It is 6 a.m. In the yard outside my window, a chorus of insects softly holds a constant shrill note. Down the road a rooster is crowing. From the far distance comes the noise of hundreds, thousands, of cars, buses and trucks traveling on I-81.
One of the exercises I assigned my kids long ago in home school was to go outside with a notepad and pen, and to write down all that they heard. I did it, too. This is when we lived in a mountain hollow. At first we wrote down the most obvious sounds, the sounds we are always conscious of: the neighbor’s hogs grunting, trucks rumbling by, dogs barking. Then we heard the birds and insects, the breeze rustling the trees. Then we noticed particular birds singing particular songs. We heard the way the wind made the leaves sound in the hickory leaves as opposed to the more crackly oaks and the tall brown grasses of the field.
It helped to close our eyes, to block out the sense of sight, so that we were not looking for sounds, just hearing them. Just listening.
Have you ever sensed a call from somewhere deep inside you to listen? To pull away from daily distractions and listen?
As a child, I lived outdoors. I knew how to listen. I lived on the water, on the Great South Bay, and it had much to say. I lived by a tiny woods – there were such untouched lots in every development – and went there to play, and the trees and earth had much to say. On my way home from school every day, I turned off the sidewalk to take the path down to Corey Creek, where I sat alone, watching and listening to the water.
Out there in creation, somewhere deep inside my child’s heart, I heard beyond what I could see and hear. I never went to church, was not taught about a deity, had no religious instruction, yet I knew about God. My God had no name.
“Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, have been clearly perceived in the things that have been made,” says Romans 1:20.
In my mid-20s, I had a more direct encounter with this God and, in an effort to know more, began attending church. For the most part, this was a good experience. But there were things that bothered me.
One thing that immediately endeared me to Jesus was all the time he spent outdoors. Oh, he went into the synagogues on the Sabbath, but he always had problems there with religious leaders. He spent most of his time preaching, teaching and healing outside, in the marketplace, out in the hills, on the beach. The people who came to see him did not sit in chairs in rows in a big box, but on the ground, leaning against trees, on their mothers’ laps.
When Jesus preached about how God cares for the birds of the air, the people’s ears were filled with birdsong, and birds flitted about overhead and among branches. When he taught the Lord’s prayer, about asking for “our daily bread,” the people could see the golden wheat ripening in the fields. When he healed a blind man, he made clay of the earth to rub in his eyes, and water from the river to wash them.
When Jesus prayed, it was not “heads bowed, eyes closed.” He looked up at the sky, to the heavens, to beyond what could be seen with his eyes.
John Muir, while exploring the western wilderness of America, said that the forests, mountains and wildlife was a better Sunday school for him than any in his strict Presbyterian upbringing, and that all children should learn of God out-of-doors.
“Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days … days in whose light everything seems equally divine, opening at once a thousand windows to God,” Muir wrote. This kind of outdoor experience can be had only when you’re alone, or with somebody who also wants to listen, to hear. R.S. Thomas’s poem, “The Moor,” says it perfectly:
It was like a church to me.
There were no prayers said. But stillness
Of the heart’s passions – that was praise
Enough; and the mind’s cession
Of its kingdom. I walked on,
Simple and poor, while the air crumbled
And broke on me generously as bread.
The sun is higher in the sky now. The rooster is silent, perhaps taking a nap. An airplane flies overhead. Trucks cruise by. What else do I hear? What else is there to hear?