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Into the Wild…

It was supposed to be just a simple training trip. The Warner Parks had given us some good hill training, but we needed the physical and mental fatigue of long sustained miles of up, and significant altitude gain, in preparation for the Grand Canyon. So we headed to the Smoky Mountains for a couple of back to back hikes.

IMG_5348It was 2:00 in the east by the time we hit the trail to Rocky Top. Ten minutes in we had our first surprise. Mike was in the lead, but I saw her first. “Stop,” I whispered. He continued. I grabbed the back of his shirt and said, more helpfully, “It’s a bear.” He stopped. We were already closer than advisable so we backed up a little. Then the first baby tumbled out of the brush. We backed up some more. But not so far that we did not see the other two come chasing after their brother. They rolled and played, bounded and pounced, and mom mostly ignored them. They were in no particular hurry to get anywhere, so we just watched. And I tried to remember if I had any food in my pack that was not wrapped. Anything that might make me smell tasty. Once they finally left the path, we began to move tentatively forward, keeping an eye on them. As it turns out, they were keeping an eye on us too. The little guys stretched up onto their hind legs to see the tall funny looking people with humps on their backs. Mom, though, had apparently written us off as harmless. Good.

We climbed, mile after mile, practicing our rest step, hydrating frequently, stopping occasionally to remove our packs and relieve our feet. When we connected to the Appalachian Trail, the path began to go down, then up again, then down, as we moved across the crest of several mountains to get to the one we were after. This was more mentally fatiguing than you might imagine. It is difficult to give up altitude painfully gained, knowing you are about to have to climb it again. But then there was the up that was only up, and we ascended past the trees and onto the rocky crest and the world opened up all around us and it was so glorious that I thought I would gladly do it all again, though, in fact, I can’t imagine that that would have even been possible, but in that moment you feel invincible and will promise yourself almost anything. We dropped our packs and spread our arms and let the wind cool our hot, weary bodies. And it was so quiet. And still. And lovely.

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The descent took roughly half the time. Still, darkness overtook us. We pulled out flashlights, listened as the song of crickets joined the gurgle of the stream, dodged a few diving bats, and tried to remember exactly where it was that we saw the bears. Mike wondered aloud if they locked the picnic area where the trailhead was located at night.  As it turns out…

We suspected we were in trouble when we saw no other cars. We knew we were in trouble when we drove up to the gate. With the padlock. As we tried to figure out exactly who one might call in such a situation, I got out to see if just maybe the padlock was not locked. I suppose some ranger had gotten tired of being dragged away from his family to rescue crazy hikers who did not bother reading signs about parking areas closing at dark. Thank God for that. I slid the padlock out, Mike drove through, and I carefully replaced it just as I had found it and breathed a thank you to kind, practical human beings everywhere.

After a shower and a late supper, we looked at the forecast one more time before setting the alarm for an early wake up. No change.

RAIN

A light mist fell as we commenced our ascent to Mount Leconte. We congratulated ourselves on our fortitude and thought how silly we would have felt for backing out for something as innocuous as this.

Though the Smokies are littered with waterfalls and cascades of every sort, Rainbow Falls is the tallest. That, and the rainbow it produces on sunny afternoons, are its claim to fame. But as a general rule, the output is rather meager. As a general rule…

IMG_5375A couple of miles in, the rain picked up considerably. We pulled on rain jackets and carried on. We noticed how the colors of the leaves became more intense when wet. We looked out through openings in the trees at a world swathed in mist. We gave thanks for the canopy that withheld much of the water. Several streams crossed the trail. There were log bridges for a couple. The rest were crossed by stepping on larger rocks that stood above the water. We remarked early on how even the trail itself looked like a dry creek bed. As we neared the top, it wasn’t dry any more. Rivulets of water had begun to course down the center of the path. A curiosity. A slight inconvenience. For now.

