The five (make it six) texts

"Spirit" has been here

“Spirit” has been here

While I was on the trail, I read a book that a friend had given me before I left,  “Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice ” by Belden C. Lane (Oxford University Press, 2015).

Wait.  I did NOT carry the hardback, weighty item in my backpack.  I did, however, keep it in my car.  When my hiking partner and I had a zero day in town doing laundry or when we were occasionally hiking the trail on shorter day hikes while based in a hostel or campground, I would carve out 20 minutes here and there, grab the book from the car and quickly become engrossed in what I read.  Page after page I discovered the author to be an articulate, intelligent pilgrim who could explain to me why backpacking in the wilderness was a spiritual practice.  I knew this on an intuitive level or I would never have attempted to backpack through Virginia with regular pauses along the way to read the Psalms.  But I certainly had a difficult time explaining to others why I was doing this, why this was a worthy sabbatical for a pastor, why it was not just an adventurous vacation.  While my son had offered tons of advice on things I should know and carry as a backpacker,  Beldon Lane was able to write about how it was that backpacking out in the wilderness with the company of a small book by a saint, a devotional classic, or even poetry could be a serious spiritual practice that opens our hearts to listen in new ways.

When I first started reading the book,  I had already begun hiking the trail.  The trail wound through national and state forests.  In fact, some of the Virginia AT traversed what is technically designated by law as wilderness areas:  The Priest Wilderness, Mountain Lake Wilderness, and Beartown Wilderness to name three.  I had to travel light and make do with little—which Lane named as a spiritual discipline of its own. I was carrying with me a tiny, fine-print Book of Psalms.  What a delightful surprise to find in Belden Lane’s book a mentor who valued the combination of wilderness hiking and reading and who, by sharing many of his own experiences, could help me pay attention to what and how I as a pilgrim with a book in the wild would learn.

One unique guidance that I received from the author was how the wilderness backpacker on a spiritual journey reads on five different levels.  It is sort of like an expanded lectio divina or “holy reading” (see a definition of lectio divina here ) with five different texts according to Lane.

The first text is the wilderness itself.  I must pay attention and read the time progression of the day and the subtle changes in weathers that may indicate taking precautions, such as an approaching thunderstorm or time to set up camp.  I give my utmost attention to the trail itself and to where I place my feet on rocks, over roots, on slick mud, down slippery slopes, through tall grass hiding things like snakes and poison ivy.  I attentively notice my surroundings—trees, wildlife, colors, smells.  The wilderness creation is a rich text that the pilgrim reads out of necessity and wonder.

The second text is the wilderness of one’s own interior soul that the backpacking pilgrim brings with him or her.  One does not only carry the pack on one’s back, but also the burdens of the heart, the questions that trouble and the longing that lies deep within and which has drawn one out to risk the wild in the first place.

The third text is the “saint” whose words one is reading.  For me it was the psalmists.  Some of their words are praises, some are telling a story, some lamenting, some desperately crying for help, some teaching, some begging forgiveness.  They are all texts of human voices turned to God in some way.

The fourth text is the little book itself I was holding in my hand, its pages and print, that I returned into a sandwich bag and stuffed into my pocket.  It is the book that collected smudges and squished insects, that received the notes I made in the margins— scribbled glimpses into how a psalm prayer connected with my situation on a particular day.

The fifth and final text, according to Belden Lane, is “the reading of God’s wild splendor in between the lines of all these other ‘texts.'” I understood this reading to be listening for connections that God was making, noticing the ways that God was quietly, or maybe even wildly, speaking through the wilderness, the saints-psalmists, my own searching soul, and the little book in my hand.  This fifth text is what demanded the most attentive listening, but which has also been totally dependent on God’s grace and timing. I walked for days, even weeks, before beginning to understand what God had brought me out into the wilderness to say to me.  And I am still listening and learning this text, long after I have returned home.

I could add a sixth text to read which is unique to following a long trail with other pilgrims.  That text is the writings and signs of other hikers we might read along the way in the shelter logs.  But perhaps the most unique, as shown in the photo above, were little designs made out of nature’s bounty and left on mile markers and stones by a hiker named “Spirit” whose path we followed for a day or two.  The one above was next to a long awaited spring of water on a very hot, dry day.  We celebrated both reaching water and having met “Spirit.”