By Bill Harkins, Senior Lecturer of Pastoral Theology and Care; Co-Director of the ThD Program
For almost 17 years, I have hosted a course at Columbia Theological Seminary called “Men in Ministry.” We’ve gathered weekly to discuss readings, share reflection papers and a meal, and engage in fellowship. The growing cohort of class alumni out in the world has been remarkably faithful in staying in touch with me and, in some cases, with each other. Something happens at deep levels each time the course is offered which has little, if anything, to do with the instructor. But what is it? How do I explain the long shelf life of both the course, and what develops when we gather?
Perhaps the best way to respond to this is experientially. I have tried to embody in my own life what we seek to engage in the course. Each summer, I gather with dear friends from graduate school days at Vanderbilt Divinity School for a week of conversation, laughter, reading, trail running, wiffle ball, and other outdoor activities. And, did I mention laughter? Because we are drawn to wilderness settings, together we have paddled the Allagash River in Maine, trekked over Sam Knob and Black Balsam in North Carolina, and hiked in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana.
We enjoy reconnecting with one another each year. This photo (right) was taken at the end of a week-long paddle up the Allagash River in Maine, beginning near Mt. Katahdin and Baxter State Park. We are on the Canadian border at the confluence of the Allagash and the St. John’s River.
For the past few years, we’ve gathered in northern Colorado, near Pingree Park, the Colorado State University mountain campus, on the border of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Roosevelt National Forest. Often, we meet new friends (left) in their native habitat.
And, we sometimes find ourselves in new, uncertain, terrain. This photo (below) is of Comanche Peak and the cirque to Fall Mountain, in the Mummy Range. Just over the mountain range is Wyoming and points north. On a clear day, one can see the Tetons from Comanche Peak.
Two years ago, my friend Bob, who teaches philosophy and religion in Minneapolis, and I hiked up to Comanche Peak, along the cirque to Fall Mountain, down into Mummy Pass, and thence back to our cabin in the valley. It was a 10-hour trip, and challenging both physically and mentally. What had been planned as a 6-hour day hike become much more than either of us, both careful planners, anticipated it would be. Upon reaching the summit of Comanche Peak, after slogging through the dreaded “Krumholz Zone,” we could see clouds building to the north and west. Despite our pre-dawn “alpine” start, we became concerned about the potential for lightning from afternoon thunderstorms. With so much exposure above the tree-line, we would need to seek lower ground, and soon!
Much of the day was spent above 12,000 feet, along the rim of the cirque (right). With a close eye on the storms building to the north and west, we decided to drop down into the sub-alpine forest beyond Fall Mountain. This required that we leave the well-marked trail, and make use of our map and compass, to connect with the Mummy Pass trail at a point south of our original course. We were in unfamiliar terrain, now cutting across country, and using our best judgment in light of new, developing information. There were a few moments of harrowing uncertainty as we sought the trail we knew we should intersect—and eventually did.
In the relative safety of the lower altitude, we made our way back down toward the Pingree Park valley, past lovely Cirque Meadow (left) and back to the cabin, as a chilling rain began. The day had indeed been harrowing in both the culturally familiar, pejorative sense—to vex; to cause distress—and in the agricultural sense of the term, as in to harrow the soil, turning over the detritus of last year’s crop for planting, new growth, and eventual harvest. In fact, the root of harrow comes from the Old English word harwe, from which we get our word harvest. As I write, I am harvesting some of the seeds that were planted that day. I have a sense of wonder about this. It is often the case in wilderness sojourns that I am not sure what was planted, or what the harvest will be!
“At some point in time, a man needs to embark on a risky journey. It’s a necessary adventure that takes him into uncertainty, and it almost always involves some form of difficulty or failure. On this journey the man learns to trust God more than he trusts a sense of right and wrong or his own sense of self-worth.” ~Richard Rohr, On The Threshold of Transformation.
While this particular book of meditations was written with men in mind, I think the opportunity for transcendence implied in Rohr’s language is available to us all in wilderness journeys. Also…
“The wilderness pilgrim’s step-by-step breath-by-breath walk up a trail, into those snowfields, carrying all on the back, is so ancient a set of gestures as to bring a profound sense of body-mind joy.” ~Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild
This journey had been the occasion for, in some ways, facing my own vulnerability and finitude. And yet, as I think about it now, I find the memory of it to be invigorating and hopeful. Indeed, we are learning that our time outside can have mental health benefits in surprising ways. In a recent article in Outside Magazine, the authors cite research that suggests that…
“These days, screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever. And nope, there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside.”
That evening in Colorado, blessedly dry and warm by the fire (at 10,000 feet in the Rockies, evening temperatures are often in the 30s, even in August!) we shared stories of our adventure. We recalled the herd of elk we surprised in the basin below Comanche, as we emerged from the Krumholz, and onto the tundra. We once again felt the rush of adrenaline as we recalled searching (unsuccessfully) for the true peak atop Comanche, where the Mountaintop Register tube might be signed. We recalled the moments of uncertainty as we consulted the map and compass, and searched for the connecting trail that would take us home. That portion of our trip was, in some ways, less Odyssean than Abrahamic, leading us into uncertain terrain and unpredictable futures.
Bill Harkins lives in Atlanta, where he teaches pastoral theology at Columbia Seminary, and maintains a private practice in pastoral counseling and marriage and family therapy at the Brookwood Center for Psychotherapy. Bill also serves as psychological health faculty for CREDO, an Episcopal wellness program for clergy. He is a graduate of Rhodes College, where he majored in neuroscience, and Vanderbilt University (MDiv, PhD). He is a priest associate at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Philip. Bill is married to Vicky, a hospital administrator, and they have two sons, with whom he delights in getting outdoors in creation. Justin is an environmental attorney in Montana, and Andrew is a first-year student at Emory Medical School. Bill is a veteran of 39 consecutive Peachtree Road Races and completed the Asheville Marathon, his tenth, in March of 2015.
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