For nearly five years, once every month on a Saturday morning in Louisville (where I used to live), I wiped the sleep from my eyes, grabbed my hiking gear and met up with a small group of people hungry for God’s voice. Crushed by the noise of work and life and by the chatter of our minds, we went to the woods to see if we could find there some sanctuary, built of oak and pond and bird song. Beginning with a devotional — perhaps a Mary Oliver poem or a Psalm — we walked in silence, doing our best to listen. To listen not only to the crunch of leaves beneath our boots or to the low hum of the frogs, but also to some word we required that day, a buried word that might heal or unsettle or even, perhaps, commission.
Every time, I felt a rare buoyancy come over me, like a door being opened and a burden lifted.
Ann Deibert, co-pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Louisville, began these contemplative group hikes as a spiritual discipline while she was studying for her doctorate in spiritual care. I was hooked the moment my foot hit the path. It was everything I wanted: God, nature, physical exercise, quiet and friendship. My wife and I can track our relationship by those hikes — the very first hike was one of our earliest dates. Soon, I became a co-leader of the hikes, partnering with the Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental and hiking organization.
That partnership created a truly ecumenical, and even interfaith experience, bringing together Catholics, Jews, Buddhists and Protestants of all stripes — as well as those who identify as spiritual but not religious (people who crave a deeper connection but may be skeptical of the institutions built around that connection).
The result admittedly wasn’t always profound. Sometimes it was just really cold or rainy. Often, I’d end up thinking about the day’s agenda or how best to avoid the protruding roots on the path. And yet, through it all, friendships were formed, vulnerabilities were shared and people generally left with a bigger smile than they had arrived with. One woman walked in prayer for her son and his struggle with addiction. Another was grieving the death of his brother. Most of us were just glad for the fresh air and good earth.
I’ll be honest, though: When that alarm first went off in the morning, I’d usually grumble, “I don’t want to go.” I would feel tired from the week, and doing something as radically different and intentional as hiking with others in meditative silence sounded exhausting. Combating the clutter with the noise of Netflix or Facebook always seemed so much easier.
Inevitably, I forced myself to go (just as many force themselves to go to worship on Sunday morning). And each time — as a testament to my inability to learn — I was surprised by just how free, rested and energized I felt. God’s grace always found me there in the woods, sliding the burdens from my shoulders.
All that I ever needed to do, it turns out, was just go. God took care of the rest. It’s true Sunday morning. And it’s true for these hikes.
This month, you’ll have a chance to go too. Westminster Presbyterian Church will now be offering monthly contemplative hikes for anyone who wants to get outdoors, find a break from the commotion of life and reconnect with their body and soul. It’s perfect for the churchgoer longing for a deeper spiritual life — and for the person who is wary of church and formal worship, but is looking for something more in their lives.
Our first hike will be from 10 a.m. to noon Saturday, Aug. 19, at Fillmore Glen State Park in Moravia. Anyone is welcome to join us. Spending part of the hike in silence and part in conversation, we’ll find renewal as we become more mindful of our bodies, our thoughts and the soil beneath our feet. There is no cost (besides the park entrance fee). RSVPs are required, and you can reach out to me at (315) 253-3331 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trust me. We do not pull ourselves out of bed and sacrifice the noise in order to live reduced lives. We choose the silence so that we can live fuller lives. To quote poet Wendell Berry, “Best of any song is bird song in the quiet, but first you must have the quiet.” The same is true for God’s song.