Sunday, 30 January 2011

Losing the Light

I stand alone on a weathered outcrop of Quatsino Formation Limestone, hands in my pockets. The lake stretches before me.  The heat spike of midday generated wind, stirred up waves, filled ears with the buffeted rasp of rushing air - the smaller sounds were lost in the white noise. But now it is letting up. Silence is piling up between the grass blades. Waves slap out a quiet metronome against a limestone pillar off to my left and gurgle amid the eroded shapes at the base of the outcrop. The long shadows of the trees no longer move over the ferns and moss where I was sitting a few minutes ago and dusk is gathering inside the forest. There is a Gaussian blur at the edges of everything.

I hear my father's voice in the back of my head, "we are losing the light; we better get back to camp."  He retreated to camp towards the end.  Not a surrendering, just a practiced prudence. My mother too, gave up her hope in fairies for the surer offer of a guardian angel and Jesus.

As a boy I noticed the books dad read. His Saturday mornings at the kitchen table; coffee and a paperback. James Michener, Tom Harper, Farley Mowat, C.S. Lewis. His choices sometimes courageous. He faced ideas, arguments, squarely. He deliberated in the prickly discomfort of uncertainty. I remember him reading Kierkegaard, his eyes moving back and forth while I poached an egg.  A slim book, but hard. "You can read it," he said, "anyone can read it. Understanding it though…." And then years later he quoted from it. One line drawn out, memorized because it was worthy, a perfect expression of something my father understood. A small perfect reminder carefully sequestered in his mind:

"Only one deception is possible in the infinite sense, self-deception."

Richard Emerson Powell (Dad) Reading in his Retirement Years

He quoted Robert Burns, often. Liked, To A Mouse. Not the popular verse 7 with its "The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew, and leaves us nothing but grief and pain," but instead the first verse, in the original,

"Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty
Wi bickering brattle!

I wad be laith to rin an' chase thee,
Wi' murdering pattle."

In his younger days my father was a hunter. He taught me to shoot and cast a fly. But by the time I was middle aged he had given it up; first the deer, then the grouse, lastly the trout. In the end the burs of wilderness stuck only to his jacket. Inside was receding dust and ash from two orbiting planetoids:  refined tender awareness; and a stubborn satellite of fear.

Richard Emerson Powell (younger than I am now) shows a grouse to the Little Black Bandit From Ghost River Ranch on a hunting outing when I was a 15.

The Burns poem was cherished because the ploughman in the poem, Burns himself, felt great kinship with the mouse who had worked so hard to prepare for the winter only to have his house devastated by the passing plough. The ploughman realized that his life required him to plough, yet to see the small creature put out of his home was pity.

"I love that," my father would say, "the sound of it and the just of it." 

He loved it because it was almost a different language, yet even if brattle and pattle were unfamiliar words, there was enough comprehensible that the incomprehensible could be guessed. That, it seems, is how we get along, my father and I, comprehending what we can, and guessing at the rest.

I get up and make my way back towards camp, walk through a forest, deep moss spongy underfoot. I pause to listen to the ringing stillness under the cedars. I emerge onto the stretch of sand and walk close beside the water on the hard plank of smoothly washed sand. The gentle lapping of the waves as I idle along the beach, the low angle of the sun revealing deeper tones of amber and blue.

Night brings the cool awareness of how thin my clothing is, how long a bear's claws are, how squishy I am between my bones. The heat goes out of me, the darkness an insatiable absence, the inexorable force towards death. Only the sun is excessive enough to sustain us. When it is elsewhere, we all zip up, wait, shiver.

My father, his aging heart expanded, his fear of darkness crowding in, turned to religion. He had always turned to religion. He trusted it. And the religion he turned to was a vagabond companion.

My father's "tenderness" snuggled alongside of several other virtues he had selected and nourished over his lifetime. One of those was reverence, and his religion seemed confused on the subject. He still had the idea, despite his own rationalizing to the contrary, that a church was a unique place where you presented yourself before God, made your confession, and accepted absolution. Church as forest glade.

It bothered him that the new community, made mostly of a new generation, didn't wear formal clothing to church, a niggling problem with no solution.  How could they not see that it was disrespectful, that being off the hook didn't mean a licence to slovenliness? It also bothered him that those outside the church couldn't accept the gospel. Why, he puzzled, could people not just accept this gift, this forgiveness and life? He must not be communicating it correctly; the fault must lie with him. He would have to try harder. He talked and talked; his loved ones shying away from the intensity in his voice, horses unable to put hands over their big ears.  In the light of death, he wanted to shout, it was all so important; this one decision for Jesus.

