Many of you in the Presbytery know I love to hike. From early spring through the fall I often spend my entire Sabbath day hiking or climbing; and on my blog I detail many of the hikes I’ve taken and mountains I have climbed. I love doing all-day hikes because the intense physical experience of walking or climbing for hours, attending to my breath and the steady beat of my heart, and being conscious of earth upon which I am walking, is conducive to mental alertness and spiritual awareness. I am very mindful of being about in what all the saints knew as “God’s first book,” the Book of Nature.
Hiking outdoors is for me a spiritual practice – something I do repeatedly, over time, made meaningful by reflection and connecting me with others who have done the same and with the earth. The desert fathers and mothers sought out the wilderness. John Calvin called creation “the theater of God’s glory.” Many of the great saints were hikers and climbers, including Jesus! The more contemporary literature of walking, from Rousseau and Nietzsche to Thoreau, Muir and Proust, reminds us of a way of living all but lost to us today. Health and heart, body and soul, I am at my best when I stay connected to the world God made at the pace God intended.
Being outdoors also has many health benefits. I’ve recently read, for example, that a ninety minute walk in nature can significantly reduce rumination – the negative or obsessive thoughts so many of us experience, which take us out of the enjoyment of the moment at best and leads us down a path to depression and anxiety at worst. (And who would not benefit from that, after this past month). Walking outdoors can reduce activity in part of the brain associated with mental illness and increase creativity and problem solving.
Since this was such a beautiful weekend with temperatures in the low 60s, I took my son out after worship yesterday for a traipse (a great word for a particular way of walking) along the Appalachian Trail in Connecticut. We parked beside the Housatonic River (the name means “river of the mountain place” in Mohican) and scrambled hand over hand up St. John’s Ledges and hiked over to Caleb’s Peak with majestic views of the Taconic Mountain range. We followed animal tracks, identified the cries of raptors, and observed various kinds of scat. We also reflected on the Biblical stories behind the names of landscape we were tracing. We spoke of the coming Sunday’s story of Jesus’ transfiguration that took place after a day of rigorous mountain climbing and in the presence of Moses and Elijah, both of whom were accustomed to ascending and descending mountains in search of God. And we remembered other hikes we have taken together, of lessons we have learned, and people we have met. The great joy of hiking as a spiritual practice means that our day together on the mountain was not just a single event but part of our growing relationship with one another, our world, and its maker.
The holiest of moments (the moment of wholeness, for us) took place on a snow covered forest floor nestled between two ridges where “the world in solemn stillness lay” below the bright blue sky. We had escaped the busy world, for a while, and could hear not a sound about us. We simply stood, silent ourselves, and content together. When next we spoke, we were ready to head home.