I don’t enjoy enjoy hiking in the Western Sierra Nevadas, specifically the Lakes Basin of Plumas County.
If you don’t like a dramatic landscape, a variety of life and sound and shadow, a harmonious feeling of connection with nature, then you might try hiking in these mountains I grew up with.
There are no sheer cliffs, very few monstrous peaks with vistas of plunging canyons, hardly any lush hillsides with twisting roots to climb over–just the endless rippling of too-dry pines and firs, a mountainside as pale as the blank sky, and trails as empty and unremarkable as foot prints on the moon–if maybe a little itchier.
When a friend, from Connecticut, told me she liked this kind of hiking, not in spite of but because of it’s barrenness, my view of these mountains started to shift, like when the wind picks up and lifts the dust off the meadows and rocks and dry creek beds.
Hiking in the Western Sierras, to me, is like silence.
And here’s why. Not only do I take in very little speech from these mountains and their valleys–words like starkness, nakedness, and emptiness are richer than the places they describe–but my own speech is silent to these hills. If speech is “our most powerful weapon of manipulation” (says Richard Foster, who has written much on the discipline of silence), what can my voice do to impact this massive and incomprehensible landscape? People feel small when they look at familiar stars, but how could I breathe out a name for each stitch in the ever-widening pattern of boulders and sun-scorched trees?
I’ve been learning in my reading that silence has two components: freedom from speaking and freedom from hearing. My growing acceptance with hiking in the Western Sierras (this is the most affirmative word I can use right now) accompanies my growing awareness of how experiencing silence and solitude help me listen to our Creator.
Silence as freedom from speaking
There are so many times I’ve wished I had not spoken too quickly and ended up hurting others or misrepresenting the truth. It takes time and silence to find the right words. And in our silence we give over control.
One way I see this giving over of control is when I am challenged to take extra time to pray for someone. Instead of telling things to God (as if I needed someone to rant to), I have felt the Spirit prompting me, even inviting me into those moments–at first uncomfortable–of waiting to hear what this person needs from God. I don’t know how much of my payer is still a reflection of my opinions and sometimes judgments of a person, but the impulse to wait to hear from God what I should say feels pure and truthful.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
I would have betrayed your children.
When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me.
Till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood… (Psalm 73:15-17)
Silence as freedom from hearing
Many people have suggested that the goal of practicing silence is to hear God better.
There are so many things we can hear instead which can make this harder. The prophet Elijah experienced first wind, then an earthquake, and then a fire when he stood alone in the cave of a mountain waiting for God, but God wasn’t in any of these. He heard God in a gentle whisper.
God can speak in many ways. Silence and solitude help us hear God’s gentle whisper.
I think listening looks different for different people. For instance, some people find silence in the great outdoors. As an introvert, I won’t find silence when walking around the park or watching a sunset. I’ll quickly find myself composing a bad poem in my head. There is too much stimulation. Better to pray in my inner room, as Jesus said. But even alone in my room, I can spend quite a bit of time reclining in the comfy couch of my internal world (or, the bristly couch of my fears and anxieties) without actually listening to God.
Again, I need to try to let go of the control of my thoughts in order to experience the deeper freedom that comes with listening to God’s voice.
Says the poet John Donne:
Churches are best for prayer, that have least light:
To see God only, I goe out of sight:
And to scape stormy dayes, I chuse
An Everlasting night.