Star of Wonder, and Rattlesnakes Too

by | Dec 23, 2013 | Uncategorized

The night sky

The night sky

Driving through the mountains of New Mexico at night when you are starved of sleep is like riding a bizarro world roller coaster. The slow rattling of the bus does not create an adrenalized thrill-ride so much as, over the course of hours spent lurching along sheer cliffs and around tight corners, a deep sense of terror. As I recall it, the absence of light meant that the darkened sky was mostly indistinguishable from the mountains, except for those odd times when the half-dollar moon would sneak out from behind one peak or another. I thought of childhood stories of a smiling moon following some lucky kids home and playing games as they went – first appearing in the north, and then the east, and then the west. For my own part, I could not tell which direction I was going. I only knew where I hoped to end up. There was a road about an hour north of Santa Fe. When I got there, I would need to find a way to travel thirteen more, winding, narrow miles to a monastery nestled deep in the New Mexican desert.

What drew me out to this part of the country was my desire to find the source of some of my most sacred stories. I was going into the desert to visit the place where my mom had spent the greatest part of her young, itinerant, life. Growing up I had heard her stories of time spent roaming the high desert around the Sandia Mountains. There were stories of her brothers bullseyeing rattle snakes with a bow and arrow, stories of kids using their dads’ old military shovels to dig secret forts out of the desert floor and using discarded Christmas trees for cover, and stories of waiting for night to fall just to see the stars come in so clear and close that, if your arm were just a touch longer, you might scoop them out of the sky. These were the stories of a woman in love with a place that had marked her soul. She had passed these stories on to me; and like all stories, they freely mixed and mingled with images and ideas of my own.

A roadtrip into the mountains

A roadtrip into the mountains

Perhaps foremost in my adult mind were the stories I had latched onto when I first began studying theology a few years before. There was John the Baptist, the bedraggled, locust-eating lunatic, crying out in the desert: “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand.” Somehow, due to a few strangely spent years in my late teens, these ideas became conflated with images of seeking a vision. Pseudo-messianic heroes of popular folklore and fiction in search of a vision-dream had floated in and out of my imagination for years. These thoughts were later melded to tales of the desert ascetics, men and women who went out into the wasteland to do battle with demons and confront the worst in themselves.  Binding them all together, though, were the opening eighteen versus of John the Evangelist’s gospel, “There was a man…He came only as witness to the Light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.”

It was this idea, that God had somehow dwelled among us, which bound all of these other ideas together. When I considered the barrenness of the world, the winding and sometimes chaotic roads that had brought me to this point in my life, I needed something that could hold it all together. I went into the desert to see something that would give me trust in the past, faith in the present, and a vision of hope for the future. I was looking for something like a child taking a mystery map from some favorite story book and trying to recreate a quest. I sought something that I had heard people talk about so many times that I thought I could make it exist through a sheer act of will. I went out into the desert to see the stars and rattlesnakes. I went looking for a vision of mad-men and saints. I went seeking something holy, to let the words of a story become flesh in me.

* * *

About two weeks into my trip I found myself at the monastery in the middle of nowhere. I was thinking I would stay there for a week, but I did not have any sense of urgency. I spent my mornings doing odd-jobs to help “pay” for my stay in one of the monk’s guest cells, and I spent the afternoons reading. In the early evening I would take walks beneath the trees, by the river, “in the breezy time of the day.” It happened that one night, as I was coming home and heading into my cell, I came across my first rattlesnake.



The sun was just beginning to dip beneath one of the surrounding ridges, bathing everything in a pinkish glow. As I meandered along the narrow, slate walkway near the guest quarters I noticed a small creature about the size of my middle finger slowly slithering along the edge of the walkway near the wall. “Snake?” Bending over, I watched it move only a few inches, and then bump its head into a wall. “Drunk snake.” Taking in the strange sight, I followed the vaguely familiar brown and beige pattern down its tail to a small double fold of skin no bigger than my pinky-nail. Rattlesnake…a BABY rattlesnake! My heart skipped and I took a cautious step back. I watched more closely as it continued its strange practice of slithering and bumping its head into the wall. Finally, it found what is was looking for as it nosed its way into a small hole beneath one of my fellow traveller’s cell-doors and slipped inside.

There one second, gone the next, I stared for a moment realizing what had just happened. I had watched a rattlesnake enter someone’s room. I knew whose room it was and I knew she was not there. After considering my various options, I decided to go tell the two groundskeepers what had happened. These two were a man and woman, both with leathery skin and strong, lean, limbs. Despite the difference in the color of their hair and eyes, they looked almost like they had been shaped from the same piece of desert earth. I made my way over to the space in the corner of the garden where they sat talking. The woman, seeing me, brushed a short blond bang from across her turquoise eyes as she stopped laughing but continued smiling. The man turned, his closely-cropped head pivoting smoothly on his powerful shoulders.

