Last weekend, I had the amazing experience of hiking Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondack Mountains. Mount Marcy reaches an elevation of 5,344 feet and began to form around 480 million years ago. At the peak, the summit steward told my hiking group that the vegetation growing on top of the mountain was the same type that had been there since the glaciers that carved the mountain slope melted. It’s hard to even wrap my head around the magnitude of the size and age of that mountain, let alone the experience of walking on its beautiful land.
There is something uniquely restorative and spiritual about being in nature. Have you ever had the experience of looking at the night sky or the ocean and feeling your place in the world in a new way? You might describe it as feeling small or as feeling awed by the size of the universe or as feeling connected to the earth or to yourself in a new way. However you describe it, there is something peaceful and centering about being out in nature.
I think that being in the wilderness naturally facilitates mindfulness — the ability to be fully present and aware of what we are doing and where we are, rather than focusing on many things at once. It also gives us a sense of some things about who God is. If the world we see around us is huge, beautiful, complex, and awe-inspiring, how much more so is the God who created it? We are getting a little taste of the goodness and beauty of God when we see God’s handiwork.
There is something uniquely healing about removing ourselves to the wilderness.
It is not a coincidence that many early Christian mystics spent their time in the wilderness. The Desert Movement of the third and fourth centuries CE was key to the development of Christian theology and practice. The people who fled to the desert to draw near to God experienced God’s presence in a way that gave them wisdom we still rely on today. By removing themselves from the day-to-day distractions and comforts of their previous lives, desert Christians weaned themselves off of their reliance not just on their possessions and amenities, but also on greed, anger, jealousy and selfishness. They created space for God and found internal freedom and strength.
There is something uniquely healing about removing ourselves to the wilderness. This summer I also had the opportunity to hear a lecture by Rue Mapp, the founder of Outdoor Afro (an organization that facilitates outdoor experiences for Black Americans). Mapp refers to the restorative abilities of nature, contrasting it with what she calls the “hard landscapes” of the city.
Even though some natural spaces have been barred from certain people because of racism, nature itself does not discriminate. Nature offers its bounty and its restorative power to all. In 2014, Mapp found her place amidst the racial reckoning happening throughout America by leading groups on what she calls “Healing Hikes,” wilderness experiences that offer peace and restoration to its participants, space to find and process their emotions and connect to each other.
When we are in the wild, we are at once aware of both the inherent solitude of our individual existence and of our commonalities with all of humanity. The things that divide us in many areas of life aren’t relevant to how we see the stars, the mountains or the ocean. We can feel both our own individuality and smallness and our place in the wider world. We can learn about God, not in terms of facts or theologies, but in ways that transcend facts and theologies. In nature, we can experience God as we experience the earth.
The things that divide us in many areas of life aren’t relevant to how we see the stars or the mountains or the ocean.
The world is bigger and older and more complex than we can comprehend. God is bigger and older and more complex than we can comprehend. It is good and healing for us to sit in quiet with those realities. I’ll be doing that in the mountains. Where is that place for you?