So I was in China this one time, on a class trip. We were about forty-five minutes north of Beijing, in these vast mountains that spread out in all directions. Mountain shrubs covered the ground in all directions, and further out, pines and firs sprouted up to form a huge blanket of green over the rocky ground, all the way out to the horizon. Somewhere, far beyond, loomed the Gobi Desert; the same desert that once harbored shadowy Mongol hordes, the reason for such a Wall’s existence. Anyway, there we were, midday-ish, somewhere in the middle of the Wall, and I still remember this vividly, almost ten years later: as most of my classmates moved forward, I stared out from atop the Wall, into this huge expanse of mystery. Rolling, mountainous terrain; a dense fog shrouding everything, and, on some nameless peak, a single pagoda. Who had built it, and when? And for what? Did they still use it, for whatever that purpose had it been, all those years ago? Centuries ago, for all I knew. All questions that probably do not have any recorded answer, things I would and will never know. I stared out at this pagoda circled by mist, and the rolling green across the mountains, and an immense blue-gray sky streaked with clouds. It wasn’t quiet there, with all the tourists, but I remember it being silent. In that moment, I felt a presence greater than myself. That is the first time I have truly felt the presence of God.
I applied to ASC not knowing exactly what the program was (there’s a connection to that China story, I promise). I had the assumption that ASC was just a job, like a Teach for America, but through the Jesuits. I had been taught by ASC volunteers in high school, but never picked up on the aspects of community living or spiritual formation that are so important, if not central, to the ASC volunteer experience. In fact, I did not even learn about these aspects until my interview for the position. I realized, in that moment during my interview, that it was the first time I had considered my spirituality in about a decade. Since I’ve been out here in Colorado, I have been trying to find a connection with God. God has been in my thoughts pretty much daily, and, although I hadn’t found the connection I was looking for, I did find myself actually stepping back and examining my life and my choices constantly, which is a great part of Ignatian spirituality. But still no presence-of-God feeling had manifested (probably because I was looking for it).
And then, the weekend after Thanksgiving, I was camping up in the mountains with the assistant principal of Arrupe Jesuit and another English teacher, in this 10th Mountain Division hut (more of an awesome cabin). I went out to the porch and just stared out across the mountains. The Rockies unfurled forever, jagged black peaks covered in snow. It was cold, below 20°F. Silence. I stood in that silence for maybe ten minutes. The cold settled in, down to the bone. I was reminded of a passage from the Bible that we had read at ASC boot camp, 1 Kings 11-13: 11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
I guess there is something about mountains that puts me in touch with something larger than myself. Both times I have been in the mountains, I felt that I was in the presence of the Lord. It is a humbling experience, to be in the shadow of something so monolithic, the geologic time that it took to form them, the permanence of the mountains, that makes me feel very, very small; makes me feel like there is so much more out in the world. But it is the silence that surrounds these mountains where I feel utterly at peace, and when I have felt the presence of God. I am glad I came to Denver, and I am glad I have had these experiences. And I will continue to seek new ways to feel God’s presence out here.