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Canada Mayflower

On walks.


Many hikers have a need always to be conquering new territory, just as many readers need new things to read. But there’s as much value in returning again and again to the same trail you’ve walked many times before as there is in returning to a favorite well-thumbed book.

My current walk of choice is a loop of just more than two miles in a state park about a fifteen-minute drive from my parish. It starts fairly easily, builds up to a bit of a challenge in the middle, and cools off again at the end. For nine-tenths of a mile on the return half of the loop, one covers a small piece of the Appalachian Trail. I can leave home for the hike and be back in well under ninety minutes.

An old hat sort of trail like this one might seem boring, always the same route, more a trial than a trail after repeated visits. Yet in a certain sense it’s never quite the same trail, as Heraclitus tried to say about the river. To return to it is to encounter both sameness and difference, familiarity and strangeness.

We’re blessed with four distinct seasons where I live in the Hudson Valley. Often enough there even seem to be innumerable micro-seasons within the four. The beginning of winter is indistinguishable from the end of fall. It gets to be pleasantly cold with occasional flurries of snow in mid-December. Then comes the season of bitter cold in January, followed by the season of far more snow than anyone but skiers ever want to see before finally we make it to the nasty melted-snow and mud season which leads into spring. Even here I’m summarizing. The seasonal differences alone make for a diversity of hiking experience.

The climatic changes bring with them a great number of other changes along the trail. Most obviously you see differences in the quality of light and of course in warmth and humidity. Varying amounts of water in the streams and runlets you cross, which sometimes are bone dry and at others become little torrents. Then there is flora and fauna. A tree has sometimes fallen near the path or even across it. A new path veers around it if it can, or else you need to climb over it until those who take care of this sort of thing cut through it. There are also the huge differences which stem from the amount and color of foliage, which varies from none to budding to verdant to the full fall spectrum to none again. By themselves the differences in the trees can make the trail unrecognizable from one visit to another. Early in the year, forsythia provides the only color aside from the green of the invasive barberry. Then different waves of plants blossom and flourish. The trail is edged with the blue of violets and bugleweed, the white of anemones, aster, and Canada mayflower, the pink of wild geraniums. 

The difference made by the sound of birds is striking. In colder times, you get used to the still lack of birdsong, but as it warms up and the music returns, it reminds you that there exists this world of beauty you had forgotten all about, perhaps out of an unconscious sense of self-preservation in the face of seasonal affective disorder. There is a period of time at the end of winter where the total lack of fauna is rather off-putting. Especially when you come across evidence which shows that there are animals lurking somewhere out of sight, when you see a sizeable and relatively fresh footprint in the snow at your feet which makes you wonder exactly how hungry a black bear is when he wakes up from hibernation.

There are variations in the number of bugs which, true to their name, buzz around your head annoyingly. Differences in the number of chipmunks you startle squeaking into the underbrush and the number of garter snakes sunning themselves which you nearly step on if you’re walking fast enough. Differences in the number of people (if any) you come across as you hike. Sometimes you can tell you’re the first person to tread the path that day, the number of spider webs you walk through being a dead giveaway. Sometimes the trail is packed. People sometimes don masks and give you a wide berth as you approach.

And you’re different too. You come to the trail with different levels of hay fever, more or less easily out of breath on a given day, with different preoccupations.  

The mingled familiarity and strangeness that come with returning to a well-known trail often call to my mind the cyclical and seemingly monotonous prayer of the psalms in the Divine Office. Week after week the same psalms are prayed at the same hours of the day—matins and lauds, prime, terce, sext, none, vespers, compline—barring the intrusion of a major feast to break the cycle with Sunday psalms. The complete psalter of one-hundred fifty psalms is repeated every week for those who pray the more traditional form of the Office. And this rotation of psalms is just one sphere in a liturgical cosmos alive with various cycles and epicycles.

Despite the fact that you’re confined to the same psalms, you find as you return to them both sameness and difference, especially when you pray them in Latin and grow in your understanding of the words. Praying the Office in a language other than your own becomes a kind of sacramental of this mingled sameness and difference. It goes without saying that Sacred Scripture in any language provides inexhaustibly fruitful meditation.

