Hello readers! I mentioned earlier in the fall that I’d be stepping away from my regular posting rhythm so that I could work on a new book of ecotheology. Well–I kept my promise! The book, in draft form, follows my sabbatical journeys, and my meditations on the God of life and place that I encounter. Here’s a sample from a backpacking trip I took two weeks ago to Big Bend National Park. A meditation on naming creation.
Morning in the Mountains
What a night. I clearly underestimated the difficulty of the climb up, shouldering gear and water. I spend my days reading books and biking the smooth shoreline of a lake, and then say “I think I’ll suddenly gain 60 pounds and climb a mountain. Before I’ve completely recovered from a virus of some sort, since that would be too easy.”
But I also underestimated the challenge of sleeping on a mountain made of cooled lava.
The air mattress Anya loaned me sprang a leak. Lola and I had already repaired it once, using the tire shop method of inflating it and submerging it in the bathtub. But either our repair job was shoddy (possible) or the leak had a friend. Either way, I was thanking God and whoever the patron saint of the boyscouts is that I’d also brought Lev’s foam accordian pad as backup.
So I turned endlessly, like a rotisserie chicken, lying in one position until I could feel the bruises developing. But my sleeping bag had me so constricted that it took spasmodic lunges to get the turns complete. Like a rotisserie chicken receiving shock therapy.
Naming the Sky
A bit after midnight I needed to find my shoes and step outside. Apparently my rehydration project after the day’s climb is showing signs of success.
And boy howdy those stars. Once, long ago, when Augustine stepped out into a night sky in northern Africa, he was ready to call it divine. But the stars answered him back: “We are not God–but we’re little analogies of the God who made us.”
The west Texas sky is among the few places in North America that rivals the darkness of that fourth century sky Augustine looked out on. As I sat in awe, I saw that Orion had risen over the eastern horizon, but he was so full of new stars that it looked like someone had colored him in. Leo—at least I think it was Leo: I was feeling lost in the lit up expanse–had a blurred point of light in his neck that I’d never seen before. It looked like a nebula or a galaxy, and I resolved to look it up later when I had wifi or my star guide book. I resisted the temptation to go get my phone and turn on Skyview, partly because I’m trying to conserve battery. But also because I’m making an effort to embrace my own ignorance in this strange place. Like I’ve had to so many times during this season of travel. This is not a time for telling the world what I know, but for listening for all that I don’t. The trees, rocks, birds, skyspots: I don’t know their names.
Naming All Things
Adam–the full Adam, the inclusive form of all human life–is a namer of things. I am not the namer and knower of it all. I am just an atom of Adam, and I need the whole human—the Adam—in which we all share a unique embodiment if I’m going to join a choir that names it all truthfully and wisely.
But I am alone here, without the names of stars and galaxies. In this moment I will simply breath a word of ignorant gratitude. What the Greek theologians call apophatic utterance. A word of praise for all I don’t know or understand, as a blessing sent to the God I don’t fully know or understand.
What a cosmos. I can almost hear the shadowed earth whispering to me something like what philosopher David Abram says its whispers to him: “I am your habitat. And this awesome celestial sea is mine.”
I decided to wait for a meteorite before going back to my rotisserie cacoon. I think of these celestial fireworks as the universe’s way of saying hello to our planet. Not unlike my gravity-driven steps on a mountain path: “Here I am, a stranger to these parts, coming to visit this bit of earth.” But with the meteorites, the earth has a response: she reminds the universe that she’s got guests just now. She appreciates the visit, but to invite you in at this moment would interrupt her practice of caregiving for all the living things on, above, and below her surface. So thank you for knocking, but she will be setting you on fire now until you burn up into dust.
Noticing the Surprises
Falling stars are a point of pride with me. I can often get lucky, even in our Pflugerville backyard, and catch one while I’m taking the dog out. Granted, here in the Chisos Mountains, spotting one is no great superpower. Stare at a patch of sky for a few minutes and anyone is likely to see at least one. I actually saw four before I went in. None quite as dramatic as the sky spanning ride I saw one take the night before, from outside my lodge in Terlingua.
If seeing meteorites is a kind of superpower of mine, it’s not nearly as impressive as my dad’s gift for four leaf clovers. I’ve seen Dad walk through a park, deep in conversation with Mom, and suddenly bend down and pluck a four leafer from a patch of standard three-leaf clovers. And hand it to her without missing a step.
My parents taught me to notice surprising things in the world around me. Here, on the edge of this lonesome cliff, remembering the dazzling display of last night’s sky, I am grateful for them. For the gift of noticing and celebrating a world beyond me. A world whose names I mostly do not know. That’s the fitting analogy, it seems, for worshiping a Creator whose proper name is always just beyond my phonetic ability to pronounce.