Wilderness Spirituality


BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: We have a segment today on going into the wilderness to experience the presence of God. John Lionberger is a former atheist who had a profound religious experience on a wilderness trip. Now an ordained United Church of Christ minister, Lionberger leads others looking for their own experience of the holy. Lionberger is the author of “Renewal in the Wilderness.” He lives in Evanston, Illinois. Earlier this fall, I asked him what happens to the people he takes to the wilderness.

Rev. JOHN LIONBERGER (Author, “Renewal in the Wilderness”): What they encounter in the wilderness is getting away from all of the things in society that we call “trappings” that are meant to be good things, but that keep them away from a more authentic and deeper relationship with God.

ABERNETHY: Lionberger’s trips begin with his coaching.

post01LIONBERGER: I think what happens for them is they get to the transcendent through the physical—the act of canoeing, the act of setting up camp. I like to say it strips them of the barnacles that they accrue throughout their lives and society, and they begin to realize how little they need to be profoundly happy. They are able to simplify, and in that simplification they get a sense of something holy about what surrounds them, a sense of well being and a sense of being cared for and a sense of profound peace, and it’s kind of a hackneyed phrase—“Be in the moment”—but there is something so powerful about it, because that is the moment, in the very present is when God comes to us. It is much easier, I think, for God to get through our defenses when we’re in a wilderness.

ABERNETHY: I asked Lionberger to recall the conversion experience he had when he was alone on skis on a frozen lake in winter.

LIONBERGER: It was getting dark, and the trees were etched against the skyline in kind of blackness while the skyline was turning purple. I just looked up at the sky and put my arms out like this, with the poles dangling from my wrists, and arched my back, and at that moment I felt like I was in the midst of a warm stream of water that felt so pure and so refreshing and so cleansing and so friendly and so loving, and then it kept coming into my mind, slowly at first, and very dimly at first, but it said, “It’s God.”

Sometimes there are those wonderful explosive moments of experiencing God, but most of the time it’s very, very subtle. It’s just the small things that people ignore that being out in an environment like that brings them to an awareness of. It reminds us of who we are, who we are not, and who God is.

ABERNETHY: Back home, Lionberger tries to recapture some of the wilderness experience in a park near his house, and he says all people can do that.

LIONBERGER: I suggest to them that they have an open heart and a willingness to be surprised, and they do it very consciously. It is part of being here now. It’s part of what the wilderness teaches you.

ABERNETHY: I asked Lionberger whether some people come on his trips and have no sense of anything holy.

LIONBERGER: In the eight years I’ve been doing this, and maybe the 400 people that I’ve taken to the wilderness, I only know of one man who was not really touched by his experience in some way, who said at the end, “I had a good time, but I got no spiritual insight, no spiritual awakenings, nothing like that.” And that is not a bad batting average, one out of 400. I’ll take that.

  • Brian Frick

    Preach it!
    What a great story. Similar to mine. I found/experienced God in a lasting way at camp when I was a 7th grader. We all need those experiences to get out of the man-made (imperfect) world we have created and into the God-made (perfect) world that is all around us.
    Often that requires an intentional trip “away” – a retreat – a clearing of the barnacles so we can re-enter our lives transformed and read to be transformed.
    Thank you for this post.

  • Robert Simpson

    Nature is one of the best places to be moved by God. In New Jersey, it probably seems to a lot of people that there really isn’t much nature to move its millions of people, but there is. For me, just wandering on wooded, rocky trails with the sweet scent of Easter White Pine, wild blueberries, moss and ferns, tidal pools with tadpoles and frogs, an occasional bear, deer or fox thrill my soul. One of my most spiritual experiences was walking along a flat woods road on a winter’s afternoon in a gentle snow fall. The stillness and silence of a winter snowfall in the woods is sacred enough, but this time I added a little technology. For the first time in my life, I brought along a tape deck with my favorite Christmas music. Oh my!!! Mysterious, mystical, rapturous!!! I did not want to leave that wood — that experience. I feel sorry for those who have not yet experienced this kind of encounter with the loving Creator of the universe!

  • Todd Smiedendorf

    Amen, brother John.
    RITW has a beautiful formula of simplicity in trusting place and pace to renew and reveal. John is the perfect facilitator for this way. We at The Men’s Leadership Alliance in Colorado tip our hat to John. We have a similar love and respect for our wild origins and the Creator Spirit. We combine that with a focus on the soul of men, and on community, ritual, and growth processes. MLA retreats can be both restful and intense. It is often transformative to let the wilderness support and teach us as we work within to be more soulful men who can help support a more just, joyful, and sustainable world.
    Mitakue Oyasin!

  • Rev. Marian Hale

    Wonderful to see this John. Since I don’t have a TV, I missed it when it was broadcast. It’s a treat to hear your words and to relive your spiritual experience with you. Thank you!

  • Roger Dart

    There is something particularly important in what you describe. The key word is ‘openness’. I am looking forward to joining one of your upcoming trips.