All of my reading on desert and wilderness spirituality speaks of the necessity of dying to self. No one wants to do this, of course. No one wants to see the image they have of themselves—their identity and all they hold close—to be destroyed.
And yet, if they want to grow, if they want to become the people God wants intends for them to be, death is on the docket.
This quote from Kerry Walters puts it well. He’s been looking at the ideas of Simone Weil and Catherine of Genoa as they ponder the need for death. He writes of Catherine’s thoughts, “When the soul lands in the purgatorial desert, the painful process of dealienation begins. In the desert, the self progressively loses its destructive attachment to [according to Catherine] ‘the things of the intellect, will or memory, and in no manner tends more to one thing than to another. Quite still and in a state of siege, the me within finds itself gradually stripped of all those things that in spiritual or bodily form gave it some comfort.’ … Weil and Catherine, as well as may other chroniclers of the desert journey, remind us that recreation is frightfully agonizing—not because the God of the desert enjoys inflicting pain, or even because there’s intrinsic value in suffering, but because the pretender self’s alienation is so engrained. Entrenched habits are stubborn, addictions recalcitrant. Once a foothold is established, the grow cement-hard. Purgative death in the desert is violent because nothing less can crack the casing of a soul enmired in entropy.” (Soul Wilderness, pg. 81)
I know it’s not what I want to experience, and yet I also know that unless I die to the false self—the one that relishes in praise from others—I will never truly grow. I don’t want it, but I know it’s the only way that leads to true life.
A cross country road trip has always been on my bucket list. Getting on the open road during the summer, camping out, seeing great sights, what’s not to love?
I mentioned nearly two years ago during a sermon that on our sabbatical we’d do a long trip hitting 10 National Parks (8 US, 2 Canadian), a couple of National Monuments, a State Park or two and some roadside attractions, including a selfie in front of the Jolly the Green Giant statue in Blue Earth, MN. I cannot believe that this trip is upon us! Our camping gear resides safely in the car, the itinerary sits complete, and we have 18 books on CD.
So I have no idea how often I’ll be posting to this blog; it’ll depend a lot on connectivity and wifi in the days ahead. We will be posting photos over on Instagram (www.instagram.com/RamblingPriest/) if you are so inclined. I’ll be journaling often, so I will catch you up at some point. Know that I appreciate your prayers.
I subscribe to Outside Magazine. I love the really great writing, the articles about adventures, suggestions on places to visit, tips on living an outdoor life. And the Gear Guide. God knows how much money I spend when I see some new piece of outdoor paraphernalia that’ll make hiking and camping exquisitely finer.
REI Ad. Photo by Phil LaBelle, 2017.
On my recent travels, I tossed the latest couple of issues in my backpack. I hadn’t gotten to them in the run up to my sabbatical, and, with plane flights as well as some extended leisurely afternoons, I dove in to them.
It’s been 30 days. Or more significantly four Sundays, since we clergy have that day of the week fixed firmly in our minds, our weeks spinning around it as we plan for sermons and liturgies and whatnot. I’ve traveled to New Mexico and Vancouver and New Hampshire and Vermont in that time, and I’ve still got a good three months out ahead of me.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
I’ve been exploring wilderness spirituality in my reading and thinking. I’ve been journaling. I’ve been sweating more than I have in my entire life as I train. A few pounds have (reluctantly) come off. (What is it with middle aged bodies and their desire to hold on to food indiscretions from the past? Seriously, the Doritos weren’t that good.) Some muscle has been added. I’m told the black circles under my eyes have lessoned. A clergy friend I saw commented on my countenance; my face looked uplifted, she said.
The mountains comfort me with the promise that if the heat down here becomes less endurable I can escape for at least two days each week to the refuge of the mountains—those islands in the sky surrounded by a sea of desert. The knowledge that refuge is available, when and if needed, makes the silent inferno of the dessert more easily bearable. Mountains complement the desert as desert complements city, as wilderness complements and completes civilization.
A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to go there. I may never in my life get to Alaska, for example, but I am grateful that it’s there. We need the possibility of escape as surely as we need hope; without it the life of the cities would drive all men into crime or drugs or psychoanalysis.”
—Edward Abbey from Desert Solitaire
I write this on my first full day at the Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont with Olivia. In the Lily funded grant that we received, I set aside time individually with each member of my family, and Olivia and I settled on this nearby shorter trip for the two of us.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
(She also gets a trip on our dime to France with Melissa in exchange for Noah and I climbing Kilimanjaro together. See the title of this post.)
Trails can be found in virtually ever part of the vast, strange, mercurial, partly tamed, but still shockingly wild world of ours. Throughout the history of life on the Earth, we have created pathways to guide our journeys, transmit messages, refine complexity, and preserve wisdom. At the same time, trails have shaped our bodies, sculpted our landscapes, and transformed our cultures. In the maze of the modern world, the wisdom of trails is as essential as ever, and with the growth of ever-more labyrinthine technological networks, it will only become more so. To deftly navigate this world, we will need to understand how we make trails, and how trails make us.”
Robert Moor from On Trails.
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
I didn’t make it up a mountain yesterday.
Noah reading the map on the top of Mt. Eisenhower. Phil LaBelle, 2017.
Noah and I had gone to Mt. Eisenhower on Saturday, and struggled up the 3.3 miles to that summit. We got a late start, the humidity had spiked, and we both hadn’t slept exceptionally well the day before. But we made it after having to really dig deep and push. We talked about Kilimanjaro and our readiness (or lack thereof), and said we had to show we could do it. We both were pretty wiped at the end of the day.
While I travelled in Vancouver, I kept running into concerns about the human impact on the environment. Our trip was timed with the President’s announcement that the US would pull out of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
One of Emily Carr’s paintings at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Phil LaBelle, 2017.
I do not think that this was an accident. The Holy Spirit has a funny way of opening our eyes to things we have wanted to avert them from.
God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand tempests and floods. But he cannot save them from fools.”
Phil LaBelle, 2017.
“A few minutes ago every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to the outer ear these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.”
“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
From John Muir.