But then…

I am sitting here in a little shanty made of sugar-pine shingles this Sabbath evening. I have not been at church a single time since leaving home. Yet this glorious valley might well be called a church, for every lover of the great Creator who comes within the broad overwhelming influences of the place fail illegible not to worship as he never did before.

The glory of the Lord is upon all his works; it is written plainly upon all the fields of every clime, and upon every sky, but here in this place of surpassing glory the Lord has (his) written in capitals. I hope that one day you will see and read with your own eyes. The only sounds that strike me tonight are the ticking of the clock, the flickering of the fire and the love songs of a host of peaceful frogs that sing out in the meadow up to their throats in slush, and the deep waving roar of the falls like breakers on a rocky coast. — John Muir

In my very first college New Testament class, which was also my first class on a theological topic, I wrote a paper on “the prayer life of Jesus.” I decided to write it after my professor one day in class mentioned how striking it was that in the Gospels, the only place we see Jesus praying, other than at the Last Supper, is outdoors. Especially at night. In my simple imagination, I had always imagined Jesus praying in synagogues, shrines or the Temple. But this idea thrilled me, precisely because it was outdoors that I felt most drawn to pray, and it made me think that maybe my inclination was not just idiosyncratic.

Right up to the time of my parents’ first of several separations, when I was eleven years old, I had always felt an intense sense of the presence of God whenever I was outside; in the meadow and woods near our house, or alongside the small stream and pond at the bottom of the hill our house was built on. Whenever I wasn’t in school, I was outside. Often on weekends, I would remain outdoors exploring from sunrise to sunset, sometimes forgetting to eat. For me, the world was enchanted, shot through with an effervescent vitality that doused my soul like a mystical rainfall invisible to the eye. God was embedded in me like an instinct, a self-evident wordless awareness.

I also remember loving silence, especially at night in the dead of winter when a fresh snow covered the ground. The sounds of birds, wind, coyotes, peepers, katydids, crickets that filled my world were guarded by silence. In my mind, nature played the most exquisite music of all, and its uncoordinated variety never seemed to become a cacophony, but only a symphony. Then, I just knew God loved listening to this music with me.

As an aside, kindly allow me to say something about the word “God.” I’ve for years felt the word kills the immense mystery of what it represents, what I sensed as a child — or even now in my more lucid moments. The word is far too layered with hardened accretions, with vague suppositions of what it might mean. When I say “God” to someone, it immediately seems a betrayal, a synonym for banal, painted over with countless coats of dull monochromatic latex paint. “God” is so easily idol-ized, changing itself from translucent glass into an opaque mirror that only reflects our safe self-serving image back to us. When I was writing my dissertation on St. John of the Cross, I remember the rush of adrenaline that flooded my body when I discovered a name he had given to God after passing through the dark purifying nights — No se que “I do not know what.” THAT’S it! As a child, I was in love with No se que, known to me most perfectly through all those translucent butterflies.

But then…

When my parents separated, my world shattered, split, growing darker and colder. Drained of abundance. Sky fell to earth as my world closed in on itself. The wonder was gone, the enchantment evaporated, and Nature’s glossolalia went silent. No, not silent, mute.

I still can remember vividly one particular incident when the parted curtains of heaven seemed to close. One chilly Fall evening, I was laying on the ground watching steam rise from the still-warm waters of that magical pond. In the past, this scene always drew my mind upward into another world. But now, as I looked on in the fading twilight, I felt a deep and awful sadness come over me, that all of it was meaningless. No mystery, no mystique, no nexus of transaction between heaven and earth that made steam into incense. That world now seemed a far distant dream, and in this brave new world of waking, I was enclosed in a flat, cold, insignificant cosmos. Dead.

It was also at that time that the I lost all interest in prayer. Why pretend? After my father left for the last time, I hated the inside of our parish church, which reminded me of (even if it had been a façade) a family knit together. No longer, only ugly symbols torn to pieces. And when the outdoors no longer served as a home for my spirit, indoors could only become a prison without windows. I’d lost my secret center, I’d lost my sky-blue vaulted ceilings, and over the next months and years ahead, I began to wander, grasping for hits of anesthesia, spiraling into darker and darker places, all turning inward, downward.

But then…

In the evening twilight of February 24, 1987, I re-encountered No se que. Christ.

He took my hand and ran with me, inviting me to play, leading me immediately back outdoors that very night, showing me the stars, opening my ears to the crickets again, attuning my heart to the magnificent beauty his hands had fashioned. The world, held in-his-Hand-in-my-hand, was being remade before my eyes.

A few weeks after that Tuesday night, I was walking to class one afternoon. Without warning, a heavy downpour cascaded from dark clouds and thoroughly drenched me and my book bag. I stopped dead in my tracks. Just stood there in the rain, with no umbrella, laughing and crying all at once. And how I must have looked mad to any onlookers! It was as if God were undoing the cursed steam with this blessed water. I felt myself come alive. Through sprinkled rain, Life soaked me to the bones. I felt re-baptized, cleansed of the hate, of the unforgiveness and of the pain. Christ had touched my eyes and the scales fell away, the seamed veils ripped wide open.

