Recently, a paperback copy of The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen showed up in the little library at our house, and I decided to give it a read. It’s the story of a trek into the mountains of Nepal with the field biologist George Shaller after Matthiessen lost his wife to cancer. Shaller hoped to study Himalayan blue sheep. Matthiessen wasn’t entirely sure what he was in search of. Perhaps they’d see the elusive snow leopard or meet the Lama of Shey, who lived in an ancient shrine of Crystal Mountain.
There’s much by which to be captivated in the adventure, from barefoot sherpa lugging baskets of provisions in the snow to the flora and fauna that live in the thin cold air of the high Himalaya to the mountains themselves: Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Churen Himal. These were the most vivid characters of all.
But the sentences that stopped me on my trek were these, about life in the 20th century thus far (the book was published in 1978):
And then, almost everywhere, a clear and subtle illumination that lent magnificence to life and peace to death was overwhelmed in the hard glare of technology. Yet that light is always present, like the stars of noon. Man must perceive it if he is to transcend his fear of meaninglessness, for no amount of “progress” can take its place. We have outsmarted ourselves, like greedy monkeys, and now we are full of dread.
In the age of climate change and artificial intelligence, the line about our being greedy, dread-filled monkeys stood out. As a species, we may prove soon enough that we shouldn’t have been trusted with the knowledge and power we amassed, especially in the past few centuries.
But Matthiessen’s observation is really about the illumination that modern technology’s glare seems to have overwhelmed at times. In the span of a single human lifetime, we went from traveling mostly by horse-drawn carriages to taking trips to the moon. But our rocket ships and algorithms can’t provide the deep human sense that life is magnificent, nor can they help us make our peace with death. Look at any study of the basic markers of well-being in America in recent decades, and it becomes clear that technological progress does not correspond with increased flourishing in the lives of American people.
I remain a follower of Jesus because I still believe the way that he taught and lived can still lead to flourishing and abundant lives. His way still has a power to provide the sense that human life is full of meaning and even magnificence, to use Peter Matthiessen’s words. And essential to Jesus’s way is the realization that God has made us for one another. That when two are three of us are gathered in his name, something holy will happen, and death itself begins to lose its hold on our imaginations as we gradually come to trust that the Love that has given us the gift of this day is the same Love that will hold us, even when our days on Earth are through.
Sometimes that Love may seem as invisible to us as the stars at Noonday. If that’s the case for someone you’ve encountered, I have a simple suggestion that I don’t pretend will work instantly or for everyone but has become indispensable to me. It doesn’t involve a walk to the top of a mountain in Nepal. Invite that someone into the Christian community that holds you. Welcome them into the peculiar little band of Christians who say their prayers at Second and Adams in Memphis and see what happens over time. Introduce them to the old practice of simply showing up to one another to be fed by the sacraments, nourished by the stories of our scriptures, and sustained by the friendships we nurture as we sing and pray and serve alongside each other day after day, week after week, year after year. It’s not rocket science. It’s an ancient, analog, incarnate technology we call Church.