Once my wife was chased by two bears during a trail run. We usually take the route through the local state park together, but I had a doctor’s appointment, and the overcast sky spelled incoming rain, so Jen went on her own. The first quarter mile of the trail is flat, flanked by thin woods and then houses, but the rest of the trail meanders through thick and deep forest, second-growth covering abandoned farms and creameries. Woods within the woods, we say.
As she told the story in our idling car, I tried to match her moments with mine. She saw the first bear—a well-fed cub—around 6:45, when the doctor stuck my back to numb the area to be removed: an uneven mole, probably the result of too much bare-chested sun. I hazard guesses at time since the doctor’s office is free of clocks: it is better to learn to wait without concern for hours and minutes. I am used to pain and doctors: separated shoulders from football and basketball, hereditary hernias, awkward bunions. My wife, though, is not really used to bears: she wants to slow next them on the country roads, get their attention while they lumber across fields. We have been close before, but there are degrees of closeness.
The cub prodded forward, and Jen stopped moving. We have learned to not always trust our ears during trail runs: squirrels sound like elk as they move across patches of leaves. Sight is the best sense here, and she stared down the cub before sprinting, only to turn back and see the cub shift from the trees to the trail, plodding at an even clip. I have no reservations about her speed. She can move. She could move on our college track team, over hurdles and in relays, and she can course along the packed trail with the best of them.
When she reached the park proper the cub was gone. For all she knew it could have ditched the chase long before, but she was focused forward. As was I, albeit a bit more comfortably, face down on the bed. My doctor cut out the mole and I did not feel a thing besides the heel of his hands on my shoulder blades as he worked the knife. I even closed my eyes a few times, nearly drifting to sleep. By that time Jen warned a few other runners to not take the same trail, and she was in a bind: it was getting dark, and she was scared to backtrack her steps and have a second round with the overanxious cub. We both know it is probably best not to run from a bear, but foreknowledge tends to evaporate during the real experience.
Jen knew the mother bear could be close behind, so she opted for another route: longer, one that would bring her through dusk, but she would avoid the other trail. She made a go for it as my numbness was replaced with pain. I felt my skin tugging along with the twirled stitches. I was embarrassed to cringe: I was more surprised by pain than actually in pain. It was a curious distinction, a flash of feeling. Jen’s first surprise was succeeded by a second: the likely mother of the cub in a tree. She had first heard the scuffle of claws on bark and stopped, glancing around the empty forest. Her eyes rose to the bear, midway up the trunk and moving up. Jen clapped a few times and howled before sprinting again: this time, without the route of a trail and instead straight through the forest, ankles wavering in the uneven land, striding over logs. She gave one glance back to the bear, who stayed in the tree, and then pushed forward with all she had, cross-cutting the forest, a fresh footpath on ground not trod for years.
I exhaled on cue with the final turn and tie of stitches and thanked God when the doctor pulled back the sheet. I felt beaten and weak. It was not the actual cutting and stitching—I’ve known the worse pain of broken bones—but rather the surprise. The unexpected pain, much what I imagined Jen felt as she heaved through the tree line and finally reached our car again. I know the first thing I thought of when numbness turned to pain was God. I can’t remember if the thought was a plea or a lament, but I have no doubt as to the intended recipient. I imagine that Jen did the same. At such moments I wonder: is our faith transformative or simply formative? Most likely the latter if we reject the element of surprise. Magic tempts us with a certain faith, the belief that accepted laws of matter and magnitude are, in the right conditions, malleable. But faith is separate from magic. Faith is a consideration beyond the moment of performance. It is bound by imperceptible rules, not provable by material means, better bound to the realm of memory. Catholicism, I think, is a faith open to surprise. The moment we begin expecting and assuming about life is probably the moment we go from believing to only half-believing. Whether those moments involve bears or stitches is not up to us.
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is a Contributing Editor for The Millions. He is writing a book on Catholic culture and literature in America for Fortress Press.
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