Zora Hurston (“There Eyes Were Watching God”) is credited with coining the phrase, “You got to go there to know there.” While I have found her axiom to be generally true, it is paradoxically true and untrue regarding Grand Canyon. Although, in order to experience “The Canyon,” one must “go there,” it is humanly impossible to “know there.” It is simply too vast, too deep, too long, too old and too mysterious for the human brain to comprehend. In fact many hikers, who hike to the bottom and back up, emerge blissfully bewildered by their experience.
It is quite likely that the one person who experienced this dilemma the most acutely was John Wesley Powell. Powell belongs to an elite pantheon of explorers who accomplished something that had never been done. Even though he was missing one arm, he successfully led an expedition down a river that was considered unnavigable. Native Americans warned him that he and his crew would be swallowed into the center of the earth. After the three-month odyssey, Powell expressed the futility of trying to capture the spirit of Grand Canyon:
“The wonders of the Grand Canyon cannot be adequately represented in symbols of speech, nor by speech itself. The resources of the graphic art are taxed beyond their powers in attempting to portray its features. Language and illustration combined must fail.”
He arrived at this conclusion after what many seasoned explorers predicted would be a disastrous expedition ending in death and destruction. He and his crew faced odds and challenges that would have made lesser men quail in defeat. The untamed Colorado River meandered 224 miles through a 5000-foot-deep chasm that offered few or no pathways of escape. The combination of roaring water and huge granite boulders produced “standing waves,” some of which approached 35 feet tall. The only way to survive these waves was to tether their specially designed boats and laboriously “rope” them around the potentially lethal obstacles.
They were frequently cold and wet, much of their food had spoiled, there were several near-drownings and they lost one boat. Understandably, Powell’s men were stressed to the breaking point, prompting three of them to agree to abandon the expedition and take their chances of escaping back to civilization.
Powell handled the little mutiny with compassion and dignity. For all he knew they might be right which led to his musing:
“We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not; what rocks beset the channel, we know not; what walls ride over the river, we know not. Ah, well! we may conjecture many things.”
In profound irony, the next day presented an easily navigable rapid, the last threat to the expedition. The three men were never seen or heard from again.
On a much smaller scale, I identified with the stress that Powell experienced. The Biodesign Class intentionally took high school students in into the uncharted educational wilderness and challenged them to explore their God-given-gifts of soul and spirit. Their discoveries ranged from miraculous, magnificent, even sublime, to stressful, painful and terrifying enough to cause about 3% of them to flee in fear.
“Loren Eiseley is less concerned about man conquering nature than nature, in the form of God, conquering the human heart.” Time Magazine.
AFTER nearly 75 years, I have concluded that life is mostly (if not totally) a journey into mystery. E.g. how could I have possibly guessed that a simple, innocent question from a student would eventually guide me to climb Yosemite’s Half Dome over 30 times? Each visit was unique and not unlike meeting a long-lost friend with lots of catching up to do. Intriguingly, most of my trips were with students and seeing Half Dome through their eyes provided some of the most glorious moments of my life.
“I Conquered Half Dome” was the title of a Biodesigner’s post-Yosemite essay, and why not? Tom described the “emotional blood,” sweat and near-blisters that were required for him to hike the 10 miles from Yosemite Stables to the top of Half Dome in one grueling day. The altitude gain was nearly 5,000 ft. and YNPS listed the trail as “extremely strenuous” (and that is without a backpack.) It is a safe bet that his 50-lb. backpack made the trek at least twice as difficult.
Tom meticulously recorded the events of the day including moments of inspiration, and frustration; stops for snacks, water and lunch. He also described the logistical demands of stopping to filter water and apply “Mole Skin” to hotspots before they became debilitating blisters. He noted the high level of camaraderie and playful banter that helped ease the fatigue induced by the steep switchbacks. He marveled at how everyone worked together with the stronger hikers quietly taking sleeping bags or tents from classmates who were struggling excessively.
This hike occurred in the early years of the Biodesign program when the trip was only four days. It involved a 4:00 AM departure and 5-hour drive to Yosemite Valley; one very demanding day to hike to the top of Half Dome to spend the night; one very long day to return to The Valley and the 5-hour return trip home. Due to the very demanding 4-day journey, it was quite reasonable for Tom to feel that he had indeed conquered Half Dome. However, the latter part of his essay took on a very different tone.
