Another Bad Decision: The Supreme Court and School Prayer

Post-game ritual with Coach Joseph Kennedy, Bremerton High School, WA, October 16, 2015 (Attribution: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals)

A recovering alcoholic reciting the Serenity Prayer, a Catholic nun telling her beads, a child crossing himself before a meal, a quaking Shaker, a meditating yogini, a Huichi Indian chewing a peyote button, a Zen monk in satori, a Lubavitcher dancing with the Torah, Saint Francis receiving the stigmata, a bookie crossing his fingers before the final race, Ebenezer Scrooge pleading for just one more chance, dear God, just one more chance: all this is the work of prayer. In this world one may sit, stand, run, kneel, fall prostrate, dance, faint, or whirl in imitation of the cosmic spheres. One may chant, sing, shout, mutter, groan, or keep silent. One may make use of nuts, beads, books, flags, wheels, shells, stones, drums, idols, icons, jewels, incense, flowers, blood, and fruit, for all these belong to the armamentarium of prayer. 

— Ann and Barry Ulanov [i]

“I wasn’t going to stop my prayer because there was kids around me.”

— Joseph Kennedy, football coach

If January 6th is the coup that failed, the Supreme Court is the one that has succeeded. The extremist majority, abandoning both precedent and good sense, has gone rogue, wreaking havoc with a barrage of malignant decisions. While the recent decisions on abortion and climate change are the most broadly calamitous, I want to address the case of Kennedy vs. Bremerton School District, a poorly considered ideological gambit with unsettling implications for both politics and religion.

Joseph Kennedy was an assistant football coach at Bremerton High School, a few miles by water from my island home in Washington State. Hired in 2008, he began to kneel in silent prayer at midfield after the game. He got the idea from a televised movie about a coach at a Christian school who prays and witnesses with his team as he leads them to the state championship. 

At first, Kennedy prayed alone, but over time he was joined by most of his players, as well as members of the visiting team. At some point he began to add religiously flavored “motivational” speeches to this postgame ritual and, it seems, his prayers were no longer entirely silent. It took seven years for the Bremerton School District to take notice, but when it did, it expressed concerns about upsetting the delicate balance between private religious expression and the religious neutrality mandated by the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.  

In September, 2015, the District instructed Coach Kennedy to refrain from religious talks and prayers with his players, and to keep his personal religious activity “nondemonstrative” while on duty, “to avoid school endorsement of religious activities.” At first he agreed to the terms, but while driving home after a game, he felt he had “broken [his] commitment to God” by not praying on the field after the game. So he returned to the empty stadium to kneel at the 50-yard line for a brief prayer. 

But that would not be enough for him. On October 14, two days before the Homecoming game,  he informed the District that he planned to resume his “private” postgame prayer practice, insisting that he would not invite or encourage anyone to join him. This was disingenuous, since he had been throwing gasoline on the fire through social media, complaining to the world that he was being persecuted for praying. And his choice of the well-attended Homecoming for his defiant display ensured maximum attention. 

Predictably, he was joined in “prayer” not only by players and news cameras, but also by spectators who jumped fences in a rush to midfield (knocking over some band members in their stampede). This “prayer” circus continued for another two weeks, joined by the sort of politicians who profit from religious resentment. 

By the end of October, Kennedy was out of a job. He likes to say he was fired for praying, but the record reflects a more complicated story. As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor would note in her carefully argued dissent, there were a number of reasons for Kennedy’s suspension:

“In Kennedy’s annual review, the head coach of the varsity team recommended Kennedy not be rehired because he ‘failed to follow district policy,’ ‘demonstrated a lack of cooperation with administration,’ ‘contributed to negative relations between parents, students, community members, coaches, and the school district,’ and ‘failed to supervise student-athletes after games due to his interactions with media and community’ members. The head coach himself also resigned after 11 years in that position, expressing fears that he or his staff would be shot from the crowd or otherwise attacked because of the turmoil created by Kennedy’s media appearances. Three of five other assistant coaches did not reapply.” [ii]

The head coach’s fear of being “shot from the crowd” might have raised eyebrows in 2016, but it would surprise no one today. The rise of white “Christian” nationalism in the United States has made home-grown terrorism a significant threat. And given the Trumpian swerve of so many white Evangelicals, a lot of that terrorism is tied to twisted religious rhetoric. The Supreme Court’s decision in Kennedy, along with its dismantling of Roe and other radical rulings, will only encourage the Guns-and-God crowd further. Inch by inch, we are slouching toward Gilead.[iii] Lord have mercy. 

