I first met Ryan Moore at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology (okay, so I met a lot of good people there, obviously). However, I didn’t really get to know him until we were in the same class right before graduation, called “Seduction, Surrender, and Transformation.”
It was in that class that we found out we were seduced by the same thing: journeying toward the sacred. During a class break, after Ryan had given a presentation about his sacred encounters in nature and his upcoming journeys, I nearly attacked him with excitement about our shared interests and the potential for collaboration.
In fact, it was as I listened to Ryan’s presentation that I came up with the idea of featuring “Pilgrims in Residence” on asacredjourney.net, so that readers can witness the transformative capacity of journeying first hand. I also wanted to approach Ryan with a convincing proposal, and I’m so glad he said “yes” to being our very first Pilgrim in Residence.
As I write this the sun is shining through my window, birds are chirping, and the last patches of snow are melting into puddles that will nurture spring growth. It’s likely I’m not the only one who is feeling a tug to go outside, experiencing the rebirth that occurs as winter fades into spring. Surely there are many sacred things to be discovered in the ever-changing story nature writes for us. May you be inspired unto such wild (literally!) journeying as Ryan Moore shares with us his Outdoor Pilgrimage experiences over these next three weeks. -Lacy
“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread,
places to play in and pray in, where nature may
heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
For the traditional pilgrim traveling to a religious site, the outdoors often play a vital, though somewhat incidental role. The pilgrim is outside for long stretches everyday, passing through unfamiliar and often beautiful country. Slowly they awaken to the the gentle rhythms of rest and abundance present in the natural world. Out in the open air the pilgrim becomes aware of the smell of rain, the colorful burst of wildflowers, the gentle sway of grass, and the soothing sound of wind across the tops of the trees.
For those on an Outdoor Pilgrimage, the distinctly religious destination is replaced by the encounter with God in wild places. From a certain perspective, I now see I’ve been taking outdoor pilgrimages for most of my life, long before I knew what a pilgrimage was.
Looking back I can see a pattern of longing, departure, and return present in my many sojourns into the wilderness. Many of these trips have been with friends and family, while others I have taken alone. I recognize a mix of motivations; to rest, to play, to escape my worries, to get clarity on a particular issues, to explore. But at root one desire blazes brightly above all the rest pulling me out into wild places: to encounter God in a direct way.
From what I’ve experienced, I’m convinced the mysterious, invisible God is waiting to be sought by us, and more poignantly, waiting to seek us in sometimes remarkable, playful, surprising ways.
Is something beckoning you, even compelling you to take a journey? Is there something you’re needing a break from? Or is it more that something is drawing you, pulling you like a tractor beam? I hope you can give yourself permission to seek God however you are able and give ear to all that is within you. When listened to and nurtured these longing gives birth to intention, and intention when fully formed, leads to action. Pilgrimage pushes us outward, away from our everyday rhythms and familiar landscapes in order to meet with God and connect to what is deepest within us. You are a pilgrim of the outdoor variety if you find these longing lead you into being outside in creation.
The natural world being rich with sacred beauty makes it one of the most powerful places we can seek God. As the outdoor pilgrim walks, he journeys through the creative mind of God. All you see from the lines on your hands to the farthest cluster of galaxies is the greatness of God made visible. Each curving oak tree and soaring bird is a small glimpse of God’s personality. Consider, for example, the mountains, those untamed places full of jagged peaks, gliding birds over deep chasms, blankets of wildflowers, the boom and charge of thunder.
Yet the natural world can only tell us so much about God. After all, there is more than one way to look at a raging river or a mountain thunderstorm. These are exquisitely beautiful reminders or God’s genius, or they are potentially lethal hazards.
We need more than attentive eyes and ears to encounter God outdoors. We need God to interact with us. We somehow need to learn that the cosmos is not empty space and God is not impersonal energy. Yes, the Bible is immensely helpful (and precious) for this reason, as are the experiences of others both living and dead. But at least for me, I sometimes need to learn these kinds of truth for myself. The experience of others simply will not do.
I was alone, a week into a month-long hike though California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. The late afternoon light was slowly working its way up the wooded canyon wall above me as I walked along the river on the valley floor.
It was approaching dinner time and I was wondering how far to push on before setting up camp for the night when I heard a strange whisper in my head, “Take a little rest here.”
I’d been attempting to keep an ear open to God’s leading and so this wasn’t totally without expectation. Still, I was more than a bit skeptical that this was God’s voice and not that of my tired feet. I figured in either case a quick break wasn’t such a bad idea. So I found a comfortable rock with nice view of the river valley and plunked down, not sure what to expect.
A few minutes went by and nothing happened. I quickly began to conclude the only voice I’ve been hearing was my own.
And then I heard the first howl. A lone coyote leans into a piercing, haunting howl down the valley to my right. A few seconds later a another coyote answers off to my left. Then a third joins in. At this point the echoes off the canyon walls make it impossible to tell how many there are, but I know this: I’m surrounded. I’d just landed front-row seats to the coyote howling show!
Was I scared you might wonder? A bit. For a moment. I had to remind myself that they weren’t interested in me….Right? I quickly got over any fear and just enjoyed the show. I was elated.
As I sat and chuckled at my good fortune, I got the distinct feeling God was showing off a bit. Not in a haughty, self absorbed way that we’re used to in most people. Instead, it seemed to me that God loved these little coyotes and wanted to share them with me. And God knew me well enough to know I would get a huge kick out this.
What surprised me and moved me the most about this experience wasn’t that God spoke. It was that He chose to speak to me about: coyotes.
Apparently God wasn’t interested in revealing to me some grand religious truth. Instead God seemed to be playing, having fun, allowing me some small glimpse into God’s delightful, unimaginably joyous life. The more I think about this moment the more I’m convinced one of the hardest parts about connecting to God is separating who we think God should be from who Jesus reveals God to actually be.
How have you encountered God in the outdoors? Did you experience the Sacred in a surprising way?