Richard Emerson ties a fly to his fly-line as we walk between lakes in the Kootenay Mountains
The darkness sucks and sucks. And as I stand on the lake shore, feeling it suck the heat out of me, I think about my own decision for Jesus.  Year after year, inexorably, unrelentingly, the darkness had sucked my faith away.

Like my father I turned to the close warm comfort of that old story, I turned like my father, to that faithful friend religion. Looking for the place to nestle deeper, looking for the red checked wool coated chest of my Father Writ Large, fresh in from splitting wood, fresh in to hug me, reassure me it was all going to be ok.

I am the mouse turned out. The plough crashed through my house; I face the winter alone, without shelter from the icy facts of a dark cold universe. Others seem able to hold on, but I keep slipping off the over turned hull of Christianity. I am the weak one, the doubter. I will surly drown.

In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard argues that you can hang in a belt from the ceiling and make the motions of a swimmer, but throw yourself in the river and you find that the motions you made while hanging in the belt, no matter how practiced, don't make you a swimmer. He says that the same is true of faith; that going through the motions, or "wearing the jewel of faith," as he puts it, is not the same as living it.  From the outside the two can look the same, real faith and faith as an overcoat.

He then goes on to give one of the most satisfying portraits of the engaged individual I have read, a person interested in everything, celebrating everything, entering in wholly to everything from his evening meal, to the frosty walk to church,  to the singing of psalms with his neighbours. Moving through each moment aware of it, absorbed in it, revelling in it. A mind alive.

This to Kierkegaard was the spine, the place to hang a body on, and paradoxically, the place to let go of the body.  He says, "Carefree as a devil-may-care good-for-nothing, he hasn't a worry in the world, and yet he purchases every moment that he lives, 'redeeming the seasonable time' at the dearest price; not the least thing does he do except on the strength of the absurd. And yet, and yet - yes it could drive me to fury, out of envy if for no other reason - and yet this man has made and is at every moment making the movement of infinity."

The movement of infinity.

Kierkegaard says this soul has discovered that by practicing resignation infinitely he can achieve a tranquility that "drains deep sorrow out of existence." The key, I think, is loss. Resignation in the positive sense that Kierkegaard means it, is acceptance of loss. Yet once accomplished, this movement from hope to acceptance allows the individual to take each pleasure as a gift. When you face loss squarely and really look at it. Look and look and look and do not turn away. "Ok, I've seen it, I am less secure, robed, diminished." Then each kindness is a marvel, each green bud a miracle, each grain of salt a wonder.

Loss is a hinge for the door of gratitude to open on.

But Kierkegaard says this "knight of infinite resignation" doesn't have the highest bliss, though he does have "the bliss of infinity," and that highest bliss is reserved for the one who can leap into the absurd position of believing he will get it anyway.  He uses the example of a dancer who leaps and lands exactly on mark, and is able through practice to turn walking into a perpetual act of leaping. The absurd is any situation that defies rational explanation but never the less is. It is the religious experience of trusting that all will be well, even when there is no reason to believe this. Absurd is irrational, illogical, emotional, intuitional. And by launching oneself wilfully into this state, one achieves the highest bliss. According to Kierkegaard.

On Monday nights I travel with my friend Ian to a group that meets in a church. Recently we watched a DVD series called "Saving Jesus." One night, we faced the change that comes when we let Jesus be human. Fully human. Let fear stand up on it's hind legs and growl. Look and look and look at it. There is an antidote to fear, one of the speakers on the DVD hinted. It is trust. "Trust? Is that true?" I asked. Everyone thought about it. No one was in a hurry to agree or disagree. Someone suggested that it is love, not trust, which casts out fear. "I think that is a scripture verse," someone said.

Later I look up the verse. John 4:18. The context is judgement - fear of judgement. And love casts that fear out. I realize that judgement is not what I am the most afraid of; even though Rabi Kushner says that the fear of rejection is the most frightening thing of all.  No one wants to be cast into the outer darkness. Unliked. Unwanted.  Alone.

In theory the idea that we are loved by God, that our religion insures it, casts out the biggest fear there is. But all fear? If God loves you, can anything else matter? But bad things happen. We can not trust God to keep us safe, because we are beaten by the neighbourhood bully. We can not trust God to provide for us, we lose our job. We can not trust God to keep us safe from cancer, we get it anyway. We can not trust God to keep us from dying. Every single one of us does. There are bears in the forest.

So if trust is the antidote, and we can't trust God, what do we do? Religion isn't about belief, it is about who you belong to, says Rabi Kushner. It is not really about answers, certainty, or comfort. Real religion is just the reassurance that others know our name, that others will listen to our story, remember us when we are gone. Stand around our grave. Religion is human companionship. The opposite of being alone.

