It’s one of my favorite places in the world. Here, just up the snow-covered hill by the fire pit at the edge of the forest. Here, with the view down the valley of blue-grey hills and fields of white, the gold dome of the Chapel peeking through tree tops. 

Much has changed since I first came here 43 years ago – the trees so much taller, grand stone dorms at the far edge of the field. But much is the same as it was that first summer I pulled out my blanket here at the top of the field to read Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. I was a high school junior and here for a summer term at Colgate. I never expected or wanted to come to college here, but a year later here I was back lying at the top of the hill watching billowing clouds drift down the valley. 

Despite my plans and expectations, something about this landscape of rolling hills, this patchwork of forest and field drew me back. Yes, Colgate lacked most everything I wanted on my list of chosen schools – I wanted a school without fraternities, a smaller school than this, a school in New England. But it had the one thing no other place had – these hills, this sky, this view, this landscape.

Following the call of a landscape changed everything. Would I ever have been called into ministry (again not at all what I imagined or planned for my life) if it hadn’t been for my experience at Colgate? Would the questions have been planted that have guided my life? 

Despite all I believed and planned, this unexpected place gave me the gift and surprise of unexpected gifts.  

So now here again today, at the crest of the hill, ankle deep in snow at the edge of the woods. There down to the left, the grey stones of the college cemetery where so many teachers and mentors like Coleman, the University Church Chaplain, are buried. Coleman had met me at Chapel House the last time I was here for a retreat, decades ago now, and took me to lunch apologizing to the Chapel House host for breaking the rules and taking me off site. 

It’s here to Chapel House, at the edge of the field that led me to this place, that I’ve returned this week.

The little brochure at the entry notes that Chapel House aims to be “an oasis for peace and healing for individuals, Colgate University and the world.” Founded in 1959, it was a gift of an anonymous donor who requested that her name never be mentioned. 

“I am an old woman,” she said, “and soon I shall be going over to the other side where I’ll see all my friends. If I had done something for the Lord and added my name to it, I’d be ashamed to see them.”

Everytime I’ve wandered through the glass doors over the years I’ve wondered what’s taken me so long to return. This gift of beauty and solitude, these blue wing-backed chairs at broad windows looking down the valley. This beautiful place to write, read, sit or meditate, rest and receive this old woman’s gift of space and time. 

I’d planned on coming here this fall, but the unexpected gift of coming here now serves even better. Yesterday afternoon as I drove north from Maryland I’d pulled off I-81 for a phone call in the parking lot at Burger King that confirmed that this interim time of four months is now coming to a close with a new beginning. No, not a position I ever expected (of course!) but a gift that I so heart-full of gratitude and expectancy receive. Another reminder of what this interim time these past months has opened– the gift of time for the unplanned and unexpected to unfold.  

Yes, I’ve done many of the things I “planned” on doing during this sabbatical time. I’ve taken time to hike and write, time for solitude, time with friends and family, time for adventures and the discovery of places I’d never been. And yes, things I never planned and expected as well – discoveries like Ghost Ranch where I spent a few weeks in January that have led to new possibilities and openings as I’ve had space and time to listen for call and discern a deeper calling to what I’d not “planned” and “expected.”  

The last weeks have been a flurry of conversations and interviews, possibilities and hopes for next steps. Late yesterday afternoon when I arrived I could feel how fast my heart and mind were running. If I didn’t have times of intentional pausing like this, I wonder if I’d even notice. 

To gift yourself, to give myself the gift of a pause is a rare and precious privilege. How many people couldn’t imagine such a time as much as they might desire it. And yes, how many who could choose a time like this don’t for all the good reasons we know.  

And so, such a true gift to be here in this place dedicated to the Cultivation and Spirit of Slowing and Quiet. The only “structure” and guidance provided — emptiness, woods, silence, the contemplation of books, art and music, an open day and schedule punctuated by the ringing of the gong and invitation to the next delicious meal.  

