In the present life, all days
have their evening, and will be
followed by a seventh day of rest,
a day which knows no evening.
— Saint Bonaventure
A man must account for his time on earth, how he has or has not fulfilled his calling, achieved what was in him to achieve. Has he used the talents given him and increased them or, on the contrary, let them dissipate? The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson described the various phases of psychosocial development through which a person must pass successfully to attain integration of the personality upon entering the twilight years of old age. Has he been creative and generative, leaving behind a legacy of value to future generations? Has he passed on to others, especially younger generations, what was given him to pass on, transforming it in the process, or has he stagnated and accomplished little? If the latter, he will experience the despair of opportunities lost, time and effort ill-spent, talents and life wasted, with little time and strength for a new start.
As I approached 60 years of age, I was feeling some big-time weltschmerz — discouraged by a life unfulfilled spiritually, too many unachieved dreams. I had gone down too many unproductive paths and started over too many times, with few accomplishments of enduring value, had been too indecisive and unassertive to stride confidently toward a clear goal. Sure, I’d made a decent living in a responsible job, supported my family and helped raise children in a stable environment — even though family bonds sometimes flagged and frayed. I’d earned a doctorate and published a book, and was well-regarded by many colleagues. For most people, that might be accomplishment enough. Old friends had lived just such lives. They raised children and taught them the basic skills and lessons of life, made a living, hunted and fished with their friends, gave back to their communities and cared for their aging parents. They then retreated into pleasant-enough retirements.
So why was I feeling disheartened? The reason was clear: I had experienced a calling from God but had wasted too much time waiting for guidance and strength to carry that calling out. I could never quite figure it out or find a proper niche. Of course, I couldn’t rule out that my sense of calling was just a persistent delusion. Had my years of waiting and searching been a waste? Jean Paul Sartre refers to man as “a useless passion,” a being with infinite longing for fullness but a finite capacity to reach it. If one must only sputter and stumble along, unfulfilled, I wondered, why live? Is faith just a trust in — well, delusion?
Maybe, but it does no good to brood.
To get away from frustration and encroaching despondency, I spend a few days in a cabin in the woods. Not a vacation in the conventional sense of seeking stimulating entertainment or savoring an exotic place, but in the root meaning of the word: to empty oneself, to withdraw from the ordinary concerns of life and try to come to terms with the restless energy generated by an unfulfilled calling. Near my home in Indiana is a small state park covered with maple, beech, tulip poplar and oak trees; streams, bogs and a lake; hiking, biking and horse trails; prairie grasses, savanna and abundant wildlife (beaver, peregrine falcon, heron, raccoon, white-tailed deer and countless songbirds).
It is well into autumn when I arrive. The fields lie fallow, and the trees have long since lost the green of robust growth. A chill wind blows most days, and the lake is choppy. The water around the shore, though, is calm, sheltered from the wind by hardwood trees growing near the bank, and mirroring the sky and the autumn colors of the trees on the opposite shore. The park is mostly empty — school is in session and it is a work day. I hop on my bike and take off along the winding trails of the park, through woods and meadows. Accomplishments in this world may be fleeting or dashed, but contemplation of God’s glory is open to everyone at any time.
Some trees have lost their leaves; it is not one of those once-in-a-decade autumns when all the trees are radiant with color. But some are, especially the poplars and sugar maples that cluster in groves, here and there. In some spots the fallen leaves are so thick on the ground that the trail and bogs are hidden. I plow through the leaves on my bike, hoping I don’t veer off the trail into one of the many bogs. Countless crisp, dry leaves crackle underneath the tires as I pass: the fresh sounds of earth’s fruitfulness coming to its final stage, breaking down, decomposing into earth, so that the soil, in turn, can generate new life and growth. The rushing tires break some of the brittle leaves into bits, speeding up the process of decomposition. Their crackling sound is music.
