My wife and I were blessed to spend the better part of a day hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western ND, a couple hours west of Bismarck, as a celebration of our fifteenth anniversary. (We’re hikers, or at least used to be; when we were in Durham, NC, we’d hike locally at Eno River State Park as well as make our way west to the mountains around Asheville, and in Germany we spent a week hiking in Berchtesgadener Land, where the last episode of Band of Brothers was filmed.) If anyone ever tells you ND is flat and boring, send them a link to this post with the pictures. Wow. Just gorgeous. We actually entered at the east unit, Painted Canyon, and as it was a Thursday and as we were away from the main entrance in Medora, we were all alone, the only creatures on the trail.
Except for the bison.
On our way in, we saw two very large bison from a safe enough distance; bison sprint at 30 MPH and can weigh up to 2000 pounds, so if they charge, that’s it. Usually they don’t. Deeper in we spooked a herd with a couple bison babies from a decent distance, and the herd jogged away from us and disappeared. On the way back, however, we encountered a very large bison (probably one of the two we had seen on the way in) about 20 meters from the trail, too close for my comfort. It turned around and looked at us as we walked. A little bit of a rush. It didn’t charge. If it did, you wouldn’t be reading this.
Hiking this rugged terrain was simply wonderful — getting away from work, the computers, the cell phone, and all the other distractions of modern life provides an opportunity to think, talk, and engage nature in a way that simply doesn’t happen in the day-to-day. And in this new context, I found our hike could be read as an allegory of allegory.
My wife and I hike differently. She keeps her eyes up, watching the beauty all round us. For some reason, I’m always conscious of my feet and so keep my eyes down on the path. And in a moment of insight hard to capture here in a blog post, I realized that walking this path was like allegory as presented in the Gospel of John.
St. John might rightly be called the father of Christian allegory (though pagans and Jews were allegorizing their sacred texts well before Jesus, and whether we want to regard Jesus or St. Paul as the father of Christian allegory is a discussion for a different day). In the Gospel of John, various characters routinely remain in confusion because they are looking down, not up; they focus on earthly things, not heavenly things. Three episodes come immediately to mind:
The first concerns the controversy over the prediction of the destruction of the temple in John 2. After Jesus has “cleansed” the temple, his opponents ask him, “What sign do you show us for doing these things?” Jesus responds, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.” His opponents are nonplussed: “It has taken us forty-six years to rebuild this temple [beginning with Herod the Great’s refurbishments in 19 BC], and you will raise it up in three days?” The narrator then tells us Jesus was speaking allegorically: “But he was speaking of the temple of his body.” Jesus’ opponents were thinking only of the physical temple crowning Jerusalem, failing to look through the sign and see the ultimate spiritual referent of Jesus’ risen body.
Nicodemus’ exchange with Jesus is a second obvious example. Jesus says one must be born again to enter the kingdom of God, and Nicodemus, looking down, asks a grotesque question because he thinks Jesus’ words are absurd, essentially asking how it’s possible for a grown man to crawl back up his mother’s birth canal: “Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus tells Nicodemus to look up: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
The third example is the Bread of Life discourse in John 6. As I have written elsewhere online, John 6 presents a tripartite typology: The Old Testament miracle of manna points forward to the Feeding of the 5000 and both point forward to the Eucharist. Many present react so negatively because they hear cannibalism when Jesus tells them they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. Seeking only to get their earthly, mortal bellies filled again (John 6:26), they miss out on the spiritual food of the Eucharist that “endures to eternal life” (John 6:27).
More passages could be adduced, but these three give you the idea: St. John would have us look up to divine Glory, would have us look through the sign so that we might perceive the things of the Spirit, and not merely at the sign. It’s the difference between the response of a cat and a person to a pointing finger. A cat will look at the hand, not realize it’s a sign, and then lick itself, lay down, and expect you to feed it later. A person will perceive the sign and look along it to see what you’re pointing at.
For me, hiking, I realized looking down at the path meant I was missing much of the glory all around me. Better to look up.