“Going out was really a going in” -John Muir
I am so very grateful to the congregation of Greyfriars for being so generous in giving me time away from my normal duties to do some writing. As you may know, I have been writing about the spirituality of walking amongst other things and I’d like to share with you some thoughts about one of the great sons of Scotland, John Muir who was himself a walker on an epic scale.
John Muir came from Dunbar but he is probably more revered and remembered by people in the United States than by people in his country of birth. He left Scotland in his youth with his family and settled in America. There he became fascinated by the wilderness areas of the west and is honoured in the US as one of the founders of the National Park movement and a founding member of the Sierra Club that still devotes itself to conservation. He would spend long periods out on journeys, wandering in wilderness areas with only the most basic supplies, tramping through a landscape scarcely touched, mapped or exploited by western settlers. But he was acutely aware of the impact that European settlers were beginning to have on this pristine environment and so devoted much of his life to seeking to save it.
Though brought up in a strict Presbyterian household, it might be true to say that he found a deeper spirituality in nature than in books and church-going, which is probably true for many people. Notwithstanding, he never lost his Presbyterian perspective. I first became aware of John Muir in the 1980s when I had spent some time walking in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and in the Grand Canyon in Arizona. One evening, after an exhilarating hike into the Canyon, we were sitting in a hikers’ bar having a cool beer when I came across a quote from Muir which was his reaction on first seeing the great chasm of the Grand Canyon, a truly gigantic incision in the landscape equivalent to a gorge 4-5 miles across (say from Edinburgh to Kirkcaldy by sea), and stretching hundreds of miles, the equivalent of a chasm like the Firth of Forth, a mile deep, all the way from Edinburgh to Copenhagen! “An ostentatious gesture, even for God”, is what he is reported to have said!
That comment immediately endeared me to this man. And since then I’ve got to know a little about the work of the John Muir Trust in the UK, established in 1983 and have walked parts of the John Muir Trail that begins in Dunbar in the east and crosses to Helensburgh on the west coast.
I have been intrigued by the other quote from Muir that I used as a title for this message. “Going out was really a going in”. The more I reflect on journeying, walking, pilgrimage and connecting to the natural world, the more I realise that it is through this connection that we better connect with ourselves, especially our interior selves where the heart of God inhabits the soul of humanity.
It would be true to say that we are people who, generally speaking, look outward more than inward. Sometimes, I think we can be a bit of a mystery to ourselves. For all sorts of reasons, we shy away from the interior journey. It may have something to do with being a little terrified of what we might find there! It may also have to do with our religious tradition in Scotland that has historically been wary of the mystical and the contemplative life.
The Presbyterian preoccupation with faith as a set of wordy propositions written on a page may well be something that Muir rebelled against. His biographer, Amy Marquis, wrote that “His father believed that anything that distracted from Bible studies was frivolous and punishable.” Muir may not have framed his faith in ways that fit with conventional religious views but he came to write about another way of encountering the Divine rather than just through the Bible (which incidentally he knew much of by heart). He described what he called a “primary source for understanding God: the Book of Nature.”
I am becoming more and more convinced that the natural world is indeed “the manifestation of God’s hidden being” as the Orthodox theologian Philip Sherrard calls it. Whether it is walking, gardening or just being in nature and allowing ourselves to connect, the natural world can be profoundly spiritual and awe-inspiring.
Thomas Carlyle once wrote that “we war with rude nature” and certainly that is how western human beings have appeared to survive and prosper. But we have plundered, exploited and subdued the earth as though it were an inexhaustible resource, there solely at our disposal and as a consequence, we now realise that we are doing incalculable damage that could impact on our ability to survive as a species. What we are seeing now in the crisis of Climate Change, species and habitat loss is the consequence of that warfare. Muir pointed out the low impact on the natural world of Native American communities and contrasted that with profligate Europeans.
So, reconnecting with nature, revering it rather than exploiting it, might well help us to recover a balance as we come to recognise our interdependence with the natural world. And in that connection, we might also learn a little more about ourselves as earthy, human, natural creatures “marked with the creator’s dignity” in our incarnate being. It is possible that if our alienation from ourselves is at all a true reflection of the human condition, then it may have something to do with the idea that we sometimes allow ourselves to be alienated from the natural world, thinking ourselves more “spiritual” than earthly.
Out in the wild west of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, Muir found that “going out was really a going in”, he re-found himself through connecting with nature. His encounter with God became more visceral than intellectual. Perhaps this is something we all should seek to do and it may be our only pathway into a viable future. The incarnate Christ reminds us of the value that is attached to the created order and so to violate the earth is to violate the means by which the Divine connects with humanity.
I wish you a happy summer and autumn. In the early part of the New Year, my book about pilgrimage will be coming out and it will be wonderful to share it with any of you who’d care to read it. I look forward to being properly back in Greyfriars at the end of my study leave, towards the end of October. I am also looking forward to welcoming our new associate minister, Ken Luscombe from Australia, whom we anticipate will be coming to us along with his wife Debbie in November.
All good wishes,
Rev Dr Richard Frazer