The Spiritual Practice of Hiking
Experienced mountaineers have a quiet, regular, short step — on the level it looks petty; but then this step they keep up, on and on as they ascend, whilst the inexperienced townsman hurries along, and soon has to stop, dead beat with the climb….Such an expert mountaineer, when the thick mists come, halts and camps out under some slight cover brought with him, quietly smoking his pipe, and moving on only when the mist has cleared away….You want to grow in virtue, to serve God, to love Christ? Well, you will grow in and attain to these things if you will make them a slow and sure, an utterly real, a mountain stepplod and ascent, willing to have to camp for weeks or months in spiritual desolation, darkness and emptiness at different stages in your march and growth. All demand for constant light, for ever the best — the best to your own feeling, all attempt at eliminating or minimizing the cross and trial, is so much soft folly and puerile trifling. — Baron Friedrich von Hugel (as quoted in Run with the Horses, Eugene Peterson, p. 109-10)
My husband and I just spent the day in Kings Canyon National Park. Because of my back pain and fatigue issues, this was our first real outside adventure since we moved to Santa Barbara (unless you count snowboarding near Las Vegas in January, during which I stood up a grand total of three times on the bunny slope and quit after the first hour). We want to go backpacking in August, so I need to start getting back into shape after spending the last few months mostly in, on, or near the bed.
Kings Canyon is beautiful, and we were able to enjoy three short, easy hikes in about four hours in the park. For a full account of our journey, visit my husband’s hiking blog here.
All day today, I couldn’t get this quotation (above) out of my head. I am learning to use the “quiet, regular, short step” of the experienced mountaineer.
My husband is constantly reminding me to slow down, pace myself, and enjoy the surroundings, but my destination-oriented brain is solely focused on getting from point A to point B as quickly as possible. I want to be finished, to go back to the car feeling successful. I want to hurryupandgetthere!
I’m the same way in my spiritual life. I want the “fun stuff” of God’s revelation without putting in the time being quiet, being regular, and being well-paced.
This is what I love about centering and contemplative prayer. These practices are a way of entering into the space where we may encounter God, where God may encounter us.
But I’m easily distracted, rushed, irregular. I fill up my days with television and music and talking and all the loudness of life. And when I do set aside time to be still and quiet and experience the presence of God — I want to hurryupandgetthere, too!
But today, in Kings Canyon, we didn’t really have much of a destination at all. The park itself was our destination, and so I was able to enjoy being at the place we wanted to get to, wandering among the meandering paths — paved and unpaved.
For the first time, I was aware of more than just my feet plodding, rushing to the next shaded spot, the crux of the next hill. I was aware of more than just my labored breathing, my annoying allergies, my sciatic nerve.
For the first time, I was able to really look at the mountains and the trees, enjoy the grassy meadows and rivers, feel the mist on my face from the waterfall, notice the smell of pine and cedar on the breeze, look back at my husband and smile.
– Isn’t this great?
For the first time, I was able to appreciate the journey, pace myself appropriately, and experience the healing and renewal that come with just being outside among the sun and shade and surprising beauty.
There’s something about being outdoors that opens us up to natural revelation, to the friendly camaraderie of strangers enjoying a common activity, and to the slow and steady pace and rhythm of a lifelong pursuit of Jesus.
Not a bad way to spend a Sunday.