In Praise of Wild and Lonely Places

There is something evocative about slowing down and becoming quiet.  A primitive, even visceral desire, to strip away the distractions and focus on that which matters.

For many of us, getting outdoors, is a way of focusing on that which matters.  We do so by working in our garden, hiking, snowshoeing through the woods or walking on the beach.

We are drawn to that which allows our hearts, minds and imaginations to expand. To be reminded that we belong to the cosmos, not just to our daily routines.

Stephen Hiltner taps into this desire in a provocative article in the New York Times entitled: ‘In Britain, Enraptured by the Wild, Lonely and Remote’. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/21/travel/in-search-of-britains-bothies.html?partner=rss&emc=rss He writes of a journey through the wild lands of the United Kingdom, finding refuge and inspiration in isolated huts called ‘bothies’.

A vast majority of bothies are repurposed structures — crofters’ homes, shepherds’ huts, mining outbuildings — that have been salvaged from various states of disrepair by the Mountain Bothies Association, a charitable organization founded in 1965 whose aim is “to maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places.” Some, like Warnscale Head in England’s Lake District, date to the 1700s. Collectively, since they came into recreational use in the 1930s as weekend getaways (sometimes used clandestinely) for working-class laborers, bothies have given rise to a unique culture that values communal respect for fellow visitors, for the bothies themselves and for the land on which they’re situated.

Such wild and lonely places remind me of a week spent on the Longtrail, in Vermont.  With my cousin, Tom, we spent that week moving from rustic hut to hut, soaking in the vistas and silence.

On the Longtrail, there is a tradition of receiving a ‘trail name’ that evokes who you are, or, what you hope to be.  My name was ‘Slow and Easy’.  The name reflects a tendency when on the trail, to linger and savor what the trail has to offer.  While some seek to conquer the trail by bagging a maximum of miles per day, my goal was to experience what was right in front of me.

Travelling ‘slow and easy’ was somewhat counterculture on the trail and certainly is countercultural in our plugged in, highly scheduled lives.

Back to the line I opened with: ‘There is something evocative about slowing down and becoming quiet’.

John Muir lived this truth. He was a mystic and founder of the Sierra Club in the 1930’s.  His formative years were nourished by the wild and lonely places in Scotland.  Later, as a youth, his family emigrated to the United States in the 1870’s and it was there that he fell in love with the wild and lonely places of America.

The moors of Scotland and the mountains of Yosemite, evoke a sense of awe, wonder and belonging to that which is greater than oneself.  Muir wrote:

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”

Muir’s words reflects that which drew monks and mystics for millenniums to the out-of-the-way places.  Yet, we know too, that such wild and exotic places are simply pointers to that place we can enter each day.  A reminder to slow down, reflect and reconnect, to that Source which is eternal, which is good, lasting and true.

The portal to such a place, begins by simply slowing down and becoming quiet.

Isaiah, an ancient prophet said: ‘Listen and your soul will live’.

May it be so.  Wherever your path may lead.

 

 

No Time for Silence

Some of us are better at being quiet than others.  Me?  I love to talk.  Give me a crowd and I become energized.

Yet, for a long time I’ve been aware of a part of me that yearns for silence.  When I was a boy I sought out quiet places, often in nature, to rest and reflect.  I remember finding refuge under a large Blue Spruce during a snow fall.  The flakes were large and quickly carpeted the boughs of the tree and floor of the forest.  Sound became muffled and I felt safe and fortunate to be in such a place at such a moment.

It has been a long time since I was that boy but I still remember the sound of silence.

Such is the tension I find within myself.  This enjoyment of conversation and being active…while an inner voice invites me to slow down and simply be.

Yesterday I arrived late to an organizing meeting of multi faith leaders in my community.  We were a mix of Buddhist, Jewish and Christian. We spent time exploring our purpose which took us down many paths.  As this was the early stage of our coming together we spent much of our meeting ‘muddling’ moving from topic to topic.

In the end we ran out of time and set another meeting to continue our search for clarity.

Our Buddhist host invited us to sit with her in silence.  Most had other items on their calendar and needed to move on.  I had items on my check list too but to my surprise decided to stay.