I take occasional detours from the trail into woods and meadows. In one patch of trees a series of depressions, 10 to 12 feet wide and about 18 inches deep, pockmark a gradually sloping hill. I suspect the craters were created by uprooted and toppled trees from a storm — a tornado, maybe, or an early snowstorm with wet, heavy snow that clung to the leaves and branches until the weight of it toppled the trees. The root systems pulled the soil up as the trees fell, leaving cavities in the earth. Park rangers later removed the trees for firewood but didn’t bother to fill the holes. Nature will do that, over time. I dip into and rise from the craters, zig-zagging from one to another, skirting around rocks and downed branches.
Then I push farther on along the trail to see where it leads. The hills challenge my strength and endurance; my heart is taxed, no longer able to pump like that of a young man. I slow down a while, catching my breath. My back and knees begin to ache. I’m tempted to give up and go back, to relax in a chair beside the lake. But I push on past a threshold of hesitancy and finally find my stride. At times I feel dizzy with the quick alternation of light and shadow as I pass through the trees, moving intermittently from brief clearing to dense shadow as the forest eclipses the light. I pick up steam along a straightaway, then glide down a slope and round a bend to a small clearing in the forest. A cluster of sugar maples surrounds the clearing, and sunlight filters through their leaves, creating a golden glow. I linger in the refracted splendor of this hollow space. It is what the ancient Greeks might have called a temenos, a sacred space apart from the mundane. I’m glad to stop, to reflect awhile. It is one of a number of arrival points, a place to rest, a temporary destination, not the end of the trail.
Biking freely in the country produces as close an experience of pure freedom as one is likely to get, an experience not dissimilar to the contemplative experience of God. In religious contemplation, you still your thoughts, withdraw from the demands of daily routines and draw attention away from the busyness of life. If diligent, you experience a glow — what the kabbalists might call the outer edge of a flare from God’s radiance — that has been there all along, waiting for you to be still and receptive. That glow illumines the mind and warms the spirit. This contemplation is primarily a noetic experience, through which you forget the physical world and dwell, temporarily, in the house of Spirit.
Contemplative biking is different, but I end up in a similar place. Biking is physical. The body is not quieted but is wholly engaged. The brain sends signals to the muscles, urging them to liven up; the heart picks up its rhythm and speed, pumping blood and oxygen quickly through one’s entire being. After a time, my body’s systems are working in harmony; the cares of the world fade away; the bicycle and I are one unit, coursing over the land as the wind brushes by. I realize, at this moment, it is not a destination that is important but the journey toward it, attuned to mystery and beauty along the way. The vibrant beating of the heart, the taut muscles, the in- and exhalation of the lungs, my eyes beholding the glory of autumn light as I wind around the curves and up the hills, gliding down the slopes to the quiet, hollow places of the world. The destination lies somewhere ahead through the forest, drawing me onward, but I am not yet sure where; it exists only as an ever-receding glow, the promise of things hoped for and, yes, worth waiting for.
I think of this as contemplative play, a kind of poiesis. In Homo Ludens, Johan Huizinga refers to play as free and meaningful activity, carried out for its own sake, “spatially and temporally segregated from the requirements of practical life, and bound by a self-contained system of rules.” He likens play to poetry, which itself arises from “the playground of the mind,” a kind of sacred play. To understand poetry, says Huizinga, “we must be capable of donning the child’s soul like a magic cloak and of forsaking man’s wisdom for the child’s.” To become — not child ish — child like. Play transports us to the “eternal now,” woes left behind.
I’m with Huizinga most of the way, but I balk at acknowledging the swaying power of rules on this bike ride: I can stay on the trail or I can detour through the woods, and I do both; I can lay the bike down and run through the chest-high grass of the meadows, whooping it up with unearthly joy, which I do. I make breaststrokes with my outstretched arms to open the grasses before me. As I do so I remember a scene from Chariots of Fire in which Olympic sprinter Eric Liddell explains to his skeptical wife why he is obsessed with running and competing in “mere games.” Because, he says, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast. And when I run I feel His pleasure.” You don’t need a better reason to play than that. I can dwell on life’s discouragements, or I can feel God’s pleasure. As I dash through the meadows on foot, or swiftly round each curve of the trail by bike, I choose spiritual delight.
