Durango is a nice enough town. I suspect it’s favored by those who live there. After all, for them it is home. But I can’t imagine choosing to live there – not after living in Cortez. And maybe not for the reasons that jump to your mind.
Since moving here almost five years ago I have been captured by the expanse east of Cortez and the peaks of the La Platas to which that expanse rises. I’ve become mesmerized by the Sleeping Ute to the west and the emptiness that precedes it then flows toward a hint of the Lukachukais to the Southwest. I have grown to love the wildness of the little canyon behind my house that connects with McElmo Canyon beyond which lies the Mesa Verde escarpment. I have come to need the wideness of the sky that extends from horizon to horizon and seems to be so thin (or so deep) that if I just relaxed enough I might be able to see the stars that the sun’s light hides during the day.
I wouldn’t want to live in Durango because it feels too hemmed in. Some of you understand that. Along with me you hunger for those open spaces – the desert, – those places that are raw and sparse and filled with silence. You and I are among those who, through the centuries, have gone apart to immerse ourselves in a world we cannot control, a world that forces us to take our proper place in the cosmos and our proper place in relationship to that which created the cosmos.
It would be my guess that among all of us, you who are not Christian probably have little idea about the unbroken thread within Christianity that, as Christians, we share with you other seekers of wild places. You may be surprised to learn that there is a whole way of “doing” Christian theology that relates to the Great Mystery at the heart of life that frequently finds its best expression in those wild places of which you are so fond. It is called the apophatic tradition.
Like you, I suspect most Christians today have not heard of this tradition, much less been formed by it. The majority of us have been formed by a theology based on a literal reading of the scriptures. Although in a minority, an increasing number of us are being formed by the kataphatic tradition. This is an affirmative theology that has taught us to use images and metaphor to speak about the Mystery that we call God.
Fewer of us still have been formed in this apophatic tradition, a theology of negation, that is so at home in the wilderness. This is a tradition that assumes God, in God’s essence, is beyond our capacity to name, picture, or much less understand. If we hunger for the divine we must open ourselves to an experience of the love or the energy or the consciousness for which the word “God” is a cipher. Words and images might be of help as we move to the edge of ineffable silence in which God dwells, but then, for us to step into the presence of the Un-nameable, we must relinquish all words and images (the apophatic approach). That’s where wild places come into play.
You and I can create environments that seek to mimic the qualities of mountain peaks or desert emptiness – meditation corners, prayer rooms, sanctuaries of all sorts. They may be a start, but they never fully arrive at what nature offers. Besides, when we go about the business of creating such a place we do it with an expectation that it will help us approach the divine – that it will serve our purposes. Like it or not, we are seeking to be in control. This is not the “losing your life” of which Jesus spoke.
Wild places, however, require us to enter on their own terms. There we are not in control. What’s more, wilderness doesn’t care about us. Not one whit. It is not there for our spiritual development. It simply is. Mountains. Deserts. Raging rivers – all places dangerous and threatening. In their presence our words evaporate - absorbed into their vastness – swallowed up by their emptiness. Our images pale and are revealed for the idols they are. Both words and images lose their power as agents of possession and control. And we are left vulnerable and impotent.
This then is where we might at last be open to the God who cannot be named. How different from the Christianity of which most of us are a part. Belden C. Lane in “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes” writes, “One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable.” (p.53) I wonder who we Christians might be if we spent more time, not in our beautiful churches or in nice, safe retreats or even in the company of “our buddy Jesus,” but instead in places where we really could lose our lives.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.