In his opinion for the Supreme Court majority, Neil Gorsuch began with a lie: “Joseph Kennedy lost his job as a high school football coach because he knelt at midfield after games to offer a quiet prayer of thanks.” But a lower court judge, in the ruling subsequently overturned by SCOTUS, drew a more honest picture: 

“No case law requires that a high school teacher must be out of sight of students or jump into the nearest broom closet in order to engage in private prayer, but it cannot be denied that this football coach’s prayer at the fifty-yard line, immediately after a game, under stadium lights and in front of players and spectators, objectively sent a public message.” [iv]

Joseph Kennedy poaes with a football in front of the Supreme Court. (After a photo by Win McNamee)

Personal prayer, which Jesus called praying “in secret” (Matthew 6:6), has no human spectators, and any self-consciousness about one’s appearance to others is an interruption of prayerful attention. But liturgical prayer, performed with others in public, is meant to be seen. Worshippers are strengthened and encouraged by the knowledge that they are bound together in ritually shared speech and practice. At the same time, public worship makes a visible statement to the world.

But liturgical prayer requires a common language and worldview. In a pluralistic society, such specific religious commonality is rarely possible. Worship is most authentically and effectively situated within each particular tradition. In the United States, therefore, the government should neither restrict the diversity of worship practices, nor endorse or favor one religious expression over any other. 

Given the importance of religion in American history and culture, and the large number of religious believers in public life, the separation of church and state lacks a firm and absolute boundary. There are Inaugural prayers, Congressional chaplains, funerals for public figures at the “National Cathedral,” and the frequent invocation of divinity by political speakers. Some of that is boilerplate civil religion, but no one can doubt the formative effect of religious belief and practice on our political life, for better or worse. For the record, all six justices who voted against abortion and for school prayer are conservative Catholics, although Gorsuch has been attending an Episcopal church. Sonia Sotomayor is also Catholic, with the remaining justices comprised of one Jew and one Protestant. 

For a long time, public schools have had relative clarity about the Establishment Clause. Justice Sotomayor, in her Kennedy dissent, cited the precedents:

‘The public school is at once the symbol of our democracy and the most pervasive means for promoting our common destiny,’ meaning that ‘[i]n no activity of the State is it more vital to keep out divisive forces than in its schools.’ Families ‘entrust public schools with the education of their children . . . on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family.’ Accordingly, the Establishment Clause “proscribes public schools from ‘conveying or attempting to convey a message that religion or a particular religious belief is favored or preferred’ or otherwise endorsing religious beliefs.

I myself went to an Episcopal elementary school where every day began with worship. From 7th to 12th grade I attended an Episcopal boys school. We had religion courses, and two chapel eucharists each week. The popular chaplain, Father Gill, conducted a gorgeous Sarum rite, and our hymns were propelled by a youthful desire to make loud sounds in a resonant space. When I returned for my 40th class reunion, I found a school mostly secularized by its merger with a non-religious girls school. When we visited the chapel in a campus tour, I asked our student guide what remained of the school liturgies. “I don’t really know,” she said. “I’ve never been in here before.”

That made me sad, since my religious schools had been so formative and joyous for my own faith. But I know that public schools are neither appropriate nor feasible venues for common prayer. Inclusivity and diversity are a part of their strength, and in matters of religion they must remain neutral ground. That is why the SCOTUS ruling in Kennedy is so unsettling. It opens the door to some very undesirable outcomes. 

The overview provided at the top of the ruling states, “Respect for religious expressions is indispensable to life in a free and diverse Republic. Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech.” I have no idea what is meant by “comparable secular speech.” Does it mean anything not involving religious language, or any human rituals—like football games, for example—which do not invoke the divine? The misleading fiction of competition here feels like an absurd whine: They get to be secular, but we don’t get to be religious! 

The Bremerton School District was not trying “to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance.” I can’t judge the sincerity or quality of Coach Kennedy’s initial silent prayers, but once he became the presider at a public ritual as a school employee in a school setting, eager to display himself as a visible and symbolic champion of white Evangelical grievance, it was no longer a private act. Gorsuch argued that non-Evangelical, non-Christian, or non-religious students would be mature enough to feel no pressure to join the prayer circle, whether to please their coach (and get more playing time), or to blend in with their peers. Nope, no pressure at all to conform! Apparently, Gorsuch never went to high school. 

