“Sometimes you can see a whole lot of things just by looking”
“Nature gave the word glory a meaning for me. If nature had never awakened certain longings in me, huge areas of what I mean by the love of God would never had existed.”
C.S. Lewis in The Four Loves
“You are next, Father Karelius,” the nurse barked as she wheeled another patient into surgery.
Warm blankets created a cocoon effect over me, as the IV dripped and my heart raced. Eye surgery! It was hard for me to conceive of how they surgically could open my eye and operate on it. I had had several serious surgeries involving long stays at Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. But eye surgery; what would it be like? This vulnerable part of my body is the “window to the soul.” One of my students at Saddleback College who was in the nursing program confessed that she would trade a clinical in eye surgery for gastro intestinal surgery any day. Eye surgery: too gross! What would eye surgery be like for me?
I am wheeled into the operating room, and our friend, Dr. Paul Prendiville, speaks in a low, quiet, calming voice. Anesthesia takes effect and I am watching a kaleidoscope of vibrant, flaming, luminescent colors turning and twisting, like a Tibetan Buddhist mandala. The movement of crystalline colors slows and I can hear voices again: Dr. Paul and my wife: first in the distance, then very close. I awaken with a patch over my eye. Everything was successful.
Over the next seven days, sight slowly returned to the right eye and I could see again.
Annie Dillard writes:
“When her doctor took her bandages off and led her into the garden, the girl who was no longer blind saw ‘the tree with the lights in it.’ It was for this tree I searched through the peach orchards of summer, in the forest of fall and down winter and spring for years. Then one day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it. I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame. I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed. It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance. The flood of fire abated, but I am still spending the power. Gradually, the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared. I was still ringing. I had been my whole life a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.”
- 33-34, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard.
There is a seeing that involves the delicate body parts that create the eye. There is a deeper seeing, called illumination, that is an inner, mystical seeing that cannot be conjured, mentally directed or manipulated.
Annie Dillard writes:
“….the pearl may be found, it may not be sought. The literature of illumination reveals this above all: although it comes to those who wait for it, it is always, even to the most practiced and adept, a gift and total surprise.”
One of the reasons I have written these chapters on spirit places in the desert is to invite you to enter, walk, wait, and watch. I have found that with fatigue from long hikes during desert retreats and several days of silence and solitude, aha moments of intuitive insight flash into consciousness. This Southwestern landscape is a doorway into mystery and wonder. The gift often involves a Benevolent Presence offering peace, joy, hope and love.
Interstate 40 out of Kingman, Arizona, flies across high desert chaparral into a vast sea of sagebrush, twisting and climbing through volcanic and granite mountain passes, heading east toward Flagstaff. As Janice, Erik and I travel this route every October, I am still amazed at what I see: a rainbow of wildflowers bursting from the sandy soil: violet puffs of Arizona lupine, and clusters of white desert chicory and desert sunflowers. Back home in Orange County, California, the hillsides around our home are blowtorched dry in the absence of rain. But here in Arizona, speeding past ocotillo, cholla and saguaro cactus, Cruise Control set at 75 miles an hour, I watch the dramatic landscape flash by like an IMAX movie.
At 7,000 feet the highway straightens, as we pass through a windswept plateau of deep green range grass, sustaining hundreds of sheep and cattle. Not a tree in sight.
These desert and mountain journeys through the American Southwest bring us into vast open spaces of geological wonder. But after the first 50 miles the Vastness swallows up our vision and becomes familiar. I confess, I can be walking through the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, trying to slowly savor the colors and textures of great artistic masters. But after a while a malaise and sensory overload possess me. I am done. This same malaise sets in, as we pass through amazing beauty that has become familiar.
G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Our perennial spiritual and psychological task is to look at things familiar until they become unfamiliar again.”
Seeing means more than good eyesight. We can do a lot of looking at the world around us without seeing much. Our eyes can be wide open, but we see nothing. How can we look at the familiar until they look unfamiliar again? We need help to see through this familiarity that surrounds us in order to see into wonder.
Guidance comes to me through our disabled adult son Erik and the Jewish mystic Martin Buber.