“I had never been so exhausted but I could not sleep due to the thousands of rapid-fire mental images of our long hike. Earlier in the evening, we huddled in a circle as you read John Muir’s story about his adventure with the ‘wee little dog Stickeen.’ Muir described their near-death experience in a storm on an Alaskan glacier. The ordeal lasted 18 hours and, although they were cold, wet and exhausted, they were happy to make it back to camp.
“We reached camp about ten o’clock, and found a big fire and a big supper. A party of Hoona Indians had visited Mr. Young, bringing a gift of porpoise meat and wild strawberries, and Hunter Joe had brought in a wild goat. But we lay down, too tired to eat much, and soon fell into a troubled sleep. The man who said, ‘The harder the toil, the sweeter the rest,’ never was profoundly tired.”
“Before the trip we discussed the geology of Half Dome and I was now aware that I was trying to sleep on rock that was over 100 million years old and was there when dinosaurs roamed the earth and perhaps some bird-like forms flew over Yosemite Valley.
I finally gave up trying to sleep and grabbed my flashlight and down jacket. I moseyed out to the “Eye Brow” and carefully dangled my legs over the edge. Interestingly, due to the darkness, the 5,000-foot drop was not as scary as in the daylight. I remembered you saying that Native Americans and “mountain men” could tell time using the “handle” of “The Big Dipper.” I was facing north and looked up to see the giant cosmic-hour-hand above me. And then, IT HAPPENED! A massive surge of adrenaline super-activated every nerve in my body. I was ecstatic, but it was not sublime. I was paradoxically exhilarated, but terrified and quickly began to suffer a panic attack. I could not move! I thought, ‘This is not a good place to be in the middle of the night.’ The panic seemed interminable, but either God or my “reptilian brain” took over and I noticed my hands and thighs slowly begin to inch my body back from the edge. When I stood, I was badly shaken and, with wobbly knees, returned to my sleeping bag.
If I live to be 100 years old, I will never feel the same degree of warmth, safety and comfort that my sleeping bag provided. And then the second major epiphany occurred! What a fool I was to think that I had “conquered” Half Dome! God, Mother Nature or karma allowed me to ascend Half Dome, however; there is still enough mystery and intrigue to last another 100 million years.”
At the youthful age of 17, Tom discovered that he was being conquered and not the conqueror, something more and more people will live and die without discovering.
I don’t think it is elitist for people who have climbed to the top of Half Dome to recalibrate their personal biography into “Pre-H-D” and “Post-H-D.” I don’t think it is possible to climb Half Dome and not have a life-changing experience, however, as John Muir noted about spiritual revelations, there are no earthly words to define them.
The walls of the world’s hall of shame are covered with millions of portraits of mostly men who have committed heinous crimes against individuals and humanity, sometimes their own children. Most of these men had the misfortune of being raised by one or more abusive parents. John Muir had all the qualifications to end up on the wall. His father, Daniel Muir, was a harsh, religious zealot who whipped (mostly his sons) with a leather belt, almost on a daily basis. John was required to memorize nearly three quarters of The Holy Bible before the age of 11.
When Daniel moved his family to “Hickory Hill Farm” in Wisconsin, there was no water available. Because his 17-year-old son John was the strongest, he was assigned the task of digging a well. The well site was selected and the three-ft.-diameter bore was begun. After a few feet of soil and mixed stones were removed, John encountered mostly uninterrupted sandstone that had to be chipped into chunks using mason’s hammers and chisels. The work began at dawn each day and continued until dark. Daniel and John’s brother David would come to the well at noon and together they would raise the tailings to the surface, extract John and go to the house for “dinner.” Then it was back down into the well until nightfall. Muir later wrote that the project took several months to complete. One of Muir’s neighbors was quoted as saying, “Daniel Muir treats his animals better than his sons.”
Although the progress was painstakingly slow, he eventually chipped his way down to a depth of 80 feet. Then one morning, disaster struck. Daniel Muir had been warned about the danger of “choke-damp,” but elected to ignore the warnings. Often, when water trickles into caves or wells, carbonic acid gas accumulates. Sometimes the gas includes carbon monoxide, which can be instantly fatal to breath and sometimes the oxygen in a well can be purged out by heavier carbon dioxide gas, which then becomes indirectly toxic. One day, when Daniel and David lowered John down to the bottom of the well, he was overtaken by choke-damp and slumped over against the wall of the well. Nearly unconsciousness, he feebly murmured, “Take me out!” But when Daniel began to crank the windlass, he could tell immediately that his son was not in the bucket. In wild exasperation he shouted, “Get in! Get in the bucket and hold on.” Fortunately, Daniel and David were able to retrieve a badly gasping John.
