What does this mean?
"A sky empty of angels becomes open to the intervention of the astronomer and, eventually, of the astronaut."
When religion forfeits its place in society, the sky literally opens up to anyone's interpretation of it. Nowadays we like to call this forfeiture "secularization." It is, "the temporal, over and against the eternal."
Sociologists suggest Protestantism led the way with its over-emphasis on "Sovereign Grace" and it's dismissal of the mysteriousness of religion. Faith became a personal thing, and the supernatural canopy which hung over the world for centuries went vacant--the angels evicted, replaced by the autonomous self.
Secularization persists. You need only watch a GOP debate to see the autonomous self alive and well. The advanced world gasps for significance while drowning beneath an ocean of self-pleasing rhetoric and propaganda: iPhone-idols (consumption), violent myths (modern television/film), and story-brokers—"What's your story?" Ever respond to someone who asks if you went to church by saying, "I am the church"? Well, you're not. We, are. The priesthood of all believers might be a good thing, but today it has subjective autonomy written all over it.
Is their no cure for the "me" infected by "me"?
Getting Out of Myself
The air cooled, and glacial clouds descended. Two hours passed, only two more to the summit. I could still see the Þórsmörk (pronounced “Thorsmork”) hut in the valley behind me, but barely. My legs burned. My thirty-pound pack held on to my waist and shoulders like a gnome trying to pull me down. Sweat soaked my base layer and steamed around my neck. My body, hammered, and we'd only just begun.
I traversed the scraggly forest of Þórsmörk last evening with my friend, Jesse. Now, we ascended the most difficult section of the trail. Before we left we asked the hut warden if he thought we could do the whole 15.5 miles in one day. His look said, "You Americans won't make it." Then, he nodded, and diplomatically said, "Probably."
Typically, hikers traverse from Skogar to Þórsmörk; a gradual climb. We reversed it. Straight up, and over the glaciers. We seized the warden's encouragement. Jesse, a Marine veteran, set a break neck pace. (Semper Fi!)
Two ravens swooped as we climbed over a craggy switchback to a small look out. One rested on the volcanic rock outcropping just ahead. The other circled. Was Óðinn nearby? Had Munin and Hugin, his knowledge-gathering ravens, dropped in to observe and report back to the Norse All Father?
I stopped to rest and survey the view.
Above me loomed Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, two glaciers atop a volcano. Behind me the lush Þórsmörk valley cut through the highland range like a Viking longship through deep river waters. The few remaining September wildflowers popped purples and whites along the path that ascended 3,000 feet from sea level.
The clouds fell quick. We reached the high plateau, then traversed to the narrow pass that connected to the peak. We raced the clouds, trying to reach the summit before they veiled our view. But the clouds stopped at the plateau. We turned again to look.
We stood above the clouds. Further up, and to the south, blue sky broke through the scattering clouds. Behind me, the valley fell asleep under the billow blanket.
Nothing, but moving air. I walked above clouds, and breathed in heaven.
We marched over the Fimmvörðuháls mountain ridge, through the wind and swirling mist, then descended into Skógar. We followed the glacial river toward the coast. The river cut and dove and crashed its way through the Icelandic peat and rock. Multi-tiered waterfalls greeted us at every turn. The low mists lifted, exposing the naked landscape and the tumbling white water navigated by an undulating path. Moss electrified the volcanic earth as far as I could see.
Describing Iceland is like chasing the Northern lights. You can run further into them, but never exhaust their glory. You want to relay its form, but fail to describe its quality.
I walked as though drunk; tripping down the path in disbelief; my loud life juxtaposed by the liquid glacier pounding in fury down its ancient path. Perspective is gained in such ways. I saw the me I wanted to cure.
The Context beyond myself
The key to curing the autonomous self lies in our ability to realize and respond to supernatural contexts.
Landscape presents us with various dynamic contexts. The word "context" comes from the Latin contexere, meaning "to weave." We usually interpret "context" as static; a thing, rather than an action. But in reality, context is a "setting of dynamic relationships."
Think about the weaving of landscape. How various elements mix into one context. The sky provides context for clouds. "A river, flowing, is context for water, sand, fish, and fisherman." There is a beautiful interplay.