By the time we reached the summit, our breath poured out in clouds of vapor and there were bits of ice in the rain. A fire burned in the lodge. We poured the water out of our boots, wrung out socks and jackets and hung them over chair backs to dry, and snuggled up to the stove. We devoured our lunch and drank our weight in coffee and hot chocolate. The memory of that warm coffee would be a comfort to me for some miles after.

Tearing ourselves away from the fire was painful. Shoving my feet back into those cold, wet boots made me want to cry a little. But it’s amazing how quickly the body acclimates. We started back down the way we had come, but we soon recognized that a considerable change in the trail had taken place while we rested. The rivulet was now a stream four or five inches deep. We straddled the path walking on its sides where we could, occasionally finding large rocks in the middle, avoiding stepping into the water at all costs. We would eventually give up on that.

The first water crossing was the worst. It had occurred to me by then that the rocks we had crossed on before might be difficult to find now. It had not occurred to me that they would be buried under a foot of roaring water tumbling headlong down the mountain. We walked up and down the creek looking for a place to string together rocks and make a crossing above water. It was not to be found. We dared not cross on the higher rocks for fear of being washed off and carried over the cliffs below. So we walked behind them figuring that if the water took us, the rocks would stop us. The freezing water came up to our thighs. We held our breath and held onto one another and pushed through to the other side. My heart was filled with gratitude and my boots were full of water.

Mike made me jump across the second stream. I didn’t think I could do it. We were jumping from one wet, mossy rock to another and it was a big gap and the pack made me feel like a rhinoceros on stilts. But he would not let me be a coward. He jumped first and did not die. He promised to catch me if I fell. I also did not die. I was very glad about that.

We continued to dodge water in the paths until the last mile and a half or so. It was mentally exhausting, all that navigating. It took us as long to get down as it did to get up. That never happens. But, we were rewarded by a view of the falls that most people never get. People who were only hiking as far as the falls were turning back because a couple of the water crossings were on that side of the falls. Perhaps we would have turned back if we had started then, I don’t know. I am glad now that was not an option.

As a training hike, it was far more effective than we planned. We learned a lot about packing for rain and are making some adjustments in our gear. Though the Grand Canyon is in the desert, sudden thunderstorms are always a possibility. As an adventure, it exceeded anything we might have hoped for.

Mike said to me, “When I am old and can’t remember anything any more, will you tell me the story of how we almost died but didn’t?”

“Yes, my love, I will.”

Rainbow Falls before

Rainbow Falls before

Rainbow Falls after

Rainbow Falls after

Flight of Fancy…

The morning dawned cool and damp, like a renegade fall day. I knew it would not last. The atmosphere already strove to reclaim the cool along with the dew.

An accumulation of weeds had been tormenting me for days. Every time I crossed the porch or refilled the birdfeeders, they stared up at me with impudent faces, mocking me. I was glad to find an opportunity to attend to them, and even more glad that I could do it without being slathered in sweat.

hummingbird_butterfly_bushI buried the upper portion of myself inside the butterfly bush to get at a handful of offenders wedged between it and the iris. When I stood up to move to the other side, I found myself face to face with a Ruby-throated hummingbird. I immediately stopped breathing. I tried not to blink and even scolded my heart for beating too loudly. He was so close to me I could feel his wings beating the air. I don’t know what he asked me with his probing regard, but apparently he decided I was safe. He turned to a nearby panicle of blossoms and began sipping daintily from one tiny cup at a time.

My mind was racing like when you are in an accident or an almost accident and the whole of the world slows and your mind assesses the scene with surgical precision. I strained my eyes to see every precious detail of his beautiful body (which, incidentally, I took to be a female body at first for its lack of scarlet on the breast. I soon discovered I was mistaken.) I watched him move along the blossom like someone eating corn from a cob, a row at a time. Holiness hovered on his emerald wings and the heady scent of the blossoms might have been incense. I could feel the sacredness of this moment in my pores.

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Then I saw the other one.

He dived from the sky with a throb of wing and a pernicious squawk. The other rose to meet him and they hovered with their beaks only centimeters apart scolding, talking over one another. Neither was listening. One of them finally decided to retreat to the sunflowers, which seemed a reasonable and generous solution to me. But not to his aggressor. He pursued his enemy and they carried their dog fight higher and higher into the air until both of them fled.