I come expecting and planning to look back on this interim time and remember. Come expecting to write and draw what I want to hold to before stepping out into the next new chapter.  

But even more, I want to give myself to what I never planned and expected, to open myself to the gift of this time to offer its unplanned and unexpected gifts.

So yes, now out for that walk to the top of the hill and the view down the valley. Now, time for a walk in the woods. 

As I rise from this writing, I plant this prayer of gratitude for all the unexpected, unplanned events and relationships, choices and connections of life that have led here to this space and time. For the gift of an old woman who believed in the possibility for this emptiness, this silence to be an opening for what is waiting to be revealed beyond our wildest expectations.  

Chicago Snow

“You’re not actually going out there are you? It’s slippery! Do be careful!”

I assure the couple sitting in the lobby that I indeed will be careful and will come back if its not safe. But it’s blustery and snowing on this early Sunday morning, how could I not go for a run?  

I step out into more snow than I expected – 4-5 inches of puffy light snow that comes up over my shoes. A shock of cold at my ankles. But I am dressed warmly and well. I take a few strides forward. Not too slippery.

Yesterday I ran from my friend Marcia’s condo down to Lake Michigan and would have told you that the wild was nowhere to be found along the streets of grey brown brick and concrete. The wild, or Chicago’s closest thing to it, was down at the lakeshore where I was headed. There in the wild of bright ice at the rocky shoreline, pelting of wind, crunchy brown grass and gnarly bare limbed trees.  

Today I see the wild everywhere. I’m immersed in it as snow swirls down my neck and fogs my glasses. The wild is here and with it this morning all this brisk snow-covered joy. I delight in the surprise of a plowed sidewalk but soon head back to the puffy snow-covered sidewalks which are so much more fun.  

I turn back and into a furious wind. Tuck my head, press into the wet and cold and the wonder of joy in it all.  

There’s a little early morning crowd of six in the lobby who exclaim how surprising it is to see someone out for a run on a day like this. I tell them how enlivening it was – and not too slippery – hoping I might entice them to step out into the wonder of this wild morning.

Dog Walk

Sometimes its not about hiking the 100 mile wilderness or crossing the Knife Edge on Katahdin. Not about the anticipation of stepping out into a week long solo backpacking trip on the AT from Caratunk to Monson. 

No, sometimes it’s a different kind of walking as its been here these past three weeks in Maryland where I’m enjoying the gift of time with my sister, nephews and niece for card playing and movies, conversations and cooking interspersed with dog walks. The walking these days in the ordinary, everyday, several times a day little journeys of taking the dog for a walk around the block.  

Chet the dog is 12, deaf, arthritic and can’t see too well. His favorite activity of the day is sleeping in his bed or better yet, snuggled up next to my sister on the couch. Except, that is when you pick him up from his slumber and place him by the door. His little stump of a tail starts wagging and though he no longer barks in joyful anticipation, sometimes he will muster a croaky yelp of delight. 

A carry off the front steps that he no longer can navigate. Gently placed down at the crest of the hill outside the house followed by his wheezy cough. Sometimes, especially at night, he’ll bound for a few steps down the hill remembering perhaps what it was like to be a puppy again, ears flopping to the edge of the curb. He’ll stand there for a moment and then leap out like he’s about to take a jump off a high diving board, ears flapping.  

John Muir hated the word “hike” and urged people to “saunter” through the outdoors instead. Chet agrees. He doesn’t care how far we go, and knows that is not the point of the walk. Sometimes we make it all around the block. Sometimes, he turns around part way and heads toward home. What he cares about is all these smells. The smells that will keep his nose in the grass, at the tree, by the bushes   until with the tug of his leash he’s encouraged to keep on sauntering along. I haven’t gotten down to smell what he does down there nor do I plan to. But it must be a world of wonder from his focused sniffing out the evidence of dogs and the wayward fox. 

