Take a deep breath, I tell myself. Breathe in, the scent of those Jeffrey pines is the smell of this place. Listen to the sharp song of those stellar jays as they hop everywhere; remember their unusual blue coloring. Listen, look, feel — remember it all, because you do not know when or if you will ever return. You see, I have a long day of anonymous travel ahead of me, but first, I have a couple of hours to sit and savor the peace and quiet of this forest on the beautiful blue lake in the Sierras before I join the moving masses driving west and south on I-80 towards the airport, away from the wilderness of Lake Tahoe and back towards home.
Before the light made itself known this morning, I picked up Henri Nouwen’s volume on the topic of discernment, and I was drawn again to his discussion of visio divina. Nouwen often talks about this practice in his writing about the importance of icons and art in his faith practice. Visio divina, or the sacred gaze as it is called in the Orthodox tradition, is a spiritual practice in which we use our visual sense as a means of prayer — we look and we also notice, we devour the image in front of us as we “Taste and see,” following the words of Psalm 34:8. Through that process of reflective seeing we can, we hope, experience a moment of true communion with God.
When I’m travelling alone as I have been the last week, reading and sharing photos of my experiences through social media, I inevitably get a comment from someone who suggests that, well, that I travel a lot. And I do — I have been very fortunate to experience many wonderful places in our world. But I do occasionally ask myself — why? Why is travel so important to me? Why, when I am feeling down, or confused, or separated from my deepest self, is getting on an airplane often my response? And why is it that I head often for the wildest location that I can find? In Nouwen’s words, today I found an answer seated in deep truth. I love the beauties of an art gallery, but when I find myself in deepest need of God’s presence, I seek out a living experience of Creation — I seek a direct connection with God’s wilderness.
Yesterday was just such a day. I took a walk in a place called the Martis Creek Wildlife Area. I wanted to experience an alpine meadow while I was here in the Sierras, and that seemed location seemed the most accessible possibility. I am not a big hiker — I like my paths well marked and well monitored, particularly when I am walking on my own. So when I arrived and saw the dirt parking lot at the end of the gravel road, I was more than a little apprehensive. I sat in the car for five minutes, going back and forth in my mind wondering if this walk was a good idea. It was my last whole day in the Tahoe region; this walk I would satisfy my alpine desires, but there was something unnerving about the vast stretch of rolling and moving green in front of me. And so I sat and I waited. I watched as a few people head out with their Labrador retrievers–they seemed to disappear into the waving grass. Then a pair of runners began on the dirt path in front of me–they too soon disappeared from sight amid grasses and scrub bush. I got out of the car and looked at the few signs to guide me to the start of the path, but I was still unsure. I got back into the car, sat again in the front seat, and pulled out my book one more time to re-read the instructions in my hiking guide.
At last, after what seemed an eternity, I made up my mind. I took a deep breath, grabbed my phone, my camera, and my water bottle, and set out on that path. My bravery was rewarded, for what an amazing hike it was. When I got to the fork where the path branched off into an even deeper wood, I stopped and took the opportunity to sit on a rustic bench that provided a perfect view of the meadow, built for all of us in blessed memory of someone else who spent a lifetime loving that very spot. I just sat. I watched the color changes as the grasses and flowers rippled like waves in the high winds; I smelled the pines that were all around me. I experienced the living prayer that is the quiet, beautiful nature of our planet. I immersed myself in my own spiritual practice, my own visio divina of the world that surrounded me.
You see, that is why I travel, and thanks to Henri Nouwen, I understand. Nature points the eyes of my soul towards God, and through those all my senses, through my seeing and my smelling and the silence, I am invited to openness. It is funny, the practices that we hold dear but do not consciously understand. It is constantly amazing, all the ways that the soul will seek to be one with God. Perhaps, now that I understand this impulse to a practice that has led me to many corners of this planet, perhaps I might not need to travel so far very far to see with the eyes of my soul.
And so, today, I say goodbye to these woods and waters, for now. I will carry the sights and the sounds of this beautiful place with me forever. Too, I will also carry this lesson in the practice of being with my God. “Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth, though hast for me,” says the beloved hymn by Clara Scott. Thank you, Lake Tahoe, for opening my eyes, and my heart, once again.