At that time, choke-damp was purged from wells by placing a 5-lb stone in a gunny sack. The sack was then filled with straw and the open end gathered and tied with a 100-foot rope. When the sack was dropped into the well it would plummet to the bottom. By the process of “drafting,” fresh air was sucked down into the well and the toxic air was purged out. When the sack was rapidly retrieved, the process was reversed. Toxic air was “drafted” up and fresh air replaced it in the shaft. This process was repeated several times to make the well safe.
From that point on, Daniel and both sons took time to purge the well of toxic gas every morning and at noon before John reentered the well.
Several years later, and after countless Nature-induced epiphanies at Yosemite, John Muir described his near-death experience in the well as poignant metaphor for the dangers of the “galling harness of civilization.” I suspect that he regarded people being seduced by comfort, luxury and materialism as nothing less than Greek sailors foundering at sea due to the lethal attraction of the Sirens.
Yosemite cured Muir of many of the emotional scars that his father so cruelly inflicted. Perhaps ironically, he knew St. Matthew’s Beatitudes by heart and experienced first hand that; “man does not live by bread alone.” Little wonder he regarded himself as a modern John the Baptist who came down from Yosemite proclaiming: “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”
Fortunately, over our 50-year marriage, my wife and I were rarely “down in the well” at the same time. When one of us was “down” the other could rally as a spiritual cheerleader and exclaim, “Get in the bucket and hold on.” It became one of the most important lessons of our life.
On an unscripted whim, I had them close their eyes and asked them how many of them had a soul? Every hand shot up. “Hands down,” I said. “How’d we vote?” someone asked. I answered, “One hundred percent positive. I guess this class has a lot of soul.”
“The soul is the name for the unifying principle, power, or energy that is the center of our being. To be in touch with soul means going back to the sacred source, the site of life-releasing energy, the activating force of life, the god-grounds; to venture forth and confront the world in all its marvelous and terrifying forces, to make sacred our hours here; to learn to pay such supreme attention to the world that eternity blazes in to time with our holy longing. Soul-making this.” TheSoul of the World, by Phil Cousineau and Eric Lawton.
One year, shortly after we reached the top of Yosemite’s Half Dome, a group of rock climbers were completing climbing up the face. They were surprised to be greeted by a welcoming party of excited young adults. I was setting up our camp area about 200 yards away, but voices often travel clearer and farther in the mountains.
Climber: “What are all you guys doing up here?
Student: “We are all in a high school advanced biology class.”
Climber: “You’re bullshittin’ me!”
Student laughing: “No it’s true.”
Climber: “So, your biology class just happened to wander up here?”
Student: “No, our teacher led us up here.”
Climber: “Damn! He must have big balls!
I laughed out loud, but was suddenly embarrassed by what I considered to be a crude metaphor and that I had been eavesdropping. More importantly, however, I was tempted to hurry over and tell him that it was the students who were the courageous ones. I wondered if he had read Carl Jung:
“Whenever there is a reaching down into innermost experience, into the nucleus of personality, most people are overcome by fright, and many run away…The risk of inner experience, the adventure of the spirit, is in any case, is alien to most human beings.”
Jung etal, described the spiritual journey as potentially far more scary than any physical or mental challenges. On the other hand, maybe the climber was acting out Joseph Campbell’s purpose of life; “The Soul’s High Adventure.”
Perhaps it didn’t matter. After all, The Class was not only experimental, but experiential and existential. This meant that any discoveries that students made would be their own and not of my doing. Over 24 years there were many books that I discovered that would have been very helpful, but they also would have altered the many paths of discovery that were vital to the students’ spiritual growth. The best example of this (and now one of my favorite treasures) is a small (but powerful) book, “The Soul Of The World.” Phil Cousineau paired amazing quotations with Eric Lawton’s spectacular photos into a breathtaking book. It has been a deep source of inspiration for me since it was released in 1993. Cousineau included profoundly inspiring “poems, prayers and promises” from men and women from all walks and major religions, including people who are Red—Yellow—Black—White. He paired the inspirational lines with photos of some of the most beautiful and or sacred places on planet Earth. The book proved to be a powerful validation of the collaborative journey that about 500 students had shared with me. I was able to draw freely from it for the last five years of the class.