There are many nuances to explore in this case and the Establishment Clause in general. If you want to dive deep, you can read the lower court decision here, and the Supreme Court decision here. But one question in particular interests me. When people say they want prayer back in the schools, what are they imagining? As a liturgist committed to eloquence, poetry and theological depth in verbal prayer, as well as the beauty of holiness in public rituals, I’m not sure I would want to trust an ad-libbing football coach with bad grammar to set the standard for spiritual expression in my community. I suppose that’s my elitism showing. 

But seriously, where do you draw the line? If we sanctioned prayers in schools, who would write them and who would critique them? Can you imagine the state prayers if white Christian nationalists ever seize power? In any case, who would decide what could or could not be included in officially approved forms of prayer? Would there be a government liturgical commission? How would we arrive at the government definitions of such broad and inexact terms as “religion” and “prayer”? And should SCOTUS manage to reestablish prayer in public schools, would any and all forms of religious expression then be acceptable, or only the ones favored by conservative Catholics and white Evangelicals? 

The best prayers are rooted in specific traditions. Generic prayers risk a bland vagueness. But there are occasions—mostly tragic—when some ritual spiritual expression as a nation is regarded by most as a good and necessary thing. President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, murdered in a mass shooting by a white supremacist in 2015, is a powerful example. 

Might we draw inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist vision of “unlocking at all risks [our] human doors and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through [us].” [v] (Kids, don’t try this at home!) Or is it possible to emulate the broad sweep of Martin Luther King’s elegantly inclusive phrasing?

“Whether we call it an unconscious process, an impersonal Brahman, or a Personal Being of matchless power and infinite love, there is a creative force in the universe that works to bring the disconnected aspects of reality into a harmonious whole.” [vi]

But what about the “religious speech,” say, of Allen Ginsberg, who after taking acid in the Sixties burst naked out of Timothy O’Leary’s bedroom to declare: “I am the Messiah. I’ve come down to preach love to the world. We’re going to walk through the streets and teach people to stop hating.” [vii]  How would that go over on the 50-yard line of your local high school?

The Supreme Court has lifted the lid on this rabbit hole—and many others. May we find a way to curtail the ambitions of that power-mad cabal before they drag us all into the dark. 

Luckily for us, I’m not a government official, nor are you, dear reader, under any coercion whatsoever. After so much talk about prayer as a political question, let us simply consider the nature of prayer in the wise and powerful words of Native American poet Joy Harjo:[viii]

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you
And know that there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always a sound but other 
Circles of motion
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care 
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we 
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning 
Inside us. 
We pray that it will be done
In beauty. 
In beauty.


[i] Ann and Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech: A Psychology of Prayer (Westminster John Knox Press, 1982), 10.

[ii] Citations from the Supreme Court opinions and dissents can be found at https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/21pdf/21-418_i425.pdf

[iii] Gilead was the new name given to the former United States after a violent takeover by a patriarchal Christian theocracy in Margaret Atwood’s harrowing novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. Of course the original reference for my phrase is from W. B. Yeats’ poem, “The Second Coming,” where an apocalyptic beast, a hideous antichrist, is “slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”

[iv] Judge Morgan Christen, 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. For the court’s full text: https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2021/03/18/20-35222.pdf

[v] David R. Williams, Searching for God in the Sixties (Newark: Univ of Delaware Press, 2010), 116.

[vi] Ibid., 116.

[vii] Ibid., 109.

[viii] Joy Harjo, “Eagle Poem” from In Mad Love and War (Wesleyan University Press, 1990).

“Deeper and deeper into the world”–– In Praise of Mary Oliver

Go not to the object; let it come to you….
What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye.

–– Henry David Thoreau [i]

We need only unite our minds to the outer universe in a holy marriage,
a passionate love-match, and paradise is ours.

–––– M. H. Abrams [ii]

But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding,
than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world.

–– Mary Oliver [iii]

 

The poet Mary Oliver departed this world on January 17, 2019, in her 84thyear. But her acquaintance with heaven began long before, in the fields and woods of her childhood.

I went out of the schoolhouse fast
and through the gardens and to the woods,
and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught. [iv]

What Oliver would learn outdoors, in moments of grace, wonder, and the cultivated practice of paying attention, was the holiness and radiance of the natural world, the earthly paradise revealing itself to the receptive eye and heart.

