I went up a mountain and received a message not on stone tablets or from a booming voice, but tattooed on a bicep.
My epiphany came, fittingly, in the midst of a spiritual journey of sorts, which like all good quests started with a paradox: I was lost and headed in the wrong direction. The error of my ways occurred as I departed on foot from my hotel and turned left instead of right, which took me away from my destination: the Echo Canyon trailhead and a strenuous hike up Camelback Mountain in Paradise Valley near Scottsdale, Arizona. Lost (and navigating toward the wrong mountain, I might add), I wandered into a Franciscan retreat center, looking for someone to point me to the right path. Instead, I was given a sign -- literally -- as to why my trek had to begin there first.
The sign said "Labyrinth" with a pointing arrow, and I followed. Before going up the mountain, it seemed I had to do a little purposeful meandering in the desert valley below.
Labyrinths, which have been around for thousands of years, are used today in contemplative practice. At the start, the sojourner is asked to meditate on an issue or question. Mine were obvious and ripe with metaphoric meaning: "Where am I going and how do I get there?"
The labyrinth didn't whisper any mystical knowledge, but after walking the circuitous dirt paths marked by rounded stones, I encountered a young man coming out of a nearby chapel. I assumed he was an employee and asked if he could direct me to the trailhead. Better than that, my fellow pilgrim gave me a lift since he was going that way.
From the base of Camelback, the trail rose quickly to a steep grade. I hauled myself up and over and around rocks, looking for the next place to plant my feet and often my hands as well. Although I'm a runner and physically fit, the difficulty of the trail soon had me questioning my ability to master the unfamiliar rough terrain. Would I have to turn back before I reached the summit? Would a fear of falling make me quit?
Along a particularly difficult stretch, I came face-to-face with my answer -- or, should I say, eyeball-to-bicep. As I ascended, I encountered a hiker descending the same pass. As he steadied himself on the way down, he planted his left arm in front of my face, giving me a close-up view of the intricate tattoos cascading below the torn-off sleeve of his t-shirt. One was of a robed man who resembled Jesus; above the figure, etched on flesh, were the words "Thou shalt not fall."
This surreal episode lasted a blink, long enough for a pause and deep inhale. My fellow hiker had no idea what he'd given me; I doubt he noticed me at all. But that message on a muscle telegraphed to me a reservoir of inner strength on which I could rely, not only on a steep hiking trail, but in every other life challenge.
With greater confidence in my own ability to keep going, I pushed on until I finally reached the summit. The views of the craggy red rocks, the turquoise blue sky, and the valley below, though, could not compare with what I had seen on the way.
View the slideshow, Step by Step on a Spiritual Quest