In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood, where the true way was wholly lost. Dante begins his Divine Comedy with a sentiment for the ages, something with which we all can identify.
About fifteen years ago I got lost while hiking in Rocky Mountain National Park. It was a rare day for Colorado, cold and rainy. I was the only hiker on what they call an “unimproved trail,” a truly apropos phrase. Somehow I wandered off the trail onto an elk path and the elk were in no mood to tell me how to get home. I did what I had been taught to do. I backtracked until I found the trail.
I had a strong feeling if I kept hiking forward, following the elk path, I would run into the Emerald Lake Trail. My compass told me I was headed in the right direction, but the trail back was a sure thing. I took the sure thing. I was safe, but I did not get to Emerald Lake, one of the prettiest spots in the park.
When you are hiking alone and there are bears and mountain lions, it is probably a good idea to go back the way you came. After all, it is just a hike. Life, however, does not afford that option. We must go forward, even if going forward takes us down a faint, meandering elk path a very long way from home.
Like Moses and countless others who have set out on what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s Journey, this past year I left home. I would prefer to have departed with a detailed topo map, trails marked in red, instructions in the back for what you do when a mountain lion sees you on the lunch menu. Unfortunately, the kind of journey I am on does not include maps. I shouldn’t be surprised. When you leave home nobody gets a map, not even Jesus. A compass is all you get, and you don’t have a damn option in the world but to trust it, with its quivering needle pointed toward what you oh so desperately hope is magnetic north.
Your mind is not your compass. Your heart is. Women are pretty good at trusting their internal compass. Men tend to let their brains do the deciding and brains know little about matters of the heart. Leaving home, of course, is always a journey of the heart. Initially you reject the call, sometimes for decades. Once you do leave home, you inevitably come to the place where you regret having left on the convoluted journey in the first place. But you follow that quivering needle through the long road of trials, and maybe you get through to the other side. Mark Nepo quotes an old woodsman who said the reason people get lost is because they don’t travel far enough. They lose their confidence and turn around, never knowing they were almost out of the dark wood, almost home.
Jesus answered his last public question by telling his listeners to love God with all your heart, soul and mind. He might have put the heart first because he was just in a mood. Or not. Maybe he put the heart first because he knew good and well that only the heart has the fortitude to keep on traveling through the long dark night. Only the heart truly knows the way home, even if it’s never been there before. And only the heart knows that when you do get home, it’ll look like it’s been expecting you. The light on the porch will be on and there will be a steaming cup of Darjeeling by the easy chair. As you pass through the doorway, the liminal space between darkness and light, you will be greeted by a comforting hand on your weary shoulder—just like the one on the son’s shoulder in Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal.
I’ve been spending a lot of time lost on a very faint elk path. Sometimes I want to go any direction that will get me back to something I recognize. I will go back, forward, or even bushwhack through the woods if it’ll get me to something familiar. But of course that is the voice of reason, the voice of the privileged entitled life, the voice of the kind of control I knew most of my life. And it will not do. No, the only route home is through the wilderness, over the road of trials, trusting the integrity of the journey to bring me to a place I recognize as home.
It was 1943, a time when home was so elusive for so many. In that unsettling year in the middle of World War II, T. S. Eliot wrote these words:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half heard, in the stillness
Between the two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well
And all manner of things shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
—Little Gidding V, Four Quartets
Photo (Flickr CC) by Olga Filonenko