As the Quakers might say, "we trust that of Christ in everyone, in everything."

The river into Wolfe Lake where I found some wonderful volcanic rocks in red and green from, no doubt, nearby Mount Pinder
Perhaps that is why on this Sunday I spent the day studying the mountains and trees, opening my soul to deep green star embers and the difficult choice between wading in the creek looking for pretty stones, or doing the same at the lake edge. This is where I belong, this is my sanctuary. I meet God here.

I crawl into my tent, zip up the flap, pull the sleeping bag up around my ears. If a bear comes, I think to myself, I will not have anyone else to help me, I am in the outer darkness. I have arrived at an absurd moment. Yet really, I am not alone. The humans that lived before I was born impressed upon all the other species that we humans are dangerous, not food. If I can relax a bit it is because my aunts and uncles before me, for millions of years, have banded together against the darkness. I have their memory in the genes of bears, and I have bear spray and a tent. The community of humans is all around me, even when I am alone.

This thing I do, here in the dark, is a kind of swimming. I am not hanging in a belt, I am not thinking about sleeping in the wilderness, I am about to actually do it. I lay my head down and entrust my life to the long evolution of my species, and the parallel evolution of the bear. It is risky, but a calculated risk. I'm back at camp, the light is gone, and I leap into the absurdity of sleep.


  1. What a deep and insightful post.
    Ironically....many of these same thoughts have been plaguing me on a continual basis as of late.
    I was raised in the church...legalistic and rules. I wasn't allowed to walk in without a dress. If my sins were unaccounted for before I slept- hell fire was mine.

    Church to me is in the heart.
    Religion should be based on relationship and none other.
    My sanctuary is the outdoors. There I meet Him.

    Enjoyed this post- as well as your incredible photos.
    I am slowly climbing out of this religion-based abyss...and finding my own truth.
    Thank you for sharing yours. I truly needed to read this tonight.

  2. Thank you Dawn,

    I'm getting the sense that it is a familiar story for a fair number of people and appreciate you sharing your own experience.

    Peace and joy to you as you proceed on your spiritual path.


  3. Your words, Richard, are thoughtful and deeply moving. As a clergy person in a liberal tradition, I discovered a long time ago that the willingness to "live the questions" is perhaps the most liberating of spiritual practices - followed closely by being in the forests, by a lake, or on the ocean. The words from the Creed in our faith stream, bring me the most comfort of all: "We are not alone. We live in God's world."

    With that in mind, I have found that there is never a need for "answers".

    Oh, and my father's favourite Burns' poem was also "To a Mouse". When we lived in Banff, years ago, there was a very beautiful piece of art in the Banff Springs Hotel portraying that very scene in the field. I would love to know where it is now.

    Thank you, Richard. for touching something deep within with your reflection.

  4. Duncan, thank you for sharing that, and for your encouragement.

    I too have an image of a painting in my head of the Burns poem. I wonder if it is the same one! Interesting how luminous that poem is...

    Amen to living the questions!


  5. in the spring and fall a lake turns over and brings what is deep to the surface, sharing itself, thanks for sharing your turn over with your friends, both met and unmet, known and unknown, those of us touched by it are brought closer together, kindness in all things.

  6. This is outstanding. just brilliant stuff. I can relate to so much of it...thanks

  7. John, what a perfect metaphor.

    Scott, thanks.

  8. I think we have the same religion: Wilderness.
    Thank you for an inspiring post. Scott Schuldt forwarded this to me: and, as he says, brilliant stuff.

  9. Thanks Kathleen, I'm glad to hear it came across as inspiring. I wondered how people would take this post and it is encouraging to discover that it connected with people. Thank you for reading.


  10. I enjoy going to churchs once in a while and meet new ideas, music and people. One I was going to while working at a remote biological station, I told the pastor I was hoping for social interests as well. Over a three month period containing a few holidays I sat alone, out in my church along a lake, living in my tent.Coming back home it was summer and I returned to one I visited and was asked,"Isn't the fishing good today?"I smiled and got my kayak and went out to see if they were biting.Having been active as a youth, it is the tradition that stirs my interest to return. I have pasted together philosophies from many religions to facilitate strenghth in my own charcater.I often thank the land or subject I photograph and give hope for health and happiness for all I have met and love, finding solace and comfort when I am alone with nature.

  11. Out on the prairie,

    "finding solace and comfort when I am alone with nature." -- isn't that such a universal experience? I think there are a lot of us finding that solace these days, when so many other places have lost their balm.

    You might like my poem, the Healing Plane located here:


  12. that was great to read. Great blog! You got a new follower

  13. Very interesting shot thanks for sharing