“Hey.” he said, breaking the silence.

“Hey.” There was a pause as they waited for me to say more. “I, uh, I think I just saw a rattlesnake crawl into someone’s room.”

“A rattlesnake?” his dark eyebrows rose into a gentle question mark.

There was another pause.

I nodded. “Yes. I mean, I think so.” I was suddenly aware that my suburban roots betrayed my general lack of knowledge about local wildlife. “I mean…it was really small, like three inches…but it had these markings on its back.”

The man and woman exchanged glances. They seemed to still be laughing, but this time the joke was a not so subtle poke at my questionable powers of observation.

“Well…why don’t you show me where.” said the man.

As we walked over, I started feeling that I was being ridiculous. I also knew that while I had seen what I saw, there would be no way of proving it to them. We reached the door of the room I had seen the snake enter. I explained that the woman who had been using that room was up at dinner, so she had no idea it was in there. He slowly opened the door to the room, 10×12 feet of sparely furnished stone enclosure. He walked in, did a quick look under the bed, and turned around with a small smile. The confirming presumption that he would not find anything was enough to let him walk back towards the door as he said, “Well…it doesn’t look like…”

Almost too quickly to even register what was happening, his voice stopped and his eyes narrowed as he lifted his boot and began stomping on the stone. Both the woman and I followed his eyes towards the ground, just in time to see the narrow heel of his cowboy boot come down a third time, directly in the center of my baby rattlesnake. He dug into its midsection as it lifted its head to bite the back of his boot heel.

The look in my eyes must have been one of pure horror. I had never seen anyone react so quickly and fiercely to destroy something so small. The woman looking at me then spoke for the first time. “It was a baby rattle snake. It has the same amount of venom as an adult, but its got a higher concentration. If she had gotten bit, there is no way she would have gotten out of here alive.” I thought about my trek in, the forty-five minute drive to the road, the sixty-plus additional minutes to the main highway. The nearest hospital was an easy two hour drive. “He had to kill it now…there is no safe way to handle those.”

* * *

That night, I lay on my back, wrapped in a rough wool blanket as the Milky Way spread itself across the sky. I stared up as the full moon peeked one eye out from behind the ridge. It was there smiling at me, still playing games, still filling the world with stories. I saw each part of my day unfold, as each step somehow led me to a moment of observation and awareness. I thought of the woman that was staying in that room and how she had been walking around in flip-flops and a light cotton dress when I saw her at dinner. I thought of her husband staying in the room next to hers, saying good night after sharing the day together. She and her bare feet would have entered that room alone. Then what? Was it coincidence that I had been there to see the snake disappear into her room?

Suddenly, I realized that the day had been filled with moments that were serendipitous, exciting, and strange. I saw my perception of the day’s events change as episode led to episode and one stray thought led to another. And now here I was. And I thought, what does God see? Looking down and seeing the history of humanity – a small blip in the history of the universe – does God see one moment lead into another? Does God see the effects of one event pass from generation to generation, through the bodies of strangers? Does God – Father, Mother, Creator, whatever – does God see the line of sin and grace, shaped and twisted by people who do not even know each other, pass through one era to another towards some unforeseen end?

I thought of stories of the Garden of Eden and the events leading to Original Sin. I thought of the genealogies present in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the chain of lives connecting one person to another, connecting a people to a history. I thought of the stories that filled scripture, the tales of triumph and failure, the heartbreak and the hope. I thought again of God looking down and choosing one woman who would give birth to a child. One moment in time where a child would be born who was the corrective for all that had come before, and the hope for all that came after. Centuries of Christians had taken these stories up as their own. For millennia we have let these stories fill our minds and imaginations with the hope of something more.

Moonrise over the Sandia Mountains

Moonrise over the Sandia Mountains

I thought again of the stories from my mom’s youth and the things that had drawn me out into the desert to begin with. I thought of her looking up at the same sky that I was looking up at now, some forty years separating our views. I thought of the ways she laughs, the things she loves, the ways she holds her hands when she does not realize that anybody sees her. I thought of my grandpa, her dad, Ted. I thought of his gruff demeanor and rough, bear-paw hands. I thought of the way my mom used his shovel to dig a secret place into the desert floor. I thought of him gently lifting me up to sit in the wheelbarrow he was using to haul stuff around his garden. I now thought of those hands, those same hands, how they had held my mom…how they somehow were my mom’s. I felt my own hands now resting on my stomach, my index fingers and thumbs just barely touching, tapping one another, pulsing with some secret message, like something received in morse code from a previous generation…and Ted begat Jeanne, and Jeanne begat Paul, and Paul….

Now in full view, I beheld the moon beholding me and I smiled.


Paul Lickteig, SJ   /   All posts by Paul