Lost in the woods at Mammoth Cave–I am forced to walk in matters and mysteries beyond me

I am aware of the danger, but I will not refuse to meet it, for you force me to it. Indeed, you force me to walk in great matters and mysteries which are beyond me. —

—————Bernard, Sermons on the Canticle 74

October 4, 2012

Today in church, elation at being safely home and alive and surviving a harrowing night lost in Mammoth cave.

Many thoughts, mostly about Casey and Leah. Here’s one memory of Casey.  Casey had a tattoo of a suffering Jesus bearing the cross on his right arm.


Casey’s tattoo of Jesus

I think that he identified with the suffering of Christ, through his own sufferings.  He went in to talk with our interim priest, Nicolette Papanek, about his tattoo; naturally he was quite proud of it.  She told him that he needed to have a risen Christ and a joyous image to balance things out a bit.  He laughed and agreed with her.  In the strict sense he never did have a Risen Christ tattooed on him, but for joy later he “balanced” his Christ on the right side with a tattoo of his daughter.

Leah was his overriding joy in life, in the way that our children are to us.  I think of her as both an image of Christ to me as well as an image of Casey—she is a living image, hallelujah for that life!


Casey’s tattoo of Leah


As I sat there in church I thought about getting a tattoo: on one arm I would get the suffering Christ that Casey had and on the other a tattoo of the risen Christ, something like the risen Christ off of the Grunewald triptych.  Instead, I would have Casey’s face inscribed.  The thought brought me great joy as I sat there.  The joy remains, but I am too old school to tattoo myself.  Instead of a tattoo on my arm, I have Casey, Leah and Jesus inscribed upon my heart as a permanently etched feature.  Last night I came to feel it deeply while we were lost in the woods.


Grunewald’s Risen Christ

After about an hour in the woods when it was dark, I had a diabetes low.  I was sweating from carrying Leah, it was growing cold, I was chilled and I had no energy.  Even if I was trying to keep up appearances, I could do nothing but lay down.  I could feel the drag in my own body, a dread that I would faint or even worse that I would die.  The weakness of the body at the extreme edge of fatigue has a way of preparing us for saying good-bye to everything.  And so we all lay down together in the dark of the woods, several times I was coming near to a point of not caring about anything.  At some point though, I came into a second wind, whether it was a miracle from heaven or the body’s natural reserve, I was grateful for it and received it as a Godsend.

We marched along and with each step, I thought of the suffering of Christ as he climbed the mountain carrying his cross—all I wanted to do with my weakness was to walk with Christ in His.  I lifted Leah up and put her on my shoulder and felt a sudden joy.  At that moment I had only one desire to carry her and to walk on—strange to speak of it as bliss, but it was; my deepest joy and all I needed in that moment was to walk.  My great concern was that I somehow faint or falter or in any way fail.  I could stop and rest if I needed, but I could not lie down and stay as I was earlier feeling. Casey, Jesus, Leah and I all seemed together there in an effort to ascend in the dark.  One other saint seemed to join me, St. Christopher, the one who bore the child Jesus across the river.  This was all part of the second wind and then later after we returned home part of the elation I was feeling with making it through the night and then to church the next day.  Perhaps it is the same elation felt by those who are shot at and missed—after that just the joy of being alive, or having a bed seems more than enough.

Leah herself was a great help.  She kept thinking that some people would find us.  She talked too, helpful talk.  There was some “I want my mommy,” but on the whole she bravely met the demands laid upon her.  The cheerful banter was good for me and for all of us in the group.  “Grandpa,” she asked from atop my shoulders, “why is there a place on your head without any hair?”  Talking with Melanie about her friends, she mentioned especially her friend “baby Jesus.”  With bold confidence she told us how baby Jesus played baseball with her as well as hide-and-seek.  It was her voice too that I think gave us a greater boldness as we approached some campers.  We had been walking very slowly in the dark.  For a while I was using the green glow of my insulin pump to find the trail.  Jane was using her wristwatch and then the glow from her camera.  The rocks, branches, and mud made for treacherous walking.  Finally we saw a campfire in the distance and made our way toward it.

We were so relieved to get three things from the campers, 4 flashlights, 5 protein bars and perhaps most important directions on how to get out.  It was midnight and we were still a good two and a half miles from our car, mostly up a pretty steep hill but the flashlights were a notable help—even though I would later take a pretty good fall on the path.  As I look back on it now, I realize how greatly important light is in the darkness.  I recall reading Martin Laird’s book, A Sunlit Absence and his talk about three kinds of illuminations, walking by torchlight, walking by moonlight, and then in the sun.  For Laird these three images are metaphors for the inner life with God.  Walking by torchlight was for me both a metaphor and a reality that night.  Walking by torchlight is a metaphor for a faith that is small and the grace given to that faith is also limited to a “restricted” area of illumination.  Rather than God’s glory illuminating the whole of the world as in the moonlight or in sun, only a small area is clear and often what is revealed is also slightly concealed.