And even this. Even the wild bravado of these young adolescent males establishing their territorial claims filled me with awe, and for a long time I could not stop looking into the sky at the very place where I saw them last.

I finally went back to my work, but there were a great many more visits from my winged friend, or friends, as the case may be. And this became just one more lowly, everyday experience shot through with the luminous. It happens all the time. Nothing is more common.

Be watching…

hummingbirds

*All photos (and the exquisite watercolor) harvested from other sources. I did eventually grab my phone to see if I might catch a shot, but the one time I tried, it frightened him away. I decided I would rather have his presence than his image. 🙂

North To Alaska, Part the Second

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24 May: And then there were three. Last night we put our 19 year old on a plane in Anchorage, and this morning he is home in Franklin. Meanwhile, Mike, Josh and I begin the drive to Seward. Astonishing vistas meet us round every turn in the road, and I am enchanted by mountains straddling sea and sky.

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A pallet of blues and grays prevails with only the occasional intrusion.  A world where shadows are blue. Some conspiracy of sky and snow. We pass Dall sheep grazing, snowmobilers plying the high passes still drenched in snow, and mountain lakes of icy green. Finally, we plunge seaward to meet our ship in Seward.

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25 May: How is it that I never knew a glacier is blue? The ice and snow are compressed so densely that they only reflect blue light. It is like a great wall of topaz with millions of dazzling facets. We grip cameras and binoculars in gloved hands, crowding the railings. This place palpitates with glory and we all feel the need to be near it.

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Hubbard Glacier (on the right) extends about 76 miles from its source. The ice at its base is approximately 400 years old. It regularly “calves”, dropping icebergs into the sea that can be as large as a building. It’s smaller neighbor on the left is Turner  Glacier. I love how the feathery clouds have arranged themselves as if to  say, “Tah dah!”

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A final look back as we pull away from the glacier. Icebergs, cottony clouds, and jagged clots of snow appear to be cut of the same cloth, scattered indiscriminately across a gray/blue ground.

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26 May: We gather to pray with believers in Juneau. The prayers and hymns are familiar. And it is good to be so far away and so at home. We stay for coffee and swap stories with dear brothers and sisters.

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After church, we board a small boat to go see us some whales. We watch a mother humpback teaching her baby to “spy hop” (lifting the head out of the water to have a look around). She demos, then he practices. We watch the graceful curve of their backs as they dive for food. Flip of the tail, sometimes for propulsion, sometimes for fun. 🙂 We also visit a colony of sea lions sunning themselves on rocks. My, how I wish you could hear them! There must have been a hundred of them. I don’t have great pictures of either, (or of the porpoises), but here are a few sea lions who came out to play with us.

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27 May: Skagway was a departure point for many starry-eyed dreamers looking for gold. Today we follow their treacherous path on the White Pass Yukon Route Railway. I feel a little like I’m in an old Western film. Keeping an eye out for train robbers. 🙂

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We pass waterfalls, deep ravines, rickety old bridges that look like they belong in a Wile E. Coyote cartoon, and the tragic “dead horse gulch” (named for the many horses who died while attempting to carry prospectors’ supplies up over the pass).

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There is a glacial lake at the top of the pass, mostly frozen still. Sometimes we travel through a great corridor of snow, tall as the cars in places, carved out for our sakes.

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I spend most of the return trip out on the porch of the car breathing the clean scent of evergreen and snow, catching the spray of waterfalls in my hands and on my face, and trying, once again, to get inside this landscape. To get it inside me.

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We spend the afternoon doing what most of our friends at home are doing on this Memorial Day, sitting out by the pool. It is 70 degrees, after all. The view from my deck chair….

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28 May: If I lived in Alaska my whole life, I would never get over seeing a bald eagle in flight. We see them every day of the cruise; sitting on buildings, in the woods, or in their tree top nest in Hoonah. But the best is to see them soaring overhead. And I have to stop and watch. My eyes fill with tears, and my heart pounds from the sheer majesty of it. (In fact I couldn’t write this without tears.) My gratitude is so deep.