Nearly 15 years after the Biodesign Class of 1979 decided to embark on a journey of the soul, Cousineau and Lawton confirmed just how spiritually aware those students were. Jung, Thoreau and John Muir were correct when they noted that many people will live their entire life without probing their own spirituality. John Muir wrote: “Most people are on the world, not in it—have no conscious sympathy or relationship to anything about them—undiffused, separate, and rigidly alone like marbles of polished stone; touching but separate.”
The rock climber demonstrated tremendous courage climbing the face of Half Dome, but I wonder if it equaled the courage that it took for each of the 700 students to follow Loren Eiseley, Carl Jung and John Muir by embracing wonder and terror and thereby discovering that “Going out For A Walk was really going in.”
Christmastime is a wonderful time to awaken us to the fact that the journey we are on is a “spiritual journey,” a journey that would not be possible without the gift of Soul.
Is it not by his high superfluousness we know
Our God? For to equal a need
Is natural, animal, mineral: but to fling
Rainbows over the rain
And beauty above the moon, and secret rainbows
On the domes of deep sea-shells…
– Robinson Jeffers
In his wonderful poem, “Excesses of God,” Robinson Jeffers accuses God of being superfluous: [Lavish, superabundant, over-the-top.] I am upping the ante by suggesting that He can be a flamboyant showoff. I am not challenging God, but if a bolt of lightning strikes me, it will prove my point. How else can we explain what happened at Yosemite Valley on Wednesday, 9-30-15. Yosemite NP was celebrating the 125th anniversary of becoming a National Park. I am sure that rangers carefully planned the event, however, what they could not plan was the amazing and mysterious appearance of a double rainbow that arched over Yosemite Valley.
Scientists, secular humanists, skeptics and human Eeyores will dismiss the event as a spiritless, “random act” involving weather and light refraction. Really? Science is supposed to be based on facts and predictable results, neither of which applied in this situation. Common sense dictates that there were zero odds that could allow for the event to occur at the perfect time. To prove this, how many non-believers (or believers) would have bet money that the event would happen? The truth is that that the double rainbow was a splendid synchronicity, with no known causation.
John Muir considered Yosemite Valley as a natural cathedral. The millions of transcending experiences that Yosemite has generated bear witness to the wisdom of his contention. These events occur when people temporarily escape human limitations and transcend to higher levels of spiritual awareness. With this being so, imagine what park rangers (and visitors) must have felt, standing amidst Yosemite’s multiple natural iconic wonders, celebrating their 125th anniversary, when a brilliant double rainbow arched above them. It reminded me of a similar event that occurred in the Biodesign Class of 1980.
In the late 1970s, several successive Biodesign classes experienced beautiful rainbows on their Yosemite trip. It led me to become a little smug. Foolishly, I predicted to the class of ’80 that they would see a rainbow. However, the first two days were uneventful and by the third day a few of the guys began to heckle me about my boastful prediction. By the morning of day 5, our last full day there, I resigned myself that I would have to “eat crow” and apologize for my excessive pridefulness. I decided to wait until our evening class session and accept my well-deserved ribbing.
Excerpt: Biodesign Out For A Walk, chap. 24, Synchronicity and God:
After lunch, this class elected to go out into the nearby meadow and play a game that was a blend of rugby and human destruction-derby. I watched for a few minutes, but when girls began launching their bodies into the scrum, I left. I had much to do, cleaning and storing all of the kitchen equipment in preparation for a morning departure. As I worked, I noticed the increasing cloud cover, but smiled confidently. We were not on the Dome or on the trail so it was of little concern. About 40 minutes later, however, I heard a bloodcurdling yell from the meadow.
Denise screamed, “Mr. Young, come quick!”
I pictured a broken arm or leg or maybe worse. Hurriedly, I dried my hands and raced up the trail toward the meadow. Denise met me halfway, grabbed my arm, and dragged me along. When we reached the meadow, no one was huddling over an injured student; instead, all were standing and staring skyward in total silence. One of the most beautiful rainbows that I had ever seen arched across the sky, with Half Dome perfectly positioned below the arc. I joined the silence and was stunned and embarrassed at the same time. After a few minutes, one of the hecklers edged over and whispered, “OK, how’d you know?”
