains them.

 ––Museum label for a George Inness survey at the San Diego Museum of Art (2004)

 

I took my photograph of wintry pines forty years ago while cross-country skiing in Grand Teton National Park. I had stopped to contemplate the grove with its sense of mysterious depth, all those vertical lines receding into an infinity my eye could not penetrate. I felt the pull of whatever lies behind the components of the visible: the “something that subsumes or contains them.” It seemed an intimation of whatever lies beyond the self and its constructions.

The photograph became my Christmas card that year, with these words written on the back:

Shhh!
it comes
it goes
put yourself in its path
and wait

In this season of Epiphany (“manifestation”), we are invited to consider the possibility that the Transcendent desires to be seen. And when we are receptively attentive––and unhurriedly patient––we may discover the world to be a theater of divine showings and human awakenings.

Even in a world of “dull” and “prosaic” facts, said Emerson in an 1838 lecture, “the aroused intellect finds gold and gems in one of these scorned facts, then finds that the day of facts is a rock of diamonds, that a fact is an epiphany of God, that on every fact of his life he should rear a temple of wonder and joy.”[i]

Every year, every day, every hour of our lives offers its epiphanies. Leafing through old journals for some memorable examples of my own, I came across some passages from a European grand tour in the 1970s, a few years before I photographed the snowy Teton pines. My older self might want to tame some of the exuberant excess in the writing, but I still recognize, and do not regret, the intensity of that young man’s wonder.

An epiphany has been called “a moment when . .. consciousness finds itself flooded, or breathed into, or simply filled by a force . . . that comes from outside the self and is incorporated into the soul of the recipient.”[ii] My first direct encounter with the collection of J. M. W. Turner paintings in London’s Tate Gallery felt like that. This is how I wrote it down at the time:

Having seen most Turners only in reproduction, or in the vivid descriptions of [19th century critic] John Ruskin, I was not fully prepared for the ecstasy, the overwhelming somatic experience, of viewing the actual paintings. The three large Turner galleries were a temple of light, each framed canvas a window into a universe of radiant splendor. The early paintings showed his classical lineage, the formal narratives, but it was not long before his clear shapes began to waver and blur in the universal solvent of a liquid light. It was not a failure of drawing but the birth of new vision.

 Some of his sunsets and storms engulf recognizable forms, almost to the point of abstraction, yet they remain anchored in real perception, aspects of the created world which registered in the artist’s here and now. In “Interior at Petworth,” golden light, turbulent and thick, pours through the windows like water from a burst dam, tearing through the staid Victorian inner space to submerge everything in its radiance. How did Turner come to see a world so alive with animating energies? Was this light within his mind, leaving the room essentially untouched, or did he see something inherent in the physical world, a subversive brilliance operating outside the range of mortal sight?[iii]

J.M.W. Turner, “Interior at Petworth” (1837)

A week later, I walked through the doors of la belle cathédrale de Chartres into another epiphany:

The moment of entrance flooded me with intense emotion. I knew it would be beautiful, but I was unprepared for the way the soaring interior would catch me up in a such a physical way, and ravish my virgin eyes with the vivid, fantastic hues of medieval glass, floating islands of magic color in a sea of smoky shadows.

My eyes filled with tears. Never before had a building made me weep. It was that sense of perfection I have found more often in nature, the homecoming when one arrives at the perfect moment, the perfect place, where the lack that drives our stories is satisfied, every desire met.

I drifted around the cathedral as in a dream. There were no lights on at first, and the upward-thrusting shafts and vaults disappeared, like prayer, into a realm beyond our sight. The eloquent profusion of Gothic lines, the underlying mind that held vast forces in balance, subduing the play of gravity and architecture into a state of arrested serenity, was everywhere implied, but the complexity outran the mind’s descriptive grasp. Chartres invites not analysis, but worship. In every direction, the space receded into vague twilights. The effect was neither disorienting nor alarming, but enfolding, a mothering womb rather than annihilating tomb. Theotokos, the Divine Mother, was not only at the heart of the north rose window. She was the very space in which we moved.

The kaleidescopic windows seemed suspended, weightless, free floating in the darkness, jeweled messengers uttering angelic phrases directly to the soul, unclothed by human words. The north rose window, like Dante’s vision of the heavenly dance, held me rapt for the longest time. What kind of imagination had spread such rich fare before us? And if we feasted on such visions, how would we be changed?[iv]

North rose window, Chartres cathedral

 

 

[i] From “School,” a lecture given by Ralph Waldo Emerson in Boston on Dec. 19, 1838.

[ii] Ashton Nichols, The Poetics of Epiphany: Nineteenth Century Origins of the Modern Literary Movement (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1987), 14.

[iii] Personal journal (April 29, 1976).

[iv] Ibid. (May 4, 1976)