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In Hoonah, we sit for a long time with a store owner who talks to us about her life in Alaska. This is an unexpected gift. She tells us about a group of Tlingit artists who are crafting totem poles and panels for the new visitor center for Glacier Bay National Park using traditional tools and stories. They welcome us into their workshop and tell us about their work. We are honored to be drawn into this tradition.

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29 May: We are only ever rained on twice in Alaska. One of these days, appropriately, is in Ketchikan–purportedly  the rainiest city in North America, as well as the king salmon capital of the world.

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Creek Street is the former red light district. (Prostitution was legal here until 1953.) It is a charming clutter of buildings sitting on stilts which today house galleries, jewelry stores, and souvenir shops.

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30 May: Our last day on the ship is spent entirely at sea. It is the coldest day of the trip with intermittent rain, but the rain brings gifts of its own. Shafts of light stab through gray clouds, while slender columns of steam rise tenuously skyward to rejoin their fellows.

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And then this. I take it all in in greedy, grateful gulps.

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Tomorrow, we will wake in Vancouver, and all around will be city, and noise, and hurry. But tonight, during dinner, this is outside our window. This is Alaska as I will remember her. Wild. Unfettered. Unpredictable. And utterly wondrous…

North to Alaska…

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20 May: We chase the moon to Alaska. She shines against an indigo sky that has no memory of black. Sometimes she slides down snow blanketed peaks to drop into the sea, winking up at us between floating blocks of ice, the ripples bending her light into a thousand faces, littering the sea with diamonds. When the sea is still she pours herself out like butter, soft and golden, puddling, then spreading. Languid. Easy. This is the first enchantment.

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21 May: They tell us it has been a late spring. That there was a snow fall of 11 inches just 4 days ago. And I wonder why it never occurred to me to wish for this.

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We get our first glimpse of Denali (Mt. McKinley) down the endless stretch of roadway ahead of us, framed by trees. We pull off at an overlook to drink in the glory of her. To be with her. It is a pristine day. She is wholly unfettered by clouds and altogether magnificent. We do not learn until later that these views only happen 60 days or so each year. Gift.

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Denali does not make trails, however they do recognize community trails that have formed naturally and point you toward those. On this day, we follow footprints in the snow across frozen streams that begin to crack with thaw, across bridges where only the handrails are visible above the snow (barely), along cantilevered shards of ice that are melting from the bottom up, through an enchanted wood that is very Narnia.

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22 May: There is a quiet in Denali so deep you can feel it on your skin. You breathe it in the snow scented air. To stand in this is to know something profoundly important about life and the world, a knowing that happens in your bones. And even the ptarmigan’s bluster, the soar and swoop of nest building magpies, the snort and huff of grizzlies as they frolic in the river bottoms, seem to lose themselves in the endless expanse of blue sky and mountain and frozen lake.

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Denali is generous to us this day. We see a moose cow who has just calved. She is still tidying up number two while number one begins to test out wobbly legs. All of us press against the bus windows with binoculars and cameras, and no one says a word. Later we see a bull moose in all his glory, a herd of caribou, Dall sheep (for whom the park was created, incidentally), as well as the aforementioned grizzles, ptarmigans and magpies.

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The call of the mountains is too much for Jake, and he determines early in the day that we must climb something. So we have our driver leave us off near an approach that appears reasonably navigable.

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The going is steep and precarious at times with dense shrubbery, rock slides, and snow fields that are packed solid for some expanse, then suddenly drop you 12 inches in and fill your shoes. But the vistas from up here are spectacular and it is good to plant our bodies in the middle of all this without the insulation of a piece of machinery, and no sound but our breathing.

