Why I Am Not a Mystic

Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

Two years ago, a friend and I were admiring a salt marsh near my cottage on Cape Cod. It was early spring and blustery, so the marsh was just beginning to stir, with hints of green swaying above what, in winter, had been a brown bed of dead grass.

“I love Cape Cod,” I said.

“I love God,” she said.

I don’t know whether my friend is a mystic—she certainly wouldn’t call herself that—but I would bet a year in purgatory that she too has tasted what Hildegard of Bingen called “the fiery life” of the divine. She inhabits a body like the rest of us. She feeds it and waters it, and lays it down and revs it up on occasion. But with her you always know you are the other man. She’s forever waiting for God to call, and when he does she opens wide her senses—the “windows on the soul,” Blake said—and lets him have his way with her.

In a purpose-driven world obsessed with work and words, my friend revels in stillness and silence. We can go for months without communicating, and when we get together to walk along the beach near my cottage, or through the East Village where she lives, she never feels any compulsion to say anything. Sometimes I play along. I once picked her up from South Station in Boston, and not a word passed between us until we were at my place an hour and a half later.

This fall I stayed for a week at a remote shack in the Province Lands dunes on the outer edge of Cape Cod. When Thoreau wrote, “A man may stand there and put all America behind him,” he was talking about this outermost place, where the arm that is the Cape raises its fist against the Atlantic and all but commands it to send a storm.

Upon my arrival, I was greeted with not one storm but two. The first Nor’easter blew about thirty knots, shaking the shack and breaking a window; the second gusted to sixty-five, sandpapering my face as I walked along the beach.

Like Thoreau, I was trying to put some things behind me. There wasn’t much in the way of shelter nearby, and all of it was boarded up for winter. But it wasn’t just people I was trying to set aside. There was no electricity. No running water. No computers or cell phone service. So the only thing to do was to be wordless and alone with whatever you love and fear.

What I fear is being separated from what I love. And one of the things I love is this place. When Thoreau took the walks that turned into his book Cape Cod (1865), he remarked more on society than ecology. He spoke with easy reverence of sea captains and oystermen and victims of shipwrecks. I like Cape Codders too, I suppose. But I love Cape Cod more.

When I moved back here after sojourns in Boston and Atlanta, I tramped around from woods to salt marsh just to relearn what in my childhood had been my world—the woods’ white and pitch pines, both fallen and erect; its brambles, which tattooed my friends and me with scars and adventures; and the salt marsh, with its low-tide stink of every crab and minnow that ever lived and died there, a smell that tourists find repulsive but more than anything else says home to me.

You don’t need to read Mark Twain to know that home is the sort of thing that needs escaping. And escape I did, onto the rafts of college and work and family life. But home will call you back in a way that begs excusing, so a decade or so ago I found an excuse and returned. I can say I came for the people; there is family nearby, and friends are not too far away. But I really returned to turn my face into the breeze that blows in off the bay and across the salt marshes before finding its way into the woods and down its trails—underfoot reminders that every home is someone else’s home too, and someone else’s escape.

Provincetown has never been either home or escape to me. The last time I visited there I came with a fake ID to dance with a high school friend who would later fly off to Manhattan and disappear into the theater and adulthood. But this dune shack is oddly familiar nonetheless—the Cape distilled to its essence of water, sand, and that most New England of virtues: the virtue of going it alone.

You cannot see it from my shack, but there is water in all directions. Walk due north or east and you’ll hit the ocean. Walk due south or west and you’ll hit the bay. C-Scape, as this shack is called, used to sit atop a dune overlooking the Atlantic, but it was moved inland after the Great Blizzard of 1978, so now it’s nestled down and away, protected by sand on all sides from the sharpest edge of the cutting wind.

At first, this temporary home took some getting used to. The wood stove is temperamental. The walls are mice-friendly. And in a downpour the leaky roof can brim up a half-gallon milk jug every hour. But after a while you start to forget about the comforts you have left behind and to look for comfort where you are.

When the storms passed and the sun came out, I came out too. I fetched water and carried wood. I wandered up and over three-story dunes. I ate wild cranberries, stalked coyote tracks, and admired the beach plum and bayberry bushes that strain up and out of nothing more than slumps of sand. One day the wind was light and offshore, so the Atlantic was as calm as a kettle pond. In close, I saw a seal diving and surfacing and diving again. Farther out, I saw a riot of seabirds cavorting with spouts of water. Then came two big black tail fins and, minutes later, a full-body breach of a humpback whale.

“I love Cape Cod,” I said.

Places teach as surely as any guru, and there are lessons I learned in my week of water and sand and going it alone. I do not need to shower every day. I do not need to stay up late every night. Letting go is as hard as putting America behind you. And I am not a mystic.

I love the idea of mysticism—the notion that divinity comes to us by stealth, not in words and congregations but in silence and solitude, and when it comes it ravishes us and makes us new. So I envy those new creations who have been ravished, who fling open not only the windows of their senses but also the doors, and then wait for whatever might come knocking. I envy the mischievous Sufi Rumi, who was forever finding the universal divine in his particular beloved. What is the difference, he asked, between loving the limbs of his friend Shams and loving the words of the Fashioner of Forms? Nothing, says my Hildegard of the East Village, who revels with equally devilish delight in trespassing the borders between self and other and God.

But I am not a mystic. I am too enamored of words for that, and of the human body and the oceans of confusion in which it swims. I will confess, however, to wanting mystical things. Though I suspect I could not live with the consequences, I want a memory of a meeting with the Unknown that cannot be rewritten by doubt. But in those rare moments when what goes by God has knocked on my windows and doors, I have been too much in love with the sand dunes in front of me or the woman beside me (or both) to notice.

Apparently such faith as I have resides in visible rather than invisible things—in blackberry bushes and snowstorms and the turn of a hip. When I find myself with a woman I love, what I love is the woman. And when I find myself in a place like the Province Lands, what I love is the place—the sand shifting underfoot, the shooting stars overhead, and the endless rhythm of waves that announce their arrival on shore just before giving themselves up forever.

On that early spring day when my friend and I had each found in the salt marsh an occasion to marvel, we eventually made our way back to my cottage. As she was separating herself from scarf and jacket, I found myself admiring her not on her terms but on mine, as if I were separate from her and we were separate from God. I ached not for the God in her but for the woman. I thought of Rilke (one of her favorite poets)—“You must change your life”—and in that moment I wanted to change mine.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love God,” she said.

I wish she had said something else.

The author arrived at the C-Scape Dune Shack through the good graces of Tom Boland and the artists-in-residence program at the Provincetown Community Compact.

Stephen Prothero teaches at Boston University and writes books, including God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter, published by HarperOne. His latest is Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).