If you follow me on social media, you have probably seen pictures of my hiking adventures. To the untrained eye, hiking may seem like just a fun walk in the woods, which it definitely is, but to me it is so much more. Hiking is a spiritual practice.
A Time to Pray
When I hike I like to pray. Sometimes these prayers are verbal, either internally or externally, but most of the time these prayers are nonverbal. As I walk, I’ll reflect on the day, week, or month, and I may even dream of the future, but all of this thinking is a way that I communicate with the Divine. During these hikes, I even try to simply be silent with God and let the Creator speak to me through some of my favorite messengers: the wind, the birds, and the water as it rhythmically interacts with the bank.
While my tradition doesn’t use icons in our worship, God certainly does in the cosmic temple. The flowers that line the trails, the way the sun plays with the tree branches, and the beauty of a king snake all send different messages and offer different insights into how the world works and who God is. These images, sounds, smells, textures, and even tastes are, to borrow from Wendell Berry, are like “prayers prayed back to the one who prays” (“How to Be a Poet“).
One of the chief messages I hear in every walk is, “Do you see all of this around you? After all of the wars, breakups, divisions, and pain that has happened in the world, the creation is still here and as beautiful as ever. All manner of things shall be well.”
A Time to Think
There is a type of thinking that is prayerful, but there is also a kind of thinking that is more creative. While there may not be a difference between the two to God, for the sake of this post, I’ll point out the slight difference. One is a deliberate way of connecting with God, but the other is typically me going over a sermon again and again in my head or fine tuning a question I might ask in Bible class.
In the wilderness, God has a way of helping mold my sermons, talks, articles, and insights in a way that isn’t so evident in the comfort of my office. When I look out over the land from the peak of a mountain, a point I had planned on making may seem so insignificant that I give it up altogether or try to dig deeper to find the truth beneath the truth that is what I’m actually meant to teach.
This time is so sacred to me because I care so much about what my sermons and classes will do. Notice that I did not say what they will say or what information they will convey. While they will accomplish those goals, I no longer care so much for simply communicating information like I once did. I want my sermons and articles to transform lives. And it’s not that I think I can transform people’s lives or that my talks alone could affect that change, but it is that I am trying to constantly consent to the Spirit of God who so desperately desires to lead us, and this Spirit is a spirit of transformation.
A Time to Be
Apart from thinking and praying, although not really apart from either, I go to the woods to simply be. In a book my friend Greg sent me called Backpacking with the Saints, Belden C. Lane talks about the “sacrament of the present moment,” which he borrowed from Jean-Pierre de Caussade. As someone who is addicted to their phone and work, but who is consciously working on it, the outdoors are a great place to unplug.
Since I’ve deleted e-mail and most social media off of my phone, the only use it has is to record my trip, take a few photos, and be able to call someone in an emergency, and since there is usually no service on the trail, I’m relatively unreachable.
This allows me to be. As my feet and breath find their rhythm, I don’t have to worry about what’s going on in the world. I don’t have to worry about the latest news. I don’t have to think about all of the things that cause us to worry. I can just exist in God’s nature as a fellow creature to the birds, trees, snakes, and frogs that I might see on the way. They don’t worry about tomorrow, and when I’m with them, neither do I.
It’s Not an Option
Hiking for me is not an elective. It’s not something that I think will be fun to do (even though it is, without a doubt, most definitely a blast every single time); it is something that is necessary to my survival. Spirituality is not something Christians do when we have time for it. It is one of our top priorities.
This week, for instance, before the kids got up on Monday, I wrote my sermon that I have now decided to almost completely change, I had a major essay due, and I had three finals to take. I got sick on Monday night, and I didn’t feel better until Wednesday night. So, do you know what I did on Thursday?
I could have taken both finals that morning. I could have rewrote my sermon. I could have worked on my next book. But I decided to go on a hike because my soul needed it.
There’s a story about a hermit who lived in the woods. As winter approached, he realized he didn’t have enough firewood. When he found his axe, he realized it was rusty and dull. He figured that if he took the time to sharpen it, he would have no time to cut enough trees for the winter, so he started chopping away. The dull saw worked much slower than he thought it would, and he wasn’t able to cut enough firewood to survive the winter. Had he simply taken the time to sharpen his axe, he would have been fine.
When I realize my axe needs sharpening, I have to do something about it. My mind is more clear, I think more quickly, and I am able to complete my tasks more efficiently after I go on my hikes.
If you do not have a regular spiritual practice like this, regardless of what it is, find it and make it your top priority.
An Apprentice of Jesus
I recently finished the Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer. In one of the chapters he made an excellent point about the need to be alone in the wilderness with God.
He pointed out how in Mark, Jesus went straight into the wilderness for forty days after his baptism. Instead of going right into his teaching, like one would expect him to do, he took off to be alone with God and to overcome temptation, temptations he would face again and again in his ministry.
When he got back, he called his disciples, cast out a demon, and healed so many people that the entire city came to see him. What did he do next? Capitalize on his success? Preach to the masses and plant a church?
Jesus got up early, went to a deserted place, and he prayed. When he came back to his disciples, they were confused as to why he would leave, and with this new clarity he had from his morning in the wilderness, he made an odd decision.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” He answered, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also, for that is what I came out to do.” And he went throughout all Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons.Mark 1:35–39
The disciples were flabbergasted! Who would go into the wilderness when fame, fortune, and success was at someone’s fingertips? The answer: someone who had far more important things to do than have worldly success.
Time in the wilderness gives us the clarity to see what really matters. This is why hiking, for me, is a spiritual practice that I can’t live without.