Of course there are many forms of contemplative practice, and people in our School for Contemplative Living have practiced many of them. But wait, could even something as wild and exhilarating as mountain biking possibly be contemplative? The answer, it turns out, is “yes.”
You have probably read the traditional distinctions between apophatic and kataphatic spiritual experience. Apophatic is the category for traditional contemplation, as we drop all words, thoughts, and images to encounter God directly through an inner sense. Kataphatic (or cataphatic) spirituality is encountering God through all our senses, like sight, sound, smell, etc. Some people seem to prefer one way or the other for connecting with God.
But I say these distinctions are not helpful, and could lead us to think our preferred ways of contacting the divine are superior. Plus, I have just come through the direct experience of contemplation, defined as experiencing a sense of oneness with the divine, in the furthest possible way from silence and stillness. What?
My wife Carol made a bold move yesterday and suggested we drive from North Carolina through the Northeast tip of Tennessee to Damascus, Virginia. Was the fall foliage along the way breath-taking? “Totally awesome,” as my grandson would say. But we were not just out for a drive. We were heading for the “Creeper Trail” to do 17 miles of mountain biking.
For two adults in our late 50’s, the idea of mountain biking might seem a bit nuts. Even crazier might be the reality that this was mostly a downhill run from an elevation of about 3500 feet, across more than 20 wooden bridge tressles which soared over deep ravines and a river.
Early on the trail, as the speeds increased, I stood up on the pedals while holding the handlebars and felt that amazing exhilaration. The brisk wind in the face, the speed in passing from shadows into sunlight, the beauty surrounding us, the rich natural smells, and the sound of the rushing river all contributed to a sense of utter freedom. All of that is surely a God thing.
So I have to say this is a first for me, and an experience I have never read from others. I can now say there is such a thing as contemplative mountain biking. For when all those senses were activated, (yes, that is a kataphatic experience), I was in the same kind of oneness with the divine that I usually know in silence and stillness. It was like We were mountain biking, the divine in William. We were tasting, smelling, and feeling cold fresh air all the way down. We were flying down that hill as one.
So next time you are in your full human senses, wherever you are, even if you are not mountain biking, I invite you to open your whole being wide so you too can fly as one with the One!
For more stories like this see Monks in the World: Seeking God in a Frantic Culture.