I discovered a new form of aerobic meditation last week while traveling down 70 miles of the John Day River through north-central Oregon. Ellen, Allie, Nick and I took turns paddling an inflatable kayak through gentle rapids and long stretches of flat water while the rest of the family bobbed along in an accompanying raft. Along with our two river guides, we were already isolated from the world by basalt cliffs that in places soared 2000 to 3000 feet above us. No cell phone signal could escape this gash across the landscape, and no road crossed it. Being alone in the kayak took each of us deeper into a seemingly timeless world of 15-million-year-old rock dissected by the turbid floodwaters of an undammed river.
Wild country, especially those untrammeled places into which we can escape for a time, are useful for experiencing the “beyondness” of God. This is where we can sense the desolation of self and the loss for words that comes of being alone and vulnerable before the deity. I believe God is with us always, but that because of human invention and distraction we routinely fail to sense his presence. The buzz of life simply gets in the way. For reasons I don’t fully understand, I find it easier to apprehend God in the absence of the symbols to which we usually associate him—but it’s a different aspect of his being that I discern there. This is God in the negative, where I discover the limits of my understanding and must abandon myself to mystery. Desert spirituality is elemental. The wind, rock and water of the John Day canyon are symbols as holy as any found in the grandest cathedral of Europe, but they are also inscrutable.
Place is an indispensible means for describing the experience of God. Moses went into the desert, ascended Mt. Sinai and entered a dark cloud of unknowing. It was by design that he was removed from the company of other people. Our abandonment along the John Day River wasn’t nearly as complete as we had the company of family and, at meals, the service of the guides we had hired. During that time in that kayak, however, I was relieved of egocentric concerns and carried into a fierce landscape that only God could fill. It was several hours of sublimity.