WHY WILDERNESS REMINDS ME I’M A PERSON
I stood atop Sentinel Dome, perched high above Yosemite Valley. It was one of many rounded globes of granite in the High Sierras, and likely the one most easily accessible by car. The sun was poised to set, hovering low in the west and bathing the blue-grey stone and evergreen pines in a warm, golden glow. My legs were singing from the hustle up the trail, and my heart was soaring. I wasn’t alone on the dome, not by a long shot. Small clusters of European tourists - taking advantage of the autumnal American offseason - dotted the bald rock. But I might as well have been alone with Him. My inner solitude felt sacred. I didn’t ignore my neighbors, far from it. I offered encouragement to tourists more out of shape than I, got into conversations about accent origins, and traded summit shots (pictures in this case, not alcohol). I had a number of important choices to make as well. While it would be fun to scramble up this off-trail rock, it may not be prudent. I didn’t bring my headlamp. How long should I stay at the summit? That evening in Yosemite, I felt present as both soul and body, “in the moment,” alive.
That hike was over two and a half years ago, but I can’t help but see how it - and experiences like it - have radically informed what we do at Eden Invitation, and why. Our wordy tagline includes the phrase “original personhood.” If you’ve never seen it before, it’s probably because we made it up. But it makes sense to us. We live in a day and age where “what it means to be human” is under the microscope…literally. Science and society explores gene manipulation, artificial intelligence, a body-soul dualism that questions whether our chromosomes have anything to do with our internal perception. In the midst of those questions, my romantic desire for other women can seem a quite minute concern. Isn’t it, after all, a matter of reproductive organs and arousal patterns? Can’t our apologetics and catechetics simply make the philosophical arguments, offer a pastoral pat on the shoulder, and hope for the best?
I don't know about you, but I'm not about that reductionist life. When it comes to being fully alive as a same-sex attracted person, I can’t simply isolate and analyze the sex drive. I need to acknowledge and integrate all my human drives within God's grand design. God set up a particular way of “being a person” from the very beginning of our creation. Here’s a little bit about that in CCC 356-357:
“He [the human being] is ‘the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake,’ and he alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life…Being in the image of God the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, of self-possession, and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead.”
This “original” sense of what it means to be human encompasses all of who we are, including our sexuality and bodily reality. There are a lot of ways to grow in this, of course. But, for my fellow outdoorspersons, wilderness travel provides us a case study for integrated life and original personhood.
I long to be seen, known, and understood in the depths of my being, in my human admixture of glory and imperfection. It’s the longing to receive someone’s affection and desire. When we encounter this gaze in another human’s eyes, the experience can be deeply moving. But no matter how well or poorly my loved ones meet me here, God invites me to encounter Him first. There’s nothing like wild places to make you feel small. Yet I’m reminded not of insignificance, but of the grandiose love and mercy of our God. Here I stand, in a place where the created world does nothing but praise Him, committing no faults of their own. Yet God chooses frail, fallen me. He has willed me - little old me! - for my own sake. The mountain doesn’t share in God’s own life. The herd of elk, majestic though they are, can’t know, love, and serve God out of their own free will. There, before whatever wonder, He calls me to share in His divine life.
In an episode of Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee I watched on Netflix when I was really mentally fried, SNL star Kate McKinnon joked that, some days, she’d rather be “a brain in a jar.” While I could relate to the context of the joke - the struggle of putting together outfits day in and day out (ugh) - it’s content didn’t land. I long for incarnate experiences. While I’m grateful for technology, hours of emailing and scrolling can make you feel like a brain in a jar…or at least a brain mediated solely through optic nerves and fingertips. God invites my soul to embrace all of my bodiliness. I’m rarely more aware of my totality than when I’m outdoors. There’s a single-minded intentionality to pitching a tent, to preparing a campfire meal with no music but the nearby cicadas or the lone birdcall. I know myself in a new way through these simple experiences. I’m also capable of carrying myself through them. The blisters on my toes, the slight twinge in my right knee on a rocky downhill, the necessary roll of the shoulders after dropping a pack…these moments are me.
I long for reciprocal giving and receiving. The major heart tug is for this to play out most particularly with one consistent person, mutually and exclusively. Regardless of whether or not that’s in the Providential cards, God invites me to move through life in a way that complements others. This happens more readily in some relationships with others. It also happens in a really natural way outdoors. By night three of a backpacking trip, there’s an easy rhythm at camp. Without needing to speak it, one person pitches the tent while the other filters the water. One cooks, another cleans. If you all take active responsibility, there’s a seamless movement between each other’s gifts, skills, and preferences. We all give of ourselves and form a little microcosm of personal community. Conversations stretch and deepen through the miles. When the trees break for an unexpected vista, there’s the thrill of mutual discovery. And the whole adventure is so out of the ordinary, the stories linger in memory long past the post-trail burgers and beers.
The truth is, I long to make choices that matter, even though I fear both surrender and consequences. Choosing to betray or remain obedient to God’s revealed will for sexuality is a big deal. It’s such a big deal, that sometimes I forget the myriad of choices I face elsewhere. As my life responsibilities shift, which old obligations and relationships go and what do I do with the guilt of leaving them behind? How many weddings can I afford to attend, financially and emotionally? Can my personal dreams and a career plan coexist? Who do I really let in? God invites me to listen, discern, and make the best decisions I can with what I have. The choices outdoors…oh the choices! There are the trip preparations in the northern spring as the flies hatch. What wins out…Instagram-driven pride or surrendering to the mosquito net? So many choices have immediate, important consequences. What looks like a shortcut through the canyon leads to a drop-off. Do you attempt to precariously make your way down a cliffside game trail? Or cut your losses and hoof it back up the sand dune you just descended? And it’s midday. In the desert. Do you trust your balance or your thigh muscles and dwindling water supply? I can’t RSVP with the millennial “maybe” to this one! I need to commit and live with the cost of my choices. That’s what all of our choices lead to back to really, in the end. Are we in a covenant with our Creator or not? Dawdling may not be a “no,” but neither is it a robust response of faith and love, the one only you can offer.
How about you? Where do you come alive? Where does God meet you? What reminds you of whole of who you are, and offering all back to God?