Though productive and gratifying my spirit and body were ready for a sabbath hike at the end of the day. With thoughts of wafting sage and a murmuring river, I began filling water bottles and checking my pack.
Making a “just in case” stop before heading the twenty-five miles to our localstate park, I watched as the energy of out-of-towners turned our small town gas station abuzz. Some smiled; many looked pained and stressed.
The station manager smiled at me and I her. It was a holiday weekend at the only gas stop for fifty miles. Our small talk while she pumped multiple cars revealed that though it was still before four, she’d been chewed out several times by stressed holiday-goers.
Once filled, I headed down to the park. As I passed wheatfields, the old abandoned homestead, a parishioner’s ranch, and the wind farms I noted actual traffic on our two-lane highway. I waved at the sheriff as I slowed to pass him writing a ticket.
The thought emerged as I made the twenty-five minute drive but impressed itself upon my brain as I walked the quiet trails in the canyon. My holidays are significantly different than those of others. We’ve long since given up stress-cations and are healthier for it.
Walking quietly along the trail, I listened to the gurgling river, the singing birds, and humming insects. The stress of my day flowed out of me with each footfall. Respite is not tied to a place; it is in the journey. My sabbath began as I filled my water bottles and stopped for gas. My healing was jump started by smiles and small talk at the gas station.
The friendly wave from the sheriff and the nod from the woman leaving the trailhead are not a means to an end. They are the sabbath itself.
I hope that the hurrying masses find the peace they need when finally arriving where they’re going on this holiday weekend but I wonder. I wonder if they might have more joy if they slowed down and breathed in the journey rather than fighting it.
East of Portland, further inland then even Hood River, in the mid-Columbia River Gorge the trees become more sparse and the wildflowers and grasses dance in the strong winds. On the craggy bluffs the choreography of bloom and blade is framed by sweeping views of the winding, blue river and the azure & cotton ball sky.
It is here in this land of enchantment in which my mouth opens in awe so that I might taste the sight before me, that my knees grow weak. Like a man before a God I’ve underestimated and over-defined, I drop to my knees before the divine splendor. Steadied on the earth, I discover the divine dome that arches before, beside, and behind me is but crown to the glory of bumblebee, lizard, batchelor buttons, and yellow joy.
And I pray a song of gratitude for the One who loves ostentatiously.
Resurrection is a truth. We see its evidence as clearly in nature as in our ancient texts. The loving divinity that fuels our existence always trumps death. This is the essence of the Good News of Easter.
The first time was a mediated encounter. I paid my money at the door and followed the curated signs to the overlook on the rocky cliff at Sea Lion Caves, near Florence, Oregon. The sea lions, as is their practice during the summer, were sunning on the rocks below the site rather than in the cave. I watched them from above as their voices carried up to the viewing platform. I was mildly impressed with the experience.
This was my first sea lion encounter of my summer vacation. The second would require more time and effort and no admission fee.
On Sea Lions’ Terms
I couldn’t have been more than a mile into the 5-1/2 mile in & out hike to Hart’s Cove when their voices bounced off the tall trees. My silly grin stretched from forehead to chin and jowl-to-jowl as I exclaimed, “Sea Lions!”
Who would expect to hear sea lions as you hiked through the forest?!? Certainly, I had not. Quickening my pace I hurried to the meadow above the cove. I wanted to see the owners of the barks and worried that if I didn’t hurry they’d no longer be visible when I arrived at the cove.
Arriving at the meadow above the cove I searched for the sea lions I’d heard in the forest. Without placards pointing to the sea lions or put-your-coins-in-to-see binoculars, I was left to manually scan the deep cove with my bare eyes. Unlike my first encounter, I was only able to see those who bark with the zoom of my camera. This second summer experience of sea lions, unlike the first, was deeply satisfying.
Though the Sea Lion Caves site is not a zoo but a way to view the ocean mammals, somehow it felt artificial. It felt like a zoo; it felt curated and controlled. My first meeting of the sea lions was on human terms. The experience at Hart’s Cove, however, felt more natural despite the further physical distance from which I watched sunning creatures.
At an intuitive level, my understanding of sea lions was magnified by the second experience because I met the sea lions on their own terms. Meeting sea lions via an isolated hiking trail, across the distance of the cove, and yet hearing their voices in the wild from many miles away I perceive them as separate from human activity and society.
The implication, perhaps unintended, of the Sea Lion Caves experience is that sea lions exist for human entertainment. They do not. Sea lions are not land creatures hanging out at the beach but sea creatures who pause on the land.
The lesson I was reminded of on my summer vacation is this: to understand another — be it sea lion or person — I must connect on their terms. To understand another, I must understand their world, culture, and context. I must journey to them instead of viewing them through my own values and biases.
I like caterpillars! I like the fuzzy fur and stripes of orange and black. The way in which their bodies move up and down as they move across trail, field, or deck fascinates me. But it is their hopefulness that enthralls me most. They will transform in a dramatic way becoming what appears to be an entirely different species.
Serving as metaphor for the nature of existence, with its cycles of death and resurrection, butterflies-to-be inspire and remind me of the divine essence moving through us all. They remind me that who and what we are now is only temporary. All things change.
Existence is a continuous process of change. We exist both in this moment and in our becoming. I am wooly worm living in the now and am content with myself. I am also butterfly-to-be divinely lured in each moment to become more loving and more in-tune with the whole of creation.
