I awoke to a flickering light. As I sat up, I thought for a moment I had left my head lamp on. But as I listened to the varied sounds of breathing around me, I discerned that the light was coming from the campfire that had stubbornly refused to go out. I stepped out of the tent into the breeze of a perfectly cool night. The stars brilliantly looked down upon me. As I made my way to the bathroom across the gravel road, there was only silence. The day before, Steve and I had taken our four oldest kids for a wilderness adventure. We had hiked up hills together, prayed over meals, and watched them as they joyfully scrambled over rocks and hopped through creek beds. Laughter was never far away. Even when complaints of tired feet crept in, they were suddenly entranced by the allure of hidden caverns and secret passageways. The next morning, a brief rain shower would usher us out of camp to a nearby country church. There just the prior Tuesday, my great-great uncle Charles, the last of a great lineage, was buried where my great grandmother laid in rest. I had never been to St. Mark’s before. I wondered just how many in our blood line prayed and praised next to me as I contemplated the extraordinary meaning buried in our ordinary day.
Lying in the tent, listening to a nearby owl bring the sleepy forest alive, the multiplicity of my being seemed as near as the dirt beneath my head. We had come in search of brief adventure for our kids, and ourselves. Along the way, I found myself immersed in the physical, social, psychological, and spiritual realities. The rocky, rooty trails spoke to my toes as the smell of pine emanated to my soul. My mood lifted as I gazed from the ridgeline into the hollows and hills far beyond. Conversation ensued about many matters, of simple topics and challenging days, and of persimmons littering the forest floor and acorns scattered galore. And the spirituality oozed forth, from formal prayers and Mass-time traditions to layers and layers of ancient stone.
In reflecting on my perpetual search for well-being and communion with others, I can’t help but sense that we will not find it unless it is in raw form. Physically, as we move further away from the rhythmic patterns of sleep, and of satiety, and seasonal discomforts to a life that is dictated by the search for convenience, and comfort, and frivolous complexities, I wonder just how our bodies will know what it feels like to meet our earth at its core? Psychologically, when I seek to avoid, and pull back, and resign; socially, when I seek to disconnect and detach for long periods of time, I wonder how I will meet myself, and others, in true form? And spiritually, when I find worldly excuses to explain and rationalize what I do, and forego opportunities to look beyond, I wonder if a laugh will just be a laugh, if a death will just be a death?
Often when advice is given and received to improve each of these four dimensions, it is done in resignation. We are told to eat our raw vegetables, but often begrudge that it is no fun. We are given strategies to decrease our anxiety, but feel it is just too much work. We know that we should set up times to talk to each other about important matters, but a text seems much less daunting. And when we are given ways to pray and sacrifice, the abstractness and mysteriousness of it all leads us to seek assurance in other ways.
And yet, we all seek greater well-being, harmony and rhythm. We all seek a renewal that the forest knows so, so well. But in pursuing this, the layers between us and the dirt beneath our feet get thicker, and more soundproof, and more contrived. It is understandable. So often we have been mistreated, and scorned, and felt physical ill and tired, and despondent and afraid and agnostic because what we desire the most spits in our face, abuses us, and says goodbye. Then we run from the forest vowing to never come back.
When this occurs, it seems that we depart from our humanity into the façade of an existence enclosed by many walls and locks intended to keep us safe and unembarrassed. But somewhere, the owl calls us in the night even if we do not discern the source of her reverberating voice. And she tells us that in running, and seeking impenetrable shelter, our humanness—our soulful, fleshy, imperfect humanness—is slipping away. In the darkness, the “whooo” asks just that question of us. “Whooo are you?”
The answer is chilling. We are hydrogen and oxygen combined, bright, red corpuscles of blood, sinewy fibers of unfathomable strength, and enough neurons to span the world many times over. We are industrious thoughts and deep feelings and desires with tremendous hopes in search of purpose and understanding. We are faces and gazes and hugs and tears of many generations who have raised their children, and loved and warred through eras and epochs and eons of years. But above all, as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
In removing ourselves further from our being incarnate, it seems impossible to expect that we will ever come to know just “whooo” we are really are. The person that we will come to know will only be an approximation of the being that resides inside. We will look in the mirror, and wonder who that person is, and who that person is to become. We will find ourselves staring at a stranger whom we did not let into our home, who has been slowly stealing from us in the night.
But if we seek authentic well-being of whatever sort it may be, then we must resolve ourselves to go back home into the dark, forbidding silence that we have run from so many times before. We must confront the owl in the night, and yell back, “It is me.” We must leave our phones, and heaters, and televisions, and insurance policies behind, and seek out the snow storms when they arrive and hills when they begin to flood in our everyday lives. We must do the hard work, not because we have to or because we should, but because we interminably believe a sighting will come. Only then will a shadow emerge in the twilight of the morning, eerily familiar from days harkened past and decades yet unknown.
In doing this, it is time we let go of the status quo, and not simply jog regularly because it is good for us and pray in superstition. We must eat in ways that let us traverse the mountains and speak to others so honestly and compassionately that we are startled by just what we just said. We must confront the anxieties that limit us so that one day, a walk past him no longer evokes fear, but courage within. And we must embrace our spiritual, religious being so that when our own wake is just days away, that impossible, supernatural tale does not haunt us because we have turned our back on its eternal call.
It is time to embrace the four dimensions of our being. It is time to lay awake at night and say “Thank you, God” for this miraculous ability to breathe and for these people breathing next to me, who sometimes drive me crazy, but give me the opportunity to love. It is time to go home where we began—to play in the mud and seek out answers to ridiculous questions and resolutions to unresolvable conflicts. If we do, in depths of our cortex and in the chambers of our heart, we will begin to find our way back home to a dimension that we have always known, and yet never truly knew, where fear of any kind has no room in the place where we will go.