When was it I forgot the joy of the slow saunter on a gray sidewalk going nowhere but here, around this slow curve up the hill, past the house construction, gnarly bare limbs against the gray sky, brown leaves crumbled by the curb. The green wreath, blue and yellow flashing Christmas lights, a tree through the window.  

Dog walking brings everything down to here and now. Nowhere far to go, not a lot to do but be here, steady and slow, to wait and watch.  

There is something perhaps to be said for this steady circling, the daily ritual walks that bring all the uncertainty and expectancy, anxiety and anticipation of these days down to this time, this moment.  

On this gray drizzly night, I’m ready to be home. I pull Chet forward, “Come on, come on.”

It will be a slow walk to get there and no rushing the smells at the next corner. But slowly, steadily we’re making our way.    

I hope this new year may bring you walks of challenge and discovery, and yes, even more so, the gift of the wonder right here in the ordinary, everyday walks around your block. 

This Christmas Eve: Putting Down The Burden of Desire

Michael Gerson’s column in today’s Washington Post (“This Christmas, hope may feel elusive. But despair is not the answer”) provided me the turning phrase I’ve been seeking this Christmas Eve, the gift of a night that invites me to put down “the burdens of desires.” 

“The context of the Nativity story is misunderstood hope,” Gerson writes. The characters in the story expect the Messiah to “deliver them from exile and enemies. This was essentially the embodied belief that something different and better was possible — that some momentous divine intervention could change everything. But the long-expected event arrived in an entirely unexpected form.”  

Gerson writes, the God who comes this night “offers a different kind of security than the fulfillment of our deepest wishes.” Instead, “He promises a transformation of the heart in which we release the burdens of our desires.”

I have long tracked the desires of my heart, sought to discern the texture and tug of my longings and how they are calling me to respond. Tried to distinguish the desire of God from the desire of my ego. Tried to be faithful and yes, failed when the desire of yesterday has turned from the desire of today. Puzzled over that, the why and wherefore of the whims of desire and whether they can be trusted. Known the heartache of longing for things to turn out as I have desired them to be and the grief of when they have not. Yes, known the burdens of my desires.  

Almost two years ago now, I came to Boothbay Harbor full of desire. I had pockets full of expectation and desire of what I hoped might happen in our journey together. Came full of my passion and my ideas of who they might become and what we might explore together. Came, yes, full of desire to be successful in my first interim experience and to do something that mattered together. 

But five weeks after my arrival, with covid surging in mid-coast Maine, I had to begin to put down all my desires and longing for how I wanted things to be and face the reality of how things were. Had to put down all my wonderful plans, all my longing and hopes of how I imagined things to be, and lean in with the church leaders and community to wonder. Had to slowly let go of what I now had to accept was my outmoded desire. Had to learn and discern with others in the desolation of the present moment how to respond when we could not predict how things might be in the next. 

It’s easy to run to the longed for desires of this night. 

Easy to get lost in the grief of things not being as we may have desired them to be. 

Easy to have it be a time of aching and sometimes, yes, this is how it is.  

But what if the possibility of this night is a gift that comes from releasing the burden of our desire?

What if the possibility of the transformation of our hearts comes this night in a breathing out, a letting go of the weight and restlessness, grief and despair, passion and potency of our desiring and welcoming in the emptying of this night?

An emptying which makes room for Christmas, makes room for everything beyond what we even dreamed hoping for.  

The Turning: Winter Solstice

After school and after the swim. After the walk with the friend and after the shopping complete. Before turning to home to what is next and the usual routines that make up our day, a detour this night. An interruption in the normal routine. A pause before going back, before keeping on doing what we’ve always done, to head to the woods and walk the trail. Such an ordinary trail on what would otherwise be an ordinary night, tonight illumined by votive candles in mason jars.