‘How long can you sit’, she asked? ‘I have ten minutes’, I replied.

So we sat.  In silence.  Facing the wall to minimize distractions.  She rang the Buddhist prayer bowl and we became quiet.

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Ten minutes is nothing to a Zen Buddhist.  But for me this busy extroverted Baptist it was everything.  Those ten minutes of shared silence were like oxygen.

I felt my blood pressure drop and my breathing deepen.  When the bowl rang at the end of ten minutes I wanted, needed ten more.

Something happens in silence that doesn’t happen otherwise.  Ancient spiritual paths know this to be true:

‘Listen and your soul will live’. ~ Isaiah the prophet

‘Silence is a source of great strength.’ ~ Lao Tzu

‘The Creator’s first language is silence’. ~ Thomas Keating, Trappist monk and mystic

Perhaps by temperament you are naturally drawn to silence.  Perhaps like me you’re not.  But I know too that ones comfort with silence can be nurtured, cultivated.  In so doing we may find ourselves gradually going deeper and deeper, to hear a voice that paradoxically is silence itself.

 

Spirituality of Extreme Weather

I grew up in New England where extreme weather is the norm. We can have hot humid summers that rival an Ecuadorian rainforest. Heavy rains can so soak the earth that water seeps from basement walls and rises from basement floors.

Winter however is where New England often smacks you upside the head. I remember the blizzard of 1978 but nothing prepared us in the greater Boston area for 9 feet plus of snow, that accumulated from a series of blizzards in February and March of this year. It was epic and brutal.

Blizzard of 1978

I grew up in New England but for twenty years lived in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. The Willamette offers a generally moderate climate with occasional moments of weather related drama. For the most part it is a pleasant climate where the finicky Pinot Noir grape flourishes and flowers emerge in late winter. In the valley there are generally two seasons, wet and dry.

Over a year ago I returned to New England and have lived through a full cycle of the four distinct seasons. For me this cycle has been a spiritual journey. There’s something about living through an extreme winter that encourages one to appreciate the spring and savor the summer even with its humidity. There’s something about being smacked upside the head by 6″ of water in my basement last October, that invites me to savor the warm, dry and beautiful days that accompany these initial days of Autumn.

While I will always love the beauty of Oregon I find that New England has attuned me to the weather and my surroundings in a deeper way. I find that a change in the weather is also bringing about a change in me.

I am more aware of the birds migrating south for the winter, more dialed in to the tides and the wind as I regularly launch my kayak in the ocean. Today I went for a long run because it was sunny and dry and I know the opportunity to do so is fleeting.

Monks and mystics teach that being awake is essential to be awakened by that great mystery we call God/Creator/Spirit. Being awake physically, emotionally and spiritually opens one up to lessons and gifts that otherwise might be missed.

Thich Nhat Hahn the Vietnamese Buddhist invites us to practice mindfulness. He offers a lovely mantra to be in the moment: ‘Breathing in I calm my spirit; breathing out I smile. (Inhale) Living in the moment; (exhale) this is the only moment.’

Living in New England helps me to live in the moment. Partly because I don’t know what the next moment (weather wise) will be. And, as I live in the moment I find there is much to be aware of and thankful for.

If I forget and begin to live in the past or the future, a Nor’easter storm off the ocean, a blizzard or a breathtakingly beautiful morning (as it was this morning) will grab me by the lapels and say ‘listen up and look around!’

3000 years ago a Hebrew prophet named Isaiah said, ‘Listen and your soul will love’. New England weather requires that we keep attuned to what is going on around us. And, if we are attuned enough, we may very well discover that something new and life-giving is being awakened within.

The Practice of Walking on the Earth

In our fast paced motorized society I invite you to join me in a counter cultural act: Take off your shoes, wiggle your toes in the grass or sand and walk.

