Through the Pass: A Christmas Reflection
I was hiking in a fairly remote region when a few other hikers told me of a mountain pass leading into a spectacular valley resonant with cascading waters, lush with rolling meadows, dotted with innumerable wild flowers, and protected on all sides by snow-capped peaks. This sums up my idea of heaven, so I turned my steps in that direction and began the climb.
On the way up, I met other hikers coming down, whom I asked about both the way and the destination. I was not surprised to be told that the path was tough, for the challenge of such things is often part of the reward. But I found it odd when they said that the pass itself was not only difficult to find but private, and that I would have to make arrangements with a guide who kept a general watch in the area in order to intercept hikers looking for the path.
Well, so be it. I had been some time on my own two legs and hadn't seen any place yet that I wanted to call the end-point of so promising a hike. I decided to see it through. I would hunt down this guide.
As it turned out, the guide found me before I found him. I told him what I was looking for, and he said he could help, though he required some modest support to keep his post. After a brief negotiation, we set off together. As we climbed, the air grew thinner. My uninitiated lungs made things vastly more difficult; I had not the benefit of long habit in these regions. Still, with frequent rests, I toiled on.
As we walked, the guide explained where we were going. Considering my own shortness of breath, I was well content to let him do the talking. As he disclosed more information, I became increasingly eager, finding new energy in the very beauty of the goal. And so, after a longer trek than I would have at first imagined, we came to the opening that led directly to the pass.
Through the trees, I caught a glimpse of a sort of hut or house fixed between the sheer rock sides of the entrance to the pass. My guide explained that this was both the gatekeeper's house and the way through—for, again, access to the pass was controlled, though for a reason I did not yet fully understand. In any case, I had only to enter the valley by way of the hut. He himself must hurry back down in search of other hikers.
I knocked at the gatekeeper's house, but no one answered, so I tried the door, imagining a sort of visitor's center. There was little to see within, except that a row of small windows across the back of the building offered a spectacular view into the pass as well as something of the valley beyond. Clearly, the gatekeeper was out, but it would be worth the wait.
As time dragged on, though, I became less sure, and I began to look around more carefully. It was only then that I noticed what should have been obvious from the first: the only door was the one I had used, and there was no way around the hut, which filled the space between the sheer rock faces on either side. Had I been the victim of a practical joke? I was disappointed and not a little disgusted.
As I walked back out through the door, however, I finally heard a human sound, the faintest cry of a small child or a baby. I couldn't tell which, but clearly it came from within the building, so back I turned. This time I called out, hoping to attract some attention, but I heard only a louder cry in reply. My ears soon led me to a hidden corner which, to my astonishment, contained a cradle, rocking but quite empty. I called out again, for surely there had been someone here all along, presumably the gatekeeper's wife and child. Was I intruding? Had I frightened them?
This time I shouted at the top of my lungs, explaining that I meant no harm, that all I wanted was to enter the valley, that the guide had brought me, that all was well. Almost immediately, I heard the tramp of feet, and a man in the prime of life strode into the room, though not through the front door. He welcomed me heartily, but before we spoke of the valley, I begged to know whom I had frightened and where the child was who had been in the cradle.
“You caused no fear,” he said. “I was using the cradle myself, though you never looked for me there.”
This, of course, made no sense, but he looked a powerful fellow, and I did not want trouble, so I asked if he could show me the way into the valley.
He ignored my change of topic. “You don't understand,” he said. “I was using the cradle. I was sleeping in it.” Now I began to doubt his sanity.
“Forget the cradle,” I snapped. “Can you show me the way into the valley or not?”
This seemed to bring him round, but only partly. “No,” he said. “I cannot point it out to you. That is not the way. Try to understand. I was telling you that I myself was sleeping in the cradle.”
Mad he must be, or else a practical joke had gone considerably too far. By now I was so frustrated that I wanted to yell and argue. But the one thing I didn't want was more of his nonsense. So I simply turned to leave.
My goal was thwarted. As I walked through the door, he tried one final time:
“You needn't go,” he said. “You must try to understand. Do you see a way around? There is none. Do you see another door? There is none. That's why I was in the cradle. We cannot explain the way to you, not so you can understand. And so I was sleeping in the cradle. Do you not see? Truth and life are the heart of the way. And truth and life must pass through the cradle. How can I show the way without being in the cradle? Or how can I be the way without showing you the cradle?”
I turned in fury. “You are mad!” I cried. But he was gone, and there was no other door. Yet surely there was an infant in the cradle. I saw the baby clearly now, and heard his cry. Stooping in wonder, I touched his little hand, which closed around my finger. My mind was no less wondering than the child's eyes. “What is this sign? What does it mean?”
Snow-capped peaks surrounding verdant meadows; exquisite blossoms from every place and time; water flowing, leaping, living—and a little child has my hand, forever.
[Back for the 2012-2013 Christmas season. Originally posted December 20, 2004.]
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