Amen Amen I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.

Water and Spirit sacramentally mixed on Landis Green. I cried on an off the next several days, with tears of joy and freedom. I’d seen the colors of the rainbow shine again, a sign of the covenant he always remembered, though I had forgotten.

His was, is and ever-will be Risen and forever raining.

Since those days, outdoors remained my first adoration Chapel, my principal Oratory, my native Cathedral. The indoor ones, lovely and sacred though they be, are mere images of the Cosmic Temple fashioned first by God alone; which is why every Indoor Liturgy ends with a command to go Outdoors. It is in this universal Temple that I see, smell, feel, taste and hear, with eminent clarity, God inviting me to join him in completing his vast Temple’s construction in my tiny priestly body, composed of spirit and star-stuff.

Aware that I am always soaked in Baptismal chrism, I begin my day with a Morning Offering (below) outdoors, inviting all creation to join me, raising all that I can gather up in my outstretched will toward the transfiguring Light of the rising Christ as a sacrifice of jubilant praise to the Father. Then all day long, I (fitfully) strive to keep uplifting all I encounter until Sunday finally arrives. Sunday, the eighth day when time’s demise draws near. It is then I can finally hand over all I’ve gathered throughout the week into the fiery Great Offering of our God dying and rising from the wood and stone altar of Golgotha.

Oh how I love to remember often, this first, last and only High Priestly Offering was made Outdoors, away from the Temple, outside the City on Skull Mountain. From that singularity, Jesus drew the whole of creation inside of God, revealing him to be truly Emmanuel, God-Everywhere, God-in-All-Things, from the pit of Hell to the heights of Heaven, and everything in between.

Only at the foot of this Outdoor Mass can I now see

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

+ + +

My daughter Catherine, the dancer, said all of this in her birthday gift to me last year. You can see it, the clip-art painting I inserted at the beginning of this post.


Yes, Catherine, he is; and you’ve taught me, Inside and Outside.

I’m home.

Below is my house growing up — the white one in the distance

Morning Offering
Lord Jesus,
at the dawn
of this new day
make of my life
a living sacrifice
acceptable to you.
May my life
be at each moment
your Fire cast out
into the world,
consecrating all
to the service
of your Kingdom.
Through my life,
joined to your Cross,
gather the good
and the wicked into
your merciful Heart.
Through my life,
joined to your Cross,
transfigure all creation
into that new creation
where, with the Father
and the Holy Spirit,
all the lost are found
and you are all in all.

10 comments on “But then…

  1. Katy Dornbos says:

    Gosh, are we the fortunate ones to read this.
    Thank you Tom.
    But then…
    Could be a title of a book.

    • Jennifer says:

      Amen, Katy!

      Tom, I love Catherine’s collage! I can hear your heart singing as she presented it to yiou.

      This post is truly a gift,thanks for letting us glimpse this holy ground .

    • Evie Day says:

      Here, here! I concur. We, the privileged ones, to experience No se que through Tom Neal’s words. I feel ever blessed to read these posts and hear the music of a beautiful family full of beautiful souls.

  2. Jeane Bishop says:

    Now I know why I unexpectedly woke up so darn early this Monday morning. To have time to read this.
    So so so much here.
    Thank you for blessing us by putting this on paper and God bless always.

  3. Jennifer says:

    also, did you compose the morning offering? It’s sounds very you.

  4. Theresa says:

    Rich, rich, rich.
    I’m so happy I ear-marked this post to take the time to slowly read today. Thank you for sharing. My daughter and I have been reading some of John Muir’s writings together; we are both big “nature fans,” if you want to call it that. I knew she understood the cathedral of the outdoors a few years ago. She was about 9 years old and we had just returned home from an epic camping trip through the western US. It was an incredible trip, but sometimes grueling with 6 people, lots of dirt, & a 30+ hour drive home. We are the only two girls in the family & I snuggled with her the night we finally arrived safely home. I remember whispering to her, “You smell so good! What a gift to finally shower & be in your own, soft bed, right?” She rolled toward me with little, tired eyes and sleepily replied, “It’s so good, Mom… but I already miss sleeping under the stars.” I knew exactly what she meant. Our tent had a mesh top and when the weather was good (which is most of the time in Wyoming, Montana, & western CA), we slept with the top wide open. It was magical.
    I held her until she fell asleep that night with tears streaming down my face. I am SO grateful for the chance to offer my children opportunities to connect with nature. I’m new to the idea of “no se que,” but I like it! I hope to learn more about that. Thank you for the introduction to something so special.

    • I LOVE THIS — your children are blessed, Theresa. I can see that so clearly in the short time I have known you and your husband. Thank you for sharing this story, and OF course you read John Muir to them.

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