The different antiphons of the Office comment upon and tease out different shades of meaning in the sacred text. The mode of the antiphon determines which of the eight psalm tones is used to chant a psalm, which itself creates variations in mood and sheds light on different aspects of the psalm’s meaning. The same familiarity and newness as your favorite walk in the woods.

Psalm CXVIII (CXIX according to the Hebrew numbering) is the longest and one of the most repetitive of the psalms. It’s an acrostic in Hebrew and is the single longest chapter of any book in the Bible with its one-hundred seventy-six verses. The whole psalm speaks of the blessedness of those who love and follow the Law of the Lord. For those whose breviary uses the psalter as it was reorganized by Saint Pius X, Psalm CXVIII is prayed throughout the daytime hours on Sunday, broken up into eleven pieces and distributed from prime through none. The recitation of this psalm is itself a repetitive meditation on the divine Law which is a microcosm and distillation of the monotony of the psalter as a whole.

The Sunday psalms, including Psalm CXVIII, are also used during the week whenever there is a solemnity. During an octave these psalms are used all week long, repeating every day the same texts, giving truth to the lines “I will meditate on thy commandments: and I will consider thy ways. I will think of thy justifications: I will not forget thy words.” On Easter Monday last year I chanted two daytime hours back-to-back at a get-together with two families, including a large number of children. I initially worried they might find it boring, and remarked on how repetitive Psalm CXVIII is. “The Law of the Lord is wonderful, but we get it.” But that’s just it, we don’t get it. We haven’t gotten it yet.

These octaves could seem like a broken record, the liturgical equivalent of Groundhog Day; at the end of each day you start again in the same place you began the day before. The Church in Her wisdom knows that a mystery such as the one which Easter commemorates is too great for one day’s contemplation. It takes time and repetition to dive into its depths. The liturgical mysterion immerses us in the mystery. Further up and further in. You enter in more and more deeply, only to find that there’s more there than you had realized. Entering in, your knowledge and capacity for love grow, and as you grow in knowledge and love, you seem to return to where you began with a shock of realization that you know nothing and you love not at all in comparison with all there is to know and love. And yet please God you do know and love just a little more than you did before.

The monotony of the Office is one of its virtues. Reciting the psalms day in day out sanctifies our time in part by transcending it. From the moment the Dawn from on high breaks upon us each day in the Benedictus until the Lord lets His servant go in peace in the Nunc dimittis, from the rising of the Sun to its setting, the liturgy synchronizes the rhythm of time with the rhythm of eternity. Its repetition is a preparation for and indeed the beginning of heaven, our eternal and timeless contemplation of the One who is ever ancient yet ever new, a contemplation which begins here and now though we see through a glass darkly.

Saint John Henry Newman said in one Advent sermon that it is through the worship of God here on earth in the liturgy that we must become used to God’s presence. “Just as the bodily eye must be exercised in order to bear the full light of day,” the liturgy accustoms us progressively to that sight which is mercifully veiled from us now, a sight which would stop our hearts for awe. No man may see God in the flesh and live. But “in the worship and service of Almighty God, which Christ and His Apostles have left to us, we are vouchsafed means, both moral and mystical, of approaching God, and gradually learning to bear the sight of Him.”

We need the liturgy then because it is in it and through its very repetition that we are transformed and made capable of union with God. It is that union adapted to our needs. “I come then to church, because I am an heir of heaven,” Newman said. “It is my desire and hope one day to take possession of my inheritance: and I come to make myself ready for it, and I would not see heaven yet, for I could not bear to see it. I am allowed to be in it without seeing it, that I may learn to see it. And by psalm and sacred song, by confession and by praise, I learn my part.”

You find when you return to the trail and to the psalms that things aren’t exactly as they were before. Their path isn’t so much circular as it is helical, the journey following a spiral which is both circular and linear, a circle on a line, a circle in forward motion. You return again to the starting point, but it’s not exactly the same because you’re not exactly the same. Sameness and difference, familiarity and strangeness.

Our Lord has told us that “every scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like to a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure new things and old.” Both the book of nature and the book of the psalms alike should be read in such a way that they help the mind to advance not linearly in knowledge, but in the more complex motion of its ascent to God.

Father Jon Tveit is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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Jon Tveit is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York.