What do I know
But this: it is heaven itself to take what is given,
to see what is plain; what the sun
lights up willingly. . . [v]

I imagine her early experiences of nature to be as formative as those of the young William Wordsworth:

There are in our existence spots of time
Which with distinct preeminence retain
A fructifying virtue, whence . . . our minds –
Especially the imaginative power –
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
Such moments chiefly seem to have their date
In our first childhood. . .

Thus day by day my sympathies increased,
And thus the common range of visible things
Grew dear to me… [vi]

While Wordsworth’s epiphanies (“spots of time”) are ancestral to the sensibility of every modern nature poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s influence was even more direct in Oliver’s development. “I think of him whenever I set to work on something worthy,” she said. “He has taught me as deeply as any writer could.” [vii] Emerson’s voracious engagement with the visible world led his mind––and his readers––into its invisible depths, where “the aroused intellect . . . 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.” [viii]

Persuaded that she lived in a world eager to show itself, Oliver pursued the life of a beholder:

The dream of my life
Is to lie down by a slow river
And stare at the light in the trees––
To learn something by being nothing
A little while but the rich
Lens of attention. [ix]

Writing nature––translating the world around us into words––is a complex, nuanced dance between the subjectivity of the self who writes what she sees and the elusive otherness of the not-self. How much of what we see is constructed and colored by our minds, our feelings, our cultural and aesthetic presuppositions? Is it possible to lay all that aside and become pure receptivity, a “lens of attention” which renounces the perceiver’s interpretive shaping of visible phenomena? Can we look without naming? Can we receive what is outside us just as it is and not only as we see it?

“I long to be,” said Oliver, “the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.” [x] But the very fact of longing admits defeat––such pure emptiness is unattainable in this world. Even the most receptive poet brings the particularity of self to her encounters with the wider world. And that is how it should be: our own way of seeing, whatever the proportions between shaping and receiving, is itself part of nature’s multiplicity. We do not stand over against nature in a binary opposition, but dwell within it, adding our own unique perception, feeling and response to the mix of Creation’s dance.

This requires humility and reticence on our part, so that nature does not become eclipsed by our response to it. What happens to the self in the encounter does matter, but whatever nature is prior to––or in excess of––that encounter must be honored and reverenced as well. As Sharon Cameron says in her study of Thoreau’s explorations of the world beyond his mind, “nature has an identity separate from what is felt about it.” [xi]

California’s uncompromising poet Robinson Jeffers thought it best to renounce the human altogether for the sake of an impersonal and indifferent grandeur:

Turn outward, love things, not men, turn right away from
humanity,
Let that doll lie…
Climb the great ladder out of the pit of yourself . . . [xii]

Without sharing the extremes of Jeffers’ chilly “inhumanist” philosophy, Mary Oliver also wondered about the hindrances of ego, and spoke of “vanishing” into the world. “Maybe the world, without us,” she suggested, “is the real poem.” [xiii] But as scholar Laurence Buell argues, the personal is just as much a part of nature as everything else. The goal should not be the eradication of the ego, but “the suspension of ego to the point of feeling the environment to be at least as worthy of attention as oneself and of experiencing oneself as situated among many interacting presences” [xiv]

Wendell Berry describes the inseparable relation between self and world as a dance. Contemplating an old sycamore tree on his farm, he says, “We are moving in relationship, a design, that is definite – though shadowy to me – like people in a dance.” [xv] Oliver’s poetry would devote considerable attention to this choreography of interacting presences. “What I write begins and ends with the act of noticing and cherishing, and it neither begins nor ends with the human world.” [xvi]

As with any significant relationship, the self can grow anxious about getting lost in the other, or violating the other’s integrity through domination, or drifting apart into an irredeemable state of alienation. All these have in fact occurred in our relations with the natural world. That is why a poet like Mary Oliver is so necessary. Her deep feeling for the world about her helps to repair the broken connections, retracing the forgotten path back to the garden. She leads us besides the still waters; her poems restore our soul.

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily. . .
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.” [xvii]

It is not always a summer noon in her poetry. Her light is aware of the shadows, though her poems spend little time on her personal struggles. Writing only briefly of her parents’ toxicity, she says, “I mention them now, / I will not mention them again.”

It is not lack of love
nor lack of sorrow.
But the iron thing they carried, I will not carry.

. . . I will not give them the kiss of complicity.
I will not give them the responsibility for my life. . .[xviii]

The shadows are deepest in “The Journey,” her most painful––and redemptive––poem.

