I am sitting here in a warm, comfortable condo in Telluride, Colorado, watching the snow fall for the second day in a row. Out my window, I can see birch trees and clean white powder, chair lifts drifting upwards to freshly groomed mountain ski trails, and the sun as it begins to peak through the snow flakes in this destination resort that claims 300 + days of sunshine each year. In this week when the people of our nation turn their hearts and minds to the idea of thanksgiving, I am sitting here feeling the deepest of thanks as I embrace the beauty of nature all around me, a brief moment of piece in a world with so much strife.
It is a strange experience. I am not exactly known as a great outdoorswoman nor am I known for my love of snow or cold. And in truth, I find myself sitting here through the kind of random fate that results when you are looking for a new experience. But there is a peace and a beauty to this harsh climate that I have never experienced anywhere else in all my travels. It is a kind of quiet and beauty that forces you to be quiet yourself. Perhaps this place helps me experience what Belden C. Lane is talking about in his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (2007), when he says that:
…the experience of threatening wilderness invites us to the unexplored landscapes of an inner geography where that which is most deeply ‘us’ is joined to what we experience as radically Other. In hostile landscapes of desert, mountain, and thundering clouds we are brought forcibly to the boundaries of what we our minds and bodies are able to sustain (pg. 101).
As I continue to recover from the events of the last couple of years, I seem to desperately seek this kind of experience with nature, over and over again. There is so much that continues to change. This Thanksgiving week is so very different from that of last year and so much has passed that has been too difficult to share. But here, in this amazing experience of God’s creation, I think I will try.
You see, this fall, September 19 specifically, was the one year anniversary of my valve replacement surgery. That day we celebrated by facing extreme nature tool, not nature as dangerous as the desert or as challenging as the mountains that now surround me, but extreme by my standards — we marched up the trail at Sugarloaf Mountain as a kind of proof of life– there I was, physically healed, graduated from seminary and singing again, biking 8-10 miles a day, leaping tall buildings with a single bound (well, not really), just one year later. And on that day, I began to understand the true meaning of recovery. Before the surgery, I thought that the moment of great change in my life was the moment of diagnosis (and that is true), but now I know that everything really changes forever when you realize that you are alive, after the diagnosis, after the surgery, after the release from care, and after you start to connect fully with your incarnated self once again.Recovery is all about letting go so that you can live again.
No one tells you that the act of recovery is more an act of letting go than of getting back — you must experience that reality to understand it. No one can tell you all the ways you will change, all the ways that you will have no choice but to change. In my case, because I was so lucky, the biggest task was not the process of physical healing. The biggest task has been and continues to be developing a new understanding of just how to live my life here and now, in this new experience of what we call reality. I am so grateful, for the love and support that came my way along this journey, for the friendships that deepened and the new ones that were made. I am sad, too, for the relationships lost, for the ways of living that cannot stand up to this new reality — because much was lost during this year, much that can never be embraced or recovered again, much that I would not have chosen to lose.
For these last months since the flurry of activity that led up to my graduation from the Virginia Theological Seminary, I have concentrated on the work and discernment needed to let my mind and my spirit catch up to my body in the healing process. I’ve been doing something that I now know is called “sorting”…a common way of coping with trauma and its aftermath. And now that I recognize that process, I realize that I have done it at least once before — during the three years after my divorce, when I spent every moment (that I was not at my job) sitting in a darkened room, evaluating each and every thing in my life and each and every thing that I believed. I was busy at that time trying to find some hint of my own voice, and so the questions I asked went like this: is this (belief, thing, person) part of my intentional living or is it something imposed upon me; is this something that should be abandoned because it blocks me from my higher good. That is the kind of language I would have I used in those days.
And the questions for my recent sorting exercise? Lately, I have been asking: what blocks me from living into my call and what supports me in that way of living? Where is my sense of my calling thwarted and unsupported and where do I feel that is is cherished and welcome? Where has my sense of that call been so altered by my incarnational experience that I must release it and allow something new to enter into my living? My conclusion — life is far too short to continue to try and fit my square peg self into a round hole.
You see, one of the problems with a year like the last one and in particular with moments like I experienced in this last year and a half is this: if you are paying attention, if you are really living those precious moments instead of living the fear, you may experience something amazing — you may, for even the briefest moment, experience what I have come to call the wholeness of our being. And I did. The fleeting seconds between when I said goodbye to the ones I held most dear and when my conscious mind succumbed to the power of the sedatives that would protect me through the violence of surgery, I sat in the presence of God. For just a precious instant, I was whole and complete. I truly lived the intent of the Psalmist in Psalm 37:7, “Rest in the Lord, wait patiently for Him,” a line I have sung time and time again in the famous alto aria from Mendelssohn’s Elijah. It is one thing to sing the words; it is another to experience them.
Being human, however, the awareness of that beauty is only for an instant. And then, you wake up. You wake up to a world of tubes and nurses and luckily, not really caring about anything except that you woke up. And so begins the long journey toward healing. I was so lucky…in so many ways, my recovery was an easy one. I had one small setback, but a very small one. I had little pain. I had wonderful visitors to distract me. I had a loving and safe home in which to heal. As the physical healing progresses, however, the memory of that moment and that wholeness simultaneously grows and recedes…the day to day of life begins to take over once again but the shadow of the mystery remains, telling you each and every day that things can never again be as they were. I have only just begun to understand how I have been fundamentally changed by the experience — not just the surgery, but that brief moment in time, that connection to the ultimate mystery…
And so I find myself, once again, in the mountains, in search of an apophatic experience, that experience of God that comes in the moment of true emptiness, when there is nothing to touch but God –just like that moment when you place yourself in God’s hands manifested through those of your surgeon and his team. As Lane puts it so eloquently:
This I what all of the apophatic writers want to accomplish in their varying ways of employing the imagery of Sinai. They point the climber to a peak that demands abandoning all the intellectual baggage possible. The mountain’s ascent requires the letting go of every pride of mastery, every naïve confidence in what might once have been known. It is finally not stamina or expertise that drives the pilgrim up the mountain, but a profound, inexpressible desire for that which cannot be named (pg. 108).
We move on, up the mountain; but to move on, we must let go. The letting go in the moving on is painful, but very necessary. And, I am convinced that it is indeed what God wants here, that that is the true meaning of recovery. I believe this because I was allowed to experience the mystery of it all. The great gift and the great challenge of this time is not just that the outward things of my life have changed and continue to change, but that the difference comes from a deep understanding of life that is completely altered. Finally, I have some understanding of the words of that great letter writer, Paul, in his second letter to the Corinthians: “So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal (4:16-18).”