My Dear One,
Many of the most formative spiritual moments in my life happened when I was outdoors: climbing up Vedauwoo in southeast Wyoming in a place Native Americans called “Land of the Earthborn Spirits,” canoeing down a river in the Ozark Mountains to go sleep under the stars, riding a bicycle across central Missouri on the Katy Trail and finding things just as I had imagined even though I’d never been there before, walking the West Highland Way in the heart of Scotland on a pilgrimage with friends, watching a Dwight Yoakum concert near a whirling tornado on my sister’s 16th birthday, … the list goes on.
So when I am struggling spiritually and there isn’t a gothic cathedral nearby to invite my soul to fall to its knees, I head to the woods to immerse myself in the Cathedral of Creation. Be it the stone heights of man-made cathedrals or the stones left as mountain by a glacier from the last ice age, it is in such places I find myself undeniably humbled by the presence of the sublime.
Such a time happened very recently. With a lot on my mind and seemingly no capacity to sort it out, I sat and spun an entire day, not accomplishing anything I had planned. So the next day, rather than spin in place some more, I hopped in my car and drove an hour away to a challenging trail. If I couldn’t accomplish anything at home, perhaps I could at least find a sense of accomplishment with a vigorous out-and-back. And, as I had hoped, I found what I was needing there.
In his wonderful book, Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, Belden Lane, professor emeritus of religion at Saint Louis University, writes,
“All I know is that solo backpacking is a practice that feeds me, even in moderately tame wilderness terrain. I don’t have to face down grizzly bears or survive flashfloods in desert slot canyons to feel fully alive in backcountry. Facing down myself is enough. Flashfloods of imagined dangers are as scary for me as real ones. The interior landscape is the most dangerous territory I’m likely to explore.”
And perhaps that is what happens for me as well. As my feet glide down a smooth dirt path or stomp up jagged boulders, I am working out the rhythm of my own interior journey as well. Easing into the smooth places, leaning in and doing a bit of trail-running when the coast is clear, covering ground when the time is right. But then slowing down and paying attention when the footing gets tricky, walking off an ankle sprain from my lack of attention a few yards back, glorying in the view from on high while puffing to catch my stolen breath. And finally knowing when it is time to rest, to sit down on an old stump or tree root or outcropping, to be still and take in my surrounding with the fullness of all my senses. Feeling, knowing, experiencing my complete presence in this space, life reflected back at me in a way God knows I can perceive only in places such as these.
Increasingly, we are recognizing the importance of spending time in nature not only for spiritual health but for mental health as well. Several studies, such as this one, have found that an immersion of three days or more in wilderness settings have an astounding impact on our creative, higher-level function, improving our problem-solving capability by as much as 50%! Getting unplugged and outdoors, being surrounded by natural stimuli, experiencing what Greater Good at UC Berkley calls “the awe effect” has the power to improve everything from your mental health to your physical health, from your social well-being to your level of generosity. (For a light listen about all this on Audible, check out The Three Day Effect: how nature calms your brain by Florence Williams).
It comes down to this. At times when I can’t pray, nature prays for me. At times when I can’t find the right words to say (or even the wrong words), at times when I am not sure if God is even listening (or in darker moments if God even cares), at times when prayer seems unnatural to me … nature prays for me. I don’t need to know the right course of action (an exercise of the Heart). I don’t need to feel in right relationship with God (an exercise of the Soul). I don’t need to search for the right words (an exercise of the Mind). I simply need to put my body in the right place (an exercise of Strength) and head it down a trail, or put it in a kayak, or work it in a garden. In places like these I don’t have to worry about finding God, God inevitably finds me. As a friend of mine once wisely said “Prayer isn’t so much about getting God’s attention as it is about allowing God to get our attention.”
What is distracting you these days? What stands in the way of prayer, of open communication with God? Can’t find the words? Let the words find you instead.
When you are feeling stuck, consider some nature-immersion. Nature prays for me when I can’t. I pray you will find it doing the same for you.
following The Way,
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