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I take approximately a million photographs, even though I understand the futility of trying to capture this moment with a lens. To stand inside the grandeur of this place, to once be here, is an unrepeatable wonder. But I know that when I look at the photos, I will remember…

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We are, for a time, held hostage by this guy who plants himself squarely  in the road ahead of us just after we descend from the mountain. We are required to give him 70 yards clearance, a directive which is superfluous as we know Dall sheep are sometimes known to charge when ticked off. This photo is taken after he finally decides to clear out.

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23 May: Our last experience in Denali is a visit to the Canine Rangers who patrol the park all winter. They are beautiful and strong and sweet. One of the rangers tells us that they occasionally adopt out puppies if a litter is too large or if a dog does not have the characteristics necessary to make it a good dog sled dog, and Josh wants very much to bring one of them home, but we can’t figure out how to make this work…

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All photos taken with my iPhone. No editing. The colors you see are the colors we saw. If you would like more photos and less talk, check out my Facebook album HERE.

Artful Extravagance

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While God puts His lovely fingerprint on all of creation, it sometimes seems as though He spends extra time in certain places crafting an extravagance of beauty. Artful, elegant, and so exquisite it creates a pang in the heart. Bermuda is one such place.

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Sapphire skies hover over an impossibly turquoise sea that rushes toward pink sand beaches in a flurry of foam. Dark stones lie strewn about the shore and shallows like left over toys. The water hurls itself against them, spouting skyward in great white flumes.

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Along the beach, we discover treasures from the sea. And, even as I mourn their death, I marvel that God graced a creature that would rarely be seen with such extraordinary loveliness. Prettier than it has to be.

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Sea Glass Beach yields treasures of another sort. Trash, broken bottles and the like, rolled around by the waves, pummeled against the sand, wash up onto this beach smoothed and remade. We brought bits of it home. As a reminder. Fragments of resurrection for the garden path.

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The beauty of the natural world seems to inform and inspire the works of man. The houses that cling to the hills look like they spilled out of an Easter basket. Gardens and flower boxes are a profusion of texture and color. And we climb the world’s oldest cast iron lighthouse to find a most utilitarian beauty. The prisms that help magnify the light bend land, sea and sky into a marvelous upside down landscape.

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There is even a nod to whimsy. This is Kenzie’s favorite of my photos from Bermuda. The creative impulse is a one of the surest imprints of the Creator within us, even when the form it takes is unconventional. And Rastafarian. And awesome. 🙂

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The sun is painting with pieces of glass. She flings them like spatters of watercolor against the window frame with a Kandinsky-like exuberance. I can’t not look at it.

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Doors are flung open to breezes blown up from the sea. The song of them blends with voices in the liturgy. A curious mix, this. And wonderful. Like the languid, feathery palms swaying against the outside of this great stone church that looks as though it were plucked from the English countryside.

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Praying

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

~ Mary Oliver ~

A Ballade of Place…

We almost missed it. Many people do.

It was our last morning in Paris, and we had seen everything on our list. We had one ticket left on our City Pass. Sainte Chapelle. A church. We had a little time to spare and it was near by.

Sainte Chapelle was built to house relics brought back from the Holy Land, including what was purported to be the crown of thorns worn by Christ. It was constructed at the pinnacle of the Gothic age when architects had perfected the flying buttress system to an art. Hence, the church is filled with windows. Three walls of her are very nearly windows only, beginning a few feet of the floor and soaring into the heavens, separated by only the finest ribs of support.

It is made even more dramatic by the fact that you reach it by climbing a dark, close spiral staircase. You wind your way up and up through the darkness until you are suddenly turned out into a magnificence you could never have imagined.

Standing in that place was, and still is, one of the holiest moments of my life. God was a presence that could be touched and breathed and worn there. His grandeur leaked from every pane of glass.

I have never explained that moment to my satisfaction, though I have tried. My latest attempt at giving it voice was inspired by a creative lectio experience with my beautiful friends Nita and Patsy. It is, perhaps, the closest I have come. Yet.

Sainte Chapelle

The steps have been hollowed out
by centuries of use. Still they spiral
upward through the dark, close
column of stone till they spill me out
into the upper chamber.

