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.