It takes something we usually can’t find to have us turn aside from the ordinary and everyday but winter solstice does it again to us this year, this once in a year possibility to mark this longest night in the northern hemisphere and to praise the potency of growing light. A turning, and yes, we not so easy at it. Not so adept at turning aside to mark and remember in the weight of these days. Tonight, our bodies lead the way. Despite all in us that resists the unfamiliar, we too want to turn, we want to remember.  

What if we gave ourselves to the turning of the earth? What if we like this great planet, turned slow and persistent towards the light? What if we claimed this moment, this night, to realign, to be recalled to what we had long forgotten was even possible? 

There are stones to lay down of burdens we have carried for so long we no longer feel their weight. We finger the texture and form of this smooth stone. 

Seeds to scatter of joy and possibility. 

Memories to recall of that time this year we really laughed.

A winding trail beneath dark trees and naked, pointed limbs, their work drawn inward and unseen as ours may be.  

The news scattered in the morning paper across the kitchen table. We know this darkness. And we don’t. Don’t know what to do with it, how to bear it, we turn the page, keep on going for what is needed and needs doing too. But tonight another calls our attention. 

Truth be told, we’ve come not so much because we are turning but the earth is. 

The stone tossed in the stream, the scattering of seeds by the 300-year-old sycamore, the remembrance of forgotten laughter. Perhaps, may it be so, a beginning.

When Will the Fog Lift?

Its been over two weeks since I’ve given an update about this interim adventure. Two weeks since that cold race in Millinocket, that last commitment on my calendar for the fall, before this, before the last two weeks. 

Its taken me two weeks to even begin to imagine how to write about such a time, this time in the interim when you’ve gone off map. The time of trusting that the trail is still winding through the woods before you though the path grown darker, foggier.  The way forward, unclear.

A couple of days after the Millinocket race, I met my colleague Aram for a walk along the Presumpscot River Trail. A trail that began where I never expected to find one, at a col-du-sac on the edge of a suburban neighborhood lit in early December with a scattering of Christmas lights. 

I go back to look at the pictures – lots of brown leaves, gray fog, cold and damp, a slight mist turned to drizzle. I remember hearing that beech trees are the last to lose their leaves. Perhaps they’re beech still holding on in an evergreen forest of dark wet trunks covered with patches of green. A picture of the tips of my shoes looking down on more brown leaves. Drips of water on the ends of white pine needles. So cold, so damp and so looking forward to this walk. 

I’ve been gifted with many such walks and conversations like we had that day in the past weeks. I think how grateful I am for friends and family who have held a listening space in the fog that helps me find words for what I discern of this season’s beckoning. A stirring and not sure where it all leads. What I know is this joy, in putting my feet to the trail.

It’s a day not unlike another day I’d have a week later in Brattleboro, Vermont. I’d come over the night before to avoid the freezing rain predicted for that morning and sure enough I wake to yet another gray fog, this time wet and slippery. I pause on my morning run over the bridge to take a picture down the Connecticut River.  

I think of a little boat set out to sea with such high hopes and expectation, such anticipation of finding their way, and soon, to the other side but now, caught in the fog. There is no going back. No way to see forward. Just here, in the middle of it. Wind dying, fog descending, boat rocking. Nowhere to go, nothing to do but listen, wait, watch, dream. 

Foggy times are Advent time. Waiting, waiting for the fog to lift. For the skies to clear. And yet, the fog keeps descending.

And in the fog, questions: 

Can I trust myself, trust my intuition, my sense of knowing?

Trust this way I sense ahead? 

Trust what I see and feel to be true?

Trust that what I see ahead in the shadows is really there?  

It’s is not an easy place to be in the fog of a liminal time. But as a colleague reminds me, you can’t lead people deeper than you have been and are willing to go yourself. Times like this he reminds me are times that none of us know what to do with. What I know is that if I can stay awake through this time and remain present to it, I may have something to say, something to witness to on the other side. 

