And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed, saying, "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done." And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. And being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.
– Luke 22:41-44 –
Imagine you're walking in the forest alone on a dark and cold morning. A line of red earth cuts through the undergrowth before you: a trail going up the mountainside, and you intend to follow.
Your goal for the day is to reach that peak that towers before you. You've imagined yourself at the top and are headed there now. In fact, it's more than a goal – it's a longing you can't ignore. To be atop that jagged summit, above the clouds, in the sky. You've read enough John Muir, Ed Abbey, and Wendell Berry this summer to want some of their passion for yourself – that love of place. And so you chase that desire to this trail, which you will chase up the mountainside, up to that summit, now obscured by an untouched canopy of pine and fog yet undoubtedly there and unmoving.
You begin walking. In the first half-mile, the elevation gain hits like a sudden gust of headwind, so you know you're walking in the right direction. You haven't lost the joy in pain of going upwards.
The forest is thick around you. A morning fog is caught on the branches. You shiver beneath your windbreaker, caught off guard by the unexpected chill on an early August morning in Montana. But your self-willed momentum withstands the elements. You continue on.
Without taking away the focus on each step, you begin to imagine the view from above. From your stable seat in the sky, you'll see for miles. Alpine lakes nestled in the ridges' troughs, reflecting a distorted image of what towers above them: white-capped backs of giants, shoving off a blanket woven of cedar and fir. The sun will be low in the sky. It's brightness will break through the fog. It will bathe the mountains in a young morning's light.
You've packed a triple-layered peanut-butter and jelly sandwich, a bag of pretzels, and a few carrots – a simple meal that's nourished you well on the summits of your past – next to your notebook and pen and Bible. On your perch, you'll praise God, eat your lunch, write a few verses. You'll spend a considerable time just sitting, resting. Praying. Recovering for the descent. Exercising that love of place, that appreciation for God's creation that you know you have and are more than willing to jump at the chance to indulge.
This sounds good, to say the least. You've promised yourself this; a promise to self of immaterial wealth and beauty that you are unwilling to lose or break.
Four miles in. You smile at that slight soreness in your legs. Each step takes a little more determination than the last. On a hike like this, that's a sure sign of progress.
The forest begins to thin. The mossy bed turns to granite; age-old cedars, to alpine spruce. The branches open up to reveal more of the grey sky above. You revel in the changing scenery, that sense of movement and accomplishment.
But at a turn in the trail, that feeling is gone. That unflinching momentum, that joy for ascent, that hunger for photographic views and peanut butter and jelly. It all disappears; replaced by a feeling that's rare yet all too familiar. Fear.
Standing before you on the trail is a fully-grown predator of the forest. A pair of searching yellow eyes, shining boldly on this colorless day; large padded paws thudding on the packed earth; a groomed and golden tail that moves with dignity behind each step, portraying a sense of ownership to the trail and the mountain and forest around it.
It's a mountain lion. The last thing you want to see while in the forest alone; something you see only while in the forest alone. She does not correlate with your preconception of North American wildcats, the vandals that break through your backyard fence and scare the dogs. Out here, she stands in likeness of Africa's king of the jungle, her cousin across the ocean.
You think of all the things you've been told to do in a situation like this. Play dead? No, not this time. Act big and speak firmly? It's worth a shot.
You stand up tall, wave your arms, and back away slowly. It seems to work. The lion appears to reciprocate your fear. She steps backwards before turning her back to you and quick-steps up the path. You sigh in relief, realizing only then that you had been holding your breath.
But the lion doesn't betray her infamous territoriality. She stays on the trail, in your way, and shows no signs of budging. Maintaining your senses, you dare not challenge her. You turn around and go the way you came.
You kick the earth at a premature descent. You wrestle with disappointment that could easily be an agony.That promise I had made, you think aloud to no one. That mountaintop is calling. That vista is waiting for my approval! My stomach groans in hunger for what I had prepared for myself. When will I reach my summit, if ever?
Your plan for the day was formed with such longing and self-willed desire that you feel you can concede to this interruption only with complete reluctance.
But concede, you must. The wilderness works in wondrous ways and seldom surrenders at your hand. Today, you were divinely interrupted.
And later, in the warm glow of a fire and its concurrent retrospection, you'll think less on that unfulfilled self-promise and more on those pale yellow eyes, those heavy paws, that golden fur. You'll have a newly acquired respect for mountain lions, the interruptions to our path, the way Creation is being created around us and to us in ways we can never plan ourselves.
And having faced the lion, this won't be your last mountain to climb.