One scholar says, "Through context, materials acquire meaning." A stone lying on the ground is heavy. Piled, stones gain religious meaning in the form of an altar. Context. Notice the human element here. Individuals and cultures provide context and meaning for landscape, too.
When I descended into Skogar, I provided the waterfalls with context and meaning. I inserted myself into the landscape; the trail, the river, the waterfalls. Our interaction became a dynamic relationship. It is dynamic because of the active weaving of natural and human elements.
But what about the supernatural element? What about that sense of fullness we experience yet fail to express in our description? I want to tell you how the vision of the waterfalls made me feel. It's not enough that I saw them.
What is it about the living-ness of landscape contexts that works on us so? For centuries luminary thinkers, like Augustine, Coleridge, and Ruskin, viewed the landscape as a text to be read—an active expression of God toward man. Landscape, then, can act as a portal for transposition: the Infinite pushing through and into the finite.
Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte describes beauty as an event. He says beauty "happens when the Whole (God) offers itself in the fragment, and when this self-giving transcends infinite distance." The event of the Infinite (God) showing up within the finite is what makes us feel overwhelmed in the midst of natural beauty, like the Icelandic landscape.
God is the supreme analogate (analog). His very essence makes Him uncontainable except through analogs, like a raging river, a waterfall, a sunset. So, when we stand agape in front of or amidst natural elements, we're confronted with more than just form and the context it produces. Splendor pours. We are, in essence, receiving a glimpse of the Eternal. We label this event, beauty.
Splendor irrupts through form and a new aspect of context emerges, it is mysterium tremendum, or mystery: there is me, the landscape (form) and the splendor reaching towards me, making me feel.
And it's relational. Why else would we feel the need to respond? Static form means nothing. But a moving extravagance, approaching at the speed of beauty, causes our very spirit to tremble.
When I butt-up-against the dynamic context of form and splendor, something happens to me as a human being. I gain perspective and enlarge my human capacity for understanding.
In The Four Loves C.S. Lewis writes, " “The only imperative that nature utters is, ‘Look. Listen. Attend.’” How do we attend the beautiful?
When we attend we stretch our minds towards something. Some people think mere contemplation of an object or concept is a waste of time. Give me five steps to, whatever. I don't want to naval gaze.
But Lewis is not asking us to do nothing. Each word is an exhortation toward movement. The act of observing, the act of listening, the act of stretching our minds toward something beyond ourselves. As I walked down the path toward Skogar, what was I really doing, besides walking? I would say I had entered the active process of personal expansion.
I observed the context of the landscape.
I listened to the sounds of the glacial waters cutting through the highlands.
I stretched my mind towards the significance of the moment.
Active moments, in dialogue.
Last week scientists discovered gravitational waves emitting from dual black holes orbiting one another; a monumental achievement predicted by Albert Einstein 100 years ago. The discovery will radically impact science as we know it. Lawrence Krauss, in the New York Times, noted how most people quickly dismiss findings such as this. Why? Because it doesn't "produce faster cars or better toasters." And yet, the same people do not demand as much from a work by William Turner or Bach. Krauss's point is well received.
A pragmatic application is not a requirement for grand achievements in the sciences and humanities. Feats of wonder such as these expand our ability to make sense of the world. They contribute to the building blocks of perspective. They incite the needed wonder upon which meaning and purpose are built.
As I attended the landscape, I considered how the activities of my life rammed against the event of beauty. How seldom I listened for the Whole (God) invading the fragment of my life (being).
My hike in the highlands of Iceland expanded me as a person. I didn't just leave the beauty of its landscape behind, content to trap it in my Instagram account. I carried it with me through the activity of attending.
The attentive mind, and heart, allows new capacities to build within us. Like water and sunlight to a seedling, it grows us toward full blossom.
John Ruskin wrote, "Anything which elevates the mind is sublime, and elevation of mind is produced by the contemplation of greatness of any kind; but chiefly, of course, by the greatness of the noblest things."
It is only when we do the work of contemplation, upon something greater than ourselves, like the beauty of Icelandic waterfalls, that we discover a more nuanced, complex, and wonderful significance. Spiritual devotion and acts of piety do not grow from autonomy. They bloom from the fertile soil of self-sacrifice. The remedy for secularization comes from such a garden; a garden of dialogue, of dynamic context, with recognition and response to the Divine.
Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.