Thursday, September 11, 2008

Following the Leader

It started out simply enough. At first we were walking a well-worn path that was wide enough to accommodate a small truck. But, as we walked, the road narrowed until we came to an intersection that broke off into two trails wide enough for a recreational all-terrain vehicle. We took the trail that bent to the right. It was narrower, less easy to travel, and following it eventually required that we walk single file.

Our destination was four and a half miles from where we had parked at daybreak. Getting there required that we travel barely discernable paths, pick our way across beaver dams, balance ourselves on logs that had been dropped across creeks, and trudge through bogs.

This was no casual walk in a park. I had no idea of how to get to our destination and, I have to admit, halfway there I was totally lost. Thoughts occurred to me. I’m totally lost with no sense of direction. I’m already tired from all the difficult walking and everywhere I look there is only more difficult walking to look forward to. Bears. There is no shortage of bears in this wilderness. We had seen plenty of signs that told us they were here. A second admission - a certain sense of panic began to seize me.

It was at that point that I had to remind myself that my guide knew what he was doing. He knew where he was going. He had been here before. Experience had been his teacher and he was confident in his ability to take us to a destination visited only with great intention. I had to tell myself to not listen to my own fears and anxieties, to relax and enjoy the sights of a landscape that only a very small number of people will ever see, to have faith in the one guiding me through this difficult but beautiful terrain.

Four and a half miles took us half a day. Midway we stopped for a short break. I read aloud a Psalm that had touched me the day before. We prayed and worshipped God beside a beaver pond and experienced a connectedness that spanned the ages of Christian history.

At noon we were sitting down resting and eating our lunch on a spot of ground that an elk had used as a bed. We were surrounded by wilderness. In front of us was a beautiful small lake. The only sounds to be heard were the sounds of nature broken only by the words that we spoke to one another. I found a tuft of elk hair on the ground in front of me and put it into a sandwich bag to save as a reminder of this special moment in time that I had shared with my friend.

A life of faith is no less a journey through difficult terrain. But somehow we’ve grown accustomed to thinking that this journey of faith should be something easy. We look for guides that can point us along courses of ease where manicured brick paths are lined with cultivated varieties of garden growth. Walking is easier here and we acclimate ourselves to sharing the path with others even though we are constantly rubbing shoulders with them. Individuality, if not lost altogether, is so mingled with the masses on this brick path that our own interior landscape is barely discernable. And we are discouraged from stepping off the brick path, discouraged from wandering through the vales and woods alongside that call us to enter their solitude.

Jesus took time to wander off and encouraged his disciples to spend time in solitude as well. I need to remember this. "Come apart for a while." An hour of silence and contemplative prayer. Longer seasons of personal retreat. A life surrendered to the monastic spirituality that I find in the leadership of St. Benedict. These are destinations as real as the lake deep in the Canadian bush. Destinations never descend upon us out of the blue. They are arrived at with discipline and devotion that teach us how to cease exerting our will in order to accept Christ’s will.

Follow the Leader. He leads through quiet places that inspire us and provide rest for our souls.