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice––

The feeling of a backward suction into a vortex of melancholy and suffocation is palpable and relentless. The way forward seems impossibly clogged with stones and fallen branches. It’s like a nightmare where you can’t escape because your body has forgotten how to run. The terror of it makes the poem’s redemptive turn all the more cathartic.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheet of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do the only thing you could do––
determined to save
the only life you could save. [xix]

However autobiographical this poem may be, its impact is universal, and I suspect that “The Journey” has saved more than one reader’s life. But trauma is a rare subject for Oliver. In her writing, the more common counterpoint to joy is not pain but mortality. If you are going to write about self and nature, your subject­­s––“all that glorious, temporary stuff” [xx] ––are ever on the verge of disappearing. However much we may love what is mortal, we need to remember, “when the time comes to let it go, / to let it go.” [xxi]

Accommodating ourselves to mortality is one of the primary spiritual tasks. We may not know why death needs to happen, but we can hold it within a larger theological container, trusting there is something more to our story beyond the horizons of earthly experience.

If God exists he isn’t just butter and good luck.
He’s also the tick that killed my wonderful dog Luke. . .
He’s the ice caps, that are dying . . .[xxii]

I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.

But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement. . .[xxiii]

And still, whose heart is not broken every time a beautiful and beloved presence goes missing? Even an armful of peonies can bring tears, as we exclaim of their dearness, “their eagerness / to be wild and perfect for a moment, before they are / nothing, forever? [xxiv]

“Oh, to love what is lovely, and will not last!” cries the poet, cherishing the priceless worth bestowed by impermanence, while at the same time suggesting something more lasting behind the veil of appearances.

The geese
flew on.
I have never
seen them again.

Maybe I will, someday, somewhere.
Maybe I won’t.
It doesn’t matter.
What matters
is that, when I saw them,
I saw them
as through the veil, secretly, joyfully, clearly. [xxv]

Thoreau, Oliver’s predecessor and kindred spirit, perfectly described the vocation of nature’s receptive and responsive beholders: “I am made to love the pond & the meadow as the wind is made to ripple the water.” [xxvi] Thank you, Mary Oliver, for the ripples you made during “your one wild and precious life.” They continue to carry us deeper and deeper into the world.

May my ashes, when you have them, friend,
and give them to the ocean,

leap in the froth of the waves,
still loving movement,

still ready, beyond all else,
to dance for the world. [xxvii]

 

 

All photographs by Jim Friedrich.

[i]Henry David Thoreau, Journal, September 13, 1852.

[ii]M. H. Abrams on the Romantic sensibility of William Wordworth, in Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1973), 27.

[iii]“Terns,” in Mary Oliver, Devotions(New York: Penguin Press, 2017), 158. All Mary Oliver quotations will cite page numbers from this edition.

[iv]“Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer” (191).

[v]“Daisies” (176).

[vi]William Wordsworth,The Prelude(1799) 1.288-296 / 2.215-217.

[vii]Mary Oliver, “Emerson: An Introduction,” in Arthur S. Lothstein & Michael Brodrick, eds., New Morning: Emerson in the Twenty-First Century (Albany: State University of New York, 2008), 8.

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

[ix]“Entering the Kingdom” (406).

[x]“Blue Iris”) 215

[xi]Sharon Cameron, Writing Nature: Henry Thoreau’s Journal(New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 35.

[xii]Robinson Jeffers, “Signpost,” q. in Laurence Buell, The Environmental Imagination: Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 162.

[xiii]“From the Book of Time” (234).

[xiv]Buell, 178.

[xv]Wendell Berry, q. in Scott Slovic, Seeking Awareness in American Nature Writing: Henry Thoreau, Annie Dillard, Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez(Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992), 127.

[xvi]Mary Oliver, Blue Pastures(1995), q. in Christian McEwen, World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down (Peterborough, NH: Bauhan Publishing, 2011), 167.

[xvii]“When I Am Among the Trees” (123).

[xviii]“Flare” (230, 231).

[xix]“The Journey” (349-50).

[xx]“On Meditating, Sort of” (22).

[xxi]“In Blackwater Woods” (390).

[xxii]“At the River Clarion” (86-87).

[xxiii]“Sometimes” (104).

[xxiv]“Peonies” (298).

[xxv]“Snow Geese” (180-181).

[xxvi]Journal,Nov. 21, 1850.

[xxvii]“Prayer” (84).

