In my mind, I am climbing above the tree line. The air is dry. I’m higher than the gnarled spines of the bristlecone. Above where the noisy jay birds chatter a blue streak. It’s hot here. The sun liquefies and soaks through the skin into the bones, making, it seems, the very marrow melt like wax.
Why am I here? I need to climb above the daily news, to somewhere I can breathe. In the valley below, I’m overwhelmed with anxiety, grief, and a curious disinterest in the news: 51,000 dead from an earthquake in China; 78,000 dead from a cyclone in Burma. A thief broke into a church-run food bank in Virginia and stole $1,000 worth of canned goods. (Apparently, there’s a demand for black-market canned goods.)
From the crest of this ridge, I see three bent mountain lakes, bluer than the jays. All they do—these lakes—is praise. With every twisted thread of blue woven through their luminous watery skin, they praise. The mountains that cup them are young—15 to 20 million years old. Perhaps the lakes are the alleluia of the mountains.
IF THE HILLS, STREAMS, and lakes can praise in this way, what is the utterance of the earthquake in China, the cyclone in Burma, the food thief in Virginia? If all are part of a hymn of praise that stretches from before Time to after Time, what is the prayer? Hebrew and Christian scriptures say when mortals veer too wide from the laws of the Creator—and there is no effective witness against them—“the very stones will cry out.”
If creation is the first grace, the first revelation of God’s goodness, as Catholics believe, can we read these natural disasters as the earth’s psalms of lament? And when, in a human society, the hungry steal from the hungry, who has sinned?
In the shade of a protruding chunk of granite grows a tough little alpine arnica. Yellow head downcast, fuzzy neck exposed. This one has taken hold despite the slope’s almost unbelievable angle of repose. At this altitude, there is a magnificent silence.
FROM RAINIER MARIA Rilke’s “Ninth Elegy”: “Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely in the form of a laurel … why then have to be human?”
If my brief spark of existence could be as one of these mountains, lakes, scrub jays, or tiny yellow flowers and I could praise, then why be human? Why bear the daily headlines, the suffering, the fractured order of love?
Rilke suggests it is because this busted-up world needs us—needs the holy, and wholly flawed, men and women of God. It needs our “long experience of love.” For us to say what needs to be said. “Speak and bear witness,” writes Rilke. “More than ever the things that we might experience are vanishing, for what crowds them out is an imageless act.”
Some of those “imageless acts” from our day: The profiteering smoke-and-mirrors of carbon offsets. The trading of home mortgage paper up an invisible economic ladder. Dispensing the snake of military occupation, unjust trade policies, and unfettered market systems, when we are asked for the fish of freedom and dignified lives.
JUST BEYOND THE eastern range, cumulonimbus build up. A breeze raises the hair on my neck. I reverse course on the crest. Ahead is the downward trail.
Maybe I was wrong to name the vanities. Rilke argues for naming what we love instead, urges us to show how joy and gratitude are found in the simplest things. Children in Sichuan province burning incense on the rubble of their school to honor dead classmates. Christians and Buddhist nuns distributing rice in Bogalay. Canned goods by the truck-loads delivered to a Virginia food bank two days after the burglary. And also, talus in the high Sierra. A yellow flower. A blue lake.
I come down from the mountain. Enter the dry green shade of the Ponderosa pines, the incense cedar. Step finally into a busy, bus-addled city street—and look around. Rilke says this world needs me, sinner that I am. Where can I put to work my “long experience of love”?
Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.