Wednesday, January 24, 2007

solitude at 100mph

For many years I have been a motorcycle enthusiast, and the moment I close my eyes I can recall the exhilaration of riding down the TransCanada Highway every night on my way home from work. Now, despite the fact that Vancouver is a rainy city, with 1200mm of rain annually, I rode my motorcycle every single day – rain, snow, or sleet – everywhere I went. In the process of becoming that familiar with riding, and that familiar with the elements, I also became that familiar with being alone.

I became familiar with the low frequency thrum of my stovepipe muffler as I ignored the needles of rain that forced me to shut my eyes into two slits.

I became familiar with the hiss of passing cars and the deadness that bald tires make when they hydroplane, and you pray to God that car doesn’t slide into you.

I became familiar with prayer, with motorcycle prayer, with the absolute isolation you can experience on top of a bike surrounded by other people who are simply trapped inside their 6 cylinder cages watching the world go by like more T.V.

You see, when you pray on a motorcycle there’s so much noise and commotion around you, you actually begin to tune it all out and are left with only 105db of yawning silence. You don’t really notice that silence until you try and speak, or – in my case – when you first try and pray. You don’t really understand that silence is the silence of something, that the things that make noise are now the things that are in silence. It’s at that moment that you realize two things: [1] you are utterly, utterly alone with no chance of human contact, and [2] in order to be heard, either by your own ears or your perception of God’s, you have to scream.

There’s something powerful, almost feral, about having to scream your prayers out to God in order to feel like they’re being heard.

It was on that motorcycle that I allowed myself to explore isolation with God. Where once hermits escaped into the desert, or men like John Chrysostome sought solitude away from the organized church within the cities, I found my solace at 100mph in the dark rain of Vancouver. It was there I truly began to understand the metaphors of the invisible yet material spirit, the ruach, which whipped past my face with crystal alacrity and gave me the chill I know our ancestors must have encountered when they first began to explore a spirituality that was far more sensual than esoteric. It was that spirit, that breath that both hovered over the waters at creation and formed the first words and language.

It was that same spirit that I was able to engage while riding my motorcycle.

And I was able to engage that spirit because I was free from distraction. I was free from the fragmentation of a consumer world where every clerk treats me like I’m the thing for sale. I am able to disengage the pieces of my life, engage the peace of God, and find “quiet” by yelling myself hoarse on my bike.

But I don’t want to romanticize only this experience; for, though I have had this same experience many times on a motorcycle, I have also experienced it rock climbing, or hiking and – ironically – have never experienced it during a 3 day retreat in isolation or a 5 day fast in the woods. It is the same kind of experience Christ sought in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Psalmist coveted in times of despair, it just looks a little different at present for me.

Thomas Merton said that a man “becomes a solitary at the moment when, no matter what may be his external surroundings, he is suddenly aware of his own inalienable solitude and sees that he will never be anything but solitary”, and in my experience I reference that moment back to my first screaming prayer, where I knew I was alone with God.

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