I first experienced an extended time of silence when I was entering college. It was during a pre-Orientation 10-day backpacking trip called, appropriately, Exodus. I had recently begun my own “exodus” from my bustling, suburban hometown of Montclair, New Jersey, where I had spent most of my life, to a small, rural town in Pennsylvania. I was excited, and felt that God had led me here, yet there were many swirling emotions in such a monumental time of transition. <<Click to Tweet
When we began the trip, we were told we would be doing a “solo,” which meant 24-hours on our own in the woods.
We would each split off from the group with only one rope, a tarp, our sleeping bag and pillow, a few toiletries, and water. Watches were not allowed, as we were encouraged to be in the present, not focusing on time. We would be fasting during that time, and it would just be each one of us and God, face-to-face, in the woods.
Naturally, I approached this time with some trepidation. I worried that my newly acquired survival skills would not be enough to get me through. I worried that I would be too hungry. Most of all, I worried about being alone for such a long period of time.
What would I say to God? To myself?
When the day came to begin our Solo Time, we waved goodbye to the other students and staff, and were set up in a remote spot that would be our own for the next 24 hours. I was thankful that the spots were not really that remote, and that, though I couldn’t see any other students, I knew they weren’t too far away.
Once I got to my site, I began to settle in - adjusting my sleeping bag, tying up my tarp to a nearby tree and a few large sticks, using my shoelace as an extra rope to secure the tarp in place.
I was feeling relatively confident about my woodland skills. I just hoped it wouldn’t rain.
I began to explore my spot, my “home” for the next 24 hours, taking care to notice any interesting plants, insects, and trees in the vicinity. I picked a vantage point on a log to sit, amongst ferns, moss, and dry leaves, overlooking a dry streambed filled with bright green skunk cabbage. I quieted myself, taking in the simple wonders of the earth around me, breathing deeply. I began to pray for the other students, for the huge transition into freshman year of college we were all facing, and for the friends I had just tearfully left behind at home.
I found it easier to fill the time than I had imagined. God and I actually had a lot to say to one another, and I had a lot to process. So I wrote in my journal, read my Bible, and continued to pray. Before I knew it, it was early evening. I sat out on the log again, and began to feel the drip, drip, drip of tiny raindrops. Oh no!
I thought, What now? Will my precarious structure stay intact? Will it keep me dry? What if it rains all night?
I tried to secure my belongings - especially my sleeping bag and pillow - to keep them dry. I had to adjust the tarp a bit as well once it began to pour, getting the edge of my sleeping bag soggy. I sighed, but managed to keep the rest of my gear and even myself, relatively dry. After a while, the rain lessened, and became more comforting than the nuisance it originally had been.
I settled in, and wrote in my journal some more, letting the rain lull me into an afternoon nap.
The rain stopped and I woke up just as the late afternoon sun reemerged. I crawled out of my tarp and stretched. I looked up to an overlook nearby, and caught a glimpse of another student, who I hadn’t realized was so close. Duane was a wilderness expert who had gone backpacking since he was a child. He stood proudly at the top of his overlook, not seeing me, but viewing the forest. Next to him was a teepee-like structure that he had obviously created from his limited resources, a far cry from my humble abode that had nearly collapsed with the rain. I tried not to let that depress me, and went back to my praying.
Darkness descended, little by little. It got a bit colder, I put my sweatshirt on, and curled into my sleeping bag. What else was there to do but sleep? I drifted off as the stars came out. I was awakened to the sound of coyotes howling. I shivered, though they sounded far off. It was comforting to know that others were close by, and yet I still felt alone. I drifted back to sleep, trying not to let fear keep me up.
I awoke for the second time, and this time, heard rustling in the bushes not far from me.
Too close, in fact. And not like a small animal nearby. It sounded more like crashing and booming of small bushes and leaves. My heart started pounding in my chest, and my hands felt shaky as I pulled out my Bible. I read a Psalm my leaders had recommended. It was Psalm 91 (NIV Translation):
Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty…
The particular verse that stood out to me was Verse 5:
You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day,
and Verse 9-10:
If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,” and you make the Most High your dwelling, no harm will overtake you, no disaster will come near your tent.
According to Lauren Winner in Still - Notes on a Mid-faith Crisis, the term for what I was doing is "dislocated exegesis.” It is “the practice of reading scripture in unexpected places that might unsettle the assumptions you were likely to bring to the text."
When reading a Bible selection in a particular place, it has the power to change your perspective.<<Click to Tweet
Psalm 91 had never felt as real and necessary to me as that moment. As I read the verses, a deep calm came over me…
“a peace that passes understanding.”
I was no longer afraid, and felt a close presence beside me, and beside whatever was thrashing around in the bushes beside me. I felt palpably that God was there.
Looking back, although I felt petrified in the moment, I was probably not in a lot of danger. Students and staff were close by, a whistle blow away. But what God showed me in that moment was that I was truly not alone.
In the weeks afterwards, the feeling of peace stayed with me. When I was out of my tent and back into “civilization,” beginning college life, the feeling of God’s real presence stayed with me. The idea of making the Most High my dwelling meant something new to me, and the peace and deep trust could be transferred to new settings, knowing I was not alone.
Micalagh Beckwith Moritz is a social worker, writer, wife, sister, daughter, community member, continually learning how to do a better job at each of these roles. She is always contemplating how to love others better and to enjoy the small things of life; to see God in everything and everyone. She is passionate about caring for the environment, experiencing new cultures, and also important, eating cheese. She currently resides in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.