Really Living & Living Really

“Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in…where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.”  John Muir

“It is astonishing how high and far we can climb mountains that we love, and how little we require food and clothing…No sane man in the hands of nature can doubt the doubleness of his life.  Soul and body receive separate nourishment and separate exercise, and speedily reach a stage of development, wherein each is easily known apart from the other.  Living artificially, we seldom see much of our real selves.”  John Muir

I came across both of these quotes today by John Muir, legendary activist and protector of the woodlands of this country, who in many ways has a love affair with the outdoors.  It becomes not only the avenue for finding himself but for finding a being greater than himself, although rarely wrote about God.  He is considered the Father of the National Parks.

If there is one thing I have learned in spending time in the outdoors, whether it’s here at Acadia, the Grand Canyon, the vast forested area of Alaska, or even the shores of Maryland and Jersey, it’s that deep down what defines the soul is something much more than an urban landscape but rather a never-ending twist and turn, yet explored area that very much resembles these wild and uncharted lands that I’ve had the opportunity, and really, privilege, to explore.

His sentiments have been mine through these experiences, that the natural mountains that we climb or even the vast chasms that we descend throughout this land, how little, we begin to realize, that we truly need.  What becomes our challenge as humans is that we often climb illusions of mountains in our lives, seeking power, prestige, so often missing along the way just what it is we’re losing, forgetting, ignoring, that we become blinded by the climb itself.  A return to the mountains is a good reminder of how we fall prey to the illusions that power and climbing seems to offer, leaving us insecure and fearful of losing something that was never really real in the first place.

Of course, descending the chasms can be just as challenging.  The fall from the illusion of grandeur can be a humbling experience when we begin to see what it is that we have forgotten or ignored along the way.  I had that experience climbing, and descending, in Acadia this week, so intent on getting to the top of the mountain and not until I started to descend did I begin to see things differently, as if the hardness of the climb began to dissipate, noticing a fallen tree, a sparkling stream, an unnamed path that leads to one of the most spectacular views and serene locations in the park.

It seems in either instance, our temptation to remain at the top or simply climb, as we see so often in our culture and society, but also to become attached to the bottom, walked upon, taken advantage of or needing to please, both begin to increase what it is that we seem to need in our lives, when the insecurity and fear begin to take root in our hearts and souls, no longer free.  In the words of John Muir, a separateness of heart and mind begins to form, creating a deeper chasm within ourselves.  In some ways, we become needy and no matter what it is, nothing seems to be enough.

The more I give myself the space to explore the outdoors, which in turn frees me to explore myself, the more I see the value in protecting our lands and leaving them as a place of wonder and exploration.  Whether it was watching a group of young boys play the 21st Century version of “cops and robbers” on Cadillac Mountain or even getting lost myself and being aware of the anxiety it brings up within myself and learning again to trust that deeper instinct and voice.  Over and over again, the natural world has something to teach and to help us to understand not only about itself, but about ourselves and even about God.  In not only helps to fill the chasm between the head and heart, it helps to fill the chasm between humans and the natural world, where everything belongs.

The freedom necessary to not live an “artificial” life as Muir speaks about, requires a letting go, surrendering, and living a life filled with the grace of detachment.  No, not in the sense of not caring, but rather in its natural sense, where I can surrender outcomes and trust God no matter what happens.  Otherwise, we predict the outcome, which in and of itself, is an illusion, artificial.  And we’ll do it to ourselves again and again.  The natural world teaches us to be free, to go where the wind blows, and to accept not what should be, but rather, what is, gradually dispelling the artificialness and leading us to a holiness and a wholeness, reminding us how Muir is correct, in how little we really need to experience the fullness of our lives.

 

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Summer’s Winter

As someone who grew up in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, you know that there’s something very unique about the winter.  For one thing, it seems to last forever, grey skies linger, snow cannot be ruled out until well into Spring, and maybe more than anything, there’s a different feel to the season, in the way the wind blows and even howls, biting through layers of clothing to the depths of your bones, chilling every part of your body.

It’s not quite as noticeable in the other seasons, when leaves fill the trees, but during the winter there is a unique feel and sound to the wind’s wailing.  There seems to be a hollow and even haunting sound to the pines and evergreens, the perennials that manage to survive the stiffness of winter and withstand the mark of death brought on by the season.  It’s a sound that reminds you that the dog days of summer are all but a memory and the sting of winter has seemingly found its day.

As I sat atop Flying Mountain in Acadia National Park today, I was reminded of that wind.  This far north and the extent of the winter season, leaves its marked presence by a sea of evergreens and pine trees filling the top of the mountain and not much else.  As a matter of fact, it’s as if the ground cannot even handle much more than that, when walking along it feels as if the ground beneath is hollow, roots exposed to the surface, creating an obstacle for even the most avid hiker.  There was, though, that wind and the haunting sound.  Interiorly I recalled the days of winter past in the mountains while my body reminded me that we’re at the height of summer season, a seemingly contradiction taking place within and around me.

