Creek Running North

<< Critical thinking | Main | Going with it anyway >>

December 07, 2004


I think my spiritual path would be easier to describe if I believed in 1) the spirit or 2) paths. I was born a skeptic, disbelieving in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny pretty much as soon as I was told the stories. My father, who just barely believes he himself exists, was a strong influence in this regard. Add to that the priests who taught me, Piarists and Jesuits, who seemed to revere critical thought almost more than Roman Catholic dogma, and my fate was well sealed, an atheist empiricist before I turned 14.

And then atheism lost its luster as well. It increasingly seemed to me like Satanism, which defies God and thus lets God set its agenda. I don't believe in God, but that's not disbelief so much as lack of belief. Atheism does not describe in any important way who I am, any more than my nonadherence to the cult of Ahura Mazda necessarily consigns me to definition as an Anahuramazdan.

I flirted for a time with the more rarefied of the Eastern philosophies. Zen was just too much damned work, though, and the Hindu cosmogony made the saints and virgins and archangels I'd grown up with seem simple by comparison. Some of the ascetics – Ramana Maharshi chief among them – spoke of a compelling simplicity, a separation from the ego, a vague concept of "enlightenment" that followed, and no messy gods or goddesses or bardos or what have you. And the Tao Te Ching: what a delight! As much logical treatise and essay on the fractal nature of complex systems as a religious tract.
Still, it all fell away, fell away. I found it lacking. This may all be Maya. I'll grant that possibility, as unscientific as it is. But so what? There are parts of this illusion I cherish. If loving you is wrong, I don't wanna be right.

Becky put it simply once, referring to a hike out into the desert as "going to church." A few years later, with no specific idolatrous prompting from me, a shrink told me that the out of doors was my "cathedral." This was closer to what I sought but still seemed inverted to me, comparing the reality unfavorably to the simulacrum, putting Descartes before the horse. In an old edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, someone once responded to the Spaceship Earth metaphor as like being out in the New Mexico night, looking at the stars, and gasping "it's just like the planetarium!" Church is like going to the Oakland Museum, looking at the wonderful diorama of Joshua tree, Tegeticula moth, loggerhead shrike, and Mojave green rattlesnake, all artfully preserved and decorously posed.

Reality? Reality bites.

At issue is the ecstatic impulse, the feeling a receptive mind can sometimes have when confronted with something altogether huge: imminent death, sublime scenery, hunger, mescaline-derived visions, a sudden insight into a big, vexing puzzle. This ecstasy, despite my attempt here, does not entirely translate into words, and the attempt necessarily reifies the experience, ossifies it, until you are left with but vague memories of the feeling, a set of commandments and dietary prohibitions, a nest of rituals that reflect little of the inspiration that provoked them. If the Romans had not crucified Christ, the Christians surely would have. Nail that lamb to the cross, and you find yourself mumbling gibberish about quantum mechanics proving the truth of the Upanishads – you who could not extract a cube root to save your life.

I claim no special insight here. I write of Coyote, mystical trappings like a stolen blanket on a mangy old cur, and I know all along he's just a metaphor for my own pattern-seeking and rueful sense of morbid humor, a Murphy's Law personified and wearing buckskin. I dare not try to explain my feelings in terms of science, though science provokes them as often as anything else.

But when I sit and watch for hours on the rock, and the vultures swoop nearby and examine me, or the cactus wren lands on the branch four feet away, regards me, and starts its car alarm of a song; when the white-tailed kite swings low to eavesdrop on our backyard conversation or the puma anoints me with his breath, when the world floods in and washes away most of what I am, the little bit that's left sometimes wonders why anyone would ever sit in church.

This is the sixth in a series of ten photo-prompted posts.

Posted at December 7, 2004 08:31 PM | TrackBack


chris. you have placed the words just so, artfully, in an arrangement of spirit defined by one personality that refects all of us who feel this same connection. thank you. this was a wonderful read.

Posted by: ric at December 7, 2004 06:54 PM

As usual, Chris, I'm amazed at your ability to put words to things I can barely begin to feel.

And reality? Reality is all I believe in. Reality is overwhelming. Reality by definition includes it all. How could the recognition of this lead to anything but ecstasy? But I can't say anymore about this.

You know.

Posted by: Siona at December 7, 2004 09:12 PM have said what i was thinking. this discussion seems vaguely familiar :)

Posted by: Anne at December 8, 2004 08:14 AM

beautifully put; thank you!

Posted by: lyn at December 8, 2004 08:36 AM

this discussion seems vaguely familiar

It was a phone call with a dear friend that got me thinking about such things.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 8, 2004 08:37 AM

There's a reason why stars are often painted on the ceilings of cathedrals.

For me, and for a lot of more self-confessed religious types, it isn't either/or; the one is a metaphor for the other. But I had to peel away all the layers of gilt and plaster and even manmade frescos before I could settle down and find the same thing in a pew that I find under the sky. Or, rather, let it find me. Nature is more reliable, actually! Beautiful piece, Chris. Thank you for trying once again to express the inexpressible, and coming very close.

Posted by: beth at December 8, 2004 11:10 AM

These photo-prompted essays have all ranged from good to excellent so far, but you'll have a hard time topping this one. Beth took the virtual words out of my metaphorical mouth - which is good, because I'm still giggling about "putting Descartes before the horse." Not bad for a Californian.

Posted by: Dave at December 8, 2004 12:44 PM

Well, I am one quarter coal cracker on my dad's side: Grandpa Clarke grew up around State College.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at December 8, 2004 01:41 PM

oh...and i forgot to ask. may i have this?

Posted by: Anne at December 9, 2004 02:10 PM

I'm a Christian, operating in the gifts of the prophetic, and planted in a spirit-filled church. I am undergoing much crucifixtion at the moment because "I am different" I mean under the anointing. Your message was exceptionally prophetic. The faultine is "within the Body Of Christ", most but not all. There is a lot of vain worship going on, but I stand, firmly. My mission is to bring in the Red Horse with the White Horse (war) and plant, pull-down, and implement change. I was a white-witch, former Catholic, looking for the answers prior to my walk with God. Even though persecuted, I would not change my lifestyle now for anything. True beauty lies in understanding the complete truth..I intend on bringing in that truth to the entire Body of Christ, even if one at a time. May the blessings of Christmas fall on you and yours'.

Posted by: libby at December 22, 2004 11:00 AM

Enter email address to subscribe/unsubscribe to comments on this post without having to post a comment:
Subscribe for   Days (blank for indefinite)
(email field must be filled in) Email: