I knew what had to be done; now I had to convince my body to carry out what my mind was telling me. It was about 9:00 p.m. when I reluctantly began gathering my belongings. I opened my pack and began filling it with my sleeping bag, a lighter, a few cigars, and a couple of pieces of fruit I had taken from the college cafeteria earlier that evening. I grabbed a few layers of warm clothes to compensate for the increasingly brisk fall air and stuffed my leather journal and small Bible in the zipper compartment of my pack.
As I walked out the door, I took a photograph off my desk and placed it gently into my left jacket pocket. I knew this photo was going to play a significant role in the task for which I was summoned into the woods this night.
I threw my gear in the back of my Jeep Wrangler and sped for the mountains, which were only about a 4 1/2 minute drive from my dorm room. As I pulled into the empty gravel parking lot, I cut the engine and dimmed the headlights. The eerie sound of silence, a sound all its own, echoed in my head. This was the sound I needed, yet it was also that which most terrified me. It seemed as if the cold air had frozen the forest before me. The woods called to me; whispered for me to enter and to thaw my frozen heart. I gathered my supplies and began my trek up Lookout Mountain in Montreat, NC at 9:45 p.m.
Beads of cold sweat began collecting on my sideburns and a small pool of dread formed in the crevasse of my lower back. As I hiked madly and purposefully up the mountain, the forest’s voice urged me to come, to hurry, and to finish this. An hour passed as I ascended the rocky ledge of the mountain.
When I reached the top, I gazed over the shadowy mountain ranges of Asheville, North Carolina as I unpacked my gear. There were no sounds but my own deep breaths. The stars overhead and the distant lights of the city captured my vision.
I built a large fire and sat down beside it. Staring into its orange and blue flames, I knew it was time to do what I was here for. I slowly pulled the picture out of my jacket pocket and stared into its iconic image.
The tears began to well up in my eyes remembering the moment. We were on the beach late one night, both so young, so happy to finally be alone together. She rarely laughed so openly as was captured in that photo. I was carrying her on my back, both of our faces pressed into one another, her legs wrapped securely around my body. We were glowing. Our heads tilted back in radiant laughter.
I remembered her smell, her brown eyes that pierced my very soul, the softness of her skin, her innocence that carried me into the divine, and her full lips that made me weak. I felt free and captured at the same time. She was my god. She was to be my wife. The more I stared at the picture the tighter I held onto it. I had come to this place, this mountain, to finally let go; to surrender a god. She had broken up with me a couple of months earlier after months of toxicity. I knew we needed to end things, I just couldn’t bring myself to feel that type of death. Now, I had no choice. Up until this moment I had been too cowardly to let go, but here at this altar, I feel like Abraham being asked to sacrifice Isaac. My most precious gift had also become my most insidious prison, and I did not want to surrender it.
I began to mourn.
Each scream gradually grew in intensity and emotion. My tears could not be held in any longer, they now streamed down my face. My screams matured to moans. “Why? God, Why? Why? Why?? Why did you rip her away from me? She was my only joy! The only thing that made me happy! Why God? Answer me!” My thoughts quickly became accusatory toward God. Knowing that God is secure enough to handle my rage and brokenness, I continued, “How could you do this to your child? You are just like my earthly father: distant, weak, and absent. How can I trust a God who is so heartless, so merciless? Haven’t I suffered enough?”
Releasing idols can be quite laborious.
My questions gave birth to wails. I tore my shirt off and began tearing hairs from my bare chest as my fingers began grasping for something that would make my pain tangible. I had never felt grief so deep in my bones. All I could do was scream and clutch my chest; my heart was shattering before me. No human words could be made out from the top of that mountain, only wails from the deepest part of my soul. I continued to kiss her face and bitterly weep. I missed her so much. I felt so lost without her.
I came to the realization that I had no self, no identity beyond her. I was not only grieving the loss of relationship, but the complete loss of self. A beautiful woman makes a poor substitute for God.
Hours passed. A fierce battle had been waged on top of that mountain and my entire body was exhausted from the fight. I gave up; surrendered. One finger at a time, I released my grip on the photo and placed the picture of us into the fire, still hoping God would intervene, that an angel would appear, and say, “Andrew, Andrew! Do not let go of her, I see you are willing and that is enough, I will provide another sacrifice, and reunite you both!”
I heard no response. As I watched our faces burn, I reluctantly surrendered my false god. I felt like vomiting, yet smiling as I released the photo. I felt scrawny yet strong at the same time. I continued to let my tears fall to the rocky soil as the fire grew dim. I crawled slowly toward my sleeping bag and fell to the ground spent with grief and loss.
The next morning when I awoke my body stiff from sleeping on a rock, yet my heart felt different. I prayed more freely as I walked tall and even smiled on my hike back down the mountain. I knew I was going to be okay. Just the night before I did not know if I would make it out alive, and yet because I had the courage to enter into the darkness of my crucifixion, I began to feel a small taste of resurrection.
I honored and survived grief. I am a survivor.
This was one of my first steps in reclaiming my relationship to both God and myself some 16 years ago. It grieves me even now as I remember, and yet I bless that lost boy who was so desperately looking for someone to love and fill him. I am thankful for his tenacity to grieve boldly and to not give up. Grief truly is the doorway to God.