The Lab Girl and the Contemplative: A Campsite Convergence

Camping and reading intertwine beautifully as pleasures. Many a backpack trip’s rocks and ridges meet in my memory with the book I chose to carry. In my twenties, Middle Earth and Narnia leapt alive on hikes with my husband in the mountains west of Denver. Immersed in Tolkien or Lewis, it seemed Legolas or Tumnus might appear around any curve of the trail. Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy has held me spellbound at more than one National Forest picnic table. Raising my eyes from the page to the pines, medieval Norway seems to sing when I’m reading Kristin in the mountains.

I began reading on camping trips when I was about sixteen. Obsessed with Russian novelists, I was unbearably proud of my smarts, stashing Dostoevsky in a muslin duffel along with socks and field guides. I would learn later that reading a book to feel smart is the undertaking of a fool. Today I stash books in my backpack for other reasons. I seek the subtle stabs to the heart signaling that a book is growing my soul; I treasure times when I’m so caught up in a story that I’m immersed in grace before noticing one hint of its proximity.

Intersections of upward insight sometimes blindside me when a literary r41qvmfj2u9l-_ac_us160_ead informs my spiritual reading or the other way around. It happened last July at a favorite campsite in the San Juans.

I’d packed Lab Girl, the bestselling memoir by Hope Jahren, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People. Good choice. Jahren is the daughter of a science professor whose lab opened her to the beauty of the slide rule and a life of scientific inquiry. Her mother’s unfulfilled dream of a career as a scientist fueled the silence in Jahren’s childhood home. Her own arduous journey from leaving home to becoming an acclaimed geobiologist is as rich as it is revealing. Its heart is a friendship that unfolds over the decades of her career. Lab Girl is a beautiful personal narrative.

Jahren first encounters Bill, an undergraduate misfit resembling Johnny Cash, while working as a graduate student assistant instructor at Berkeley. Bill’s stand-offish exterior hides wounds that slowly surface as he becomes her lab manager and the two develop trust over years of funding struggles, road trips and personal triumphs and tragedies. The tale is hilarious and heartbreaking. Her tender tribute to Bill, rendered in all his salty complexity, moved me to be more mindful of Christ hidden in each stranger I encounter.

I packed the first volume of Elizabeth of the Trinity’s major spiritual writings for inspiration on that Lab Girl camp trip. A series of podcasts at DiscerningHearts.com had brought St. Elizabeth’s spirituality to my attention and I wanted to spend some prayerful time in her company.

I’m indebted to Dr. Anthony Lilles and Kris McGregor for making Elizabeth’s spirituality accessible through their contemplative reflections on Heaven in Faith and The Last Retreat. Actress Miriam elizabeth-of-the-trinityGutierrez reads Elizabeth’s own words on these remarkable recordings which remain richly rewarding even after repeated listening. They ignited a desire to savor the saint’s spirituality in the slender first volume of I Have Found God.

I read bits of The Last Retreat in my camp chair each morning on the days when Lab Girl accompanied me between hikes and meal prep. The Christian mystery of rooting ourselves deeply in Christ gripped me through unexpected intersection in the thought of these two women.

Jahren, it turns out, is a scientist with a lyrical gift. The most wondrous passages in Lab Girl are prose pieces on plants layered between corresponding sections of the narrative. Jahren wants us to treasure trees, to savor soil, to fall in love with the color green. Reading Lab Girl with the help of a mountain backdrop, I was indeed falling head over heels.

With Elizabeth, we’re in the saint’s sublime realm. A French Carmelite who lived from 1880 to1906, Elizabeth was canonized just a few weeks ago, on October 16. The young nun’s heart’s desire was to become “a praise of glory who wishes to continue her hymn of thanksgiving through everything: ‘unshakable in her faith as if she had seen the Invisible’; unshakable in her faith in His ‘exceeding love.’” Elizabeth layers text upon biblical text in wondrous exploration of the “breadth and length and height and depth” of the love of God.

Elizabeth wrote her Last Retreat at the age of 27 while dying of Addison’s disease. The illness may have heightened her awareness of the spiritual thirst which for her was much deeper than mere parchment of the body. Her thirst for Christ quickens the reader’s desire to share in her anticipation of a glory that “eye has not seen.”

But God’s seeds are patient.  I learned that from Jahren.  “A seed knows how to wait,” she writes.

 Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

That sentence can pierce your heart when, with St. Elizabeth’s hope in mind, you read it beneath a Ponderosa pine. Papery seeds wait within each crusty cone. When replete, the Ponderosa is a stunning, rust-barked symbol of the American West.

Straining at “what lies ahead,” St. Paul compares a seed to the body, sown in weakness and raised in splendor. What will that splendor be? Elizabeth puts her whole being at the service of this question.

Not so fast. First, the seed must anchor.

“No risk is more terrifying than that taken by the first root,” Jahren tells us. Even before finding water, it must “anchor an embryo and forever end its mobile phase.”

We’re attracted to mobility and like to keep our options open. The saints assure us that once a soul is granted a glimpse of how much Christ loves it, it will root an anchor at the cross.

The beauty of Elizabeth’s spirituality is her absolute confidence that, having rooted in herself Christ, she has access to the life of heaven before reaching the splendor of eternity. Living in anticipation of that glory, she discovers its beginnings already in her soul.

“How can I imitate in the heaven of my soul this unceasing occupation of the blessed in the Heaven of glory?” she asks. To be rooted and grounded in love…is the condition for worthily fulfilling its work as praise of glory.

little pine trees on a tree stump

“Then, by each of its movements, its aspirations, as well as by each of its acts, however ordinary they may be,” this soul “’is rooted’ more deeply in Him whom it loves. Everything within it pays homage to the thrice-holy God.”

Elizabeth raises our sights to the glory awaiting those whose seed of faith anchors well, branching out of itself and into the soil of love as it roots itself securely in Christ: “so deeply that one is rooted there; and to every event, every circumstance, one can fling this beautiful challenge: ‘Who can separate me from the love of Jesus Christ? When the soul is established in Him at such depths that its roots are also deeply thrust in, the divine sap streams into it and all this imperfect, commonplace, natural life is destroyed…Then that which is mortal is swallowed up by life.”

This is a work of grace, but we can prayerfully prepare. Drinking the divine sap, difficulties will then serve only to root our soul “’more deeply in the love’ of its Master.”

Lab Girl’s intimate descriptions of plant life did more than grow my appreciation for Creation’s wonders, they magnified Elizabeth’s penetration of the Christian’s future.

“Each beginning is the end of a waiting,” Jahren writes. “We are each given exactly one chance to be. Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.

Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.

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