I am assaulted by color.
Jeweled windows hang
suspended from the sky.
Sunlight scatters the jewels across the floor
and in my hair
and on my skin.

And I find that I have forgotten
to breathe. And my face is wet.

And I think of poor, hungry peasants
who gave of their meager means to build
great edifices for God, and how I scorned
their impracticality.

And I realize I would gladly starve
to stand, just once, in a place
where holiness rests
like jewels
on my skin.

 

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sainte chapelle ceiling

Thin Places…

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The walls of the ancient church are impregnated with incense. Candles flicker before the icons. Faded frescoes of Saints crowd round us; on columns, walls, ceiling. And in this moment I am aware of a palpable Presence. Centuries of worshipers have stood where I stand. Liturgy. Eucharist. Body and Blood. I hear them still…

The storm raged all afternoon. Dark as night. Rain hurling itself against windows. Thunder shaking the house. Explosions of lightning. Now, its fury is spent. And like a child who has cried itself all out, the world is soft. Clean. Curls of mist rise toward a sky that is painting itself in swirls of violet and azure, with flecks of gold. I stand barefoot in the wet grass and am completely lost in the extravagant glory of this…

We fall to our knees, faces to the floor, as the priest intones a lament, “Today is hung upon the Tree, He who did hang the land in the midst of the waters. A crown of thorns crowns Him who is King of Angels…” When the singing ends, silence lays heavy…like a blanket. Then the silence is rent by hammer slamming against wood. And I feel each blow like a kick to the stomach. And I am there, kneeling in the mud of a Judean hillside as the sweet body of the Lord is brutally nailed to a cross…

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“A sacrament is when something holy happens. It is transparent time, time which you can see through to something deep inside time…you are apt to catch a glimpse of the almost unbearable preciousness and mystery of life.” ~Frederick Buechner

The Celts called them thin places. Sacred thresholds where the veil between us and the world beyond dissolves…for a space. Much of the time, they just happen. They are gift. We cannot construct them. Or reconstruct them. Most of the time, we cannot even adequately explain them. All we can do is ready ourselves to receive them.

“Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?”
“As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”
“Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”
“To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”
~Zen master to his disciple

Herein I recruit voices of wise ones to speak to some of the practices and ways of being that tend to make us ready for these up close encounters with the Holy.

Silence

Somewhere we know that without silence words lose their meaning, that without listening speaking no longer heals…
~Henri Nouwen

The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this Word He speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must be heard by the soul.
~St. John of the Cross

Stillness

Be still and know that I am God.
Be still and know that I am.
Be still and know.
Be still.
Be.
~ Richard Rohr (from Psalm 46:10)

Awareness

We see that it is not the task of Christianity to provide easy answers to every question, but to make us progressively aware of a mystery.  God is not so much the object of our knowledge as the cause of our wonder.
~Kallistos Ware

…Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes…
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Humility

Give me the strength that waits upon You in silence and peace. Give me the humility in which alone is rest, and deliver me from pride which is the heaviest of burdens.
~Thomas Merton

The most courageous thing we will ever do is to bear humbly the mystery of our own reality.
~Richard Rohr

Contemplation

Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.
~Thomas Merton

…I don’t know exactly what a prayer is
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
~Mary Oliver

In the beauty of God’s own economy, these encounters are not gift for us alone. As these moments spent in the Presence permeate our being, we become gift to others.

If our lives are truly “hid with Christ in God”, the astounding thing is that this hidden-ness is revealed in all that we do and say and write.
~Madeleine L’Engle

God utters me like a partial thought containing a partial word of Himself. ~Thomas Merton

If the idea of thin places appeals to you. If you crave a space to be refreshed and inspired…to converse, to commune, to be… I invite you to join me at Luminous. I am especially excited to hear from one of my artist heroes,  Makoto Fujimura. I have written about his remarkable illuminated gospels HERE, and his intriguing talk on Liminal Spaces (a prophetic/creative slant on thin places) HERE. The painting at the top of the post is Fujimura’s “Still Point Evening“.

