“I would rather be in the mountains thinking about God, than in church thinking about the mountains.” (attributed to John Muir)
I spent the first of August hiking with my parents on a remote island nature preserve off the coast of Maine. We’d been once before years ago when the trails weren’t quite as established and the handful of fellow naturalists and hikers we encountered this time weren’t as numerous. Despite the increase in visitors, the island loop remains at best a narrow deer trail through the thick of the bog, eventually spilling out into a rocky coast where the trail continues, so long as the tides permit passage.
A few wooden planks have been installed to elevate your walk over rocks and brush in the interior sections. Larger boulders and rock faces provide resting points along the way to the shore. All around you are dangling lichens and tropically toned peatmosses. The thick spruce and coastal jack pine underbrush provide an insulating layer of delicate soil where dozens of amanita mushrooms thrive and wild blueberry and cloudberry bushes cling to whatever depth they can manage to root down into. Pitcher plants and other carnivorous fauna dot the acidic soils, evolutionary remnants of retreating glaciers and a testament to the extremity of this environment. The trail is marked with shining blue blazes easily missed if one is not careful, and in a few spots, iron rungs and gnarled tree roots aid you in climbing back up onto your path.
At first we planned to just hike to the shore and probably back the way we’d come already. This feat alone took about two hours.
For most of the journey, I stayed ahead of my parents, even when depending on my cane for balance. There’s just something about wild spaces like this which call to me, which set me into a rhythmic gliding as part of the landscape. I can’t go any slower. I just can’t. Enormous island birds cawed at me, and I cawed back to them. We circled one another and told the trees about the other. The only human apart from one other hiker passing in the opposite direction and my parents a quarter mile or so behind me, I increasingly felt the spine-tingling awareness of wild things all around me.
The island is the kind of wilderness where something always seems to be lurking not far off the trail. For the whole hike to the shore, my mind replayed the truth that in all the hikes I’ve been on, in all the parts of known bear country, never, not once have I crossed paths with a bear. I wondered then if these thoughts might be some sort of premonition that one was about to appear. I’d had that kind of intuition before–where I could almost see the bear just waiting on the path around the next corner–but here it seemed just as likely I might instead pass the next tree to find a stark naked wizard challenging his mind to some sort of mystical experience on a nearby rock. Neither appeared beyond the passing images of my mind.
At the shore, we decided to press on. The tide was with us, and although the trail along the shore is notoriously difficult to navigate owing to shifting rocks, tidal plant life, and the whims of the bay itself, we set out to complete the full circle of the island.
I knew in my heart here that there was something spiritual about this place. Mentally, I scrolled through the rolodex of pantheons my modernity has exposed me to, but no names of oceanic gods or spirits outside of Neptune came to mind. Here though, he seemed almost inappropriate. The tide moved calmly in ripples and cat paws. There were no galloping waves or saltwater sprays.
I put my hands on the rocky shore. I gazed with loving kindness at the driftwood set like antlers before a small clearing. And there I saw where the sand gave way to tall grasses, cold blue irises, and scattered families of fuchsia thistles. Upon closer inspection, it was there that I first met the Bombus borealis, the Northern amber bumblebee, a wild bee species I knew at once that I had never known in my life before.
Satisfied that I had encountered some documentable creature of the island now, I led us forward with new enthusiasm. Yet the sun spared none of us as long as we continued along the shore. Rocks of all sizes became hot sinking sands, and then folded into humid, grassy bogs. At one inlet, the trail seemingly disappeared. To follow the shore required leaping over a chasm a few feet in diameter, but further back, a single glove left positioned just so on a fallen tree pointed to a small trail that cut across the brush instead. It took another hour and a half to reach the cape marking the halfway point of our journey.
Beyond the cape, I again found myself further out ahead of my party. Passing one last family hiking in the opposite direction, I reached the last stretch of coastal bedrock before the trail turned back into the island proper. Here gray clouds provided relief from the sun, and upon closer inspection, I realized this was not just a passing cloud cover but the formation of a storm itself arising from the mixing tides of the cove.
