Posted on February 13, 2018 by Jenn Zatopek
It is better to go skiing and think of God, than go to church and think of sport. (Fridtjof Nansen, Norwegian explorer)
Yesterday morning, sleet and snow fell from the sky and the world for a while was drenched as the dark grey clouds scuttled quickly across the sky. My heart leapt inside my chest, happy and exuberant as a child seeing the first snow of the season. Eventually, the snow stopped falling, and disappointed, I drove to church, torn between the desire for worship and time in nature.
After arriving at church, we waited at the entrance of the impossibly large sanctuary and listened to the trance-like music fill the air, which did not feel like church, did not feel like God at all. I am a loyal customer, a Christian since age nineteen, and the music at modern-day evangelical churches is loud and brash. (This is only my opinion, of course.) I do not come to a feeling of worship after a time at this kind of church, only of sheer exhaustion and annoyance, of loud cacophonous noise, of music so loud that my eardrums hurt by the end of the service.
Are they doing this kind of singing to gain attention? To look holy? Aren’t the hikers and bikers at parks as holy as they explore the earth? Why do I feel like I just went to the movies?
(I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the evangelical church, that is to say that I, most likely, complicate things with my mind, but I miss the old days of hymns, of sacred pauses between music and prayers. It is in these spaces that Spirit can wedge Herself into our hearts, I think.)
So we fled church and left the trance music for the restorative quiet of nature. It takes awhile to get out of the city of concrete, but finally we arrived at the small deserted nature preserve park and noticed only two other cars in the enormous empty lot. This oasis is part of the Dallas Audubon Society, and is situated in the low hills of East Dallas and surrounded by fir and pine trees that look imposing and majestic against the blue bowl of the sky.
The small ice pebbles gleamed shiny and white against the trail-head as we entered the forest, quiet and still. I snapped lots of photos as we walked on, amongst the small pine trees lining the trail, the slender mesquite trees, dark grey and barren. Eventually, I stopped taking photos and practiced being in nature, a temple, a doorway to worship.
The ice pellets were in the shaded hollows of the trees and as we walked slowly and silently through the forest we saw saw tiny sparrows and wrens flitting down to the moist forest floor and singing. The trail twisted this way and that through the forest and the small wooden logs that formed man-made stairs were covered in white as we stepped gingerly down. The slowness forced us to pause and breath, which is a good thing to do every few years or so.
Everyone that we encountered seemed to be a part of the unspoken agreement to maintain the reverent quiet. No one said hi to us. Most of the hikers simply waved or only looked at us intently, eyes bright and alive. Perhaps they, too, sensed a kind of worshipful silence amongst the cold and quiet landscape.
At one point, I looked up and noticed a slim fir pine tree which had bent its limbs across the trail path to meet another tree, as if they were holding hands, saw how their small emerald green limbs twisted together to form a union. What would it look like in spring, summer, and fall? How long would it last this way?
Don’t ever stop wondering and wandering.
And always remember to take lots of pauses and smile in the forest. Your heart will expand in lightness.
The trail we took led us downward to a small pond, filled with turtles in springtime, surrounded now by hills of barren trees and a few bright evergreens. The oceanic sky turned from cloudy dark grey to pale blue in what seemed like the blink of an eye and we were bathed in light. One small man, all in black, broke the silence with a hand up and a cheerful “hi” and then we returned another way, walking up the trail surrounded by halos of dead prairie grass, white stones crunching under our shoes, and then back into the shady glen of the congregation of trees, of cedar and elm and mesquite, of oak and pine.
Sometimes the only thing that restores me to my senses is a trip in nature. It is church for me, in the deepest sense of the word, of homecoming with the Divine, of knowing deeply that I did not create the forest but I can look around and know that a Great Someone did and longs for me to enjoy it. The great poet Mary Oliver writes “stepping out into the world, into the grass, onto the path, was always a kind of relief. I was not escaping anything. I was returning to the arena of delight.”
Before we returned to our car that day, basking in the glow of pumping our legs against forest floor, delighting in the cold crisp air, we took another quick turn through the woods, and as we came out into a clearing, we saw a brilliant red cardinal fly to a barren cypress tree across the way. It looked at us, with those bright and alive eyes, and watched us watching it. The cardinal looked at us and did nothing as we stood and drank in the scene: bright red bird against a cloudy blue sky. It eventually turned and flew away but I knew in that instant I received the Eucharist, the body and blood of Christ, that day.
Find time this week, if not daily, to practice stepping into nature regularly. This does not need to involve a cross-country backpacking trip but can be as simple as going to the local garden or the town river trails, the park across from your job, or your own backyard. Before you begin, take a deep breath and pray. Begin with thanks and walk slowly on the path, whether it be grassy, hilly, or pavement. Walk with your head held up and look at the trees, as they stand in bold relief against the brilliance of blue and white sky. Remember where you come from and whom you belong to, for the great miracle that you are alive today.
Oliver, Mary. (2016). Upstream. New York: Penguin Press.