Saturday, March 18, 2006
Along the borders of the mountain ranges of North America, where unmanageable fortifications and regal satellites of rock surrender to lower plains, lies a series of lesser ridges. They are known as the ‘outer range’, and winding through these barren lowlands is what the Native Indians call “The Trail” – the pilgrimage to go beyond the here and now, and on toward the colonies of heaven. To many indigenous cultures ‘the trail’ is widely regarded as the most precious gift we humans have, and during the autumn of 1994 I remember sitting in the bar of a small town due south of the Adirondack Mountains with an old Indian. That night he told me the story of the ‘coal holders’.
As the seasons changed, when winter would eventually arrive, the tribe would have to move camp. Each tribe would designate coal carriers, and as the fire burned low, when the time came to move on, someone would have to carry the last hot coal to start the next fire at the new campsite. The old man explained that the community needed this fire to cook with, to sleep near, but most importantly this fire was the place of communication. It was the sacred place of storytelling, of dance and song. In short it was the heart of community.
For many a weary pilgrim today it may feel as though the fire has gone out completely. For those spiritual refugees who have connected to something they know to be true but no longer know where to go to explore and develop that connection our current spiritual climate may seem very cold indeed.
Could it be that faith in God (however God is perceived and understood) is not a rational, responsible decision, but rather a blind daring leap of trust into the unknown? Henri Nouwen spoke often about the need for restlessness and loneliness so as to mould and shape us into the kind of pilgrims it is possible to become. This is not a new phenomenon, for Centuries men and women have found their spiritual calling not in familiar comfortable religious institutions, but on the geographic peripheries - the edge of the abyss. Maybe we all need to lean in – and engage the divine from within the uncomfortable, the wilderness, that place where we are shaped and moulded by God into the coal carriers of today