The mountains here run north to south. I noticed this because the sun was setting, and it was disappearing behind the black peaks, still casting fire into the sky as it descended out of sight. Back home, my mountains, the San Gabriel mountains, run east to west and the sun never dips behind them, but goes in the same direction, so that when it sets, it hurls its flames on the hillsides, so that everything is ablaze and golden until the last minutes of dusk.
My mountains are named for Saint Gabriel, the messenger of God. The Talmud calls him “The Lord of Fire,” which I like. The mountains here are named for a quality, an adjective: the Rocky Mountains. Steinbeck would approve. He preferred the American way of naming things to the Spanish. The Americans, both European and Native, give descriptive names, names for stories that happened there. Wounded Knee. Shirt Tail Canyon. Mustang Grade. Rocky Mountains. The Spanish brought their geography with them in leather books, crucifixes, rosaries, and the hearts of men, taking our hills and giving to them the Gospel and the Saints.
You must understand, I am not saying that one is the better way. It probably is so, that one is better, but I’m not interested in that just now. I’m interested in the differences of places, the distance between us and how we manage to live somewhere in that distance. These things, rocks and air and soil: they are hardly the same. You and I: we are hardly the same.
And yet, we cope somehow. In some deep mystery, wholes are made of disparate things. Somehow, one Great Schism, a Reformation, and an infinitude of rebellions later, and we are still a Church. Somehow.
I do not know how.
I have come to Colorado Springs this summer, to the Focus on the Family Leadership institute. I came for so many reasons, I could not tell you all of them. It would not be false to tell you I am here because of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the murdered King of Mexico: because they have taught me that virtue rests in humility and obedience, and I have come to learn. It would also not be false to tell you that I am here because of Adventures in Odyssey and the mountains: because they have taught that wonder is an activity of a well-ordered soul, and I have come to see. I am here, however, for more than these.
One of the problems of being here is that I am as far and as near to this place as my mountains are: so similar and so unlike. These mountains, though miles more vast, are the same textures and ridges as my own, the same dim edge of pines and boulders: but they run north to south. They hide the sun at dusk, and worst of all, they have no Patron Saint.
As far and near as these.
I am an Evangelical, and I am not an Evangelical. I hope that this is not alarming, and that it is not offensive- I am not angry at anyone. This is simply that fact of the matter. I wish it wasn’t.
I know this man, who is a little like my brother and a little like my father. I found him the first month of college, when for the first time in my life I felt conspicuously Mexican, despite my pale skin. I went to him because his name was Spanish and he was a writer and professor in the program I study in, and I wanted to talk to him, to talk to anyone who knew what it was like to be hardly the same. He told me he was sorry, that he grew up surfing in Orange County and didn’t know what to tell me: but he did not let me go. I tried to play it off, as if it was a passing interest, but he called me on it: he could see that I was desperate to know how to go about this, being so far and near to a thing, a thing you love, a community that has borne the Very Grace of God to you.
It is such a terrifying thing, being seen.
This man I know, he told me what he tells so many, that we must learn to live in the tension. He repeated it in class several times. Probably not so many as I would think: we have come to know him by this, and we repeat it to ourselves when we feel the pull of opposite things, things we could not reject if we tried, so strong that they might undo us.
It would be a facile thing to say, except that it isn’t. It is the truest thing he says, this man. From someone else, it might be a rescinding of the very point of a question, an abandonment of the answer: but he says it with conviction and without irony, because it is almost a sacred thing, this tension: it is like the arms of the cross, stretching and pulling God the Son so tight he might be torn in to: but, somehow, He is not.
And, somehow, this is how we are meant to live: ever about to be torn in two. This is what it is like to love in a disparate world. This man, who is a little like my brother and a little like my father: he has this love for his wife and their two sons that is all quiet and raging and vast. And it is such an impossible thing, to love like this, when we are all as beautiful and as vile as ever. And it is such an impossible thing to belong anywhere, by yourself, let alone with a family, the magnificence and terror of tying yourself to another person, soul and body, and bringing up these new things, glorious and flawed and beloved of God, and all the while, you are being torn in two, trying to make sense of belonging and not belonging and being hardly the same.
Somehow, you remain whole:
This man I am speaking of, he knows this. It is his daily life, this tension, this paradox, this somehow.
It is this that I have come to learn.