When I was in high school I lived in a town near Grand Teton National Park. On weekends I liked to ride my bike in a big loop from town to the north end of the Park and back again, peddling through sagebrush flats and into the lodge pole pine forest, along the shores of several gorgeous lakes and past countless exquisite mountain panoramas. In a canvas back pack I would carry a bottle of water, a sandwich and an apple, and around halfway along my route I’d pull my bike off the road and deep into the forest, out of sight of any passers by.
This was the highlight of my outing. Sitting with my back against a large rock or a tree stump, I would let the silence descend around me. If I was quiet for long enough, the wild creatures that populated the area – elk, rabbits, birds of all sorts, sometimes even a porcupine or a bear – would emerge. They wouldn’t be expecting a human being out in the middle of the woods, away from the trails and the campgrounds. And I did my best to be all eyes and ears, and very unobtrusive.
After awhile I’d have my lunch, pull my bike back onto the road, and head for home. The miles I covered or the vistas I viewed were never as meaningful to me as those moments of watching and listening in the midst of the trackless wilds.
This being off the beaten path is a good metaphor for spiritual freedom. In our hearts we must go off trail, into the forest, and sit down. Away from the mapped out route with all its markers there is no need to count up the miles already traveled or the ones ahead. With eyes and ears attuned to what is happening in the moment there is no room for notions of success or failure, prowess or inferiority. There is no ego embroiled in looking at itself and measuring achievements. There is only the exquisite view and the creatures that come out of hiding.
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he is absolutely livid about how the community to whom he is writing has been led astray. They had been experiencing the freedom of Christ, but now they have been enjoined to take upon themselves all the confines of the Law. Paul knows this course will not lead them to deeper spiritual understanding. Quite the opposite. It will draw them away from the Spirit and from grace into thinking about accomplishments.
Human doings – rituals and behaviors – are neither good nor bad. Their only value is if they lead to relationship with God in Christ. The only thing that really matters is that, the faith that manifests itself through love.
Being in Christ is like being in the trackless woods. It is a different understanding, one that is all eyes and ears in the present moment. It does not involve behaving properly but rather it is being open to love. Each instant of our lives is fraught with opportunity – to experience God and to experience one another.
For me a lot of doubts accompany my wandering off the beaten path spiritually. Am I doing what God would have me do, or am I going astray? Is my practice motivated by my desire to be in relationship with God, or is it just another smoke screen? Is what I am up to healthy or just lazy? How do I tell?
It helps to pay attention to Paul’s rant. “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . the only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Aha. There’s my litmus test: faith made effective through love.
Laurie Gudim is a writer and religious iconographer who lives in Fort Collins, CO. You can view some of her work at Everyday Mysteries.
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