The ministry of nature

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I am losing precious days… I am learning nothing in this trivial world.
I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.   – John Muir

Every year I observe two holy weeks. One is the Christian Holy Week, the densely liturgical mimesis of Jesus’ last days of mortal life. The other is an annual solo backpack in the mountains of the American West. Both are total immersions into the sacred without which my year would be incomplete.

The sacredness of the American landscape has long been a powerful theme in American thought and feeling. To see the sacred in a Massachusetts pond, a Southwest canyon, or an old growth forest is not a denial of the physical in favor of a spiritual “elsewhere,” but a penetration to creation’s inherent depth. The material is not the opposite of spiritual, but its mediation, its container.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the American landscape painters known as “Luminists” made their canvases glow with a divine transparency, while the literary circle of Transcendentalists translated nature’s otherness into language. Emerson insisted that “the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as an apparition of God … A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.” And when Thoreau withdrew from contemporary society to his Walden refuge, he found “something true and sublime,” where “the morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted.” Is not everyone who ventures “outside” seeking a similar epiphany?

I keep my walking stick by the front entrance of our home, a daily reminder that the path to God-knows-where is always just on the other side of the door. Two weeks ago I tossed the stick in my car, along with my backpack, and headed for Montana. After a couple of days hiking into the Beartooth mountains north of Yellowstone, I reached a large alpine lake, set in a rocky bowl above treeline, with splendid views of several 12,000’ peaks. From there I made a joyous ramble into the high country beyond the lake, where cumulus shadows glided slowly across immense sunlit walls. Three bald eagles circled over a stream-watered basin. Lush gardens of paintbrush, bluebells, asters and buttercups occupied the hollows vacated by melting snowfields. I dangled my legs over a precipice for a better view of the world below. I lay back in the fragrant grass to consider the radiant sky. I knew again the plenitude of summer, that timeless contentment where one feels, as Wallace Stevens felt, “complete in an unexplained completion.”

That night around 1 a.m., I got out of my tent to see the stars, but clouds had gathered since sunset, so I secured the rain fly over my tent and crawled back inside. I had just drifted off when a couple of large animals entered my campsite, their heavy footsteps awakening me to full alert. The rain fly only allowed a narrow view directly forward from the tent, so I could not identify my visitors, who were off to the side. I could only listen as they explored the camp. I heard breathing just beyond the tent’s nylon wall, a snorting sound that put an image of a bear in my mind. Was it a black bear or the more dangerous grizzly?

Then one of the creatures jumped past the front of the tent. The moon had not yet risen, so I saw only a shadowy blur. It was the size of a large dog, probably a juvenile. And its coat seemed to reflect light, even in the gloom. Could it be the white of a mountain goat, or the light gray fur of a grizzly cub? I just wasn’t sure, and I decided to remain still and silent within my tent rather than provoke an encounter by sticking my head out for a look, especially since I was now situated between parent and child, never a good thing with wild animals.

Imagination and solitude are a potent combination in the middle of the night. I breathed. I prayed. I tried to remember what I had read years ago in Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. I thought about St. Francis making peace with the wolf. I had enjoyed the wildness of the place as a spectator in the light of day. But now the wild had come to call on me directly. In the dark of night. What did it want to tell me: You don’t belong here? Your precious subjectivity is meaningless to the appetite of carnivores? What did you expect to find, so far from your human world?

Or: Be not afraid.

After a long hour and a half, the creatures departed. Just before they did so, I saw the silhouetted head of the juvenile, backlit by the rising quarter moon, pop up from behind a rock. It bleated, then vanished. No ursine growl, only a rather playful goodbye. When dawn finally came, I found tufts of fine white wool snagged on the branches of shrubs around my camp. Mountain goats indeed.

I drove out of the mountains through Yellowstone National Park, where wild animals are often visible along the paved roads – bison, bears, deer and elk. At every sighting, people abandon their cars, running toward a vantage point with their cameras and phones to collect a digital simulation of wilderness – something to keep and take back home. This commodification of the wild as consumable experience is a fascinating spectacle that only underlines our everyday alienation from nature. I can’t criticize. I did it too. I got a nice shot of a bull elk when the skittish tourists fled out of frame while I stood my ground.

But wildness can’t be adequately encountered a few feet from your car, or in short stops at viewpoints along an asphalt road. You need to go deeper, further, dwell in its otherness for a time, risk its strangeness, wait patiently until it is ready to deliver the news.