Easter in the Mountains: Christianity vs. The Call of the Wild

The eye believes and its communion takes.
– Wallace Stevens, “Excerpts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas”

My bad! The main spiritual event for me yesterday—Easter Sunday—didn’t happen inside a church but in the great outdoors. I went hiking.

The dawn rose just too clear for me to want to be anywhere else but in the bosom of Mother Nature, not of Father Abraham. It was going to be one of those achingly beautiful Spring days in California—bright and dry, with midday temps in the 70s, sort of like a fine June day in the Midwest. A major trailhead into the mighty San Gabriels beckoned—a trailhead five minutes from where I live. I knew I wouldn’t regret my choice. And indeed the bracing climb through the microclimates along the trail—the changing fragrances and flora (lupines!) at nearly each turn on my way up to 5,000 feet—created a rush of pleasures both spiritual and corporeal.

Time was when I would fret and fuss over what to me were two essentially irreconcilable religions that both claimed a big piece of me: traditional Christianity and the call of the wild. Almost forty years ago I did my undergraduate thesis—did it quite badly, I now realize—on the competing Christian and pantheistic impulses in modernist poet Wallace Stevens. I was writing about my own struggle, still tormented by “the dominion of the blood and sepulchre” (Stevens).

I don’t fret and fuss anymore. I’m still an Easter Christian in the sense that I believe God powerfully vindicated the nonviolent witness of Jesus of Nazareth and thereby raised all who share this witness to a new and different life as part of a great mystical Body. I won’t bother to unpack this—and I’ve no space to do so. Suffice it to say that my belief here is highly embedded in a particular religious tradition.

At the same time, I feel more than ever not just nature’s grandeur but the holiness within that grandeur, the healing and sanctifying effects of yielding fully to it, and the necessity of communicating, especially to the young, that this bright green-blue Earth is our only home. And that it’s so alive—and so much bigger than us—that a little reverence and humility wouldn’t be a bad idea.

Once I laughed at how the Unitarians had written vernal awakening words to replace the original stanzas of “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” I don’t laugh anymore. Whatever God is doing to lift us higher, God is definitely not doing it via just one rather peculiar religious tradition (most peculiar because of its love-hate relationship with Judaism). Not for nothing did the Church hook its Easter observance into the vernal cycle while retaining the inevitable (and tragic, historically speaking) link to Pesach. This seasonal timing makes the whole idea of physical resurrection, outlandish in itself, seem almost natural.

Perhaps better to let Stevens say it, as he does so well in “Holiday in Reality”:

Spring is umbilical or else it is not spring.
Spring is the truth of spring or nothing, a waste, a fake.

Amen to that. Amen and Alleluia.