All that is sweet, delightful and amiable in this world, in the serenity of the air, the fineness of the seasons, the joy of the light, the melody of sounds, the beauty of colors, the fragrancy of smells, the splendor of precious stones, is nothing else but heaven breaking through the veil of this world.
-William Law (an 18th-century English cleric)
I’ve always been drawn to being in and experiencing the natural world. As a child I ran around outside on our farm as much as I could. The open, spacious landscape of southern Idaho, the smell of freshly plowed dirt or wheat fields hot from the summer sun, watching heat lightning over the Owyhee mountains, plunging my hands in the dirt and irrigation water in our garden to make mud pies . . . These memories still connect with me someplace deep in my soul. I can still smell, feel, and see the sacredness of these moments clearly.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I connect best with God in nature. I’ve never really had the words to express why that is. And, I don’t know that I am going to do it justice in this post either but maybe I’m getting closer as I journey through life. My experience on the PCT helped me to identify a main factor in this connection: Beauty.
During my four months on the PCT, I was immersed in some of the most incredible landscapes that can be found in the U.S.: six different eco zones, seven national parks, 25 national forests, 33 wilderness areas. I spent time barely above sea level in Cascade Locks, Oregon and over 14,000 feet atop Mt. Whitney. I swam in glacier fed rivers and lakes, slept under the stars, and watched the sunrise and sunset almost every day of those four months. During that time, none of this got old. I never tired of watching another sunset. I never got over seeing giant old-growth trees. I was always excited to soak my feet in ice-cold water and see the variety of wildflowers along the way.
A few weeks ago, I read this article in the New York Times by David Brooks. Brooks writes that, “Beauty conquers the deadening aspects of routine; it educates the emotions and connects us to the eternal” . . . “beauty incites spiritual longing.” I love that line about educating emotions and connecting us to the eternal. That is definitely my experience on the PCT and in my childhood outdoor adventures!
The beauty that surrounded me day and night on the PCT constantly helped me be aware of God’s presence, of God’s creativity and detail, of God’s care for my life. The beauty of the landscapes I traveled through offered me perspective and connected with my emotions and spirit. Sometimes I would stop in my tracks and look around; being still for a moment, soaking in the natural beauty around me and feeling an immense level of gratitude. Looking out at such beauty ignited in me a desire to pray and continue pursuing the spiritual disciplines.
Not only was I immersed in this beauty constantly, I had little distraction from it. I wasn’t hurrying through my day stressed from work or merely trying to get from place to place, meeting to meeting. I was in a time of life where I could soak it in fully. I didn’t have to remind myself to notice the grandeur around me because it was just a part of my existence.
One of the quotes I memorized on the trail comes from John Muir. Muir spent most of his adult life working to preserve natural places for people to enjoy for generations to come. He also found a sacredness in the beauty of the natural world that connected with his soul. Muir said, “Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to pray in and play in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” I, too, believe that healing, health, peace of mind, spiritual connection and more can come from spending time in the natural world, immersed in beauty.
I know that in our busy schedules we can zoom through our day without seeing what’s going on around us. I also recognize that not everyone has access to this type of natural beauty 24-7 or at all sometimes. But I do think we can find beauty if we look for it, if we take a minute to see what’s around us . . . To stop in our tracks and notice.
Coming off the trail I moved back to the city, a place of concrete, buildings, cars, and constant energy. I’m not walking all day, everyday through granite mountains or watching the sunrise and sunset each day. I have to remind myself to not only be aware of beauty around me but also to invite the beauty of what I’m noticing to sink deeper into my soul–to take note of how it stirs me or moves me to respond in some way, just as on the trail I was frequently inspired to practice a discipline or pray in some way.
As I write this post, I am sitting at a coffee shop on Portland’s Hawthorne Boulevard. I walked here this morning trying to stick with my commitment to continue walking as much as possible post trail–a discipline and way to create space in my day. On the way here I engaged in a practice of awareness, intentionally looking for beauty around me and noticing how my soul responded. Here are some of the things I took in:
- Daffodils and crocuses blooming bring joy
- A color combination of a paint job on a house in my neighborhood makes me happy
- The Giant Sequoia in front of Western Seminary incites awe
- A turquoise VW camper van gives a sense of excitement (and the desire for a road trip soon . . . Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)
- The smell of cherry blossoms stirs memories of previous springtimes and feels familiar
When I take time to look, I see beauty all around. When I take time to ask what I feel in those moments, I recognize the presence of the Divine–beauty is educating my emotions and connecting me to the eternal. There is also beauty to be found in our interactions with people, which help us to recognize the image of God in others. The other day I saw beauty in the street musician downtown Portland creating an incredible beat on plastic buckets. I experienced beauty in the depth of conversation with good friends last weekend as we snowshoed through the forest. I noticed beauty in the playful interactions of three sisters I was babysitting. Seeing the image of God in others is the best kind of beauty to be able to recognize and soak in!
I encourage you sometime today to stop. Take one minute to step outside–of your office, house, self. Take a few deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. And, look around. Take notice of what you see around you. What is beautiful to you? What do you feel when you see, smell, hear it? As you soak in that beauty may you be aware of “heaven breaking through the veil of this world.”