COMMENTARY: Into the Great Wide Open

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c. 2007 Religion News Service

BIG SKY, Mont. _ Go outside.

Sometime today, walk out into the fresh air and just be for a few minutes.

I realize, of course, that many of us are in the capricious it’s-summer-it’s-winter-it’s-summer-it’s-winter season that passes for spring in some places, and that outside is perhaps not the most inviting place to be.

Still, go outside. If only for a moment.

And look up. There, hopefully, you will find sky.

Sky is good and natural and sometimes, even on a cloudy, grouchy day, even if you catch just a peek of it between skyscrapers or by craning your neck from the bathroom window that faces the alley, really quite beautiful.

Marveling at creation is easy to do when you’re sitting where I am now, in an Adirondack chair on the porch of a cabin in the mountains of Montana, listening to the rush of a spring-swollen river. I can hear the occasional cry of two hawks that have been chasing a smaller bird around the hills all afternoon.

I’m in place called Big Sky, and it is aptly named. They filmed “A River Runs Through It” here (even though Norman Maclean grew up fishing rivers about three hours northeast of here) and I can understand why they chose this location for the film. This is perhaps the most beautiful place on Earth, or at least as much of it as I’ve seen thus far. All of western Montana is like God showing off: “Look what I can do! Look what I can do!”

But you don’t have to be in a place as preposterously pretty as this one to reap the benefits of stepping outside. This is particularly true for those of us who have been holed up trying to figure something out _ spiritually, emotionally, existentially.

Take the example of Jesus. When he was trying to find himself _ who he was in this world and who he wasn’t, what he was called to do and how he was to do it _ he went into the wild, whether it was the desert or the Garden of Gethsemane.

Outside, it feels like there is less standing between the Creator and us.

There is a lingering, visceral connection we can hear and see and smell, reminders of the bond between Creator and creation, like the mountain sage crushed up in the pocket of the sweat shirt I was wearing on a short, muddy hike I the other day.

“In the woods, we return to reason and faith,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his 1836 essay, “Nature.” “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, _ no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair.”

In nature _ whether it’s Central Park, the Grand Canyon, a rock jetty in the sound, or a small patch of scrub grass with a sad, Charlie Brown-ish tree near where the smokers congregate outside our office building _ we step outside what Henry David Thoreau called “the labyrinth of our own perceptions,” to see reality more clearly.

On that hike up the side of the foothills above the Gallatin River here, I forced myself to climb higher to get out of earshot of the traffic on a mountain highway below.

Winded, I was thinking about who I am _ who I really am _ and how odd it is that I feel as much myself standing here as I do perched in stiletto boots at the bar of Balthazar in Manhattan.

As I paused to catch my breath, pondering whether I am more Urban Goddess than Earth Muffin, one of those hawks came soaring toward me, screaming as it flew 10 feet above my head. In that breathtaking moment I felt as if my question was being answered, though I’m not sure whether it was a yes or a no.

On my way back down the hiking trail, I stopped thinking and started looking and listening. And I realized winter was becoming spring before me. Change was happening. Creation, and perhaps the Creator, was speaking.

I just needed to be outside to hear the voice.

(Cathleen Falsani is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of “The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People.”)


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