Two days off. It was a great feeling to know that the extra miles he hiked and extra-long days through Pennsylvania and New York had given him enough wiggle room to take a day or two and rest before the final leg of his journey. It was a beautiful day, sunny and cool, certainly cool compared to back home, not even eighty degrees. Max leaned back and thought about how good it felt to sleep in a regular bed, waking up to a warm breakfast at the Hanover Inn, and now relaxing with a book under a stand of trees just off The Green at Dartmouth College. Even though it would add a few ounces to the pack (an ounce in the pack was two on the back), it was nice to have something new to read. He lifted the copy of Kahlil Gibran’s Thoughts and Meditations and read,
“Then the earth swayed under me and the sky trembled over me; whereupon I leaped up as though raised by a magic power. And I found myself in a meadow the like of which no human being has ever fancied.” (Gibran 1960, 72)
As he read on, Max read how in a dream or vision, the writer was transported to a world of fantasy, where the queen of this realm was the muse of creation and the creators of artistic words and verse from Isaiah the Prophet to Dante. At one point in this dream, the Queen gives the writer a kiss and says, “Tell them that he who passes not his days in the realm of dreams is a slave of the days.” (Gibran 1960, 75) He lowered the book and smirked. It was poetic and beautifully written, metaphorical, and deeply influenced by a romanticism that Max thought over the top sometimes but still enjoyable for its literary prowess. Apparently, Dartmouth was bringing out the literary critic in him.
He read for a while longer and after his legs began to fall asleep on him decided to take an impromptu tour of the campus. He walked north across the grassy fields between College Street and North Main Street until he came to the massive colonial building that declared itself the Baker-Berry Library. To Max it looked like a movie reproduction of some pre-Revolutionary meeting house for the future leaders of the United States. He followed the walkway toward the front of the building and heard something – someone – who stopped him in his tracks.
Max stopped suddenly and turned to face a crowd of people walking out of some auditorium. In the crowd, a voice, that voice, was talking among several others. He couldn’t see everyone in the group and found himself drifting toward them as the collection of students, professors, and others began dispersing. The last two people finished their conversation and walked away from one another as Max looked around, dumbfounded.
“Looking for something?” Max looked up to see a woman, most likely in her late forties or early fifties with short, cropped hair, smartly dressed in what was probably an off the rack Nordstrom pantsuit.
Max shook his head. “Not something, someone. I thought I heard…heard someone I knew.”
The woman smiled, something almost maternal. “Familiar environments can play tricks on us. Sometimes the mind pieces together things from places we’ve been and puts them together to help us deal with things we don’t really want to deal with.” She stuck out a hand, “Kem Webster, professor of psychology.”
“Max King, thru-hiker.”
“Nice to meet you Max.”
She turned to walk away and stopped. “Maybe hiking the trail has brought up something you didn’t know you needed to deal with. Too much time to think does that sometimes.”
Max heard the clicking of her heels on the walkway but his mind was somewhere else, seventeen hundred miles and five years away.
Max was still standing in front of the main library at Dartmouth but he wasn’t seeing the lush green landscape and colonial era buildings. He was in an apartment just off the Kennesaw State campus in Marietta. Sarah was standing in front of him, a lock of light chestnut hair covering her left eye, in her favorite jeans and Rolling Stones t-shirt, her face a combination of tears and frustration. Another fight, the third one in as many days. First it was rings (gold or platinum). Then it was the minister (Methodist or Episcopal). Then it was the location (First Methodist or St. John’s). Then…well, at this point he couldn’t remember. It was almost like Max and Sarah made the decision to get married and divorced at the same time. Things were fine until the day after he knelt down in the middle of the square and placed a sparkling diamond on her hand. In that moment, something happened, call it jitters, call it whatever, but something about moving from seriously dating to seriously getting married led their relationship careening off an emotional cliff.
They tried talking to his family, her family, close friends, each other’s ministers. They went to counseling. They did premarital studies. They tried. In the end, Max found himself standing in her apartment, holding a ring in his hand with tears sliding down his face as she held her hands in her face and cried. A few months later, Max made the decision to continue on with his plans and go to seminary. He kept his mind on work at a local church, the candidacy process, and seminary for the next four years. Now, with all that behind him, he found himself back where he started, a moment in his life that eventually led him on a long walk in the woods.