For a moment, I thought maybe it’s winters way of reminding us that it’s never fully gone, that atop the beauty of summer below, winter awaits its turn, never separated from the warmth of summer life but simply receded to another day, blowing where it will and knowing at some point a necessary transition will take place in order for more growth to bloom.

All too often we try to separate life from its partner, death.  We try to separate anything that we fear or have a disdain for, not necessarily because we don’t know it’s a part of who we are, but rather, a lie we convince ourselves of, that it’s something for another day and another moment.  There’s a house that sits down below on Somes Sound, which is noticeable from Flying Mountain, being the only home along the shore.  The only trees around it protect it from the water, lined along that shore.  When winter knocks, though, not even a longstanding perennial has the whereabouts to stop and prevent what seems to rock what we have protected, cherished, most valued in our lives, trying to weather the storms that seem to haunt us at times during life, like that winter wind that remains atop that mountain.

Summer doesn’t seem to mind that it’s there.  It seems to go about its business as the wind continues to howl above.  Somehow they know they work in tandem with one another, almost instantly, the seasons of life and death dance with one another, each leading the way for the other.  Sometimes the harshest of times are when they try to hold on too long, well aware of their impending future, wreaking havoc on the life cycle.  But don’t we all?  We seem to love Fall and Spring.  They seem to come upon us so gradually and before we know it, we’re sideswiped by change we knew was coming and yet told ourselves, it’s for another day and another moment.  It’s what we tell ourselves as a way to linger, hold onto what we loved but no longer is.  How summer and winter do it will always remain a mystery, so much unseen and non-rational, bending and stretching the mind to something that lies beyond it and yet so much a part of it.  The howling winter wind has a way of reminding us of that, even on a mild summer day.

Nature’s Way

I started reading a book entitled Lassoing the Sun while here in Acadia.  The author, Mark Woods, spent a year traveling to twelve different national parks.  Ironically, the very first chapter, January, takes place here in Maine at Acadia National Park.  One of the points of the year was to get a different glimpse into the parks and where they’re going into the future.  People are, of course, the greatest asset to the parks, but the concern is that the greatest asset is also becoming a great obstacle, as more and more treat the parks as vacation destinations rather than the place of wonder and exploration in which they were created.

I couldn’t help but think of that as I was hiking Beech Mountain today.  There seemed to be a lot more people than the last time I had visited.  As I hiked along, from time to time I also just sat and tried to take in what was before me.  With stops, though, came the passing through of people, who often felt like a distraction to the solitude that would often accompany each stop along the way.  I often wondered if they had even recognized that I was sitting there, usually off to the side or at least somewhat off the path.  I heard two women who were discussing whether their hair color was natural.  I heard two gentlemen discussing their tax brackets.  What maybe most struck me, though, was a young family that came traipsing along.  I saw, first-hand, the intersection of generations in relation to the natural world.

There they were, the grandparents and grandkids going off to pick blueberries.  The kids were beyond excited at the view and the enormous number of berries that surrounded them, overlooking Long Pond.  It was so great to witness their excitement for something so simple as the body of water below, which sparked a wow, a sense of wonder that was exuding them.  But like the others that passed through, there were the others that were more concerned about the lighting for their photo and selfies, a phone intercepting the natural beauty before them.  They quickly tried to pull the kids out of the bushes for the perfect photo, a memory, rather than allowing the kids to be one with this natural world which has so much to teach each of us, and to simply be kids of wonder and adventure.

It stuck with me all day, thinking of that interaction.  At times I found the people a distraction and oblivious to where they were and what we were a part of.  I had to tell myself time and again that I’m making judgment about them.  It all just seemed to lack depth.  As I sat there, now on the outermost rock formation, relaxing and taking it in, I noticed how artificial the world too looked around me, as if like the phone, even my eyes acted as an interception to the wonder.  There was a stillness in the air, prior to the rain moving in, and everything seemed untouched and motionless.  When no one was around, all you can hear were far off voices in the distance of people passing through.  It wasn’t until I got down into the thick of it that I began to see otherwise.  I had to go beneath what I had seen with my eyes to begin to see a world of life at my fingertips, as if all the critters were going about their business before the anticipated weather.

As the day grew on, the air chilled and the rain began to fall; I listened to it bounce off my jacket, zipped to the top.  It’s July but feels more like Fall here in Acadia.  The silence, as the rain began to fall, seemed to deepen and any distractions and noise had fallen to a hush.  Sure, I should be able to find solitude anywhere, but none in the way out in nature, in places like this, which has a way of folding you into her arms and holding you, embracing you, and for those final moments in Acadia today it was there.  It was present.  I was present, no longer needing to feel frustrated and annoyed with the people that passed through, somehow taking from me what I wanted from this time.  They too are on their own journey but it didn’t have to stop me from mine, of moving these days to being one with creation with one great act of Love showing the way.  It’s much too easy to separate from others and judge.  In reality it does say more about us than them.  If I can be grateful for anything it’s that I was even aware of what was going on within me, leading me to my own adventure and wonder in my heart.  Ever so gently and slowly, nature has a way of revealing ourselves to us in a way like none other.  In the quiet, in the solitude, the truth begins to reveal itself and the truth then sets us free to wonder and explore not only the great outdoors but the inner depths of the soul’s landscape being revealed in spite of and before our very eyes.