Walking and walking barefoot in particular, has a way of heightening your senses and making you mindful of where you step. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and mentor offers this: ‘The miracle is not to walk on water but on the earth.’ True. Walking slows us down and makes us aware of where we are. More than other modes of travel, walking invites us to experience what is immediately behind, around and in front.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book ‘An Altar in the World’ writes:
‘Jesus walked a lot. If Jesus had driven a car it is difficult to imagine how that might have changed his impact. Walking gave him time to see things, like the milky eyes of the beggar sitting by the side of the read, or the round black eyes of sparrows sitting in their cages at the market.’

It is one thing to drive by a person in need, a very different experience to walk past.

My friend Joe walked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. Only by walking do you get in touch with your own dreams and longings. Only by walking can you receive ‘trail magic’, gifts left by strangers such as a cold beer in a stream or a chocolate bar tied to a branch. Only by walking can a stranger become a friend as you listen to each others story.

This past Sunday several of us met in the woods to walk in silence. This was our Sabbath, to experience silence as we paused by a wetlands and listened to that which otherwise would have been masked by talk.

3000 years ago a prophet named Isaiah offered this gift: ‘Listen, and your soul will live.’ To walk in silence, barefoot or in shoes is a counter-cultural act. To do so is to receive gifts that otherwise would be lost to us. As Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us, to walk on the earth open, attentive, engaged

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is a miracle.

Note: I lead mindful walks and contemplative paddle trips. Contact me for information on the next scheduled event. This summer 2015 the church I serve is hosting a study and sermon series based on Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, An Altar in the World. Go to church web site http://www.fbcbeverly.org for more info.

Paddling in the Rain

Several years ago I climbed into a rickety 1946 de Havilland Float Plane for a two-hour flight from Petersburg, Alaska for Tebenkoff Bay in the Tongass Wilderness in Southeastern Alaska. I was dropped off at an island with ten other people I’d never met. The rain was falling in sheets. We would be kayaking from island to island and camping.

Our guide brought us together on the beach as the rain fell. He said: “You are dressed for the rain. This rain will be your constant companion for most of the next week. It is up to each of you how you view this reality. You can complain or you can embrace it. The choice is yours.”

We chose to embrace the rain. For the next week we would kayak from island to island with rain as our constant companion. We had a great time.

I was thinking of that experience yesterday as I kayaked with my wife Tricia and friends on Chebacco Lake in Massachusetts. It was October and the colors were in their New England glory if muted somewhat by a steady rain.

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Having been on that lake in the summer with water ski boats racing past us, this day it was just our little group. Apparently most people prefer the sun. The gift of rain brought us quiet.

Slowly we paddled the circumference of that lake. Our only companions were ducks, ravens, hawks, occasionally a rising fish and of course the sound of rain.

In our busy lives where our schedules guide us and our minds race, it was a healthy antidote to be on the water. Our group’s age range was mid 30’s to mid 70’s. Gliding on the water any age difference fell away and we were simply fellow paddlers embracing the rain and the sounds that come with silence.

3000 years ago a prophet named Isaiah said: “Listen and your soul will live.” All we need do is slow down and listen. There is no better place to listen than being on the water in the rain.

God’s First Language

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Thomas Keating, the Catholic monk and mystic writes:

“Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation. In order to hear that language, we must learn to be still and to rest in God.”

When I was in high school, a teacher said to me: “I must have the radio or television on at home. I can’t stand to be by myself.” At the time I found that curious. But the older I became the more I understood what he was saying. To be alone is to face what is going on in one’s mind and heart and that can be a scary place to be.

Yet all religious traditions, including Christian, reminds us that in being quiet we not only sit with our thoughts of light or darkness, but we make room to be met by God. Keating reminds us that in order to hear God we must first be quiet. Rather than silence being a place of discomfort, faith reminds us that it can be a place of meeting where we are reminded by our Creator that we are known and cherished.

Sometimes we need to be quiet to gain perspective. In our busy lives how then do we listen? Keating suggests Contemplative Prayer: ‘Each day carve out 20 minutes to be silent…allow thoughts to pass like boats on a river without judgement….select a sacred word (hope, love, peace etc.) to help focus you when you become distracted’.

In time the ancient monks and mystics tell us, we will begin to hear the Creator’s voice in the midst of the silence. In doing so we find ourselves no longer fleeing silence but embracing it as a place where we are met by the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.