Only in Emptying

Annapurna5

What is a Pilgrimage, anyway?

We were back on the dirt road; you know, the dusty, uninspiring one being built on much of the Annapurna Circuit to allow for cars and trucks and buses and motorcycles. This was my first time hiking the entire circuit, but I had been on this part of the trail before. Five years ago it was a small path – slabs of rock flattened the ground beneath the feet, lined by green trees and bushes. Knowing its previous beauty makes the dusty road under the hot sun all the more depressing. I glared at the passing trucks with irritation.

It is day 23, our last day of trekking, I thought. And I don’t know how to do anything but walk anymore.

I wasn’t ready to be done. I wanted to keep walking – at least, until all my expectations were met. I had tears in my eyes, but they were not like the tears at Tilicho Lake, not tears of joy. These were tears of disappointment. It wasn’t what I thought it would be.

I know. How could I be disappointed? I had the unique privilege of trekking for 23 days in one of the most beautiful places on earth. I survived paths through landslides and terrifying depths and reached incredible heights. It’s almost offensive to come away disappointed.

Only in Emptying1

But, you see, I had certain expectations for these three weeks. We called it a pilgrimage – and that was intentional. Not just a hike, but a time to meet with God in the wilderness, to connect with Christ in the center of our being, to have the brilliant conversation Becca and I tend to have when hiking, to debrief our six months in India, to come away with lessons learned and to end feeling centered, more connected with God and with creation.

To be honest, on that ugly road I felt like none of those had happened to any noteworthy degree. Most of the trek I thought about very little except for putting one step in front of another, the anticipated length of time until our next break, striving to get a certain distance each day. Our appreciation of the beauty around us were usually brief moments, enough time to catch our breath, drink some water and look at the mountains and the trees, the fields and rivers, the birds, the yaks and horses, until we remembered we still had 5 hours to go that day. We usually felt like we weren’t doing the places justice, not basking in the majesty around us. Our conversations were typically about food and what part of our body hurt that day. What were we learning? Reflecting on? Was I closer to God? Were my body and soul more connected? Did I see – I mean really see – God’s goodness in creation? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe I just have a short memory. Or maybe if I kept walking I’d find what I was looking for. Maybe I would encounter God in a way that overcame my doubts. I had to walk further, press on longer.

What is a pilgrimage, anyway?

What I was sure of is that amidst the walking and walking and walking for 23 days was a simultaneous process of emptying. The first to release was the relentless input of our modern world – music, movies, tweets and facebooks and blogs, even books. All we did was walk. And when we finished walking and ate our dinner, all we had energy for was discussing the route for the next day, bathing, washing a few undergarments and crashing onto our pillow. Walk, eat, sleep, repeat.

Having escaped the input, the next to empty was the mind – the processing of all the information I typically ingest. There were occasional hours of thinking about ideas and reflecting on life – things that usually dominate my mind, but mostly on the trail I simply walked. And kept walking. One foot, then another.

As the mind emptied, so did the anger and stress and sadness and feelings of responsibility. I felt other things: contentment and joy in the land or irritation at our slow pace, but my emotions largely joined in the emptying process.

Last of all the body. We worked our bodies to exhaustion. Then, when we felt like stopping, to get relief from the stress of the packs, the blisters, the bruises on our hips and aches in our shoulders, the weariness from walking for days and weeks – well, we kept walking anyway.

Mind, heart, body, I emptied. For 23 days I emptied myself with each step.

***

We described the trek as a Pilgrimage Within A Pilgrimage. We consider this entire journey – all eighteen months of it – to be a pilgrimage; a time to look for God amidst this broken world, to find signs of hope in a world too marked by violence and destruction, to learn from those adding to the beauty around us.

Two weeks after our trek I was on the phone with some of my family.

