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.

Ultreia!

Camino de Santiago, west of Pamplona.

 

The Religious Imagineer is five years old this week. It began during my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in the spring of 2014, with dispatches on miles I walked, things I saw, people I met, thoughts I had.

No great views today, but the summit where France turns to Spain was a brooding cloud of unknowing where we walked by faith not sight. (April 8, the first day)

 

Crossing the Pyrenees on the first day.

 

The land through which we pilgrims passed today was painted with a few strong colors: dark green wheat, yellow mustard, blue sky, white clouds. Those four colors filled the eye in every direction, with no lesser hues to dilute the effect. To wander through such a scene was a glorious thing. Whatever else the Camino brings, I will have had this day. As a German woman said as she passed me by, “Cherish every step! Cherish every step!” (April 11)

 

Pilgrims moving westward from Castrojeriz.

 

[A 30-second video of my shadow moving along the Camino]: If you want to experience the length of my walk in real time, replay this video 27,000 times. (April 25)

 

Few trees, big sky, only occasional villages, and long stretches where the only human presence was the long procession of pilgrims migrating westward. The lack of distractions and variations tends to make the very act of walking to be the mind’s principal occupation. As Robert Macfarlane puts it in The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, walking becomes “sensational” – it isn’t just conducive to thought, it becomes the form thought takes. I walk, therefore I am. Perhaps it is similar to the way that cinema thinks through the movement of the camera. It isn’t forming propositional thought, but is simply absorbing through its attentive motion the shape of the world, the textures of existence. (April 29)

 

Fellow pilgrim Edward “Monty” Montgomery enters San Juan de Ortega on Good Friday.

 

There are many along this road who began it as a form of athletic challenge or youthful adventure or unusual vacation. And many will finish it that way. But in talking with those who profess no religious intention, or who are dismissive of Christianity as something they outgrew, I still hear the spiritual language of pilgrimage breaking through the verities of secularism. One has lost a job and is trying to discern a meaningful alternative. Another is trying to listen to her life from a place of unknowing. Another has no answer to the question of why he is walking, but still presses on to Santiago. To borrow a phrase from the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, every pilgrim is trying to arrive at a place we know not by following a way which we know not. (May 1)

 

Halfway to Santiago, a Camino friend was feeling some pain and discouragement on a particularly demanding stretch. But then he saw a handwritten sign: “Don’t give up before the miracle.” (May 7)

 

 

But can I, having now trod 478 miles in 31 days, really claim any kind of illumination or transformation as a result? I still get annoyed by the loud and incessant talkers who mar the tranquility, I still get angry when a speeding truck comes close to knocking me into a ditch. I have yet to perfect the pilgrim equanimity urged by my guidebook, which sees every irritation as the sand that produces the pearl. But at least I try to make these things part of my walking prayer. As the monks say of life in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up …” (May 9)

 

This morning I performed the final Camino ritual: climbing the stairs behind the altar to hug the gleaming metal effigy of Santiago. Despite the cool hardness of the sculpture, it was strangely comforting. I whispered in the saint’s ear: “Thank you for the beautiful voyage.” (May 12)

 

Statue of St. James behind the high altar, Cathedral of Santiago.

After I reached Camino’s ultimate end in Muxia, on the western shore of northern Spain, my blog just kept on going, continuing its own pilgrimage to God knows where, reporting as it goes. I have written about theology, spirituality, liturgy, poetry, the arts, cinema, music, politics, culture, nature, seasons, time, death and resurrection. My topics––and my influences––may be eclectic, but I trust my Christian faith and Anglican temperament to lend some coherence to these verbal wanderings.

In that spirit, I borrowed my blog’s subtitle from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets: “Where the fire and the rose are one.” This union of contraries––passion and tenderness, danger and beauty, wild instability and serene form––draws upon Dante’s imagery in the Commedia. Fire is purgation, divine light and the flame of love. The rose, perhaps inspired by the rose window of an Italian cathedral, images the heavenly city, containing a multitude of saints within its harmonizing circle. Dante unites flame and flower in his image of the Virgin, whose “womb relit the flame of love––/ its heat has made this blossom seed / and flower in eternal peace” (Par. xxxiii.7-9). In the unfolding future of God’s not-yet, the fire and the rose will indeed be one.

Gustave Dore, The Celestial Rose in Dante’s Paradise (1868)

In The Religious Imagineer’s first five years, there have been 237 posts, 61,913 visitors and 92,870 views. My ten most viewed posts so far have been:

1) The ten best Jesus movies (Jan. 6, 2015)–– I have taught Jesus movies for years, and find cinematic gospels, despite (or because of?) their flaws, to be fascinating case studies for questions of biblical representation and interpretation, as well as Christology.

2) Members of the same body? A post-election homily (Nov. 10, 2016) –– “Can we truly delight in each other, make others’ conditions our own, rejoice together, labor and suffer together? In one of the darkest moments in American history, this is the work we have been given to do.”