I shook my head in denial and said, “I didn’t, and I won’t make that mistake again.”
William Wordsworth wrote:
“My heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky…”
I am certain that many hearts leaped up at Yosemite’s 125– year anniversary celebration. I am also quite sure that Robinson Jeffers, William Wordsworth and John Muir would agree that the beautiful double rainbow was a miraculous, ephemeral signature of God, claiming responsibility for creating one of the most beautiful valleys on planet Earth. His timing simply could not have been more perfect!
I don’t know if the current YNP Superintendent saw the double rainbow or what he thought about it. I do know that the entire Class of ’80 stood rapt (and wrapped) in awe and silent wonder. No one spoke. Instead, after a few minutes, the students quietly dispersed into The Valley, perhaps to contemplate what they had just witnessed. People will draw their own conclusions, however, I am convinced that, especially under the circumstances, I had seen a miracle.
I was supremely blessed to have slept on top of The Dome with 20 biology classes (when it was still legal). Each night offered a transcending experience that altered how I saw Nature, humanity and God. Like The Velveteen Rabbit becoming “real,” transcending experiences can be soul-transforming and last forever.
John Muir, Henry Thoreau and R.W. Emerson were proponents of the transcending power of Nature. The three men were not necessarily referring to single event, but events that can occur many times in wilderness settings. Although they may or may not involve an experience with a Supreme Being, Muir welcomed his followers to “come to the mountains and be ‘born again.’” It is not uncommon for people to have “out-of-body” experiences where their spirits are free to roam in the universe. Somehow, words like infinity and eternity often take on a deeper meaning. In fact, if dangling your feet over 4,800 of “free air” on the “Diving Board,” on top of Half Dome, does not move you, you may not have a spirit-pulse. One of the common results of transcending experiences is goosebumps. Goosebumps are the autonomic nervous system’s response to foreign (wilderness) events. The ancient part of the brain seems to comprehend that there are no words to describe the experience and a surge of adrenaline is released by the endocrine system to prepare the body for a “fight-or-flight” reaction. Spiritual fights and flights are often quite scary.
Excerpt: Biodesign Out For A Walk, Chap. 4, A Class Is Born.
“When we got to the top of Half Dome, we began to explore. I was drawn to the edge and amazed by the grandeur. I saw a slab of rock, known as The Diving Board, projecting out over the edge and into Yosemite Valley. The slab was about six-feet wide, twelve- feet long and about four-feet deep. I carefully inched my way out. Slowly, slowly, I decided to focus on the rock and not look down. When I got to the end, I very carefully stuck one leg at a time over the edge. After I was settled, I leaned over and looked down be-tween my legs into 4,800 hundred feet of “free air.” At first, I couldn’t breathe, and then my balls jumped up into my chest. I was about to explode. My heart was pounding. I thought if an earthquake hits now, it’s all over. I quickly got back on my knees, carefully pivoted, and crept back to safety.”
Intuitively, Toby described a powerful, visceral reaction to his transcending experience.
One year, the day that the Biodesign Class returned to school after their 6-day Yosemite trip, a group of them were out on the quad jubilantly discussing their experience. One of the senior boys, who was a vocal critic of the Class and me, approached a newly returned buddy and asked, “So, have you changed”? The Biodesigner beamed broadly and exclaimed, “You bet and it feels great.” His friend snorted and replied, “It’s just like I said, that Class is nothing more than a religious cult.”
One of my favorite Zen koans claims, “No two people have ever met and departed unchanged.” The same can be said for wilderness experiences. No “normal” human can enter the wilderness and emerge unchanged. Transcendence is a beautiful spiritual gift.
Warning: Henry Van Dyke’s epic poem, “THE GRAND CANYON,” is “soul food” and beyond the “fast-food” attention span. However, it just might be the most important poem you will ever read.Van Dyke plumbs the depth of Grand Canyon and the depth of the human soul. He challenges believers and non-believers to set aside their baggage of religious and scientific bias, pettiness, myths and shallow thinking and become one with Grand Canyon. Van Dyke concedes that, like the words infinity and eternity, Grand Canyon cannot be defined yet, as a poet, he cannot contain himself. There are one-liners galore that will convict, cajole, console, compel, comfort and inspire. Nothing will compare with hiking Grand Canyon, however, Van Dyke’s poem offers a hint of the mystery of transcending the human body and briefly becoming “at one” with the universe.