Our plans for Jordan – the next stop on our itinerary – had fallen through. Our schedule in India extended for another 12 days. Our visas weren’t expiring. We could stay there another 5 1/2 months if we wanted, but the idea of staying for 5 1/2 more days felt depressing. We were tired – exhausted. We had been traveling for 8 months. Culture stress was in full swing. We wanted to leave India, but we didn’t know where to go or what to do. So we called my family to have a little discernment circle – for them to ask us questions about possible next steps for our journey.

I chatted with my parents and my brother, explaining the situation, and answering a few of their questions, thinking logistically and strategically about our possible next steps, potential countries, organizations, connections to pursue.

Finally my dad cut in, “Is coming home one of your options?”

I balked at the idea. “It doesn’t feel right in my heart to do that. Neither Becca or I feel ready to go home; we want to follow through with this pilgrimage – to finish what we started.”

“Would that feel like failure?” my brother asked pointedly.

“Are you still there?” I heard my brother ask after several seconds. We had already lost our connection a couple times on this international Skype call. But I was still there. I just couldn’t speak. I was sobbing.

I didn’t see it coming. But a simple question broke a hole in the dam, letting the ache of past pain and wounds come flooding out.

***

I’m at the airport in Kathmandu. For the past month, since I decided to leave Nepal, leave my job, leave my community, I haven’t been able to cry. As I told each friend, each part of our family that I was a wreck – physically, emotionally, spiritually – that I lacked purpose, that I was drowning in Kathmandu, that I needed healing and that healing would not happen while trying to keep my head afloat, that I needed to leave Nepal, I couldn’t cry. I wanted to cry. I wanted them to know I was heartbroken to be leaving them. But I was numb.

Here, at the airport, pulling up in front of the door, it hits me that I am doing this for the last time. Hugging each one goodbye, Shiva, Jyoti, Kara, Brook, Calvin, I feel all of it and the dam breaks. I cry as I wait in line to check in.

I am crying as I sit in the airport in San Francisco, staring through the window, as an airline attendant looks on with a concerned look.

I walk down the stairs to baggage claim in Salt Lake City, thinking my eyes have gone dry. I see my family – Jake, Cassie, my mom and dad, and the tears burst from me again.

***

5 years later – almost to the day – the tears streamed down my face again as Jake, my mom and dad waited for my response on the other side of the world.

***

Only in Emptying2

On day 16, Kim had had enough. The descent was slow, painful, discouraging. “I don’t know why I thought I could do this,” she said with tears running down her face. “Tomorrow I’m going to take a bus to Pokhara and let you go on without me.”

I listened silently, but in my head I thought, ‘Do this? You’re doing it! You summited. You hiked for 14 days up to 5,416 meters and you’re still going. You’ve already done it.’

Kim made it. We all did, 23 days walking to Ice Lake and Tilicho Lake, through the landslides, to the summit and all the way down to the taxi in Naya Pul.

***

“Yes, after leaving my 3 year term in Kathmandu after only 15 months, it would feel like failure to come home now.” I don’t know why I thought I could do this. I tried this before. I went to Nepal with dreams of community, culture, service, and purpose, and left a complete wreck. Why did I think I could traipse around the world for 18 months and be successful? I knew better.

“And what would success look like?” Jake asked.

“I don’t know. A feeling of purpose in each place. A dynamic blog with an engaged reading community. Maybe a book at the end of it. A strong faith that God is at work in the world. I don’t know.”

“I didn’t ask about failure because I think you are failing. I asked about failure because I sensed you, somewhere inside, think you are failing.” The tears told me he was right.

“Andrew, Cassie and I believe in you and Becca. We believe in what you are doing. And whether you continue on this journey or come home, there is no one we trust more to live with love and intention wherever you are. In my mind that’s your only measure of success.”

I empty – for a moment – of the fears of failure, the assumptions of what others might think about me, the responsibility to accomplish and succeed, the self-criticism and the guilt. I am emptied. In the emptying, room is made for freedom and grace.

Do this? You’re doing it.

 

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We had walked 5 hours already that day; most of it under the sweltering sun on the dusty, uninspiring road that has ben steadily built around much of the Annapurna Circuit the [...]

 

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