The experience of free play may differ from the monk’s contemplative experience of God, but it similarly places one in harmony with the world, in which traces of God are everywhere infused. Throughout the park I search for those traces, and for a while I out-pace time, ready to course down the final trail and glide freely through the mist into the pure light. Gregory of Nazianzus said the light of God is incomprehensible: It “escapes the speed and the height of the intellect, and always departs to the same degree as it is comprehended, and leads higher the one who falls in love with it by running away from him and, as it were, escaping from his hands.” God is always near but just out of reach, intimately close and infinitely distant. Our meeting place is the natural, holy arena of free play and contemplation, where immanence and transcendence touch, then kiss.
I come upon a narrow bridge that crosses the creek. I stop again to rest, setting the bike aside. I sit on a log and survey the land. Silence engulfs me, broken only by the gentle rippling of water as it curls around rocks and the occasional chirrup of songbirds. I decide to follow the creek upstream. The park map suggests there’s a spring about a mile to the northeast, and I want to see where the creek comes out of the ground.
Walking along the bank, I stop occasionally to overturn rocks at the edge of the creek, looking for rusty crawdads (as I remember doing as a child), which are native to this region. After a few tries, I uncover one; startled, it crawls to a nearby rock and starts digging under it to hide, creating a puff of cloudy water from the loosened dirt. I remove the new rock, too. Sensing a predator, it raises its claws above its head in a threatening position. I grasp it just behind the forearms where its pincers can’t reach my fingers. I study its reddish brown shell, its long antennae. The crawdad has three sets of back legs, green and jointed. I consider catching a half dozen or so and taking them to the cabin to cook in boiling water but haven’t brought a bucket or pouch to carry them in. I release it back to the creek and continue upstream.
When I arrive at the place where the spring should be, I find a swampy pond spreading through surrounding bushes and trees. I circle the pond, but there’s no stream above it. The spring must rise up into this low-lying area and form a shallow, lazy pond before flowing downstream. Around the edges of the pond are numerous downed trees and fallen branches. I drag long branches, one at a time, to a clearing where I prop them up, one next to another, against an oak tree that stands alone in the meadow. I form a circular hut — a kind of modified teepee — tall enough to walk into when bending low. The effort required to drag these dead branches — 28 in all — is strenuous, but I discover I’m equal to the task. The exertion invigorates. The branches are crooked and twisted, of course, leaving significant gaps in the hut. At the edge of the pond I cut off some thin willow shoots with my pocketknife, then uproot a dozen cattail stems and some tall yellow prairie grasses (I’m probably breaking a law in doing so). I weave them horizontally in and out of the raised branches to cover some of the wider gaps. I consider using leaves and mud to patch up the rest, but the day is wearing on. It’s time to call it a day, so I head back toward the bridge.
At the edge of the clearing, I look back at my hut. It’s no Patrick Dougherty stick sculpture, but I’m pleased with my primitive artwork. Someday some roaming children might come upon it and hide in it, or rearrange it into something else, or just wonder who made it and why.
Back at the bridge I reclaim the bike. Over there, on the other side of the bridge, the trail continues into the forest. I begin pedaling in that direction, to see where the path goes and if it has an end. I breathe deeply. The late afternoon sun breaks through the clouds and filters again through the autumn leaves. The light draws me on, as I search expectantly for that day which knows no evening, when unfulfilled longings are no more, and a playful faith meets God face to face.
Kenneth Garcia is the associate director of Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts and the author of Academic Freedom and the Telos of the Catholic University. He has written for The Gettysburg Review , Southwest Review and other publications.