My shoes fell soundlessly on the brown pine needles blanketing the trail following the course of the Deschutes River in eastern Oregon. Green pine needles, vibrating in the breeze, acted as vocal chords for the sighing trees. My body flowed up and down the trail, around rocks and logs, through meadows and forest. The big river tumbled and churned around a rough, rugged, black island formed in a lava flow 6,200 years ago. Farther along, the water spread into peaceful eddies gliding past a grassy shore where red-winged blackbirds chirped and flitted. Mountain air was no impediment to the intensity of the sun's radiation: cool in shadows, hot in spangles of light between trees.
The 12th c Carthusian French monk, Guigo II, described the spiritual life as climbing a ladder. The steps were lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio – reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. This “ladder” has defined Christian spiritual discipline ever since. I climbed it as I hiked.
Lectio: observing the wilderness around me as I walked. St. Bonaventure, a 13th century Italian theologian, wrote that "there are two books... or better, there are two readings of the same book: one writes interiorly, which is the art and eternal wisdom of God, and the other writes exteriorly, which is the sensible world.” Bonaventure said that there is one sacred book, which can be read in two forms - through the reading of scripture, or through the reading of nature. On my hike, I read nature.
Meditatio: letting what I read in nature sink into me, deeper and deeper. My hike was a form of the lectio divina, a meditative way of reading the Bible in which the text is repeated aloud, slowly and deliberately, in order to let it take its course through the mind and heart. To the repetition of footsteps, the parade of trees, the roar of the river, the aroma of the pines and the scent of the flowering ceanothus I paid closer and closer attention.
Oratio: I sought awareness of the presence of God as I walked. Prayer is conscious desire for communion with the divine. And it is a wanting that is simultaneously a having. As the anonymous author of the 14th century English spiritual classic, The Cloud of Unknowing, wrote: “The will needs only a brief fraction of a moment to move toward the object of its desire... The aptitude for this work is one with the work; they are identical… You possess it to the extent that you will and desire to possess it, no more and no less.”
Contemplatio: Words and a tune welled up from within me: "All flows 'round the One who knows all flows 'round the One who knows all flows...." I began to know the One who knew what I was knowing. I sensed the flow that went 'round the quiet Center of all experience. That Center was my center, but at the same time was the center of every person who passed me on the trail, every bird that raced in a burst of color through the air, every tree I passed as I walked. And at the center of every atom of every molecule of each tree. As I walked in contemplative union with God, I chanted: "All flows 'round the One who knows...."
(A sound recording of the chant is attached at the bottom of this post - use freely with attribution!)
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California