Despite his bewildered state, Max managed to find his way back to the Inn. After the better part of nearly five years, he had thought he was over this, past the past and moving on, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. After thinking about the professor’s words back at the campus, he realized all the solitude had allowed his mind to work its way around to things that he thought buried and gone. Max was all about moving forward, not looking back, not being nostalgic but progressive. Yet, here he was, sitting on a hotel bed in New England, a Gideon’s Bible in his hands, looking for comfort.
Apparently, he wasn’t the first. Max noticed a bookmark, actually a menu for a local pizza place, tucked in between the pages. When the pages parted, he found himself looking at the first chapter of Galatians. He read the beginning, the part where Paul is trying to establish that he doesn’t need to be authorized by the Jerusalem church to preach the gospel but that he, Paul, was authorized by his call of God. He kept reading until he got through with the part about Paul’s past,
“You heard about my previous life in Judaism, how severely I harassed God’s church and tried to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my peers, because I was much more militant about the traditions of my ancestors.” (Galatians 1:13-14)
Max thought about that for a moment. Here was a man who had given up everything he had worked for through his early life to embrace a new way of life, started over with a new message, and was being told that wasn’t enough for him to be. Paul was once the great persecutor of the church, able to bring charges of heresy against any found not following the law as he, Paul, saw fit. Paul was a Jew’s Jew, a man schooled in the ancient teachings and traditions to the point that few had his skill and understanding in interpreting and debating the Scriptures and traditions. Yet, here he was, having to live down that past: the stoning of Stephen, the harassment of men, women, and children in their homes and places of worship, single handedly being able to dismiss people from the synagogue on his word alone.
How many people hated the sound of his name? How many people spat on the ground he walked on? How many people were unwilling, unable to acknowledge this change of person and being? Paul, no matter how devoted to his new faith and cause, most likely never lived down his past life. Yet, he kept going. Why?
Then it dawned on him and Max felt silly. It was something Paul had written to the Corinthians as a reminder of who they were and were expected now to be, “…if anyone is in Christ”, if you are now a person who chooses to live and be as Jesus was, “that person is part of the new creation…In other words, God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ…The old things are gone away, and look, new things have arrived.” (2 Corinthians 5:17, 19) Paul was living in the now, not the then. Paul was embracing the moment and the opportunities that existed in the moment. He hadn’t forgotten the past or the things that had happened, he simply came to terms with them, accepted that he had made mistakes, and moved on.
Max put the Bible back in the drawer and walked to the window. The afternoon was fading away into early evening and the lights of the little college town of Hanover were beginning to sporadically come to life. Max came to realize that in running away to work, to school, even to the trail itself, he was trying to get away from that moment and others like it. But memory holds the past even when we try to let it go. The best Max could hope for was to make peace with his parts in the past and live into the new being he was and was becoming.
He picked up his new copy of Gibran and flipped through a few pages, landing on a story called My Soul Preached to Me.
“My soul spoke to me and said, ‘Do not measure time by saying, ‘There was yesterday, and there shall be tomorrow.’
And ere my soul spoke to me, I imagined the Past as an epoch that never returned, and the Future as one that could never be reached.
Now I realize that the present moment contains all time and within it all that can be hoped for, done, and realized.” (Gibran 1960, 30)
It was in the moment that Max was being called to live. It was not in the past where things which have been done cannot be undone, not in the future where things that have not happened are not yet known, but in the now, where the decision can be made to live of rich fullness in faith.
He let the tears flow, releasing a torrent of emotions held in check for nearly five years now. It was cathartic. It was freeing. It was. And in the moment, simply being present with those feelings was enough to let go of them.
Bultmann, Rudolph. Primitive Christianity. 17th. Cleveland, OH: William Collins Publishers, 1956.
Gibran, Kahlil. Thoughts and Mediations. New York: Citadel Press, 1960.