This is an essay that I had originally submitted to a couple of literary journals. As is the norm in the publishing industry, I was rejected by both of them. I still like this essay a lot and decided to post it here. I suppose some might find it a bit pretentious, but I was reading Annie Dillard and Kathleen Norris at the time. Although unconscious of it then, I suspect it is a poor attempt at emulating their style.
Markdown (the html flavor that WordPress uses) doesn’t lend itself to footnoting. I will therefore put the footnotes here. I referenced four works:
– Belden C. Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, New York, Oxford University Press, 1998.
– Wendell Berry, Standing on Earth: Selected Essays, Ipswich, Golgonooza Press, 1991), p. 22.
– The Berry quote was found in John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image: Insights into an Orthodox Christian Ecological Worldview, 2nd ed., Light and Life Publishing, Minneapolis, 2007.
– Ray Davies, Other People’s Lives (2006) on the v2 label, Track 7, “The Tourist” and Track 9, “The Getaway.”
This time we entered Capitol Reef by wending our way down the Grand Staircase toward the Fremont River. I was looking forward to this return trip to the largely undiscovered Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah because I had been utterly captivated by this land on a previous trip. It is neither as photogenic as Bryce Canyon nor as dramatic as Zion farther southwest, but this meant fewer people. It was as much the forgottenness as the beauty that drew me. This time we were extending our exploration from Capitol Reef into the Escalante, or Grand Staircase—a massive rock up-thrust of a magnitude that is simply incomprehensible. The combination of the lonely grandeur of the desert and the geologic mystery of this region were irresistible to one who had discovered the power of the desert several years before.
I had grown up in the semi-arid region of northeast Montana where cactus and yucca captured tumbleweeds in their thorns and competed with sagebrush to survive. I lived along one of those endless ribbons of cottonwood trees that marked the occasional rivers in the region, but I spent my days, both at work and at play, in the barren Larb Hills or riding my bicycle into the shimmer of heat that swallowed the highway in front of me. Back then I took it all for granted.
Much later, having moved to Kentucky for school and then to the lush Flint Hills of Kansas for work, I recognized a yearning to return to the happy solitude of that emptiness. It was in this memory of childhood that I began to realize the empty quarters were spiritually powerful. I began to wonder if I were not a lesser person for having forsaken those quarters.
My youngest years – just on the edge of memory – were spent in Sheridan, Wyoming. Sheridan lies in the transitional area between the barren and arid plains stretching past Gillette to the east and the Bighorn Mountains to the west. As I cultivated the memory of that happy solitude of emptiness, an idea revealed itself. I had also spent some time at a Crozier monastery in Nebraska and there discovered the spiritual discipline of rigorous fasting, particularly water-only fasts, which some of the monks practiced as part of their discipline. But fasting in the temptatious city, full of billboards, glorious smells wafting from restaurants, and candy bars at every gas station counter, proved beyond my weak-willed ability. My new idea was to spend a week in the Bighorn Mountains with only a tent and sleeping bag, a prayer book, water – lots of water – and a camp stove for brewing herbal tea.
Much of the Bighorn range is arid and the tree line – that elevation above which trees can no longer grow – lies at a fairly low elevation because of the arid conditions. Much later I learned that Belden Lane calls such places “grotesque” and “wild” terrain, a sort of “vertical edge” to civilization in much the same way that a traditional desert creates a horizontal edge for the civilized world. At this stage of my life I knew little of the language of purgation, nor of the theology of what some have called the indifference of God that can only be discovered in an indifferent and hostile environment. My early spiritual tradition equated mountaintops with spiritual ecstasy. But what I experienced in the Bighorns was a glorious divine indifference that eroded my ego down to a more appropriate size and contoured my soul into a shape that was prepared to collect droplets and dew of divine presence rather than the expected rushing winds of ecstasy.
Such seeming divine indifference requires attentiveness to discern the almost invisible presence that is there. The magnificent solitude of the empty quarters calls for a different perception. This was not David dancing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, nor was it the not-yet-Apostle, still called Saul, blinded by the overwhelming divine light. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:11). This command stands in stark contrast to the shattering of the spear and the breaking of the chariots that occurs in the previous verse. This is Moses in the cleft of the rock, bereft because the storm, the wind, the lightning were all agnostic ecstasy. But Moses waited. He needed balance and steadfastness before he finally heard the Silence.
