A few days ago I was talking to my older daughter on FaceTime. (I haven’t hugged her since December. O the pain!) She had hit an emotional wall over the weekend, mourning the state of society and feeling more than a little claustrophobic.
She and her husband live in San Francisco, which has been locked down longer and harder than anywhere else in the US. For months they have been sheltering at home in a one-bedroom apartment. In the heart of a concrete jungle.
For Lindsey, a young woman who eats well, exercises, and has asthma, the isolation is both life-saving and isolating. And for all of us, the tension of this strange year has been relentless. Over and over the news replays senseless murder, and we witness ongoing racial injustice, peaceful protests, violence, righteous anger, unrighteous anger, and the cost in lives and livelihoods from the coronavirus.
All of this would be difficult enough to process in normal times as we wrestle with questions about ways to respond, how to pray, where to give, and what to do.
Yet our God-given gifts of grace for dealing with fear and suffering all have been unavailable or, more recently, parceled out in small doses. Confession is back, with masks on and half a pew between penitent and priest. Communion is back, with screening for symptoms and social distancing. The beauty of worship in the Divine Liturgy remains a distant, virtual experience or—hallelujah!—in person, but by appointment only and with lots of empty space in the nave.
Many of our usual comforts and pleasures are gone—even simple birthday parties are logistically complex—and we don’t know when they’ll return. On many days I feel an almost physical knot of pressure around my heart, a fight-or-flight response that I must surrender to God before I can even begin to pray.
Is there anyone who hasn’t struggled with anxiety, fear, rage, loneliness, or depression? Or all of them over the course of a single afternoon?
Taking Care of the Inside by Going Outside
While cooped up in our homes, attending meetings online, keeping the kids occupied, and foraging for food in the pantry when we’re too exhausted to cook, we are essentially living, working, and sleeping in manmade caves. Even if we’re blessed with light-filled windows and houseplants that are still alive (so far), we breathe in recirculated air and often are forced to sit for extended lengths of time.
This sort of restricted, indoor life can lead to discouragement, negativity, and depression. And with everything else going on, it’s easy to neglect our bodies. (Quaran-fifteen, anyone?) Yet the Church has long understood the interconnectedness of our bodies, minds, and souls. Our worship is physical and sensory, with icons, candles, incense, prostrations, chanting, and the Eucharist. Our worship honors our bodies as gifts of God and the importance of the Incarnation. Still, we forget that our physical lives affect our spiritual lives.
We need to move, and we need to get outdoors. This simple concept can be life-changing, especially during times of stress. In a recent blog post and podcast episode of The Morning Offering, Abbot Tryphon noted, “I’ve counseled depressed individuals over the years to take a brisk walk every day for at least forty minutes while saying the Jesus Prayer. Their depression subsides within days because the exercise, coupled with the prayer, pushes aside negative thoughts and sends depression into the abyss from which it originated.”
Some of us can’t walk, or we can’t walk far. That’s okay. By simply spending time outdoors, exposing our skin to the light, the sun’s ultraviolet B rays provide energy for us to synthesize vitamin D, which combats depression. Additionally, exercise releases chemicals that improve mood. Regular exercise reduces stress and improves conditions like depression and anxiety.
Turning Our Hearts to the Creator
Walking outdoors—or sitting on a bench and taking deep, glorious breaths of fresh air—brings benefits beyond the physical and emotional. Nature turns our hearts and minds to the One who created beauty.
I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty,
And on Your wondrous works. (Ps. 145:5)
The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament shows His handiwork. (Ps. 19:1)
Whether walking along the beach, hiking in the mountains, or strolling the city sidewalks past a community garden, we escape our caves and enter the wonders of creation.
When thou lookest up to heaven and gazest at the beauty of the stars, pray to the Lord of the visible world; pray to God the Arch-artificer of the universe, Who in wisdom hath made them all. — St. Basil the Great, from Homily V
We get out of our houses, out of our heads, and into God’s world. What we find may surprise us. During the past several months of reduced traffic on the streets, observers have commented on the wildlife in their neighborhoods and even the return of birdsong to some of the busiest parts of Manhattan. Watching the birds, the squirrels, and even the pigeons can bring joy and a sense of wonder back into our lives.
But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you;
And the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
Or speak to the earth, and it will teach you;
And the fish of the sea will explain to you.
Who among all these does not know
That the hand of the Lord has done this,
In whose hand is the life of every living thing,
And the breath of all mankind? — Job 12:7-10
As an avid gardener, I have always enjoyed walking our doggo through the neighborhood in the evenings of spring and early summer. Especially after a long winter, the differing bloom times of flowering trees and perennials speak to my soul in ways that even a freshly cleaned and dusted bedroom cannot.
Every flower is fragrant through the power of the Holy Spirit, in a delicate flow of aroma and tenderness of color; the beauty of the Great contained in what is small. Praise and honor to God, who gives life, who spreads forth the meadows like a flowering carpet, who crowns the fields with golden ears of wheat and azure basilisks, and the soul – with the joy of contemplation. / Let us rejoice and sing to Him: Alleluia. — Akathist “Glory to God for All Things,” Kontakion 3
Getting outdoors and moving—as much as we are able—changes us. Our outlook. Our mood. Our ability to find a patch of silence. (Please leave the earbuds at home.) Spending time outside makes room in our schedules and in our hearts for prayer and simple thanksgiving.
Does a walk through the park change the world? No.
Does contemplation of the night sky remove racial discrimination and bring justice to people of color? No.
Does a profusion of colorful blossoms remove the grief of 120,000 Covid-19 deaths (and counting) from across the US? No.
Nature “solves” nothing. But it gives us the precious gift of perspective. Through the grace of the Creator, creation invites us to reflect on our personal lives. When a profusion of blossoms turns into a bountiful harvest of apples, or when a vicious hailstorm shreds every last pepper plant, we see living icons of spiritual growth and spiritual battle.
St. John of Kronstadt’s words about the natural world and humankind resonate with me, especially now:
How is it that all nature, and everything in nature, is so wisely arranged, and moves in such wonderful order? It is because the Creator Himself directs and governs it. How is it that in the nature of man—the crown of creation—there is so much disorder? Why are there so many irregularities and deformities in his life?
Because he took upon himself to direct and govern himself, against the Will and Wisdom of his Creator.
Sinful man! give yourself up wholly, all your life unto the Lord your God, and all your life will move in wise, beautiful, stately, and life-giving order, and will all become beautiful as the lives of God’s Saints, who gave themselves up entirely to Christ their God, and whom the Church daily offers to us, as an example to imitate. — St. John of Kronstadt
I think I will need to return to this quotation the next time I blame God for the state of the world. (I admit—it happens.)
Our problems across society, within families, and in our own hearts seem overwhelming in the midst of this difficult season. But spring, summer, fall, and winter keep turning, the mountains remain, the moon waxes and wanes. And we remember, along with the psalmist,
When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers,
The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him,
And the son of man that You visit him? (Ps. 8:3-4)
I do not have solutions for the many ills surrounding us. I try to do my part before God by treating those I encounter as people created in His image and deeply loved by Him. I give where I can. I listen and learn. I’m sure you do the same.
But when it all becomes too much, may I suggest something simple and practical?
Take a hike.