Last Saturday, after walking past a sign with a vaguely dystopian message, my Camino Santiago partner and friend, Sue and I entered the forest. The first part of our journey was a bit more arduous than either of us had imagined. It grew clear to me that the sign was more descriptive than vague! Where were we and what had we gotten ourselves into in the name of camino preparation, or as we cool kids of the internet like to say, #caminoprep.
The hike offered great perspective on many things, but a few stand out in stark detail. One being that it seemed like the world’s end due to the steep, sharp, gravity defying trails that we traversed, clad as we were in our camino gear, complete with heavy packs on our back. My imagination, which runs like a super high definition camera when pondering possible fates, usually terrifying ones, was on overdrive as I imagined my short, stout body tipping backwards and rolling down the rocky trail to an early end. Obviously I am alive, but on Saturday I was not sure I would remain so!
Despite choosing a #caminoprep run that was way beyond our technical hiking skill, Sue and I ended up loving so much of what we saw at Worlds End State Park. Go to this link and the trail descriptions, something we did not do prior to our journey! Most are listed as difficult. In any case, it was a great 12 miles, give or take in terms of what we accomplished and what we saw. And like the Camino Santiago that we hope to undertake, the real point is that each step is its own journey, rich with possibility.
When not worried that I might be impaled upon rocks or tumble over the edge of an escarpment, my mind turned to prayer and poetry. The magnificent scenery that revealed itself over the course of our 8 hour peregrination captivated my heart. Two poems were looming large, their words rolling around in me as I focused on every footfall, both of them authored by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Today – June 8 – is the anniversary of his death.
The first poem of his is one that is more well known, God’s Grandeur.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
The first two lines kept coming to me over and over – well, over and over when I was not in a state of extreme terror! Every time we would look around us, the scenery was breathtaking, spectacular beyond words, and “charged with the grandeur of God.” Seeing nothing but deep wilderness (and let’s be honest, it was deep, but we were hardly in the deepest wilderness!) the idea that “nature is never spent” felt very real. In a world that seems overrun with people and pollution, I felt extremely alive and aware of creation.
Also floating around my head, although less clearly so, were words from another Hopkins poem, In the Valley of the Elwy
I remember a house where all were good
To me, God knows, deserving no such thing:
Comforting smell breathed at very entering,
Fetched fresh, as I suppose, off some sweet wood.
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Spring:
Why, it seemed of course; seemed of right it should.
Lovely the woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales,
All the air things wear that build this world of Wales;
Only the inmate does not correspond:
God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales,
Complete thy creature dear O where it fails,
Being mighty a master, being a father and fond.
That last stanza brings forth so much of what we experienced – not simply the mention of “woods, waters, meadows, combes, vales” but this, “God, lover of souls, swaying considerate scales.” Not only was I immersed in the extravagant and lush generosity of God found in nature, but also of God’s tremendous mercy and love – the idea of swaying scales is powerful and deep.
I’m not sure what soil of my soul was tilled in the woods on Saturday, but something is being prepared in me. Scaling the precipitous twisting trails was necessary not only for the physical preparation, but for the interior work of God. If I felt terror on the heights it was not only because of sharp drops down sheer rock face, but instead the deeper terror of surrender to something much more vast than my own immediate security or needs.
Another element revealed in the hike is that of partnership, community, and interdependence. In short, and trust me – it could go long – I would not have made it without the generous care of my friend Sue. That’s a whole other story, but in it is the reminder that we are not alone and that thoughts of our own rugged independence are folly!
How are we invited into when we shift our perspective about God? What happens when we let go of the things that do not fit into our backpack? Or of the things that fit, but that simply weigh too much and will impede our journey? The need for precise directions, the desire for a shorter route, the longing for a security that may exist only in our imagination – are these things to be tossed out? Our demands for certain foods, particular brands, or material goods of a specific nature, do they go too? Does our specificity of personal desire squeeze God out? Is it too narrow for this grandeur that is God?
And what of our juridical needs around God and religion? Rules are necessary, existing for a common, greater good that extends beyond our own personal boundaries, not as walls to keep ourselves safe, pure and undefiled. Do we want to erect boundaries to keep others out, such as those who are undeserving of God’s mercy? What about the swaying scales of that lover of souls who is our Creator? Did God make all of us only to keep most of us out?
Somehow the God writ large in the wooded vale of Worlds End State park tells me that the journey that I seek to undertake will demand and extract a great deal from me. So what? As in the lovely woods, I feel terror, but more than that, I feel the distinct desire to go keep going.
Will you join me?