By this time in my life I had just begun to read the darkness of St. John of the Cross and brightness St. Gregory Palamas. On the grotesque and wild, but exceedingly empty yet expansive mountaintop, I glimpsed that they were saying the same thing. I also knew beyond anything to which I could put words that this was The Word, there from the beginning. I knew that grotesque was the correct description and that “grotesque” was precisely the same thing as “beautiful” in the same manner that blinding darkness was the same thing as the eternal brightness of day … and I knew that this silence was very good.
At this point in my life I had no idea so many other people heard that same mystical whisper. From the days of the “desert fathers” to the latter wanderers from Sinai to Sedona, otherwise well-adjusted people sought out these inhospitable lands; people were drawn to the emptiness. These were lands full of brutal summer heat, bitter winter cold, and piercing wind that could divide bone and marrow while eroding the very soul to its unpretentious essence. It never occurred to me that civilized people who had grown up in civilized places would hear that same lonely call which I remembered from my uncivilized childhood and now experienced powerfully on the barren northern edge of the Bighorn Mountains. And not knowing this great tradition, afterwards the experience remained but a dull ache of memory.
Eventually I became more conversant with desert spirituality and that old dull ache of a memory began to turn into a longing to experience the desert, not just as “comfort food”—a return to the familiarity of childhood memories—but as spiritual nourishment. My sister-in-law taught school in the Navajo Nation and on a trip to see her we decided to spend some in Utah. It was a wide-ranging expedition in which we day-hiked everywhere from Capitol Reef to Glen Canyon to El Malpais, just west of Albuquerque. With textbooks, prayer books, and knapsacks in hand, it became wonderful exercise for both the body and the soul.
Specifically, the time in the wilderness was expansive. Specifically, for the first time I was able to parse the openness of the wilderness that I had experienced riding my bicycle into the shimmer of heat that swallowed the highway in front of me when I was in high school. The empty spaces didn’t stretch a person thin, as did the expectations of job, church, and society; rather, they beckoned one to unravel the tangled threads of a life whose strands had been turned this way and that. And because it was expansive in this manner, it was liberating.
And here I was again—here we were again—wending our way from the mountains down into the Utah desert to once again unravel the tangled threads of our life. The arid, empty quarters were no longer just my childhood memory, a thing of the past; they were a wayside rest to prepare me for whatever may lay ahead. Toward that end Brenda was reading John Chryssavgis, Beyond the Shattered Image. And as we followed the lonely road into the heart of the Escalante National Monument, she read out loud a passage from Wendell Berry that Chryssavgis had quoted:
Apparently with the rise of industry, we began to romanticize the wilderness—which is to say we began to institutionalize it within the concept of the “scenic.” Because of railroads and improved highways, the wilderness was no longer an arduous passage for the traveler, but something to be looked at as grand or beautiful from the high vantages of the roadside. We became viewers of “views.” And because we no longer traveled in the wilderness as a matter of course, we forgot that wilderness still circumscribed civilization and persisted in domesticity. We forgot, indeed, that the civilized and the domestic continued to depend upon wilderness, that is, upon natural forces within the climate and within the soil that have never in any meaningful sense been controlled or conquered. Modern civilization has been built largely in this forgetfulness.
She meant well, but that brief recitation ruined any hope of this trip being a spiritual pilgrimage … that is, unless, a pilgrimage is merely a tourist vacation dressed up in a camel hair cloak. Now I could only sit back in the breeze of the air conditioning and enjoy the view. The mystical had evaporated as surely as the soda flat that lay to the left of highway.
Brenda shared the quote because she didn’t hear Wendell Berry in the same way I heard him. She was in a place not unlike Lucy Pevensie transported to Narnia, and just as Lucy heard that she could not tame the lion, so Brenda heard that we could not tame nature. Just as Lucy recognized that a tame lion is no real lion at all, so Brenda recognized that domesticated nature is not nature at all, just an extension of the back yard. After reading Chryssavgis, she was ready to cross the fence out of the manicured back yard and try to find the Wilderness.
