Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Saintly hiking

When I was staying at the Forest of Peace Benedictine ashram in the Osage hills near Tulsa, Oklahoma, at the behest of the community's founder, the wonderful, Sr Pascaline, I once took Jesus walking with me, into the forest, to a bluff overlooking the Arkansas river. It was an exercise in Ignatian imagination. What would it feel like to be in Christ's presence in a place that was so deeply real, wholly itself, forest being forest? Could I be really myself, faced with the one member of the Trinity with whom I had the most difficulty?

God the Father and God the Holy Spirit - these I could sense as presence - the anchoring reality and the creating gift - but Jesus had always remained intimidating. He was an embodied person and a person who could see through me in my bodily self as probably a fake and a fraud.

We sat together, on a bench, looking down at the glistening river, and I had a deep sense, to quote Julian of Norwich, that in Christ there was no forgiveness because there was in Christ's loving gaze nothing to forgive. You get up and fall down, get up and fall down, enwrapped in a friend's arms.

Belden C. Lane's 'Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Experience' beautifully describes the spiritual potential of bringing a saint (and their writings) into play with a wilderness place and how the experience of stepping into wildness, and its revealing stages, is mirrored in the stages of spiritual life as first described by the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the early Christian tradition. Each chapter is a different physical journey, accompanied deftly by an appropriate spiritual writer - Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi - each illuminating an aspect of the journey from embracing solitude through to being propelled back into the world, renewed, and embracing justice.

There are beautiful quotations from these masters of the spiritual life and all their teachings are earthed in the practical struggles of everyday - Lane's own biography and the teaching of places.

I especially loved the chapter on Holly Folly: Aravaipa Canyon and Thomas Merton  where is juxtaposed the unexpectedness of a hike in a particular place, up ending Lane's expectations and Merton's life of unpicking his own stereotype, forged in his bestselling 'The Seven Storey Mountain' as a perfecting monk into a portrait of a fallible, funny, wounded, wonderful, wholly human being.

I wish, however, the book did not quite strain so much after the ordinary. Lane admits that he is not given to extraordinary nor ecstatic experience, and indeed every moment, seen aright, is wonderful. But not being gifted with the more than ordinary should never be a reason for downplaying it, some see further than others and should be acknowledged as such. The distinguished scholar and theologian, Denys Turner, once wrote, in a book on Julian of Norwich, that theologians nowadays did not see visions. It was said with acceptance. It is a sad acceptance and one to be resisted for the world seen aright is vision and as the namesake painter, WilliamTurner, remarked when challenged over his own, naturalistic vision, with 'I do not see the world that way', he replied, 'Do n't you wish you did?' Indeed...  

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