*This post was inspired by the Luminous Project. Luminous is a creative spiritual event in Nashville May 1-3, 2013. To find out more, check out luminousproject.com. You can use the promo code ‘BRINGitHERE’ to get 35% off the registration price.

Acadia: A Photojournal

Saturday, October 13: We rise before dawn for the trek up Cadillac Mountain, to be among the first people in the U.S. to watch the sun climb out of the Atlantic. We huddle in the clean, cold air as the sky warms to soft rose and apricot. Low lying clouds pulse with gilding as the disc of the sun begins to emerge. An audible gasp ripples through the crowd. I am startled by how fast she climbs. Maybe two minutes, rim to rim. Magic.

After breakfast, we head out for an explore. We drive the marathon route. It is much more hilly than we imagined. And stunningly gorgeous. We drive through quintessential New England villages with their frame and clapboard houses. We drive along the sea where waves hurl themselves into the rocky shore with a roar and flurry of foam. We pass under golden Aspens, sturdy evergreens, and maples and oaks aflame with orange and crimson. All against a cloudless sky of excruciating blue.

And I wish the run was today. And it is difficult to imagine that tomorrow it will rain. And I try to remind myself to breathe in now, and let tomorrow take care of itself…

Sunday, October 14: We wake to the unmistakable sound…of rain. And I want to turn over and go back to sleep. Because rainy days are wondrous for sleeping. But not this rainy day. I will myself to pull on clothes. We join one other couple for the early “runner’s breakfast”. They are young and precious. This is their first marathon. They seem slightly terrified. The innkeeper brings us warm banana pancakes. “It’s pretty rough out there,” he says. Yep. Pretty rough.

There is a break in the rain for our walk to the start. A mercy. We will have two others during the race; neither more than ten or fifteen minutes in duration. The temperature will never climb out of the forties.

At first the rain falls steady but easy. But eventually it gets harder and begins to seep through all our layers. I have nursed an ankle injury all through this training. It never hurts when I’m running (because my body is warm). Only after. Today it will hurt. I can’t get warm. By about mile 16 or so I am doing a lot of walking. Mike is kind and assures me he couldn’t be doing much better himself. It will be our slowest time ever. Six hours. Even the sweet young couple from breakfast will require almost five hours. We had no time goal. The real rub is that for six hours we will have no relief from the wet and cold.

And yet….there is beauty. Even here. Even now. The yellows and flames of yesterday are luminous against the gray. The sea is shrouded in a mystery of mist. Sodden evergreens drip fragrance. Men and women, boys and girls, stand in the cold and damp dispensing nourishment and kindness.

Most of all, I am grateful for the man running beside me. He and I both know that, difficult as this is, compared to some of what we’ve gone through over the past few years, this is a cake walk. So we keep putting one foot in front of another. We complain. Sometimes. We share treats squirreled away for moments of greatest need. And we laugh. A lot. And when it is over, we know today has been important. And next time life throws the impossible at us, we will remember today. And we will put one foot in front of another. One day–one minute–at a time.

Monday, October 15: Walking down the stairs is the hardest. We move like old people. (We are grandparents, after all.) We laugh at one another moving like old people. 🙂 We head out for one more romp through Bar Harbor and Acadia before leaving behind the land of lobster and fresh fish and chowder, and heading home. The morning is blustery, but warm. Sixty degrees before breakfast. Sunshine is intermittent. Sky and sea are sapphire and slate. And I can’t help thinking to myself, “This would be a lovely day for a run…”

*All photographs in the post taken on the days before and after the run. Cerulean skies are Saturday. Skies of slate are Monday. All but 4 were taken along the marathon course. We obviously did not take photographs during the race. I intersperse them throughout the race day account, in part, for irony. See more photos if you like in my Facebook album.

**Acadia National Park is the oldest national park east of the Mississippi. It owes its birth largely to Theodore Roosevelt who also oversaw creation of the carriage road and its beautiful stone bridges. It is located on Mount Desert Island just off the coast of Maine. Find it on a map HERE. (about two thirds of the way up) Prior to the French and Indian war, “Acadia” composed a large region of French settlement reaching well into Canada. The British drove out the French settlers and renamed most of the area Nova Scotia. You can read one account in Longfellow’s tragic poem, Evangeline.