Leah led me by torchlight after we got our flashlight.  We often trailed behind the rest of the group.  I gave her the flashlight and then used the immediate light to try to walk behind. I was needing to put her down more and more and since she liked carrying the flashlight, I let her lead. At the beginning of the hike she had been a very demanding line-leader and now that it had gone dark she was a little more solicitous.  She also was quite sensitive to how much I needed to rest and we negotiated quite well taking turns with her walking and being carried.  As we moved ahead by torchlight, I got tripped up on a root and fell pretty hard.  She quickly turned around, asked if I was okay while I was trying to get up quickly and make it seem like it was nothing.  I told her that I needed her help and to hold her hand to keep from falling.  “OK, Grandpa,” she said. From then on she and I held hands.  Walking beside her made the visibility of the torchlight better, but there is also something comforting about having a child’s hand in yours.

The gospel reading on Sunday this morning included Jesus’ teaching “whoever does not receive the gospel as a little child cannot enter the kingdom.”  Often that is taken to mean the need for child-like faith but to me it seems like receiving a child’s hand into your own is receiving an earthly manifestation of the kingdom of heaven.  There are two times in my life where I remember how much having a supple child-sized hand in my calloused one.  Leah’s is one—the other time I was in India for the first time.  I was walking with Tsering’s niece, Tenzin Dolkar. I was feeling a little lonely—far away from home.  We were walking around the mountain trail, doing cora and saying our prayers together.  Suddenly she slipped up behind and put her hand in mine and at once I felt “at home” despite being on the other side of the world.  That little orphan girl had done me a great service.

Leah and I walked along, hand in hand, in the darkness with the “torchlight.”  Her hand also illumined me.  It was the light of her love that sustained me and was part of God’s voice speaking to me.  Christ’s hand, Casey’s hand, all were wrapped up in her tiny hand as we made our way in the darkness.


In Mammoth Cave Park–October 3,2012

After a while it was too much for her little body and she fell asleep.  David, Melanie, and I then took turns carrying her.  Jane’s ankles were hurting badly.  She had twisted them and now had two walking sticks to trudge on with.  Jane had carried her earlier though and fell with her (gently enough) but still she did not want to risk another.  We finally reached the car at around 1:45 in the morning.  We got our water, settled into the luxury of padded seating, and then some warmth as the car’s heateritself out on our feet, wet and cold from tromping through the parts of the horse-trail that had puddled over.  When we got home, our bed was so welcome.  With all the vigor of Dorothy in Wizard of Oz we could say with great relish, there is no place like home.

It had been a hard night and when I woke up I could have easily said, I am too stiff, too sore and too tired for church.  But there was a bubbling joy, the same joy that had borne me through the night and missing church would have seemed to me like a terrible ingratitude.  The scriptures seemed strong that day, the petitions urgent and the communion especially sweet.  Thank you Jesus, thank you Casey, thank you Leah, thank you my wayfarers and benefactors.  May God lead us all through the dark and safely home.


October 4, 2012. Today is a special day, Hildegaard of Bingen is officially recognized as a Doctor of the Church.


Hildegaard of Bingen, Blue Christ

About kencasey99

Teaches Religion and Philosophy at Hopkinsville Community College
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7 Responses to Lost in the woods at Mammoth Cave–I am forced to walk in matters and mysteries beyond me

  1. Very good, Ken. Very good.

  2. Larry McCraney says:

    This was very touching Ken.

  3. Digby Palmer says:

    Thank you for not squandering your adventure with a lack of reflection. We’re all richer for it.

  4. Diane Cunningham says:

    I have also felt that protection of Jess watching over our family. I have never been able to explain how it felt and you did a wonderful job of it. Thank you for putting what I have also felt in such beautiful words.

    • kencasey99 says:

      It is very nearly beyond words and all telling, but nonetheless real. Many of the most important things can only be seen “in a glass darkly.” In the apostle’s creed there is a statement, “I believe in the communion of saints.” If we are open sometimes we can experience directly what we know indirectly through faith. I never knew Jess in the flesh–but still I too feel I do somehow by knowing you and your story.

  5. Melanie says:

    Ken, I love it! Thank you for this powerful interpretation of our Mammoth Cave woods odyssey. That night was an important step in my own healing journey, and there in no one else in the world with whom I would rather be lost with in woods in the dark besides you, Jane, Leah, and David. Hope I may write about it as eloquently as you!

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