As I think of this foggy time, I remember another, not so long ago. Remember these weeks back right after I left Boothbay Harbor and days out hiking alone along the Appalachian Trail, somewhere half-way between Caratunk and Monson. Sitting there on the bank of the river for an hour, two, and watching the fog lift.

There was nothing unsettling or scary or hard about this fog. It just was fog, just fog. I didn’t need clarity or answers, I didn’t need it to be different or to clear or go away. I gave myself to it, to the watching and listening. To the immersion in it.  

The remembering of that other morning in the fog helps me find my way in this one. The way is not yet clear. It’s just a time for fog. The fog like that day I trust will one day clear. 

I surprise myself by telling a friend yesterday what I know: I am well in this liminal space and time. I am at home. I have a job. It’s just not the home that comes with four walls and a mortgage payment and the job brings no paycheck and does not come with health insurance. But I am at home, so at home here and now and I am doing the job, the work that needs doing.  

Two years ago I sat at this same kitchen table writing towards a future I could not see. Today, I see a lot more than I did two years ago. Though there is fog, much more is clear. It’s a time for listening, for conversations and wonder. A time not to rush ahead but to take small steps. A time to take stock of what is true, what I know and all I do not.  Yes, perhaps here in the fog I don’t need to do anything but to be true to this unknowing, this wonder, this listening, this stirring in the middle of all the questions. 

This is Millinocket

Sometimes, amidst anxiety over Omicron, climate change and things we can’t fix. Sometimes, amidst the everyday worries and dis-ease that is life it’s good to have it all come down to, “Which shirt should I wear?”

It’s 7:30 Saturday morning and we’re driving north from Bangor to Millinocket, the gateway to Baxter State Park, home of Mount Katahdin and host of the Millinocket Marathon.  

It’s cold – 10, 12, now 14 degrees…Nope, back to 12. But its sunny we remind ourselves – no wind, not like we had last night.

We park at the high school and the trickiest part of the day to navigate ourselves slowly, carefully across the icy parking lot to register for the race…..The road will be plowed we think. Of course, the roads will be plowed and not like this…

There’s no registration fee for the Millinocket Marathon – no water, food, tee shirts or medals either – just the opportunity to come up here to the end of the road to support the town and help the locals make it through another long winter. So instead of an entry fee, there’s a craft fair here in the school gym. Perfect for someone who does not like shopping to have to hang out for a bit before our race starts and get all my Christmas shopping done. 

Back to the car and a question about which gloves we’ll need. We slip and slide down the roads to town and a big log truck marking the starting line of the race.  The marathon starts with a bang of a gunshot, we all jump, and look for the port-a-potty. Too long of a line. We’ll wait. Alright, I like the choice of clothing – glad for the warmer shirt and two layers of pants.  So glad for these warm mittens that I found at the craft fair.

Another shot and we’re off for the half-marathon. As the road turns out of town, we head up a logging road covered with ice and sand. Our steps small and steady so not to slip. We continue to go up, up and more up. How much up can there be? 

We pass promises of shots of Fireball and hot Gatorade, men running with chain saws strapped to their backs, raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The saws weigh 25 pounds but it’s the pants Paul tells me that are the hardest part – tough heavy pants to prevent the chain saw from cutting through your leg. We continue up past elves and Santa, past a man dressed in animal skins. Up, up and more small steady steps, up.  

As we climb, snow covered Katahdin sparkling over the hill in the distance as encouragement as we continue up, up and more up sand covered icy roads.  

Finally at the crest of the hill we see down at last. Last year, when the race was cancelled, we ran our own virtual Millinocket Half-Marathon through the dark roads of Boothbay Harbor one evening. In honor of the race known for the bars the locals set up along the route, we paused at mile 11 for a shot of cinnamon whisky Fireball. This year at mile 11 I did not feel like I was going to fall over and need my friends to guide me to the finish. I did slow down but I’m not sure if that was the Fireball or 11 miles… 

Down, down, down and at last a turn back through town and by the log truck and the finish.  

