Thursday, September 20, 2012

On Wildness, or, The Alpinist's Departure

19 September 1899

My dearest colleagues,

As you are well aware, the ecclesial powers that be have found it pleasing to the Spirit to remove me from my beloved mountain paradise of Colorado, and have called me to create a mission of sorts in the city of my childhood, Rochester, New York.  I wonder: shall you even be allowed to call me “Alpinist” anymore?  But “Canal-ist” resonates more with the burgeoning field of dentistry than of adventure, so for now, Alpinist I shall remain, if only in spirit.  Though, if none of us are who we are in the Spirit, who are we really at all?

Before departing, I had occasion for a final saunter in the mining valley near Eldora, a place rich with the enchantment of the proximity of God’s wildness.  And the thought of wildness recalled to mind that most pleasing essay of Henry David Thoreau, Walking, and his comments on the subject.  Specifically, he writes:

The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is that in the Wildness is the preservation of the World.  Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild.  The cities import it at any cost.  From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind.

Now I should like to think that I have hitherto sailed past the Siren song of romantic idealism - or, at the very least, bound myself firmly to the mast of the actual, so as to have the mundane infused with the music of its divine dimensions, without crashing upon the crags of idolatrous imagination.  And yet, as I descended the mountains that day, the first of many descents that carried me across the golden plains of Kansas in the early Autumn, pregnant with the harvest of wheat for the world, steam trains weaving through their stalks in the distance like the first black threads of the shroud of civilization slowly being woven in Blake’s dark satanic mills, I could not help but lament, even dread, the grayness of the horizons to which I embarked.

Perhaps too much Thoreau will have that effect.  Prior to the aforementioned remarks in the same essay, he notes that

Eastward I go only by force; but westward I go free. Thither no business leads me.  It is hard for me to believe that I shall find fair landscapes or sufficient wildness behind the eastern horizon...I must walk toward Oregon, and not toward Europe...We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure...every sunset which I witness inspires me with the desire to go to a West as distant and fair as that into which the sun goes down... 

Now, as my friends you shall undoubtedly wish to preserve me against such pessimistic thinking.  The East, you may say, is your home.  There is work for the Gospel in all places, not just the distant orient or upon the brazen frontiers.  Our companion, Mr. Frederick Douglass, that great lion among men who until recently was a fellow resident of the neighborhood to which I am being summoned, is a clear example that boldness and courage have neither ceased in the bosom of factory and industry, nor have they become any less necessary with the so-called advent of progress and rights.  There is some anticipation in journeying to the land of Susan B. Anthony and the suffragettes, to the state where, not half a decade ago, the Lutherans organized a synod in the spirit of Franke that was prescient enough to deem sympathy with slavery to be antithetical to the Gospel, and to membership in the community of the Lord’s table.

It is not into living bodies that the Spirit must be breathed, but into the dry bones of a people whose amnesia has been their demise.  If the Spirit of freedom was found so easily by Thoreau and his followers in the western lands, perhaps it was not because it is there more abundant, but rather, because it was more easily discovered.  And this is no crime.  

But I think this is what I fear most: that, descending back into history, culture, as if walking backwards into a time we mistakenly think is any more backwards than our own, I must also descend into the living memories of a time in my own journey when the Spirit was more easily ignored.  Traveling westward, into the sunset, our shadows are cast behind us; travelling eastward, towards the night, our shadows loom large and ominous before us, and we cannot remain ignorant of their existence.  But then, we also travel towards the newness of the sunrise that waits on the far shore of the shadowlands.  Better to face them, if only to know the omnipresence of the Light. 

Perhaps this is why I have foregone the convenience and adventure of traveling eastward by airship.  It is not a time of easy ascents.  Freedom and life must be hard won, the coolness of the mountain air not forgotten, but also not grasped, as if it were the very cloak of the risen Christ pulled over the scars that remain to insult our ideals of perfection.  There is a time to be taken to the heights - but perhaps my time as Alpinist was merely the grip of God’s Spirit, as with Ezekiel, flown through the phantasmagoria of the air, only to be deposited by the banks of the rivers of Babylon in exile.  

But perhaps all is not lost.  I have telegraphed you the invitation to my upcoming ordination, and you will notice that they feature a most curious woodcut.  I obtained it in a past journey to the Celtic lands of the British Empire, and there discovered that, for centuries, it has been a beloved image of the Holy Spirit.  It is, of course, the Wild Goose.  The Celtic Christians took seriously Christ’s claim that the Spirit blows where it will, that its wildness could neither be predicted nor contained.  

I have chosen it as my banner for my return, for while Thoreau claims we must journey ever outward to swim in the waves of the wildness of the world, I do believe, despite the dejection and desolation of my soul, that if what we believe is true, than there is a certain sense in which God is calling me, by the Wildness, to bring the Wildness along with me, and, if faithfulness has anything to do with it, to see it break the bounds of my own fear and melancholy to be unleashed upon places where dry bones long to dance again.  That is my prayer and my hope.  It is what keeps me going - it is that upon which I depend.  

And so, friends, will I remain “Alpinist?”  I cannot say; but I know I do not leave the wild behind.  I belong to the Wild.  And so will always be Alpinist, as long as I belong to Christ.  To return once more to Thoreau, life consists with wildness.  The most free is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, it refreshes him.  Pray for me, brothers, that I too will be refreshed by that which I cannot subdue.  Mountains are as nothing next to mission.   

Grace and peace,

The Alpinist 

No comments:

Post a Comment