But I didn’t hear Lucy Pevensie when I heard Berry; rather, it was Ray Davies ringing in my ear. Davies, founding member of The Kinks, and now pursuing a successful solo musical career, is one of the best observers of life unvarnished among contemporary song writers. His song, The Tourist is a biting look at the rootlessness of modern life, and how we, ignorant of place but full of hubris, bang about the world as if we own and understand it: “The Empire State is so very tall / And the Taj Mahal has a pretty dome / And everywhere that I go I say / I want to make it my home.”
And yet, in spite all the urbanity of Ray Davies’ tourist, the song is deeply melancholy. The tourist wants to make everywhere his home, but because he is merely passing through, nowhere manages to be the place where he fits best.
Davies puts his finger on one of the failings of modern society: with such a life we have no home, never attaching ourselves to the joys of place and neighbor nor buckling down to deal with the associated troubles. It’s easier to just move on (or to make our “great escape” as Davies says a couple of tracks later in the song, The Getaway). Rather than people on a pilgrimage, we moderns have become pilgrims with no place—in other words, tourists. And, to bring this back to the point Berry made, we bring our “place” with us. Our place is located with our mp3 player, cup holder, cooler, and change of clothes in the trunk. As long as the A/C is working, the cooler is stocked with water and food, and we are within 100 miles of a gas station, we can make anywhere, no matter how natively inhospitable, our “place,” only to move on in the next few days.
And if this is the case, this condition begs the question, “What is the desert?” In the time when desert and an active or even militant spiritual life went hand in hand, the desert was a spiritual tool because it was the habitation of all that stood opposed to The Garden. It’s not that it wasn’t cultivated—and it certainly wasn’t—but rather, it was beyond the possibility of cultivation or any human management. It was the abode of jackals and demons. But with our technology we no longer fear jackals and with our education we no longer believe in demons.
So let’s reframe the question. Rather than focus on the desert, let’s ask what stands in opposition to all the good that God has given us. St. Anthony went to the land of jackals to battle the demons that stood between him and the fullness of God. Where is our land of jackals? What stands between us and the fullness of God?
Of course the answer to that question is as varied as the persons who ask it. That was the case in St. Anthony’s time as much as it is today. But I am asking this question in the comfort of my air conditioned car, traveling forty miles per hour across a very well maintained gravel road that cuts straight and true, with few surprises (and no real obstacles!) right through the heart of the arid Escalante uplift. From St. Anthony’s perspective (sans road), this is every bit the forsaken desert as the Sinai. From my perspective (comfortably on the road), it’s both as curious and glorious as the “Empire State which is so very tall and the Taj Mahal with a pretty dome …”
What stands between us and the fullness of God? Possibly it’s the automobile itself. Possibly it’s the ability, because of the rise of industry “to romanticize the wilderness” to “institutionalize the concept of ‘scenic’” (to frame the question in Wendell Berry’s words), and finally to escape the responsibilities of place, community, annoying neighbors, and the dullness of making a living day after day in a neighborhood that is not nearly as romantic as a ski lodge in Park City, nor as scenic as the red sandstone cliffs of Sedona, nor as urbane as Santa Fe.
If I would have never left Montana and was still working in the arid and empty Larb Hills north of Fort Peck Reservoir, then possibly the arid and empty places would have been my desert where I struggled against jackals and demons in search of the fullness of God. Instead, I packed up my automobile and moved to Kentucky, and to Kansas, then to Alaska, and on to Nebraska … How can a wanderer such as that make a pilgrimage? For while I still have so many places which to go, I no longer have a specific place from which I come.
When Brenda read Wendell Berry in the midst of the massive rock stair steps of the Escalante, I realized that I am no St. Anthony. I cannot make pilgrimage into the desert to fight my demons when I am so accustomed to traveling to the desert to escape the demons with which I am so familiar.
If I’m going to be a tourist, I shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Meanwhile, I ought to fight tooth and claw, to embrace the wild fullness of God in the domesticated world where I live (in contrast to the wild world where I vacation). Such a stay-put pilgrimage is not nearly as romantic as southern Utah or the Bighorn Mountains, but it is in tune with my life. I have seen the “grotesque and wild.” I have clambered up to “the vertical edge.” And for me they’re not scary, but scenic. Now it is time to come home, to stay home, until I can find divine fullness here in this noisy, busy place. In the midst of the noise of society, the potential of the quiet stillness of God remains as profound as it did for Moses on the mountain, for St. Anthony in his hut, and for the monks on the Holy Mountain.