There’s something about finishing a challenge and the joy in it after the times along the way you wondered if you ever would. As I stumble back to the car on sore legs across yet more icy roads, so happy, so full of joy, that amidst everything in a world that seems so impossible to change and so many obstacles to overcome, amidst cold to bear and treacherous roads to navigate, the joy that in this little moment, this tiny point in time, the joy that today, we did.

All This Joy

I was offered Gerald May’s little book, The Wisdom of Wilderness by our teacher this week. 

Sometime in his 50’s, May felt a call to wilderness, to take off on his own for a night or two in the woods. Amidst his misadventures, he met in the wild something he called “a Presence” that showed up to him as “the Power of Slowing.” A Power, a Wisdom that as he put it, “beckoned, guided, taught, healed and showed me very deeply who I am.”   

I’m not so sure if I have met this Presence or Power of the Slowing in the woods myself. What I know is that I meet something. What is it? It’s that deep joy that suddenly shows up in this deep exhale, in this relaxing and breathing as I stand at the beginning of the labyrinth yesterday morning. It’s what I found a few miles into the run out in the dark on the dirt road, in the steady pounding of my feet, a looking up and seeing the forest, knowing I was in the forest and not lost in all my thoughts about things not here. I felt just this peace, this release, this joy like I found coming down the trail in growing dark after finding my way back to the trail two, three times earlier that morning. 

The author of the The Cloud of Unknowing uses some different terms to speak of what I hear as a similar thing. He calls it listening for Joy and following it.  

“For the Love of God, then, be careful and do not imprudently strain yourself in this work. Rely more on joyful enthusiasm than on sheer brute force. For the more joyfully you work, the more humble and spiritual your contemplation becomes, whereas when you morbidly drive yourself, the fruits will be gross and unnatural.” (Chapter 46)

Maybe that’s it. Sometimes pausing along the trail, after the steady beat of enough miles, in a descent through growing dark, something is revealed not of my own making. It’s a letting go that helps me take in what is here and now.

Whatever it is, it’s something bigger than an emotion that the author of The Cloud warns his students of getting caught in – these roller-coaster emotions of ours that we so easily lose ourselves in, get lost and swirled and tossed about in their vortex. This Joy the author of The Cloud of Unknowing invites us to follow is different. It’s something quieter, stiller, bigger, deeper than just an emotion. Perhaps it’s akin to love, a recalling to what we had forgotten, to who we are like Gerald May found in the woods. And sometimes, yes, in the stilling and opening to this Joy, a clarity that we can just step in and follow. Life doesn’t become so difficult from this deeper vantage point of releasing, being, listening.  

Sometimes, in the past when others have said they found God in the woods or God in nature I wondered if they were seeking too easy of a God, too comforting and peaceful of an experience of God. Wondered if they were missing out on, stepping away from, a God who demands, wants, needs more of us than the God of Nature. But I’ve come to believe that whatever that God is that we meet outdoors in the wild is the elemental calling God. A God who recalls us to a deeper kind of listening, a presence and grounding bigger than our own worries and preoccupations.  

What we follow matters. What we tack to makes all the difference.  

May writes, “If you are willing, and if you listen very gently and carefully, you will sense that this mysterious Wisdom is ready to lead you, guide you to where you need to be. It is your wilderness calling.”  (P. XXIV)

The call to a discovery in the woods lasted for May for five years and then it was over. He’d found what he was looking for and after that no longer felt the call of the woods. However, that didn’t mean that his longing for the wild left him, he just found the wild in different ways and forms. What he discovered was wilderness is everywhere. 

“You don’t have to go tromping to the mountains or desert as I did.  You may find it in a local park, an open field or a small woods. As I have said, you may even find it in your own room, or in your own body and mind. All it takes is listening for Wisdom’s call.” 