A Better Vision

Habakkuk 1: 2-3; 2: 2-4; Luke 17: 5-10

Dorothy Law Nolte wrote a poem entitled Children Learn What They Live.  Some may have heard of it before, but if not, the first half goes like this, “If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.  If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight.  If a child lives with fear, he learns to be apprehensive.  If a child lives with pity, he learns to feel sorry for himself.  If I child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.  If a child lives with jealousy, he learns what envy is.  If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty.”  I thought of that this week when I saw the first reading from Habakkuk speak of vision, but also in light of what has unfolded in our federal government this week and watching how they respond to one another in this period of shutdown.  We all can only live what we have learned in our lives, especially as children.  If we have lived with negativity, judgment, and all the rest that the author speaks of, it is no wonder that we respond in this way.  So often, though, we just figure, well, there’s nothing we can do.  No, there probably isn’t much we can do to “fix” this system, but we can change the way we respond in these circumstances.  If we are responding in the same way as we have seen many of these politicians, digging in the trenches, we really have to ask ourselves just how much true faith is a part of our lives.

Ironically, Habakkuk sees and experiences the same in those governing in his time.  He continues to plead with God about the utter destruction and violent behavior that he witnesses, so often with the poorest of the poor being abused and taken advantage of and Habakkuk can’t stand watching it all unfold anymore.  He keeps pleading with God that this perpetual cycle of negativity and judgment continues and it seems as if prayers are not being heard or answered.  Finally, in the reading we hear today, God responds.  After witnessing such devastation, God tells Habakkuk, remember the vision of what could be.  Remember the vision of what should be and continue to strive for a greater way, a more perfect way, a way, as Saint Paul says, the power that comes from love; all other powers are mere worldly desires.  To be a people of faith, we are challenged to respond in the same way.  I know, I’ve wanted to throw something at the television this week, listening to people throw temper tantrums, like little children, and I had to step back and look at it from a “third eye” and struggle with how we respond in faith and try to stop that cycle of violence and negativity that is so much a part of our culture and the world we live in and very much rooted in the political system.  People of faith must respond differently.

It was a challenge for the disciples as well, who, today, simply ask for an increase in faith.  We’ve heard the challenging parables the past two months here and at times we didn’t want to hear the message because it comes up against the way we live our lives as well.  Just prior to this Jesus tells them that they must forgive, forgive, and forgive again, while recognizing the temptations that will continue to come there way and will try to sway them away from the great vision.  As these weeks go on and we approach the Cross, it is imperative to them to seek the greater vision, the better way of life, and don’t fall into the trap of perpetuating violence in the world, which they will witness first hand with Jesus.  Jesus tells them the faith is freely given; it’s already there!!  You can do the impossible, even change ourselves, if we have just a mustard seed size of faith within!  It’s already there!  We may not change what is out there, but we can change the way we live and respond in life, in our family, in our community, and in this parish.  With a little faith, we can stop the cycle of negativity, judgment, and ridicule that plagues our lives. As we gradually change in here, that change begins to seep out into the world around us.

Dorothy Nolte continues on the second half of the poem to paint that greater vision.  She writes, “If a child lives with encouragement, he learns to be confident.  If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient.  If a child lives with praise, he learns to be appreciative.  If a child lives with acceptance, he learns to love.  If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself.  If a child lives with recognition, he learns that it is good to have a goal.  If a child lives with sharing, he learns about generosity.  If a child lives with honest and fairness, he learns what truth and justice are.  If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith in himself and in those around him.  If a child lives with friendliness, he learns that the world is a nice place in which to live.  If YOU live with serenity, your child will live with peace of mind.  With what is your child living?”

If we simply buy into that cycle of negativity, judgment, and ridicule, we don’t have to ask in the years to come why the next generations are doing the same and continuing the cycle; they have seen us do it all too often.  As people of faith, we are called to seek out the greater vision as Habakkuk is reminded today, despite witnessing so much violence and hate.  We pray that we may have the courage to be aware of how we are responding in these situations in life, and ask ourselves, is it really what we want of the next generation, because they are watching.  We pray that we may respond in the ways that leads to that more perfect vision with love, forgiveness, prayer, and mercy.  If we are grounded in faith, the choice we make should be simple; seek out the greater good for all.

Path to Everywhere

Image

As I wander down the brushy, overgrown path,

fear strikes with a desire to return to the light.

Comfort, security, safety are certain.

Yet, the path calls all the louder to come forth!

Something new awaits!

The Unknown,

fear, anxiety, excitement are certainties here.

Where do I run?

How do I hide?

The voice cries all the louder into the darkened underworld, 

surrendering to the only way out,

surrendering to that voice,

surrendering to the Unknown,

a path that leads to everywhere.