After our arrival at J and H Campground in Flagstaff and setting up camp, Janice, Erik and I head north on Interstate 89 a few miles to Loop Road, which leads to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument. In one mile we park at the Ranger Station and walk into a pine forest. I hold Erik’s hand, as we walk the winding path around dense piles of pine needles. Erik’s eyes are unfocused, gazing off into nothing. His significant brain damage from encephalitis in 1987 has meant years of suffering and our struggle to minimize his seizures. His far away gaze could be an absence seizure. But as we walk, this handsome young man, mentally four years old within a strapping six-foot adult body, slowly awakens. I pick up a pine cone and he feels the sticky pitch, the sharp spines and senses the sweet sap. We walk further into the dense wood. I call his attention to sounds of squirrels fighting over another pine cone, squawky blue jays and the distant yelp of a coyote. “Listen, Erik, what is that? A bird? Squirrels fighting? A coyote calling to her children?” I call Erik’s attention to sense, sound, touch, smell and taste and he is becoming more alert, more present to this natural world. As I do this, the familiar sounds and sights become unfamiliar again to me. There is a slowing into which Erik is pulling me, a slowing of time and space. And I am present to him and he to me. We reach the edge of the forest and encounter a vast meadow of wildflowers, clusters of bulbs that have burst forth into four-foot high columns of yellow and orange. Erik sees the shapes and colors and begins to walk into the meadow, passing his hands over the tall tubers.
I found also help in seeing nature in a new way through the Jewish mystic Martin Buber and his book I and Thou (Ich und Dich). He shares his personal experience about how encounters with Nature can be transformative and can lead us into deeper communion with each other and God.
Buber contends that we have two ways of connecting with the world around us. The world of reason and science has shaped our consciousness to approach the world around us with the scientific method to collect information, analyze and classify it and create theories. Buber calls this mode “Experience” and we approach creation as a detached “it” from ourselves and can apply this information to some project. But there is a detached distance between us and creation (I-it). Reality is found in a material world.
Buber helped me to understand that there is another way to connect with the world around me. He calls this “Encounter”, wherein we enter into relationship with the object we encounter. I believe this is why the setting of the American southwest is helpful, because the tribal Indian and Hispano traditions invite a porous receptivity to animate and inanimate creation.
Through his personal experience in meditating on a tree, Buber experiences the dissolution of distance between himself and the tree and a merging into oneness
“I consider a tree. I can look on it as a picture: stiff column in a shock of light, or splash of green shot with the delicate blue and silver of the background. I can perceive it as movement: flowing veins on clinging, pressing pith, suck of the roots, breathing of the leaves, ceaseless commerce with earth and air—-and the obscure growth itself.”
I and Thou, p. 14.
As Buber contemplates the tree and its descriptive qualities something changes.
“I can, however, also come about, if I have both will and grace, that in considering the tree I become bound up in relation to it. The tree is no longer an it.”
I and Thou, p. 14.
Living only within the world of I-It has psychological fallout like anxiety about the future, loss of sense of meaning and chronic dissatisfaction. You know that feeling when you awaken at three a.m. and can’t go back to sleep.
If we allow our porous selves to open up to encounter nature, and like Annie Dillard we are receptive, the tree with the lights in it may visit us. We cannot force the encounters, but we can be ready. And we are never the same after this encounter.
Buber reminds us that all of these encounters are transient and that soon the I-thou connection will change, by our reflection and analysis, back into I-It. The lasting I-thou relationship, Buber confesses, is in the state of love and wwith God. We call this Revelation.
You and I visit this Southwestern landscape as children of Enlightenment Reason. We have been tutored into the I-IT world and to discount mystical and spiritual experience. The gift of this desert land, nature’s creatures and the people who have lived here for centuries is that the place will work on your inner self, as patiently as sand and wind wear down a massive granite boulder. If we are open and searching, transformative encounters may visit us.
Here is one memorable encounter from psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience:
“I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop, where my soul opened out into the Infinite, and there was a rushing together of the two worlds, the inner and the outer. It was deep calling unto deep — the deep that my own struggle had opened up within being answered by the
unfathomable deep without, reaching beyond the stars. I stood alone with He who had made me, and all the beauty of the world, and love, and sorrow, and even temptation. I did not seek Him, but felt the perfect unison of my spirit
with His. The ordinary sense of things around me faded. For the moment nothing but an ineffable joy and exultation remained. It is impossible fully to describe the experience. It was like the effect of some great orchestra when all the separate notes have melted into one swelling harmony that leaves the
listener conscious of nothing save that his soul is being wafted upwards, and almost bursting with its own emotion. The perfect stillness of the night was thrilled by a more solemn silence. The darkness held a presence that was all the more felt because it was not seen. I could not anymore have doubted Hewas there than I was. Indeed, I felt myself to be, if possible, the less real of the two.”
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard (New York, Harper and Row, 1974)
I and Thou, Martin Buber.
Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, John R. Stilgoe (New York: Walker and Company, 1998)
What is Landscape?, by John Stilgoe ( Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 20150
The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James.
Communing with Nature: A Guidebook for Enhancing Your Relationship with the Living Earth, John. L. Swanson.
Seeing Nature: Deliberate Encounters with the Visible World, Paul Krafel.