Theologian Belden Lane begins his classic study, Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, with a personal story that makes a general point about his topic.
The general point is that sacred place, like the Four Corners region of the Southwest or Tahoma (Mount Rainier) in the Northwest, is not chosen, it chooses. We don’t make a particular place sacred; the sacred chooses to reveal itself when and where it wills.
Lane wrote of his many hikes, while a professor in St. Louis, along the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, describing a pattern. “Each time, on arriving at the river, I want to find God immediately -- I want direct access, I want power and preternatural wonder. I’ll listen to the sound of squirrels and birds, expecting God’s voice to echo in the rustle of every stirring leaf. I’ll stalk God, as it were, along the trails . . . I finally realize there’s going to be nothing there but trees and clouds and distant river after all. I find myself left with dead leaves and a thin line of geese flying over the western sky. Yet it is at this precise moment, where I give up looking for the burning bush, that my retreat usually begins.”
The sacred, the holy elude our attempts at capture, our plans to bag and to mount. Only when Lane has given up the fevered search will the holy be found.
On one such trip, Lane trailed homeward at day’s end, “having come once again to abandon hope of finding Yahweh in every leaf and bush.” With the sun heavy and red in the trees, a side-path beckoned. Taking it, he noticed, beyond a fallen tree, a small, leaf-covered clearing, dimly lit and inviting. “I had been driven all day in a fevered search for wonder. This place, however, invited one’s acceptance of it for its own sake alone.”
“I don’t know how long I waited, getting used to the untroubled sounds of the trees and distant birds, the occasional movement of chipmunks in the leaves. But suddenly I heard something in the brush to my right. The sound was different from the others, heavier. I knew it was made by something more conscious than the smaller creatures around. I felt not only its weight but also its consciousness — its frightening likeness to myself. A person, I thought, or a dog. Then I saw it. For some time I thought it was a large dog, or some animal I couldn’t name. It was a deer, a young doe, I think.
“Staying perfectly still, I breathed as lightly as possible, my warm breath nevertheless smoking around my face in the cold air. Gradually, the deer made its way right into the clearing where I had been waiting. In fact, she reached the very point where I had first been looking to meet something long moments before, when suddenly she saw me. She stopped fast, stamping her right front hoof, moving her head up and down, then from side to side, studying me intently. She wagged her white tail fiercely and seemed to gaze through me with those large, dark eyes. For a moment she jumped back into the brush, but I waited, and soon she came back out, eyeing me carefully but walking on in the direction she had been heading. Down the slope to water, no doubt. I watched until she disappeared.
“A simple, utterly peaceful and mysterious meeting it had been. The uncanny thing was that I had been invited to the place. I had felt the deer (I felt some presence) in the clearing a good ten or fifteen minutes before she came . . . it was a gift, a strange conclusion to the whole day’s experience.”
A Christmas story? No, not in any obvious way. And yet, it seems one, or sort of one, to me.
So much of the time in this season, we too engage in a “fevered search for wonder.” We hunt for something, some magic or mystery. We search high and low, in theaters and stores, beside model trainsets chugging through plaster mountains and before holiday light extravaganzas that brightly hide the stars. The long lists of holiday shows, events and services beckon us on. But at least sometimes we return, as did Lane, at day’s end, or season’s end, with tired feet and bags, paradoxically, full and empty.
The holy, the sacred will not be caught. Like sacred landscapes, we do not choose them; they choose us.
I was once hiking the Wonderland Trail around Mount Rainier. In the early days of the hike, the mountain’s peak was socked-in, completely hidden by heavy fog and low cloud. Everything at snow level and above was veiled. Then one afternoon, the fog and cloud suddenly lifted. The mountain was so close and enormous it was difficult to believe that it could ever not be seen. It felt as if mountain had chosen to show itself, to reveal itself when it was good and ready. Stalk it all we want, it would not be caught. It would catch us; it would choose.
This means, among other things, that no religion controls the holy, none have captured it. It also means that control in most all its forms is mostly an illusion, albeit a popular one.
So, Christmas comes, at least often, when we’ve surrended our own fevered search for wonder, for magic. At least sometimes, it is when we have given up, that something is given. This is a spiritual axiom not limited to landscape. When we anxiously seek to save ourselves, we get lost; but when we lose ourselves, we are truly found.
Something like this is always the experience of a child’s birth. We plan and prepare, as we should, as we must. We wait and wonder. We grow impatient and irritable. There are false starts, trips to the hospital only to be sent home again, told it’s “not time yet.” Then suddenly and utterly it all changes, one era ends and a new one has begun. A call comes, a cry in the night, and a child is born, a complete and utter gift.
As with sacred landscape, so I think with Christmas, we do not choose it or appoint it, not really; it chooses us — sometimes in a child’s birth, sometimes in a stranger’s presence, and at other times in some breakdown in our carefully laid plans. Although December 25 is fixed on the calendar, we never know when the Spirit of Christ will be born in our midst. Perhaps the best we can do is to be open to the surprising intrusions of the sacred.
The holy which we cannot capture, the sacred which we do not control breaks in at a time appointed, only not by us. It stamps its right hoof, it wags its white tail fiercely and looks us in the eye, and then disappears. But it is enough.