Kneeling beside the caterpillar, camera at the ready, I waited for it to move. Gently touching it, despair washed over me! This tube of hope was not going to move! Immediately, I sought an answer for why the small creature was no longer a butterfly-in-becoming.
No predator had snatched its life from it. There was no apparent injury. I examined the tiny legs; the dissipated life force had ceased to propel and inhabit this creature. Why? What do I make of this creature whose existence ended before becoming that which it was destined?
A lifeless caterpillar seems more analogous to an unexpected death. It is an inexplicable event; it is the death of hope. A dead wooly worm will never become a butterfly. Yes, everything is temporary. Even our becoming will end.
Standing in the middle of the woods — woods that burnt in a recent wildfire — the words coming through my mobile phone stung me. A beloved member of the extended community in which I serve as pastor was dead. A woman I perceived as joyful, confident, and butterfly-bound ended her own life! The fire-devastated environs in which I stood reflected the harsh news. I pondered the deep pain (and desperation?) this beloved of God must have felt to have taken her own life.
After talking with her brother and sending an email with the sad news to the church community, I lifted my pack out of the ashes where I’d dropped it. Dusting it off, I embarked on my long pilgrimage back to the trailhead. Trudging through blackened trees, charred leaves, and scorched cones, I pondered shortened lives of wooly worm and human. Despair, deep sadness, shock, and sobs took their turn with me.
Each step became a prayer. The grassless meadows and hollow trunks were symbols of the evil and hardships of life. They pointed toward the emotional state that would drive a beloved child of the Divine to take her life. My pilgrimage to the trailhead was a blessing as I identified both my personal reaction and my pastoral response to the difficult news in my community.
There is a harmful stream in my faith tradition that says that suicide is a sin. While that is not a belief in my particular theology or that of my denominations (see About), it has made the grief of family members and friends of those who die at their own hand more difficult. I unequivocally reject the notion that the one I call God chooses to further punish a wounded soul with eternal damnation.
The essence of the creating energy of the universe (that which I refer to as God) is love. Love is empathy. Love knows and feels with each wooly worm, with each wildflower and stem of grass, and with each human being. In the words of process theologian Monica A. Coleman, God “knows us from the inside out” (see Life After Death).
The one divine essence, whether envisioned as energy or old man with a long white beard, knows us better than we know ourselves and desires the best for each one of us. When free will and the complexities of our interrelated existence, combine to lead a person to choose suicide, God feels with us. The Divine feels not only our emotions of dismay, shock, and grief, but the sense of hopelessness of the deceased. Taking those feelings into godself, the Divine Love nudges us to listen to one another, to wipe tears, and to act for good.
Though I reject the notion that God creates hardship to teach lessons, I do perceive the divine one using even the most traumatic life experiences for good. When faced with suicide, the sacred spirit moves within and between us calling us to care for one another as we grieve. We are encouraged to work for changes to our cultural and mental health systems that prevent people from perceiving hope in our fractured and temporary existence.
Both my spiritual tradition and the nature that surrounded me as I moved through burnt forest and meadow, teach me that not every wooly worm becomes a butterfly. Life is filled with both despair and elation. As every child is loathe to hear, life isn’t fair. But the sorrow of the now will end just as moments of euphoria end.
The good news obvious in nature and reflected in the sacred writings of multiple traditions, is that even in death there is new life. To be sure, without death new life does not exist.
The grasses burned by wildfire will return in the spring with a vibrancy that the thick, overgrown brush lacked. The trees that survive will emanate a beauty in their scars that a perfect life could never reveal. The fallen trees will provide homes for small rodents and insects. And the inexplicably deceased caterpillar I encountered on another trail, will provide food for a passing bird or decompose and become part of the soil upon which life depends.
Because we are interconnected with one another, the essence of the one who takes her own life or the one who dies at one-hundred-twenty years, remains within our diverse Gaian whole. We are forever connected with one another in the present, the past, and into the future. And, so, the wooly worm whose life ended before its incarnation as butterfly remains constituent of the living earth. Though no form lasts forever, through the Divine One we remain eternally connected to each other in the becoming realm of love that slowly unfolds outside of time.
Every hike has a moment. In each hike there comes a moment that makes the strained muscles, the perspiration, and the overall effort worth the journey. As I journeyed a segment of the Pacific Crest Trail (near Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood), the moment came when I rounded a bend, slogged up an incline, and came upon a view of a deep chasm and Mt. Hood.
But this post is not about The Moment. It is about the bonus moments that some trails offer up with divine abundance. The waterfall reached by a scramble up a canyon filled with rocks, gravel, sand, and boulder was just such a bonus moment offered by the Pacific Crest Trail near Timberline Lodge. The challenging scramble forced me to move from one side and again the other of rushing snowmelt. The bonus moment was worth the risk of landing in icy water.
But this post is not about that bonus moment, either. It is about those bonus moments that distract me from thoughts of well-prepared food and a shower as my trip nears its end. They are parting gifts that often bring a tear to my eye.
This post is about the creature that I caught in my peripheral vision as I moved through a canyon. The movement of the orange mammal was a divine gift as I was returning to the trailhead and thinking about filling my belly. It was the Just One More Bonus Moment that crowned my ten mile hike with a golden glow.