11 Then the LORD said, "Go outside and stand on the mountain before the LORD; the LORD will be passing by." A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the LORD--but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake--but the LORD was not in the earthquake.
12 After the earthquake there was fire--but the LORD was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound.
I had always been terrified of storms, although I don't know why. From the first storm I could remember, I would scream and cry until someone came to get me out of my crib, until it was automatic from the first flash of lightning or first oncoming rumble for someone to come to me to rescue me from my fear.
And then one summer I remember running to Mom and Dad's room overnight, and crawled in with them in the humid summer early morning hours. Their windows were shut to keep the rain out and the stagnant night air did not dissuade me from snuggling in between them to be sheltered from the fury outside. Because Mom and Dad were wise and nothing could happen to me when I was with them.
I woke up that Saturday morning and everyone was gone. Dad was at work, Mom was somewhere else in the house, and far away, I could hear my brother chattering. It was still thundering outside, but for some reason, it wasn't so scary when I could see daylight. The dark gold-colored drapes, combined with the light of day hid the flashes of lightning.
The thunder was getting closer so I wrapped the sheet around me and the thunder struck right overhead. I heard a "ripping" sound, and then something impacted the roof sickeningly, crashing onto it as though the thunder had finally fallen from the heavens and landed on the house.
For a moment, during which my heart stopped, I wondered if maybe it was nothing. Then I thought of a comment Mom had made before, about how sometimes branches hit the roof during storms, and they were nothing at all. I tried to think of that. A small twig, a little dead branch. God was pruning our trees for us, and later that day my brother and I would pick up sticks, to be followed by Dad with the lawnmower.
But something was HUGE about the branch that had just hit us. It wasn't a twig. Suddenly fearing our roof might cave in on us, I fled through the house to the porch were Mom and my brother watched the summer storm pass overhead. I told them a branch hit the house. It was a casual comment, although I was shaking in my pajamas.
We walked back to Mom's bedroom, which I refused to enter. She and my brother pulled back the drape and peered outside. Saturday morning light gushed into the artificialy darkened room
Mom said quietly, "It was more than a branch!"
"Two branches?" My fear took a backseat to curiousity (a pattern that would define my life's choices), I walked into the room and braved the view before us.
Nope. It wasn't a branch. It was half of a tree. A very LARGE tree.
We didn't know it until later, but a neighbor on the hill above us had seen a funnel form right over our house, descend, and then he watched that tree be taken up into the maelstrom, twist, and then crash onto the main peak, where it slid downwards to its final resting place. While we were staring out the window and speaking over the sound of the thunder, he was knocking on our door. We didn't hear him.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee...
From that point on, I was TERRIFIED during storms. There was no place of safety anymore. My one safe haven (Mom and Dad's room) had been the most recent target of the storm. My room adjoined theirs and sported a huge tree. If it fell...I was right under it. For years, during storms I would literally SHUDDER from the moment I saw lightning until the last rumble died away.
I still remember one afternoon when an especially nasty Illinois summer storm struck us. While Mom ran around the house shutting windows, I sat on the living room step, not willing to go into the closet alone. (There were ghosts in the closet, you see, that were ONLY there if I went in by myself). So I prayed the rosary in my imperfect way, 10 Hail Mary's, a Glory Be, followed by 10 more Hail Mary's. I think I got an entire rosary in, all with the storm raging around us, my brother making fun of me, and Mom scurrying to make sure all of us, including the dog, ended up in the safest place in the house - in the closet with the ghosts. (Do you see the irony from my childhood mind?)
Although I missed most of the rosary prayers and had no interest in the meditations, I would say it was the best and most heartfelt rosary I ever prayed. And I sincerely believe all of Heaven prayed it with me.
My irrational fear of storms remained with me well into my college years. I couldn't shake the fear, even though I knew it was ridiculous, even though I had survived countless storms. Eventually, though, I learned to love it and found beauty in the flashes of lightning, and purification in the rain and thunder.
A good thing, too. I had no idea what awaited me.
A few years ago I was sent by my employer to Arizona for training. One of the best things to do in Scottsdale was to climb Camelback Mountain, a mountain that rose out of the 'burb with a backgroup against the Superstition Mountains. We had two stints there...the first didn't allow for myself and my friends to climb the mountain. But we were back together again upon our second two-week session for training, taking us from the beginning to mid-October.
Our last night there, we planned to climb the mountain. It was our shortest day of class work, thus it would still be light enough although I brought a little mini maglight with me. And in the end, it was only my new friend Matt and I who went. Our other friends had enough sense to stay home.
It was a cloudy day which was disappointing, as both Matt and I wanted to take photos of the desert sunset from on top of Camelback Mountain. Yet we were just as excited to summit that grouping of rocks, so clouds in the sky or not, we went ahead.
It was a dry October, even for Arizona, and while we'd been there we'd heard of the drought. We had water with us as this was not your typical Minnesota or Atlanta city park, although Matt carried mine for me. (I had gotten a tattoo a couple days prior and could not have a backpack rubbing on it). Slowly we made our way upwards. And for those of you who have never been there...Camelback has no obviously marked trail. There are brown markers with arrows, which blend into the background, to guid the tourists such as ourselves. We followed the crowd, and where the trail was discernable, we followed it. But at times we strained to find the markers.
Much of the climb involved "bouldering", that is, just stepping upward from boulder to boulder, ad infinitum. Every time it seemed we would see the summit...we found more boulders.
