Wonder & Worship
I’m a Consumer. I live in Suburbia, the Land of Consumption. Consuming is what we do here. Ours is a realm of strip malls and restaurant rows, of big box stores and doc-in-a-box stores and stores that sell boxed lunches. We are consumed by our boxes; boxed in by our consumption. This is our deepest identity, our truest religion. If you drive through my land with eyes open, you’ll notice our temples to food consumption (restaurants), art consumption (movie theaters), idea consumption (bookstores), and inspiration consumption (churches). We consume land for our gated communities and water for our lawns. We invent new and better devices for consumption and then build stores from which to buy them — devices that are mobile and wireless and cloud-based so that our diet of consumable content can follow us anywhere. We even find ways to consume the things that are not meant for consumption — relationships, people, God.
I started thinking about consumption when my friend Shawn asked me to write a guest post on his blog about wonder, because I think the two are opposites. Wonder is not consumable. For all our attempts to package it in round-trip tickets and all-inclusive getaways, wonder remains stolidly un-get-able, un-consume-able, un-bucket-list-able. Wonder is not in stock at the corner store or the scenic overlook. It does not arrive with two-day shipping, or transport you when you scan your Uber card. Wonder appears when it wants — when it finds us ready — and most likely we are ready when we are not consuming; when the airline has lost our luggage or the cabbie has lost his way or our itinerary has lost its relevance — when we are tired, at wit’s end, off-the-beaten-path.
I qualified for two of those three when I encountered wonder at the base of a New Zealand waterfall. My wife and I had gone Down Under on our last big fling before kids. We were young, fit, and adventurous — full of wonder and wanderlust. Every minute of that trip was memorable. We will never forget the guide who stopped mid-sentence on the way back from whale watching to buy us tea because, as he said, “it’s four o’clock and we are civilized people.” We will never forget the helicopter ride, or the trout I caught, or the mountain guide who refused to take us any farther because of avalanche danger. We saw sights majestic and rare and delicate and memorable on that trip, but we didn’t encounter deep wonder in any of it, not until we wobbled to the little pool the size of a mobile home where we were crushed by the weight of 11 cubic meters of wonder per second.
Sutherland Falls are the world’s fifth tallest waterfall. From the air, it looks as if someone pulled the plug on the enormous, glacier-fed Lake Quill and sent a torrent of water spilling 1,903 feet into the valley below. It is beautiful and violent and wild. The spot where it lands is a remarkably small pool, perpetually shrouded in fog and spray, with a big flat boulder jutting up in the center. It is not accessible by car or boat or any motorized vehicle. Christine and I reached it by foot — exhausted foot. We had just finished two days of some of the hardest hiking of our lives. New Zealanders, not adhering to the common rules of Consumerism, have preserved several trails (they call them tracks) through spectacularly rugged wilderness. The one we chose to walk, Milford Track, was once described by a London newspaper as “the finest walk in the world.” It’s a four-day hike along rivers clear enough to see trout in every oxbow, through mature forests of beech trees too big for two people to reach around, and over steep mountain passes that rise 3,500 vertical feet and befit a Tolkeinesque crusade.
The New Zealand Department of Conservation only allows 40 people to start the Milford Track per day during the hiking season. Bookings happen months ahead. And everyone follows the same itinerary — four days hiking, overnights at group huts. The 32-mile route explores Fjordland National Park, crosses mountain passes, and ends at Milford Sound where happy walkers retire their shredded hiking boots at the base of the last trail marker. The hardest of those four days is the second. At nine miles, it’s the shortest day in terms of distance, but the longest in terms of time and effort. We switchbacked our way over McKinnon Pass and then dropped 3,300 vertical feet toward a hot meal and hard bunk at Dumpling Hut.
After such a day of hiking, it was hard to get motivated for extra walking, but the side-trail to Sutherland is only a ninety minute add-on and very near the end. The knowledge that we would likely never have this chance again gave us the needed energy, so we dropped our packs at a place called Quintin Shelter and set off for the falls. Until that moment, all of our trip Down Under had been guided. Consumed. Even Milford Track, though not guided, was dotted with heated huts and guest logs. But when we slipped our burdens from our shoulders and headed toward Sutherland, there was no one venturing out but the two of us, minuscule in the green expanse of Clinton Valley.
As you can imagine, the falls are visible from miles away, but distance makes them merely pretty; not ferocious. To really experience Sutherland Falls requires a visit close-up. You feel the falls before you see the pool — a steady thunder that shakes the planet and rumbles in your chest. When you crest the last hill and face the pool, you receive a percussive blow, as if the falls are pushing you away, as if this place is too holy for you. Almost two thousand feet above you, Lake Quill is spilling 2,900 gallons — that’s roughly 72 bathtubs — every second. The falls would fill an olympic sized swimming pool in less than four minutes. As you watch all that water crashing, the thing that strikes you is its immutability, its relentlessness. It never lets up. Never slows. That much water rushing with that much power every second of every day and without a moment to catch your breath. It is breathtaking not only in its beauty but in its sensory experience. The cold, constant spray and the rolling, deafening thumping take you in completely. We sat on a rock near the edge of the pool and watched for much too long — we didn’t have much time to stay there if we wanted to make Dumpling Hut before dark — frozen with fatigue and reverence and wonder.
I think wonder is like worship in that way; it takes you in rather than the other way around. You don’t take in a worship experience like you take in a movie. You can’t consume 2,900 gallons per second any more than you can consume the Creator of the universe; it’s too high and wild and big. You don’t consume worship or wonder; you witness them. You stop and stare and stand in awe.
I wonder (pun intended) if I and my fellow countrymen in the Land of Consumption are losing our wonder and thereby our worship. I wonder if we could all use a trip to someplace with no parking; someplace we can be surprised and refreshed and exhilarated; someplace we will hate to leave because we know we’ll miss the pounding in our chests.