Chapter 10- Beyond Words

This is the continuation from my journal on sabbatical walking from D.C. to Pittsburgh to memorize the gospel of John.  It is April 25, 2008….

Today starts in a different way.  I usually begin the day’s hike with my home-made prayer book open and work my way through it as I walk.  But today either a whim or laziness overtakes me.  I leave my prayer book in the backpack, and, instead, say my walking prayer (see sidebar) by heart.   I don’t pray through the list of names, but simply picture in my mind the people for whom I try to pray daily.  Finally, I say what I can remember of Hildegard of Bingen’s prayer about being awakened from an ancient sleep.

Holy Spirit, giving life to all life,
moving all creatures, washing them clean,
wiping out their mistakes, healing their wounds,
you are our true life, luminous, wonderful,
awakening the heart from its ancient sleep.
                                           – Hildegard of Bingen 

Then, that is exactly what happens!  As if I am waking up from an ancient sleep to notice something new, the trail leads into a row of trees that arch overhead like branching vaults of a gothic cathedral.  The light is cool and filtered, and the air seems to be inaudibly humming with living presence.  For a few moments I step slowly through this holy space.  Although my ears hear nothing tangible, I understand with a strange certainty that I am being called to rest from memorizing more words today and simply be attentive to what’s around me.  Just listen. Observe. Breathe.
It is an enticing invitation, but it is hard for me at first to trust that God is the source of such direction.  After all, my learning the next chapter of John is on a tight schedule if I am to finish.  Inevitably, I begin to wonder if  this seemingly holy invitation is not my over-active imagination or the protests of my lazy brain longing for a day off.  Then I remember how I just prayed with Hildegard for God to awaken our hearts from their “ancient sleep.”   Isn’t that what’s happening?  Why am I surprised?  Don’t I, after all, expect God to answer prayer?  So what if God’s answer is a little more dramatic this morning than usual.  This invitation is too welcoming to ignore.

So I succumb to no memorizing today.  No working on words. I’ll keep walking, God, with eyes and ears open; but you lead.  I leave the vaulted trees behind feeling a bit like a child turned loose from chores to play outside with only a  light-hearted, eagerness for looking, listening, touching, smelling. And I do pay attention because the spring morning is stunning as if the Creator has set it on display for the delight of anyone who will notice.  I start by breathing in smells: new weeds, warmed and sprouting from the moist soil;  the fishy scent of the river filtering through gills and sweeping underneath  snail shells; the green sap of  cowslips crushed between my fingers; the waft of baking riverbank clay drying in the sun; the stench of a little creature’s body decaying under the brush.  The sunlight, the noises, the colors.  The morning passes quickly.

Later, when my dog Chester and I stop to sit on the stone wall of a canal lock, we choose a shady corner underneath a maple tree.  The grass slopes down into the dry, abandoned canal bed that is covered with rocks and leaves. I pull out water to drink, but also drink in the moments of stillness.  No rhythm of my trudging feet on dirt. No jangle of dog tags on leash.  Just the stray sounds of insects and a few birds.

Suddenly a new sound emerges beside me: a soft growl wells up from a deep place within Chester.  With each breath, it grows slightly louder.  He stares at a pile of rocks.  I too watch the vicinity where his eyes are penetrating but can detect nothing.  His growling persists, growing more intense.  If it were a chipmunk or any other animal worth chasing, he would bark and wag his tail and beg to be let loose, but now he stands rigid with belly rumbling.  I have never seen him act this way.  Could it be that a snake is harbored in the cluster of stones below us?  Or perhaps it is Chester’s turn to have an over-active imagination.  Either way, I decide, it won’t hurt for me to listen to the wordless warning of my guardian.  Here I am, again, having to listen beyond words.

We move on, and, since I am supposed to be resting from words, I consider the One beyond words: I AM WHO I AM,  I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE, the timeless name of God that Jewish friends won’t pronounce out loud because it is so holy.  In Hebrew (YHWH) it is a name made up of uncertain vowels and breathy consonants, more like this early afternoon’s breeze running through the tall grass than a word.  In John’s gospel, Jesus hints at this name of God, saying the emphatic, “I AM” a number of times, which raised the eyebrows and ire of religious authorities.  I AM the gate.  I AM the vine.  I AM the bread.  I AM the good shepherd.  I AM the way. I AM the truth.  I AM the resurrection.  I AM the life. These names are magnificent attempts to put into words a description of the God who is the breathy I AM WHO I AM.  The scriptures, the most wonderful words that we have, are not the same as the I AM WHO I AM.  God is so much more than can ever be conveyed in words; yet convey in words we must—as truthfully, wisely and genuinely as we can.

Yet our efforts at words are like paper before the hurricane force of God’s being.  While we share the good news in human words, all the while that holy hurricane is gusting at our backs.  Preacher, I tell myself, consider this well when tomorrow you once more pick up the work of learning words by heart.
Consider well, I admonish, that your words fall flat without the Spirit.

This afternoon, though, I can stop and lean against this tree and simply watch the different patterns made by the breeze playing on the river. “What is the chief end of man?” asks the very old Westminster Catechism, a document of careful and particular human words.  It answers: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” That’s what I’m doing now.  Today my chief end is to be quiet and simply enjoy an awakening awareness of the great I AM growling deep underneath all the words, beyond words.
The beloved disciple tells us that Jesus said, “I AM he, the one who is speaking to you.” (John 4.26)
 This pilgrim paraphrases words of a better worded hymn:
        I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come unto me and rest.
        Lay down the words, oh, working one, be still and pause the quest.”
        I came to Jesus as I was to listen, look and kneel.
        I glimpsed in him the great I AM no words can quite reveal.