When I read for pure pleasure, especially in the summer season, in the sun, in the chair, in the hammock, I often turn to travel writers – those whose pages can mentally lift me out of the chaos that is Wainscott in summer; take me away from “competitive vacationers,” and place me someplace else.
Now I’ve tried to rationalize this, but do so imperfectly. It’s not a need to escape, but rather a deep sense of admiration for those who do – and whose eye and gift of writing communicates well everything they encounter. They may be relatively modern writers, these favorites of mine: Graham Green, Paul Theroux, Colin Thubron and Bruce Chatwin to name a few – but they are the product of generations of journeys and adventures of much greater significance.
They reflect the great spirit of exploration, something that is inherent in the human race, and which has shaped and nurtured us. The need to see “what’s out there,” the urge to go the next mile, and the passion to step out, and face outwards. I hope that we have not denied ourselves this exploratory zeal for too long and rendered it inactive. At times I truly worry when we as a human race turn in on ourselves, obsessed with our own security, comfort and needs, and refuse to step over the boundaries that mark the point where new and often strange, even dangerous things begin.
Recently I have been intrigued and enthralled by the journal of John Wesley Powell, the man with one arm who (in 1869) set out to map the unknown territory which included the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. Oh, people knew these places were there, but there were no maps because no one had yet survived to bring back the maps they had drawn!
I’d like to share a short extract from his journal, written as he and his men prepared to enter the unexplored and unmapped.
We are ready to start our way down the great unknown... We are three-quarters of a mile in the depths of the earth and the great river shrinks into insignificance as it dashes its angry waves against the walls and cliffs that rise to the world above... We have an unknown distance yet to run, an unknown river to explore. What falls there are, we know not. What rocks beset the channel, we know not. What walls rise over the river, we know not.
Wonderful prose! Powerful language! Summed up: Lack of knowledge, and lack of certainty, just before boundaries were crossed.
In this morning’s extraordinary gospel reading we hear of many boundaries being crossed, although not necessarily obvious ones, and a culture of separation. We suddenly find Jesus in very unfamiliar territory. The country of the Gerasenes. A people relatively unknown, except to themselves. Non-Jews, probably Greek in origin. The root of their name enigmatically means “those who arrived by pilgrimage.” A rural people – pig farmers included.
So Jesus had crossed into a region to meet a people and culture definitely not of his own people.
Then there was a man, living wild, given to erratic and violent behavior. A man so strange that his own people could not tolerate him, and so had thrown him out beyond another social boundary. He is even given an outsider’s name. Legion. A Roman term, and therefore an insult to most.
However we deal with and interpret the story of the healing of this man, and the driving out of his demons, it is the conclusion that is important. The man is restored to society, clothed and made respectable. He is no longer an outsider but back with his own people. A boundary has been removed.
But no sooner has one boundary been removed than another is immediately set up. The people are angry. And justly so, if we accept that a large herd of pigs did indeed perish. This was a serious attack on their livelihood, and so a boundary of resentment appeared. And then, a boundary of fear.
And despite what he had done, Jesus could not cross those new lines.
Why were those people afraid? It was more than losing pigs; it was the fact that they had met with, seen something outside of their familiarity. The very power of God. And they were frightened by it, because it was unmapped territory as far as their religious experience was concerned. And so they were not prepared to venture into the unknown, rather asking Jesus and his disciples to get out of town.
From times long ago we have known and recognized and regretted, although not often enough, that faith, religious faith, is full of boundaries – and yet the Christian message is one that not only transcends those boundaries but actually demands that they be swept away.
St. Paul could not have put it more plainly when he wrote:
There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
And to take that seriously and make it into a reality we have an awful long way to go. But go we must, into what is affectively a risky unknown. Risky, because we not only do not know what lies beyond the first boundary we cross, but also people with whom we meet and engage may throw up new, equally difficult, boundaries in our path. If they did so for Jesus, then they certainly will do so for us!
But in God’s name, as we enter the unknown, it is surely an adventure, a journey, a risk worth taking!