In the Woods, Not Knowing

In the Woods, Not Knowing August 18, 2023


a bluejay in a tree
image via Pixabay

I went for a walk in the woods, not knowing.

You might recall that a little over a year ago, fresh with the stinging realization that the sect of the Catholic Church I was raised in was not only eccentric but nothing but an abusive cult, I went hiking. I felt absolutely certain I was going to hell the whole time. Now, I’m not so sure.

I got into Serendipity, absolutely uncertain whether I was in a state of grace or not. I drove up to Frankfort Mineral Springs in my ballet flats and then changed into my ugly bright purple sneakers. Somewhere in all the chaos when I didn’t have a car to go anywhere earlier this year, I’d lost my proper hiking shoes and these were all I had. They were so horrible looking, I was looking forward to getting them good and muddy.

I hiked up a dirt path that zigzags around a noisy creek. The creek was high and cloudy from the recent heavy rain. It sounded and smelled alive. I think I was supposed to hop across the stepping stones wherever the creek intersected with the trail, but I just trudged through the water.

Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro, alleluia: et omnes, ad quos pervenit aqua ista, salvi facti sunt, et dicent, alleluia, alleluia. 

I saw water coming from the right side of the temple, alleluia, and all to whom the water came were saved. Alleluia, alleluia.

Something screeched at me from up in a tree above the creek. It wasn’t a crow. It sounded as if there was a human being in the brush, imitating a crow for a prank. I tiptoed closer in my ugly waterlogged shoes, and the corvid darted out at my face– a cheeky bluejay, who disappeared into the trees.

I don’t know whether I’m going to hell, but it’s hard to believe in hell when there are bluejays.

I hiked through a tunnel of green, a canopy ten degrees cooler than the parking lot had been. Every time the path crossed a brook, I ignored the stepping stones and splashed into it, soaking those awful purple shoes. Then the path jerked upward all of a sudden, up to the crest of the hill among those fragrant pines. When I took that walk last year, in despair, it was the end of winter. Now it is the end of summer, and the woods are green. Everything was alive, just like the woods I miss so much in the heart of West Virginia.

Then across another brook, further fouling those terrible shoes. Through a patch of wild black raspberries that kept grabbing at my clothing. I took one– it was startlingly good. It tasted like summer. It tasted like candy, like pleasantness and generosity, not the least bit sharp or sour.

Gustate et videte quoniam suavis est Dominus; beatus vir qui sperat in eo.

O taste, and see, how gracious the Lord is: blessed is the man that trusteth in him.

Do I trust in Him?

Not in the way that I used to.

Well, I can’t trust in His Church in the way that I used to. Not His groupies, not His clerics, not the people who claim to speak for Him. What they’ve done might be forgiven, someday, but the trust will not grow back. But do I trust Him?

There are times when I can’t even believe in Him at all.

There are times when I believe in Him and it terrifies me because I’m sure he will damn me to hell.

There are times when I believe, and it feels right.

This is the wager I come back to again and again: if there is no God, I will not waste my time. If there is a god and that god is the petty tyrant of the Charismatic Renewal and traditionalist Catholicism, I will gladly go to hell blaspheming, because that god is far smaller than I am. I have a sense of justice and he does not. I don’t want to spend eternity with that god. But if God is the God of love, of joy, of peace, of patience, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control– the God Who is always bigger than I think, the God Who constantly surprises me by being more welcoming than I was taught to expect, the God Whose generosity is perfect without any sourness, the God of black raspberries– that God, I would like to commune with. That God I would like to know.

I don’t know if I’m going to hell, but I know that a god who would send me there for the things I’ve been through isn’t worth my time. The other God, the God of infinite sweetness, would descend into hell and meet me there, so it doesn’t really matter. Just then, I wasn’t afraid.

I reached the old abandoned lodge, where sick people used to sleep before being carried to drink and bathe in the waterfall. And then I reached the waterfall itself, swollen from the week’s heavy rain, not just one torrent falling over the rocks but several streams bursting out of the cliffside. The shale rocks below the streams were worn down into cups, and the iron in the rock was stained blood red.

Last year I stuck my hand in the font and made the Sign of the Cross, and despaired.

This time I did not make the Sign of the Cross. I went and stood right under the heaviest part of the waterfall.

Vidi aquam egredientem de templo, a latere dextro, alleluia: et omnes, ad quos pervenit aqua ista, salvi facti sunt, et dicent, alleluia, alleluia. 

BENEDICITE, maria et flumina, Domino, benedicite, fontes, Domino.

For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

I’ve got peace like a river, peace like a river, peace like a river in my soul.

Wade in the water, children. God’s gonna trouble the water. 

 In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.

If there’s no god at all, then the world is still beautiful and wondrous and worth doing good in.

If there is a God, that’s better still, if he’s the right God. And in that moment, I felt He must be the right God.

I hiked back to the car, following the stream to the bridge, drenching those terrible shoes beyond recognition.

Just then I didn’t care about hell at all.

Just then, I thought I was in Heaven.


Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.


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