15 August, 2006

Alone But Not Really

I'm back. Pictures to follow. Lots of 'em. I spent six days driving from Boston to Wyoming, soaking up books-on-tape, five days hiking in the mountains, three days driving south to Albuquerque (yet more books-on-tape - several reviews to follow). I spent some time with family there, then three days with family in NYC checking out colleges for my older one.

Without question, the most profound part of the odyssey was three and a half days in the backcountry during which I did not see or hear a soul. Not a brief 'hello' passing on the trail. Not a tent, a silhouette or a scrap of color sighted in the distance. Not a conversation heard faintly across a lake or even a far-off campfire or the glow of a city on the horizon at night. (The stars were beyond magnificent... one could not but stand mute - in awe.) I could tell everyone exactly where this was - a true "blank spot" on the map... but then I'd have to kill you. :)

It was total solitude. About the closest I came to the world of people were some airplane contrails miles overhead and a few days-old footprints and horse leavings on the trail.

And yet, I never felt alone.

Ponder for a moment: When was the last time you were truly alone for an hour, much less a day? (sleeping doesn't count) Without even the simulated companions that clutter our existence these days: radio, television, iPod and the web? Without even the casual contact provided by a delivery person, waiter or toll-taker? Without seeing or hearing, much less speaking to another human being?

It is a discipline that is not easy... and yet it is essential. Why else did Christ seek time away from the clutches of his fellow humans, e.g., in passages such as this or this or this?

Everyone would benefit from a few days alone like this at least once in his/her lifetime. For myself, I hope to make it an annual respite - a refill on the deep well of peace that pervades my soul as I write this more than a week after rejoining the world.

Prayer comes much more naturally in such surroundings and with it, a more instinctual, beyond-words understanding of the One God who was is and ever shall be. One becomes conscious of how much one's "self" is - or at least can be - shaped (and distorted) by interactions with others. Not that human community is a bad thing. I'd make a lousy hermit. We were not meant to live like this full time. It's just that so much of what we take to be our modern lives is often a sought distraction from communion with the One we should be letting shape us. We squirm at quiet. We get uneasy emptying ourselves of the world and letting God take its place.

I did not go off seeking this degree of isolation - though two days on obscure alpine lakeshores off trail in the high country made it far more likely. Last time I backpacked in this area, it was sparsely traveled, not totally deserted. When I finally did encounter someone on the trail, I was not at all surprised to learn that she too had lost a brother some years ago. Of course. Who else would God send to welcome me back? (My trip was a pilgrimmage of sorts - climbing a peak my brother and I had climbed together over a quarter-century ago as teens.)

When I arrived in Manhattan Friday night, it was startling how centered the experience allowed me to be - as if I were watching a movie rather than participating in or being affected by the sturm and drang that is that city. In the world but not of it...

Thanks for sticking with me.