Yesterday as I stood at the entrance to the labyrinth, the question answered before it could even be asked. Just this present joy. Where does it come from? What brought it about? All I know is that a stirring, a wordless invitation had stirred me to get up from my reading and go outside to be recalled to what I had forgotten. 

The Cloud

On Monday morning, before the retreat began, I hiked part way up Beech Mountain on the west side of Mount Desert Island. The smooth valley trail and neat stone steps turned to ice, snow and cold as I turned up the South Summit trail. When I turned back in order to make it to the retreat on time, I paused to look down over Long Pond below and Mansell Mountain masked in cloud and fog. Here, even before the retreat begins, I’d already seen the “Cloud of Unknowing” and ascended into its wet cold embrace.  

Evelyn Underhill called this Medieval book of spiritual direction by an anonymous author, a “loving discernment of reality.” You might read the book. You might meditate on a cushion. You might ascend a trail into damp fog but any way you do it, you can’t help discerning reality. However you do it, the key seems to make of that discerning a loving one, to look within and without with a gaze of curiosity, compassion, and love.  

The news on Monday is hard to receive with loving attention. The headlines all about the new variant of the coronavirus, ominously called omicron. As the email threads tell it, “We don’t know what this mutation means to our lives. Is it more deadly? Is it more contagious? More severe?  Is it resistant to vaccines? Is it in the US?….”

There are realities we delight in facing and there are those we avoid. It doesn’t take a headline for us to know that we are tired of new restrictions, weary of anxiety over yet another variant, angry and impatient for things to return to how they used to be which feels a long way from how things are now. 

Headlines further down the thread have more hard news, “This Friday the government is set to run out of money”… “A changing climate is buckling concrete and flooding roads. States are moving slowly to guard the nation’s infrastructure.”

Anxiety, fear, a lot of unknowing.  

There is so much more we don’t know about the author of The Cloud of Unknowing than what we do. We learn on Monday that the little book was written in the late 14th century in the Midlands in England in a time of endless war, pandemic, social and political change and a divided religious world.  

The context and names have changed but it all feels terribly familiar. From The 100 Years War to The War on Terror. From The Black Plague to COVID-19. From social change brought about by The Peasant’s Revolt to #MeToo and #BLM. A divided papacy then and a divided country now. 

We know almost nothing about the author but their success at remaining anonymous for all these centuries fits well for someone who taught self-forgetfulness and putting aside in the “Cloud of Forgetting” all our memories, thoughts and considerations.

After the first few days of the retreat, I take away that it is not that “unknowing” separates us from God; instead, the “unknowing” is the way to God. But to find our way to this place of unknowing we must put down in the Cloud of Forgetting all our preconceived notions and well formulated ideas, quiet our endless internal spin of noise. To place ourselves in the highly uncomfortable place of not-knowing and make room for wonder and what is beyond ours to do and only God’s to reveal.  

It’s the kind of stripping away that it feels to me would serve us all well today. In times like ours that remind us that our previous ways of working and being aren’t working anymore for ourselves, our communities, for creation, we’d do well to follow the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and place ourselves in a place of listening, waiting, wondering and making room for God. Such non-rational ways of being are called mystical and the turmoil of the 14th century led to a flowering of the mystical – and ways of knowing beyond all our thinking, figuring, words and reason, a way known in bodies, in intuition, in awe. 

On Monday I climbed the mountain with care as far as I could ascending and descending into fog.

Today, I climbed the mountain again on a sky-blue, clear crisp day. 

This afternoon, with everything so apparently clear, I got off the trail three, four times on the way down. I thought I could see but actually I couldn’t. Instead of walking with the kind of care and attention I needed to on Monday when I was out on an unfamiliar trail and couldn’t see far ahead, today I bounded off looking not for the blue trail markers but for where I remembered the trail went and what I assumed looked like the way. When I strapped on my microspikes at the top, it only made matters worse. I got down the icy rocks fine but it also made me all the more overconfident as I strode off the trail and had to find my way back to it again and again. My memory, confidence, the supposed clarity of sight, the sense of “knowing” which way to go actually didn’t help me get down the mountain.

