Once, as I rid out into the woods for my health, anno 1737; and having lit from my horse in a retired place, as my manner commonly has been, to walk for divine contemplation and prayer, I had a view that for me was extraordinary, of the glory of the Son of God, as Mediator between God and man, and his wonderful, great, full, pure and sweet grace and love, and meek and gentle condescension. This grace that appeared so calm and sweet, appeared also great above the heavens. The person of Christ appeared ineffably excellent with an excellency great enough to swallow up all thought and conception … which continued as near as I can judge, about an hour; which kept me the greater part of the time in a flood of tears, and weeping aloud. I felt an ardency of soul to be, what I know not otherwise how to express, emptied and annihilated; to lie in the dust, and to be full of Christ alone; to love him with a holy and pure love; to trust in him; to live upon him; to serve and follow him; and to be perfectly sanctified and made pure, with a divine and heavenly purity. I have, several other times, had views very much of the same nature, and which have had the same effects.
From these gentle echoes of devotions in the woods, we may be surprised to learn that the above Personal Narrative was penned by the same minister who, on July 8, 1741, ascended a pulpit before the congregation of Enfield, Connecticut to preach the most famous of sermons, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. But for Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), such a sublime encounter with the presence of God in a Massachusetts wood was not an anomaly to an otherwise hellfire theology, but illustrative of the deeply profound spiritual life of what many consider America’s greatest theologian and philosopher.
The Importance of Solitude
Jesus is the exemplar par excellence of the spiritual practice of solitude. We read in Mark 1:35: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Again in Luke: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (5:16; cf. Matt 14:13). G.K. Chesterton was enamored by the thought of what transpired between the Son and the Father in the Spirit at those moments: “There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”
Dallas Willard observes that solitude is a primary means by which our bodies and souls can find a new habitual orientation towards the Kingdom of God, free from the routinization that marks social life. For it is in our moments of solitude that God is able to break through the parodies, the knock-offs, the artificial imitations that construct and constitute social, economic, and cultural life, in such a way that awakens us to reality, to experiencing the world as God intended. Solitude provides the spiritual context in which God arouses us out of our boutique-like existence into an authentic, fulfilling, and nourishing human state of being, indeed a truly human state of being. Freed from the social pressures and distractions of modern life, spiritual retreats have the power to draw us into a revelation of reality by which we might relativize the social parodies and imitations of our age, precisely because we are now able to see them for what they are.
Walks in Woods
Not only was Jonathan Edwards a consistent practitioner of the spiritual discipline of solitude, but as his Personal Narrative indicates, he enjoyed such solitude in a very special place: the woods. Edwards wrote of when he was a young boy, “I had particular secret places of my own in the woods, where I used to retire by myself; and was from time to time much affected. My affections seemed to be lively and easily moved, and I seemed to be in my element when engaged in religious duties.” As the years passed, the woods were a constant place of contemplation and prayer: “My mind was greatly fixed on divine things; almost perpetually in the contemplation of them. I spent most of my time in thinking of divine things, year after year; often walking alone in the woods, and solitary places, for meditation, soliloquy, and prayer, and converse with God; and it was always my manner, at such times, to sing forth my contemplations.”
Anthony Esolen reminds us that nature was created by God for us, to be enjoyed by us. Athanasius long ago argued that God’s nurturing and loving character was best discovered and experienced through the divine theater of creation. The Bible often describes the presence of God with garden and forest imagery, recapitulations of the Genesis account where the first man and woman dwelt with God in paradise.
Jonathan Edwards invites us to consider that the echoes of such biblical imagery continue to resound in and through the woods. By spending time in sylvan landscapes, our senses are enlivened to the real world of God’s creation and indeed his presence. The woods are in effect a vast cathedral; a world of trees and shed leaves, acres of berries constituting a Babette’s feast for cedar waxwings, rivers of water reflecting the sparkling light of the sun reigning over the vast deep blue sky, a foretaste of the endless day. The incense of pine is accompanied by a chorus of birds, which has long been likened to an earthly manifestation of the choir of angels, who also sing and have wings.
And so, the eighteenth-century narrative above beckons us to not merely practice the spiritual discipline of solitude, but to rediscover the presence of God in the midst of the beauties of his creation. More so, the sweetness of his described divine fellowship should dispel any misconstrued notions about the author of one of the most famous and terrifying sermons ever preached. For behind the horrifying images of Sinners, behind the Great Awakenings that swept across the Connecticut Valley, behind contemporary philosophical and theological issues that continue to be wrestled with at the highest levels of the academy, stands the figure of a man who once enjoyed solitary walks in a Massachusetts wood.
As a suitable accompaniment to contemplative walks in the woods, make sure to download our free new eBook: Devotions at Dawn: Morning Prayers through the Ages.