It’s common to arrive at the Lodge with expectations for something a little bit extraordinary to happen. But there’s a certain elusiveness to such experiences. Perhaps it’s even true that the harder we look for wonder, the harder we try to invoke the sublime (or the divine), the more it can seem to elude us. Almost thirty years ago, in his book Landscapes of the Sacred, author Belden C. Lane reflected on his own recurring encounter with this particular challenge of the retreat.

For several years now I’ve been accustomed to making periodic retreats to Pere Marquette State Park, along the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers north of St. Louis. My attachment to the place has grown proportionately to the stories I’m able to tell of it—tales of eagles sighted along the bluffs, the scream of a wildcat heard in the dark of night, the memory of problems resolved through hours of sitting beside running water. I have come to love this place.

Curiously, however, my pilgrimages there are marked by a recurring pattern that somehow seems characteristically American. Exhausted by too many uninterrupted months of saying “yes” to everything, I finally escape in desperate loneliness to the river and woods, there (as I always hope) to rediscover God in some grand and mystic encounter. In the heartland of America, along the banks of the Mighty River, in close proximity to the navel of the earth, I seek out the holy in unexpurgated splendor. But, of course, it never quite works out as well as I had hoped. The cabin never bursts into blazing light as I pray on my knees before an open breviary.

Cloven tongues of fire never descend as I walk the bluffs above the river, searching for mystery. Instead, I find myself predictably faced with the same fretful anxieties I had hoped a change of place might mend. The serpent invariably comes crawling back into the garden with me. God’s presence remains elusive, try as I may to see it materialized in the Waldens and Tinker Creeks of my own experience. In short, I expect too much of the place.

Each time, on arriving at the river, I want to find God immediately—I want direct access, I want power and preternatural wonder. I’ll listen to the sound of squirrels and birds, expecting God’s voice to echo in the rustle of every stirring leaf. I’ll stalk God, as it were, along all the trails above the lodge. And usually, after at least twenty hours into the trip, I’ll finally realize there’s going to be nothing here but trees and clouds and distant river after all. I find myself left with dead leaves and a thin line of geese flying over the western sky. Yet it is at this precise moment, where I give up looking for the burning bush, that my retreat usually begins.

Belden Lane is a Presbyterian minister and Professor Emeritus of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. His most recent book is Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice.