Another week, another reflection.
I do a lot of hiking and climbing. I’ve been fortunate enough to summit some of the tallest peaks here in the Pacific Northwest. As a member of Mazamas, I took the intensive 8 week Basic Climbing Education Program (BCEP) to learn how to climb and survive in very unforgiving situations. It occurs to me that much of the safety and survival training I got there applies equally to the lessons I learned during my seminary days.
One of the things you learn about in almost every hiking/climbing/nature course is what to do if you get lost or in trouble. How does this relate to the spiritual life? Well – in almost all ways as it turns out.
The first thing a lost hiker/climber is told to do when they recognize they are lost is to stop moving. One of the biggest problems novice hikers get into when they get lost is to just keep forging ahead – becoming exhausted and, almost always, more lost in the process. Search parties start from your last known location and work outwards. So, unless you are moving exactly back into the direction you came from, you are actually moving away from your last known locations. Every step means you’re likely moving further away from rescue. Even worse, you may end up in an area where they already searched and now help almost certainly won’t find you. Unconsciously we are usually acting out of the growing fear we feel – which stops us from thinking and puts us into fight, flee, or flight mode.
Similarly in our daily lives, we are often overwhelmed by the cares of the day. We get so busy that days turn into weeks and we often lose track of ourselves and where we are going. For many, this becomes a chronic case until one day we wake up and realize we’ve lost our way or realize we’ve lost our connection with God. All too often we find ourselves on autopilot. Just like hikers, we often just forge ahead anyway. We are often tempted to just keep on going in the direction we have been going in life and ‘figure it out later/as we go along’. This almost never works. Sometimes we start frantically doing things in attempt to find connection – but most of this activity is just to cover up our growing sense of being more and more lost, alone, and disconnected.
Instead, we must stop. Stop moving and be still. God is everywhere so it is not that we are lost from him – but he has been lost by US. That is why searching around in the flotsam and madness of daily life for him is almost always fruitless. We must stop running from the search party thinking we know the way to go and let him find us. We do that when we enter into prayer – especially silent prayer. Every day. This isn’t always easy and sometimes it takes a long time before you reconnect with God – just like it might take a lot of time for a search party to find you. But you must stay put lest you almost certainly make the situation worse.
One great way to do this is to take a little time in prayer and review how our day went, usually before bedtime. In the Liturgy of the Hours, this is built into Night Prayer. Night prayer is the last prayer ‘hour’ of the day. We stop and reflect on our day. We give thanks for the graces and gifts of the day, and ask forgiveness for our failings of commission or omission. There we pray and are found and reconnect with God.
After the lost hiker finally stops, they must mentally acknowledge they are lost and size up our situation. It’s amazing how hard it is to admit we got lost. We often feel a lot of emotions such as fear, embarrassment, terror, the realization we might be sleeping outside tonight, or angry that we were so stupid/now going to have to be searched for and worried about by those that love us. We often will feel the pit of our stomach drop out. Trying to avoid those feelings is why many novices just keep moving in hopes of finding a way out. We stop the fight or flight response and re-engage our minds by asking: exactly how lost are we? Did we just misjudged some distance but are on the right path and just need to continue – or are we seriously not where we should be? How much daylight is left, is the weather changing, what resources do they have with them (maps, rain gear, sheltering gear, etc), how is our personal condition (tired, injured, upset, etc)? We stop acting on instinct that tells us to keep running/moving and engage our minds.
The same is true in the spiritual life. We have regular weekly mass to check in. But we should be checking in much more often. Daily, and even hourly. The reason that bells toll from many churches was to mark the hours of prayer. Morning, noon, evening, and night are each marked by a moment to stop and check in with God via prayer. It was to remind us where our true focus should lie. Not in the individual tasks, but on the greater work of the salvation of our souls. We should get into the regular practice of stopping, engaging our minds, and take stock. How is it going? Am I at peace and connected to God? Have I gotten distracted? How distracted – a little – maybe a lot? Have I become seriously lost and now in mortal danger? We must admit the situation to ourselves before we have any hope of making things better. The more we check in, the quicker we can discover if we are getting lost.
With a lost hiker, after assessing our situation, we then look around us for help. Is there a mountain peak that I recognize? Is there a road or trail that I can see from where I stand? Does any of this match my map and help me figure out where I am? Do I have a whistle or cel phone that I could use to signal for help? Are there wild animals around that could harm me? Is there a clear spot for me to set up a camp if I must stay put? Am I in a dangerously exposed area and need to find a safer place? Is there water nearby? Can I safely make a fire to signal with? How much energy do I have left? Do I have anything in my pack to help me? We look around us for any and all aids to help us survive.
We can use the same techniques in our daily lives. We then look around at the interior/exterior place we find ourselves. Is there anything I recognize? Have I fallen to an old sin or way of life I have been before? Maybe God has been whispering some change to me but I’ve been ignoring it? Am I in a dark place, surrounded by/under the influence of bad people or bad things? Am I seriously in trouble? Am I suffering from chemical, pornographic, gambling, or other addictions? Are there friends/family that love and care for me that I can ask for assistance? What people/institutions are there that I can approach for help? We observe all the factors in our life from a third person point of view and take stock of our condition and what we have around us. Both what things will be helpful, and which things we need to get away from.
The final step for a lost hiker is to make a plan and act on it. Perhaps they used the things they observed and figured out where they are. They may continue in a certain direction for so many minutes until they have confirmation. Perhaps they are too tired or seriously lost and must set up shelter and signals to be found. They make a cool assessment of the situation based on the actual data and then act on it. It might mean they have to weather a cold night, but staying put and setting up camp where they are would increase their likelihood of being found.
Again, no different from our spiritual life. Perhaps we just got distracted and we just need a little more time in daily prayer. Perhaps it’s more serious and we need to consult a trusted friend or priest. If it is gravely serious, we need professional/medical/legal help for our situation along with consultation with a trusted spiritual advisor. It is important to remember that you are not alone. There are countless resources from friends, priests, the local parish, spiritual groups, addiction groups, and countless others. Contacting your local priest/parish is a tremendous resource to get you started since they know most of the organizations in their diocese. Whatever the plan, we then must act on it. It might mean confronting very hard realities, but to not do so means we’ll almost certainly find ourselves in more dire trouble later.
The Catholic understanding of our lives is very much spirit and body together, and to find parallels in our physical reality that mirror those in the spiritual reality should not be a surprise. This is one element of why we are so Eucharistically focused. One aspect of being Eucharistically based is we learn we are not just spirit, but spirit and body together.
Christ could have brought salvation from heaven without the mucking about in our humanity. But instead came in human form to redeem us. God does not just do things in a good way, he does them in the PERFECT way. It was only through his physical death that we are saved – and tells us how intimately our bodies and souls are intertwined. At the resurrection, we will rise again – body and soul once more. Their separation in death was never meant to be, but was introduced as punishment because of the fall of Adam and Eve.
This inherent connection of body and spirit means physical ills such as addictions need just as much care/cared for at the same time as our spiritual needs. Without both, the injured soul often falls back into the same sins, or the dark paths our bodies become ensnared in drag our souls along with them. This is why the first hospitals were set up by religious so that in so curing the body, we may cure the soul. We also acknowledge that grave evils such as murder, fornication, and rape tear at the soul as well as the body. As a Eucharistic people, we are to care for the bodily and spiritual needs of our fellow men and women just as Christ came in human form to redeem our bodies and souls as well.