What makes the lingering Night so cling to thee?
Thou vast, profound, primeval hiding-place
Of ancient secrets,–gray and ghostly gulf
Cleft in the green of this high forest land,
And crowded in the dark with giant forms!
Art thou a grave, a prison, or a shrine?
A stillness deeper than the dearth of sound
Broods over thee: a living silence breathes
Perpetual incense from thy dim abyss.
The morning-stars that sang above the bower
Of Eden, passing over thee, are dumb
With trembling bright amazement; and the Dawn
Steals through the glimmering pines with naked feet,
Her hand upon her lips, to look on thee!
She peers into thy depths with silent prayer
For light, more light, to part thy purple veil.
O Earth, swift-rolling Earth, reveal, reveal,–
Turn to the East, and show upon thy breast
The mightiest marvel in the realm of Time!
‘Tis done,–the morning miracle of light,–
The resurrection of the world of hues
That die with dark, and daily rise again
With every rising of the splendid Sun!
Be still, my heart! Now Nature holds her breath
To see the solar flood of radiance leap
Across the chasm, and crown the western rim
Of alabaster with a far-away
Rampart of pearl, and flowing down by walls
Of changeful opal, deepen into gold
Of topaz, rosy gold of tourmaline,
Crimson of garnet, green and gray of jade,
Purple of amethyst, and ruby red,
Beryl, and sard, and royal porphyry;
Until the cataract of colour breaks
Upon the blackness of the granite floor.
How far below! And all between is cleft
And carved into a hundred curving miles
Of unimagined architecture! Tombs,
Temples, and colonnades are neighboured there
By fortresses that Titans might defend,
And amphitheatres where Gods might strive.
Cathedrals, buttressed with unnumbered tiers
Of ruddy rock, lift to the sapphire sky
A single spire of marble pure as snow;
And huge aerial palaces arise
Like mountains built of unconsuming flame.
Along the weathered walls, or standing deep
In riven valleys where no foot may tread,
Are lonely pillars, and tall monuments
Of perished aeons and forgotten things.
My sight is baffled by the wide array
Of countless forms: my vision reels and swims
Above them, like a bird in whirling winds.
Yet no confusion fills the awful chasm;
But spacious order and a sense of peace
Brood over all. For every shape that looms
Majestic in the throng, is set apart
From all the others by its far-flung shade,
Blue, blue, as if a mountain-lake were there.
How still it is! Dear God, I hardly dare
To breathe, for fear the fathomless abyss
Will draw me down into eternal sleep.
What force has formed this masterpiece of awe?
What hands have wrought these wonders in the waste?
O river, gleaming in the narrow rift
Of gloom that cleaves the valley’s nether deep,–
Fierce Colorado, prisoned by thy toil,
And blindly toiling still to reach the sea,–
Thy waters, gathered from the snows and springs
Amid the Utah hills, have carved this road
Of glory to the Californian Gulf.
But now, O sunken stream, thy splendour lost,
‘Twixt iron walls thou rollest turbid waves,
Too far away to make their fury heard!
At sight of thee, thou sullen labouring slave
Of gravitation,–yellow torrent poured
From distant mountains by no will of thine,
Through thrice a hundred centuries of slow
Fallings and liftings of the crust of Earth,–
At sight of thee my spirit sinks and fails.
Art thou alone the Maker? Is the blind
Unconscious power that drew thee dumbly down
To cut this gash across the layered globe,
The sole creative cause of all I see?
Are force and matter all? The rest a dream?
Then is thy gorge a canyon of despair,
A prison for the soul of man, a grave
Of all his dearest daring hopes! The world
Wherein we live and move is meaningless,
No spirit here to answer to our own!
The stars without a guide: The chance-born Earth
Adrift in space, no Captain on the ship:
Nothing in all the universe to prove
Eternal wisdom and eternal love!
And man, the latest accident of Time,–
Who thinks he loves, and longs to understand,
Who vainly suffers, and in vain is brave,
Who dupes his heart with immortality,–
Man is a living lie,–a bitter jest
Upon himself,–a conscious grain of sand
Lost in a desert of unconsciousness,
Thirsting for God and mocked by his own thirst.
Spirit of Beauty, mother of delight,
Thou fairest offspring of Omnipotence
Inhabiting this lofty lone abode,
Speak to my heart again and set me free
From all these doubts that darken earth and heaven!