Stacked lenticular clouds like up-turned saucers teetered around the edge of the island. The cool, chilling air of the northern Atlantic whooshed through me, and I could smell the rain formed of salt and ice all around me. As the temperature dropped and the water and sky both rose darker crowned in caps of white foam and fog, I was humbled. I was enthralled. I sat as if solely waiting for my parents to catch up, but here I could not walk any longer for it was my soul that prostrated itself within me.
I felt God.
My mind raced with self-criticism and introspection the entire way back through the brush. Which god? Why god? What’s god? I struggled to deposit the experience in some familiar framework. The academic-atheist in me was baffled to silence. The UFOlogist in me made special note of the saucer-shaped clouds. And the occultist in me tried to pin this God to the Kabbalastic Tree of Life somewhere.
For years in my Pagan practice, I’d engaged with a theurgy model based on Crowley’s Liber Astarte. I devoted myself to a different god each time, purified myself before their iconography, embodied their divinity in acts of theosis, and finally, weeks later, propelled myself upwards, shedding my identity as well as theirs in hopes of achieving even passing moments of henosis with the fundamental reality of creation. I developed a language for myself. Each god I chose to work with became my ‘God’ of that period, and for those that gave way to the union of our consciousness, I considered them an icon of the Godhead or of G-d H-rself.
To experience this cycle–of self, of worshiping each God, of merging and losing identity, and returning–was my conscious intention, yet, over time I realized too that I was seeking a relationship to some gods or culture deeper than either the casual pantheons of neopaganism or the hard (a)theism and ethno-nationalism of many more mainstream religious movements. Nevertheless, I came away not with this relationship, but with data from many, contradictory and yet personally meaningful gnostic experiences with icons of the Godhead. Vairocana, Rama, Allah, El-Shaddai–their obvious differences were apparent to me, yet their mechanical function felt the same. Where I’d sought a comforting path to unknown Mystery, I’d instead led myself to plain Awareness via cold, depersonalized and unforgiving, occult technology.
In such a framework repeated over and over, the ecstasy of vision tends at times towards an underwhelming emptiness. My experiences were never as visceral as the God on the island, nor as tauntingly tangible as the photographs on my phone. Sure, I experienced fleeting synchronicities, visual glimpses in meditation and dreams, passing emotions and sensations I associated with different presences, yet nothing as sobering or as wild as the storm before me. In the aftermath, I could recall only two such instances prior in my life where I felt so close to such an untamed God. Once, as a very young child, I believed God to live in the clouds, and I would often talk to him while staring up at the sky before I was taught the more proper way to pray. Second, actually during my El-Shaddai work, I was driving down the highway from the mountains, and was moved to tears by a thunderstorm lighting up the horizon in violet skies and streaks of lightning illuminating the form of Yahweh, my Semitic Hercules. No other experiences have been so there before me, so unchanged when I turned to face them head on.
On the island, I encountered God head on. There was no ‘work’ directly precipitating this encounter or providing context to it. There was no circle of protection, no incantations, no intentions. It was just me and God, one consciousness before another.
And in Hir anonymity, I realized something missing from all the months of my theurgy practice. Where I’d sought to reconstitute myself into a pagan culture by achieving henosis through the icon of some pagan god, I always came away still clinging to the specificity of their name and particular domains and iconography of the world, distinctly separate (albeit, also intimately connected) from myself. Our mystical moments were passing, not lasting. At the end of the day, I was still a modern occultist, relying on this spiritual technology to replace a culture void absented from my own life’s context. The God of the island however is different.
I am the culture experiencing this God. The barrier of modernity is an aggregate to our relationship, not a wall to be bypassed before our relationship can even be tried.
While there was no experience of transcendence or unity in Hir presence, there was this something I hadn’t even consciously accepted that I was missing in my attempts to work with the divine. There was this connection to God that wasn’t forced or casually chosen on my part. It was a connection initiated outside of me.
In many ways, this is new ground for me. In the Christianity of my childhood, stuff like this was referred to as ‘a mountaintop experience.’ And while I’ve left the figurative ‘mountaintop’ of the island where my experience took place, I’m still there in the wilderness in other ways. The impact is still being felt. The meaning is still unfolding.
For all the use we get out of gods in our magic, our rituals, and our religions, here’s a reminder that our relationship to them can also be one of humility and awe. And that as I wrote last time, our gods are still speaking.