Matt was a smoker so we stopped for a rest, and for some reason my eyes focused on a couple saguaro cacti standing prominently on the ridge. I wished for my camera, which wasn't with me (long boring story). So I stared, memorizing their lines, their importance which seemed odd, but there it was.
We moved onward, toward the sunset, towards the summit.
Finally we arrived at the top and already the clouds were thickening. The sun was dropping. We could only note a thin red line near the horizon, which, in the desert means darkness will fall in the blink of an eye. Matt had his camera so we photographed each other at the highest point and took a rest that was destined to be very short-lived.
Thunder rumbled directly overhead. The clouds churned.
The summit had been FULL of people, and suddenly they cleared from all directions!
Matt and I headed down, only to realize that the boulders we had chosen to descend were NOT the trail. So we crawled over to where we saw other people as lightning flashed. It began to rain, an intense downpour that made the rocks slippery.
This was worse than my worst nightmare. Not only were we exposed to this terrible storm, but we had to climb DOWN in it. And climbing down was the scary part, because we could not always see where we were placing our feet.
The storm grew worse. The wind whipped around us, the rain descended in torrents, we were WITHIN the thunder, and the lightning was striking the very mountain we tread.
I remember feeling my way downward, blinded, my hands pressed against two slippery rocks as my feet sought solid ground beneath me. Lightnigh struck so close by that the ground shuddered and the flash lived on long after the lightning had passed. Rain ran down my face, drenched my clothing, flooded down the rocks beneath me. Matt was yelling and I couldn't hear him.
Some people were behind us and finally pushed ahead, but didn't even yell back when we went off the trail into a ravine...typical tourists.
By then, Matt was ahead of me. I remember the darkness of night, the rain now falling lightly, the lightning coming only occasionally. The lights of the city reflected upon the clouds and upon the mountain. Matt was further down the ravine, but something was wrong. We had not come up this way!
Only a few feet below him was a cliff. I was hanging onto a rock, on a very steep slope, wondering if I should let go and come down to where he waited. Neither of us was moving. Where were all the other people who had been there?
Why were we abandoned?
If I let go, I might slide down to a rock below...but what if I landed off-balance? I might fall backwards...and I would not be able to stop my descent. It might take me over the edge into the abyss I could not see.
People lived on this mountain, though. What if there was a house just below us? What if we could get to it, or at least find a city street? Then we could at least call for a cab to take us to the rental car or to the hotel, or we could call our friends.
But somehow, I knew there were no homes there in that particular place. We had to get ourselves out of this.
Matt wanted to continue to climb downward. I was to terrified to move. First the storm, then the idea of falling (my other irrational fear), and then, one other thougt...SPIDERS!
We were in the wilderness. While tarantulas were not going to come out in the heat of the day when the trail was full of people, we had now entered their territory. We were not on the trail, it was after dark...and it was time for the creatures that inhabited the shadows to make themselves known.
So I argued for moving upward, towards the summit. Towards where we had gone off course.
But I couldn't move. Because, directly in front of me was a small scrub brush...with a spider's web.
I was taken back in time, to Girl Scout camp, one fall when I had passed under just such a branch, that contained just such a web. And there had been a spider on my head. My entire troop and I had stopped right where we were, screeching for our leader. She pounded desperately through the fall brush, certain that one of us was dying...only to find me screaming because a spider was perched atop my hood. All of us stopped screaming when she completed her work by banishing the small grey spider.
I couldn't go through the web. I just couldn't; I didn't even have a hood this time. But I couldn't go around it, either.
I was faced by two fears...step to the side to go around, and risk falling into the abyss...or plunge ahead, through another terrible fear, and towards life?
Taking a deep breath, I ducked as low as I could, grabbed the scrub brush near the root, and pulled upward, commando-crawling with all I had. Matt climbed from his postion and we emerged at a recognizable trail, some thirty or so feet up from where I'd been perched. Step by step, we followed what we thought was the trail.
I remember looking up, and there were the two Saguaros I'd noted earlier. Excitedly I pointed them out to Matt...and we found the trail. From that point on, we made progrss, slowly discerning our course, slowly making our way downward until we finally emerged from the maw of the Camel.
At the time, I was not a practicing Catholic, although I was trying to find my way, and I WANTED to come Home for good. In looking back, I see that this experience was my own personal Sinai.
That night, I faced my major fears. My friend and I returned to our hotel, our friends were already out to dinner somewhere. So we sat down in the bar and ordered water. The TV was on and had News scenes of the sudden Severe Thunderstorm that had cropped up, comprising the images from that are burned into my memory. Red lightning zigzagged to the top of Sinai...I mean...Camelback. Repeatedly. When the bartender, seeing our bedraggled appearance and shell-shocked appearance, asked where we'd been, we silently pointed towards the TV screen with shaking hands.
Camelback. At the summit. During the ONLY severe thunderstorm that desert had seen all year.
Casually wiping off glasses, the bartender told us that people die up on Camelback all the time. We weren't surprised.
That's when Matt revealed his own fear...snakes. He wasn't concerned about tarantulas, but rather, about snakes, which also nest off the trail. A tarantula's bite we could have survived. The bite of a rattlesnake...
Into the next day, Matt and I would sometimes catch one another's glance...and shudder when we realized what we survived.
Maybe some would say that God was not in the wind that had whipped around us, or in the earthquake, or in the fire.
But to this day, I argue that He was in all three.