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The Mysterious Words That Gave Him Comfort

After reading a peculiar passage, he had one question. Was sobriety on his mother’s trail of recovery?


The creeks were bone dry. For two days I hiked past one dusty streambed after another, deeper into the backcountry of Yosemite National Park. Here near the headwaters of the Merced River, miles away and thousands of feet above where the rapids plunge into fabled Yosemite Valley, there should have been plenty of water to refill my bottle. Instead, nothing.

My wife, Kate, usually backpacked these trails with me, but she understood I needed some time to myself, to sort out my jumbled feelings. The wilderness is where I’ve always felt spiritually at peace, closer to understanding the hills and valleys of my own life. I wanted to hear God say he cared. About me. About my mother.

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After several years of winning her longtime battle against alcoholism, my mom had relapsed. Badly. She’d called me, telling me she’d driven her car off the freeway. That she only got a DUI and didn’t kill someone was nothing short of a miracle. How could my mom, in her seventies and grandmother to my two kids, be sitting in jail, drunk? Now she was shakily attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings again. I blamed God for not shielding my mom and everyone else in our family from the terrible toll of addiction. Her latest setback opened old wounds. Painful memories of fear and shame I’d long tried to bury. If God was truly just, how could he allow this?

I swished the last drops of water around in my bottle, feeling more desolate, more forsaken, than before I’d left. A friend and I hiking this same trail had once traversed snowfields and waded through roaring creeks with our boots off. Not today. A record drought had struck California. The creek where I’d planned to make camp was nothing but dusty earth. I finished off my water and gazed into the blank blue sky.  

Keep going or turn back? I’d camped the night before beside the trickling outflow from a lake. But that was miles in the other direction, and it would be dark soon. No, I had to forge ahead, and hope the creek held water higher up. I trudged on, increasingly uneasy as shadows lengthened and the creek bed stayed dry. At last I came to where a tributary joined the creek from a cleft in the granite mountainside, but instead of a roiling meeting of the waters all I found were some stagnant pools. I could hike for another hour before it got dark, but…

This is the best it will get, I thought. Why go on?

I hastily put up my tent, pumped some murky water through a portable filter and cooked dinner. But I wasn’t hungry. There was a knot in my stomach, and it wasn’t from dehydration. I closed my eyes and pictured my mom in one of her AA meetings, invoking a higher power to help her overcome her own desperate thirst, conquer the urge that led her again and again to hurt herself and others. Was anyone listening?

Wiping off the dust, I crawled into my tent and zipped my sleeping bag. I tried saying evening prayers with the prayer book I’d brought, but the words died on my cracked lips. I took out the other book in my backpack, C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity, a reliable favorite, and opened to a random page. The plain fact is, God is good. He hates evil and injustice and he does everything he can to put them right. He is not some indifferent moral force. He cares very much what individual people do, right here and right now. 

I stared at the page. I’d read this book many times, but I didn’t remember that passage. Not at all. Probably because I hadn’t needed those particular words before now. I read the passage over and over, letting the message sink in: He cares very much.

At last I marked the page, laid the book on my chest and gazed outside. The ravine was pitch-black, and stars shimmered above. A small, fragile bubble of protection seemed to emanate from the book on my chest and surround me. All else was dark—the night, the dry creek, my mom’s addiction, memories of growing up in an alcoholic home. I wanted those words in the book to be true. To know for sure that the power my mother was looking to for her recovery was real. I awoke before sunrise, ate breakfast and packed up. I couldn’t get away from that dry creek fast enough.

There were 10 miles and a 10,000-foot pass to traverse before I reached my car. I filtered two bottles full of the stagnant water and hurried along the trail, beginning a steep, rocky ascent. Before long the trail leveled out. My eye caught a flash of color in the distance. A vibrant green. What was this? A mirage?

Ahead, the trail cut a path through a lush meadow. Aspen leaves spun. Swishing through the tall grass I smelled rich earth and the pungent scent of wildflowers. I heard a trickling sound—water! Somehow, drought hadn’t touched this place! If I’d just hiked a few more miles the night before, I’d have had all that I needed to fill my bottle.

A powerful force almost knocked me over. The flow of the creek, the smell of the mud and the flowers—everything grew crushingly intense. Could sobriety be further along my mom’s trail too? The thought came so suddenly. Will she find exactly what she needs if she keeps pushing on?

Finally, I allowed myself to hope. I began to cry. I couldn’t help it. The entire meadow seemed to ring out the words I’d read the night before.

“You are good,” I said aloud. “You do care. You do hate evil and injustice and you do try to put them right.”

When I reached the parking lot I whipped out my cell phone to call Kate. Mountain climbers arranging their gear stared in bemusement as I breathlessly recounted my hike.

“Let me read you those words from Mere Christianity,” I said, fumbling to pry the book from my backpack. I flipped to the page I’d marked the night before.

“That’s weird,” I said. “I know I read it somewhere.” I examined the page, flipped forward, flipped back. The words I’d read were not there. Not anywhere. The page was about a different topic altogether. That passage…C. S. Lewis hadn’t written it. I had read it, though. Over and over. And now I believed it.

This story first appeared in the August 2014 issue of Mysterious Ways magazine.

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