Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Descending into the Cloud

Last week I spent a day guiding a group through a spiritual discernment process. The group was in Leadville, an old mining town in central Colorado. Knowing that I would be driving to Leadville at the end of the week, I had watched the weather reports carefully to make sure that I would avoid bad driving conditions as much as possible. I don't like driving over mountain passes in the snow; it can be a "white knuckle" experience. The weather reports were not good. The morning I was supposed to head out to Leadville, a storm was coming in so I decided to drive up the day before. The drive to Leadville was beautiful! The mountains in the fall are breathtaking and my route took me over Fremont Pass, which takes you up to 11,000 feet on gently winding roads. Although the aspen trees were past prime viewing, the peaks were snowcapped and the evergreens made for stunning contrast. The sky was slate blue and the sun was shining. I am always surprised and delighted by the beauty of God's creation.

The next day, the Leadville morning was greeted with the same gorgeous blue sky, but the weather reports in the Denver area were terrible. The roads were covered with ice, there was a 50 car pileup on I-25, and parts of I-70 were closed. The storm was pushing up against the Front Range and it looked like my drive home was going to be rough. After a prayerful morning of working with the discernment group, I anxiously hit the highway. Fremont Pass was once again clear and sunny. No sign of snow on the west side of the Divide made for a smooth approach to the Eisenhower/Johnson tunnel. As I began the eastbound descent from the tunnel and drove through Georgetown, it was still clear and sunny. I had not caught up to the storm yet but the radio station continued to report the terrible weather and road conditions in the Denver area. It was on the other side of Idaho Springs that I could see the dark clouds piled up. The storm was backed up against the Front Range and the plains were socked in. Idaho Springs was still sunny and bright, but I could see that soon I would be descending into the gloom. As I approached my exit, the clouds embraced me. I had entered a new world! Everything was covered with a layer of snow and ice, the type of thick frost that holds on to the tree branches and makes each twig and pine needle glisten. Mist filled the air.  The road that took me home was empty and the uncharacteristic mid afternoon quiet was serene. But even with the gloom and the snow on the grass and trees, the roads in the foothills cooperated by being dry - the icy roads were further down the mountain. My anxiety about the drive home dissipated as soon as I entered the cloud and I knew that coming home was going to be easier than the weather reports had indicated. I was grateful.

On the spiritual journey we find ourselves entering into the cloud at times. Perhaps the spiritual cloud is one to which we ascend rather than descend, but it can still be a journey of anxiety and uncertainty. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing describes dwelling in that place of mystery and serenity. The author says, "When you first begin, you find only darkness, as it were a cloud of unknowing. You don't know what this means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will, this darkness and this cloud remain between you and God and stop you both from seeing him in the clear light of rational understanding, and from experiencing his loving sweetness in your affection. Reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after him whom you love. For if you are to feel him or to see him in this life, it must always be in this cloud, in this darkness."

When we seek God, we enter a new world - one that is so different we cannot see clearly. Since we are unable to truly know God, we must acknowledge the mist that covers the eyes of our spirits. God is deeply unknowable. We can only hope to see the effects of God that change the world around us. It is like seeing the glimmering frost that makes the world beautiful while not being able to see the cold that collects the humidity on the branches. It should be no suprise to find the road home clear and our spirits quiet and serene.  If we can "reconcile ourselves to wait" in the mystery of the cloud, our eyes begin to see that loving sweetness, we find ourselves experiencing that peace that passes understanding. Let us not be anxious about entering into the Cloud of Unknowing, even when it appears to us like a storm cloud.  Let us rejoice in the presence of the Holy, especially when it seems we are surrounded by mystery.

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