3) Ten ways to keep a holy Advent (Dec. 6, 2014) –– Interrupting, Silencing, Waiting, Listening, Watching, Praying, Reflecting, Loving, Giving, Receiving.

4) A deep but dazzling darkness (Aug. 25, 2017) –– My account of the 2017 eclipse, seen through the lens of mystical theology, continues to find readers almost every day. It has been viewed on more total days than any other post.

5) You can never go fast enough (Sept. 9, 2014) –– This mix of classic cars, road trips, nostalgia and eschatology got a huge amount of traffic when it became a WordPress editors’ pick.

6) 7 spiritual practices: a to-do list for the time of trial (Nov. 18, 2016) –– This brief guide to engaging the powers of darkness without losing our own souls remains all too relevant.

7) Dreaming the church that wants to be (Oct. 7, 2015) –– Eleven Christian artists gathered for 10 days in Venice to imagine a rebirth of wonder among God’s friends. This prologue, and the several posts that followed it, emerged from that quest.

8) The ten best religious films (Oct. 8, 2014) –– “Most of these films refuse the usual manipulations and excitements of mass cinema, and demand a contemplative mind. Transcendental style can be as rigorous as prayer.”

9) The spirituality of running (Aug. 4, 2016) –– A subject dear to my runner’s heart. “What we do with our bodies manifests and expresses inner states, the sacred ground of our being. But bodily practices can also induceinner states. How we move, how we sit, how we breathe, can all make a difference in our spiritual life. Inner and outer are intertwined and interactive. We pray in, with, through our bodies.”

10) Hospital for the soul (April 24, 2014) –– One of my earliest posts concerns a house of hospitality where pilgrims find momentary respite from the Camino’s onward rush. “Everyone is welcome here,” I was told, “but it’s not for everyone. Many people hurry along the Camino who show little interest in the work of the soul.”

Of the top ten, three are on spiritual practice, three are about movies, three are about widely shared experiences (the Camino, the eclipse, and our current political “time of trial”). And three include a number in the title, always a hit with the search engines!

If you want to explore further in these writings, enter a subject in the Search box, such as “Cinema,” “Nature,” “Liturgy and worship,” or “Imagination,” and you will find a range of selections. Or as we enter Holy Week, you might try “What Shall We Preach on Easter Sunday?” (currently featured in the April 10 issue of The Christian Century) or “Just a dream?­­––Reflections on the Easter Vigil.”

I am grateful to you, dear readers, for joining me in this journey of words and thoughts over the past five years. I deeply appreciate your attentive reading and supportive comments. And if you would like to help me expand the reach of this writing ministry by sharing your favorite posts now and then (share buttons are at the bottom of individual posts), that would be an awesome anniversary gift!

And now, as we say on the Camino, “Ultreia!” (“Let’s go further!”). In the days to come, I will always strive to be worthy of your time.

The author at Camino’s end in Muxia.

All photographs by Jim Friedrich

What Happens in Bethlehem Doesn’t Stay in Bethlehem

Giovanni Bellini, The Madonna of the Small Trees (1487)

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road, pregnant with the holy, and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart.
My time is so close.”

 Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ,
taking birth forever.

 –– St. John of the Cross

 

The story we celebrate on Christmas Eve isn’t just about a long-ago wonder. It describes something that is still going on, as the divine “takes birth forever” in mortal flesh and human stories. The infinite God, the Creator of time and space and matter, the Source and Sustainer of all existence, yearns to be born in us, to express the life-giving Word in the vocabulary of human flesh. Your life, my life, our common life as the body of Christ––these are God’s Bethlehem tonight.

In other words, the Nativity isn’t just something we remember. It’s something we do, something we become.  As St. Paul said, “all of us . . . are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” In other words, we are destined to become God-like.

But what does that mean––“God-like?” It doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. Look at Jesus. His life tells you what God-like means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

To let the divine be born in us, then, means simply this: to let our humanity achieve its true fullness by allowing divine Love to have its way with us. A 13th-century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeberg, put it like this:

“When are we like God? I will tell you.
Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly,
to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator
who practices these things ceaselessly.”

O come, let us adore Christ. But not only that. O come, let us imitate Christ. Let God’s life be born in us. And when the divine is born in us, when the divine takes place in us, we will not be the only ones changed by it. Everyone we meet will be changed. And perhaps one day, the whole world will be changed––into “brighter and brighter glory.”

I think it all comes down to this: What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.
It goes out into all the world, to all people, all places, now and forever.
And nothing will ever be the same again.

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Dear reader, thank you for taking the time to consider these posts. You are a writer’s best gift. I wish you a most happy and luminous Christmastide. May your own encounter with the embodied God––whatever form it may take––bless and empower you in the days to come.