In Monday’s fog and cloud on an unknown trail, I had to slow and listen, pay attention more carefully, found a better way through the cloud beyond all my knowing.  


On Sunday I went to the Church of the Woods in Canterbury, New Hampshire, my church home when I’m away from home and a place I’ve grown to love gathering with the small group in a little circle of stumps on a small hill or as we did this Sunday in a small barn with a wood stove. We hear a few ancient texts, ponder a question for the day and set off for twenty minutes of wandering in the woods alone and in silence to see what we might discover.  

Today the question is redemption. It’s too weighty of a word and I often forget just what it means. All I know is that I’d like to get a breath, deep and well. To receive all that “redemption” suggests, where grace, forgiveness, freedom, release meets and returns us to a deep breath and wholeness from all that keeps us separated from each other, ourselves, from all we call God.  

As I walk through brown crunching leaves covered with a dusting of snow I’m far from redeemed. I crunch through a familiar coldly interior and locked-away place it’s so easy for me to get lost in. Bare limbed branches, ice nodules on gray limbs, I feel the weight of this late November day, the cold of separation, of all I need met with grace and forgiveness, saving and love that feels impossible on this gray day to be found anywhere. A few brown leaves withered and torn still holding on, not yet ready to fall.

Here I am at it again, spinning out a tired ancient tale of woe and dislocation while walking in a wood that shouts out LOOK!  See how cold and gray the season is, see the way of seasons and turning.  See how connected it all is, we all are.  

But I see nothing of that only a green marker off to the left, a path I’d not taken before. I look ahead down the trail seeking some sign of beauty and life and see only more gray limbs, snow on fir. Nothing looks hopeful or of life today. Unsure where I will be in a few months, unsure if I’m actually on the right path and if I’ll make it back in time on this unfamiliar trail, I spot a blue jacket on the path ahead of me trekking slowly, steadily along. I see its Joan and knowing she’s been here many times before, figure she must know where she’s going. I relax in trust following down the trail behind her. Later she tells me she didn’t have a clue where she was going. But none of that mattered. She was following Trust, and in trust I followed her. 

She pauses ahead and I do as well. The knocking of a downy woodpecker up the tree ahead. After a moment, she steps out again, I follow. I can’t tell you when It happened but somewhere between my crunching along my cold interior trail and looking ahead into the bleak woods, I breathed. Breathed from a deeper place deep within and with the filling of air and the taking in received a releasing, an emptying of all the familiar old stuff I’d too heavily carried. Just like that, I’m light again. I’m breathing again. I’m here in the gray woods and everything is different. Hope and joy, breath and light, here.  

It always sounds absurd to talk of moments like this and probably why we often don’t. All I know is it made all the difference and the finding of it now a memory to return to, as I remember now in the taking in of this deep breath, this lowering of my shoulders, this gift of presence, connection, release and new life, here.    

Last month Nimblewill Nomad at 83 became the oldest person to complete the Appalachian Trail.  Walking the trail, he said, forced him to come face to face with himself. Along the way he not only faced himself, but found redemption as well. Nimblewill did his first major hike to deal with the emotional and mental baggage of a divorce and losing the respect of his children. Crunching through leaves, scrambling up sharp rocks, plodding by long weary days on the trail, he eventually found peace and forgiveness.  

“You can seek peace but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to find it.” he said. “I persevered to the point that the good Lord looked down on me and said you’re forgiven, you can be at peace.”

Perhaps its not so much a longing I have for the Lord to look down and grant a turning word. No, perhaps its just to keep on walking until I spot the blue jacket ahead of me down the trail. And in seeing, trusting, that She’s leading the way through the cold gray forest on a path which in its time will take us home.