Who sent thee forth into the wilderness
To bless and comfort all who see thy face?
Who clad thee in this more than royal robe
Of rainbows? Who designed these jewelled thrones
For thee, and wrought these glittering palaces?
Who gave thee power upon the soul of man
To lift him up through wonder into joy?
God! let the radiant cliffs bear witness, God!
Let all the shining pillars signal, God!
He only, on the mystic loom of light.
Hath woven webs of loveliness to clothe
His most majestic works: and He alone
Hath delicately wrought the cactus-flower
To star the desert floor with rosy bloom.
O Beauty, handiwork of the Most High,
Where’er thou art He tells his Love to man,
And lo, the day breaks, and the shadows flee!
Now, far beyond all language and all art
In thy wild splendour, Canyon marvellous,
The secret of thy stillness lies unveiled
In wordless worship! This is holy ground;
Thou art no grave, no prison, but a shrine.
Garden of Temples filled with Silent Praise,
If God were blind thy Beauty could not be!
“… but just as instinct may fail an animal under some shift of environmental conditions, so man’s cultural beliefs may prove inadequate to meet a new situation, or, on an individual level, the confused mind may substitute, by some terrible alchemy, cruelty for love.” – Loren Eiseley
Currently, there is a pandemic, vector-less disease that is threatening human populations around the world. It is enhanced by egoism, greed, fear, territorial imperative; distorted abuses of politics, sex and religion and may lead to a catastrophic decline in human populations. The cause is the worldwide failure to appreciate the importance of love in human biology and evolution.
The US is perhaps the freest, wealthiest nation in the world and yet we are plagued with massive problems of alcoholism, substance abuse, pornography, high urban crime, racial—gender—ethnic inequality, economic disparity and a 50% divorce rate. This means that 50% of the US children have to helplessly observe the disintegration of the love that once bound their parents together. It is tragically stunning to wonder what the world would be like if everyone merely attempted to embrace St. Paul’s 16-point model of love.
The Biodesign Class was envisioned by a group of spirit-sensitive students who concluded that there were more important lessons in life than memorizing all the parts of a fetal pig. They suggested that learning about love was an important part of their biology.Interestingly, shortly after the class began, someone sent me a greeting card featuring St. Paul’s world-famous treatise on love. Typically, I began each class session with “news and notes” and I decided to share the greeting card and get their response.The discussion that followed was, perhaps understandably, mostly gender-divided. Many of the girls smiled in agreement and one of them correctly pointed out that the passage is used in more wedding ceremonies around the world than any other passage. The boys were not so sure, in fact, one of them blurted out, “That’s humanly impossible!” In the end, however, they found common ground and agreed that even if achieving perfect love were impossible, it represented a noble goal for all people to aspire to.
I decided it was a “sign” and accepted the challenge of trying it. After all, a passage that third-grade students could easily read surely would not be that hard to follow. Ergo, I vowed to follow St. Paul’s “16-step program” for one day.That was 40 years ago and it has not happened yet. ;o)
I greeted each day as a fresh chance to master the challenge. Sometimes I made it to 3rd or 4th period, but I never made it through a full school day. Frustratingly, one or more of the 16 points would trip me.
Before each Biodesign trip, I warned the students; “If you want to find out what kind of friend you have, take him/her camping and see.” It was not an idle warning, and I fully expected to face the same challenge, magnified by 25-30 students. Even though many trips were relatively smooth, there were usually moments when I felt that I totally failed one or more of the steps and should have handled them better.
I secretly envied John Muir, spending long periods of time, alone in the wilderness, and fantasized how easy it would be to live the “16-point challenge” with water ouzels, Douglas Squirrels and Silver Firs. He was mostly involved in a personal journey and was not challenged by 30 teenagers, some of whom took great joy in tripping teachers up.
Then I discovered Fr. John Powell’s powerful little book, “Unconditional Love,” in which he boldly suggests that we need to risk making mistakes in loving, because they often provide opportunities for growth. The key he offered was to admit the error quickly, ask for forgiveness and be willing to grow from the experience.
Therefore many years ago, I gave up my attempt to get through a “perfect day” and decided that making mistakes was an important part of learning.
I didn’t pretend to be a Bible scholar, but it was somewhat comforting to know that somewhere in the New Testament, St. Paul confessed that he also could not get through a day without making the same old mistakes.
In order to save a little pride and my sanity, I decided that it was the “journey” and not the illusive goal that was what was important.