The Peace of Wild Things…

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds…

…I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water…

…And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

~Wendell Berry

Every now and again I run away from home. Not because I am angry. Not because I am tired of my family. But because I know my soul is in need of washing. Of silence. Of wild, lonely places that can make me new.

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal, and give strength to body and soul.
~John Muir

Most recently, I ran away to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is my great good fortune to have grown up in their shadow, and to still live near enough to visit this oasis of loveliness from time to time. The very grandeur of these majestic mountains does a great deal to restore perspective. But it is also rubbing up against the heart piercing beauty of a tangle of wildflowers, or the surprise of water striders skating on sky, or whimsical growths clinging to the sides of trees, that help me become more human. “Solider” as C.S. Lewis might say.

I pray. The sweet prayer that does not require words. As though God and I are simply walking along together. Seeing the world. Enjoying the silent presence, each of the other. Like how my grandparents used to sit companionably on the porch. In a knowing so deep that words become superfluous. I would walk like this always, but the noise of every day makes it more challenging. So it is good to be here. To practice. So that when I return to the chaos, I remember. And little by little I learn to bring the silent knowing with me to my noisy world.

Nature is mythical and mystical always, and spends her whole genius on the least work.
~Henry David Thoreau

Supernatural grandeur expands our soul and helps us throughout the day to live not in glass-breaking tension but in tiptoe perspective. It’s the place where, in our “upward leap of the heart,” we see beyond the fray to the Father who does all things well.  ~Patsy Clairmont

In truth, this sabbatical was not without its challenges. My Jeep spent nearly the whole of it in hospital. This wreaked havoc on my itinerary.  But even this was not without blessing, once I was willing to see it. I suppose a great deal of life is lived just here. In what we choose to see. Or not see. This intersection with the wild does wonders for my vision; my perception.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes…
~Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I wish you peace, my friends. I wish you bucket-loads of wonder. I wish you long afternoons of dilly dallying in the woods. And may you ever have eyes to see the magic that is happening around you. This very minute…

Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.
~Annie Dillard

Interloper

He dropped onto the path in front of me. Soft. On velvet paws. His long black fur glistened in the waning sun, and for a moment I thought how wonderful it would be to snuggle him. Just for a moment.

He began to mosey, free and unhurried, surveying the bushes for ripe berries. And I wondered why this gift had been given to me. Just here. Just now. I maintained a respectful distance, but I couldn’t not follow him. An invisible tether compelled me forward. His body was languid. Fluid. He moved with elegant ease.

It finally occurred to me that I had my phone and a photograph might be in order. Just as I switched it to video, he heard me. I knew it because he stopped. And I stopped.

He turned and looked at me. Long.  “Interloper!” his eyes accused. And with a contemptuous “hmmphh”, he threw himself into the undergrowth. A scraping sound told me that he was going vertical. Soon I could see him grasping the trunk of a tree, pulling himself to the top. He perched himself on branches that did not look sturdy enough to support his weight. Then he waited. For the interloper to move on.

I regarded him for a few moments more, then carefully made my way past the tree with its reluctant burden. The trail wound about so that I was still within easy hearing distance when the rough rasp of claw against bark alerted me to the fact that he was coming down. I confess that I might have looked for him once or twice behind me. I also confess that I might have called my husband to inform him where they would find my remains in the event he decided he was, in fact, more angry than he at first seemed. And…I might have also sung, rather loudly, for the next half mile or so. 🙂

But I knew that when I told about this afternoon, for years to come, the most wondrous bit of the story would be the few moments I shared in the wild with this wondrous creature. I also felt sure that when he told the story, I would not come off so well. I was an inconvenience. Not so much an object of fear, but of frustration.

It gives one pause, this.

Perspective.

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.
~John Muir

Here are my brief, jiggly videos. Forgive the poor cameraman-ship.

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