Like individuals falling short of achieving St. Paul’s treatise on love, the Biodesign Class also failed to reach perfection. However, there was often an aura about them, both in the classroom and on field trips that subtly reflected the love they shared. They hugged each other openly and often and were usually genuinely concerned about each other. They ate together, slept together, laughed, cried and sometimes argued, but their goal was always to strive to reach a higher level of personhood.
Parents, chaperones, bus drivers, hotel staff members and airline flight attendants often commented about their unusual behavior. There were, of course, momentary lapses into raucous teen behavior, but perhaps the best summary of them came from the manager of Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch:
“For several years, I have been meaning to thank you for bringing your class here, but something always got in the way. I have worked here for eight years and enjoy it very much. The scenery is fantastic, and the people I work with are great. Sometimes, however, visitors are rude and obnoxious. Getting up at 4 a.m. to prepare food can be a drag. Changing sheets and scrubbing toilets gets tiresome. When I get discouraged, however, I pause and look forward to the annual visit of the magical group of students from the “Catholic High School” in Northern California; somehow, they offer meaning to my life.”
PS. St. Helena High School is a public high school named after a little-known Catholic saint.
Facebook can be a source of mental pollution, inane noise or clatter; it can also be a vehicle for sharing breathtaking mysteries. This video shared by Giovanna Brimlow-Tuccori is about as close to providing a miracle as you can get through the internet.
Excerpt: Biodesign Out For A Walk, Chap. 26, “Soul Medicine.”
“How many of you guys had to have your mom or dad teach you how to have an erection?” The girls giggled nervously; the guys looked shocked, but quickly broke into laughter. No hands were raised.Rachel raised her hand and said, “My mom is in charge of the imaging laboratory at the hospital, and she performs sonograms. She has a picture of a six-month male fetus playing with his hard little ‘you know what.’”
In his book, “The Lives Of A Cell,” medical doctor/author Lewis Thomas suggests that a single cell is so complex that it is possible that man will never be able to unravel all of its mysteries. He does a beautiful job describing some of the physiological stages of embryonic development and states that because of this we should all live in a daily state of awe and wonder. Furthermore, he offers, if we fully understood the miracle of life, we would live each day congratulating each other in a never-ending state of ecstasy.
Whether conceived in a grass hut, the back of a Chevy, or in the bridal suite of Balmoral Castle, each human results from the union of one out of 600 million sperm cells and one out of 300,000 ovum cells. The numbers are even more staggering when we learn that sexually healthy males generate about 1 billion sperm cells per month and embryonic females contain 7 million egg cells; 300,000 of them typically remain through puberty, and 300-400 will eventually be ovulated. The odds against our being are cosmic which results in each person being a “once-in-a-universe” creation of genetics and environmental stimuli. Little wonder Lewis Thomas thought we should dance the dance of joy for being alive.
Antonio Cano begins his video where we all began; two haploid cells that join into one in an unfathomable process called fertilization. The two cells, now one diploid zygote journey into the uterus and find a suitable place for implantation. The next nine months will be spent in a symbiotic relationship between mother and embryo. e.e. cummings understood this relationship in his verse:
we are so both and oneful
night cannot be so sky
sky cannot be so sunful
i am through you so i
During the embryonic process the zygote eventually divides into 100 trillion cells that differentiate into 11 systems that include many organs, various types of tissue and billions of cells that function as interdependent individuals.
Loren Eiseley understood this concept when he tripped on uneven sidewalk, fell against a building drain pipe and split his forehead. He apologized to his red blood cells as they dripped onto the concrete. He was being facetious of course, knowing full well that red blood cells have a short lifespan and all of them would have been replaced in 4-6 weeks.
All of this creates several awesome/ awful questions for humans to contemplate.
1. Is every human being merely the result of a soul-less accidental accumulation of organic molecules?
2. Is each person predestined to live as an automaton, in a manner similar to a witless, finely crafted watch?
3. Do humans actually have free will and share in the process of striving for full personhood?
4. Is it possible that each human has been physically and symbolically created in the metaphorical image of a Supreme Being?
It seems clear that if man does not have free will, than the answers to these questions are irrelevant and unnecessary. If, however, each human has been conceived with free will, then his answers will have a profound impact on the quality and direction of his life.
Albert Einstein never saw a video like this one; however, he practiced the art of celebrating mystery:
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”