The Contours of Worship

In Salt Lake Valley, where I lived for six years during the early 1990s, mountain topography and temperature differentials often trapped the clouds during the winter months. For weeks on end, we saw little of the sun in our neighborhood on the northern edge of the city. But the foothills of the Wasatch were just up the street. And there were times when a little elevation gain was enough to free us from the heavy gray light of the inversion.

So too there were times when meeting for worship was enough to lift, at least momentarily, an inversion that had hidden the horizons in that big thicket of thoughts, emotions, and memories that I had come to think of as an inward landscape. It occurred to me, at that time, that worship and mountain walking had much in common.

In the Bible, there is of course some precedent for a relationship between mountains and worship. On a mountain, Moses saw the burning bush. Elijah heard that still, small voice. Jesus was transfigured.

None of that would have been lost on George Fox. Early on in his life, he had struggled with "a sadness of the spirit." As a young man, he was "beset by a temptation to despair." It is well known that the ministers he sought out were miserable comforters. Better, he finally decided, to read Scripture, to fast, and to listen for the breath of the Holy Spirit in the winds that blew across the Peak district, where his wanderings often took him.

On a foggy day back in May 1652, George Fox’s highland saunters led him up the flanks of Pendle Hill which, at 1,830 feet, was a substantial piece of rock in that part of England. As he gained a little elevation, the clouds were thinning and he began to see patches of blue. By the time he reached the summit, the wind had scattered the clouds. Awash in the light of that winnowed sky and moved, as he put it, to "sound the day of the Lord," he let loose a howl that seemed to carry off, at least for a while, the malaise with which he had been struggling.

Drawing in part on his experience at Pendle Hill, George Fox’s map of the spirit imaged the path toward God as a path of ascent. "Take heed of being hurried with many thoughts but live in that which goes over them all," he counseled others. "Walk in the truth and the love of it up to God." At times he referred to the Inward Light or the Holy Spirit as the "Top-stone." He wasn’t limiting the Light or the Spirit to a position in space. He was using a position in space, in this case a summit, to point toward a God who was both in and beyond the world. God’s presence, as experienced in the form of the Inward Light or Holy Spirit, was capable not only of pointing out those obstacles that a seeker might encounter along the way, but also of lifting one above them. "Mind the Light and dwell in it," George Fox said, "and it will keep you atop the world."

In Quaker worship, as in mountain travel, one leaves the usual routine behind. A seasoned worshiper pays attention to the movement of the Spirit much as a mountaineer might notice a shift in the wind or the movement of the clouds. In worship, as on the mountain, there are forces at work that are far more powerful than one’s own desire or will. Those who feel the stirring of the Holy Spirit, and who believe they have been given words that serve their meeting, are free to speak. In that sense, silence isn’t compulsory; being attentive is.

As on the mountain, there were no barbed-wire fences or "Keep Out" signs in the geography of silence. On first visits to Salt Lake Meeting, no one told me what to think or how to pray or what to do as I sat there in the silence. In that inward landscape, there were no paved trails or brochures. Newcomers were simply welcomed into the openness and darkness of the silence and given the opportunity to find their own way. There were books and pamphlets and Quakerism 101 classes that would be helpful later on. And there were those who had mapped the inward territories as they had experienced them, which would also help me to understand the worship experience. But for the most part orienting oneself and finding a way in the geography of silence was best left to the individual and the guidance of the spirit.

In meeting, the medium of communion is a stillness found in silence, not unlike the stillness one often finds above timberline. Ideally, the stillness becomes a kind of shared "inscape" in which one opens oneself to a holy Presence. Some-times words spoken in one heart have also been heard in another. And even when there aren’t any words spoken at all, one may leave the meeting with the experience of having heard or of having been heard in the midst of that fluent silence.

On the pre-dawn saunters my wife, Grace, and I took above our Salt Lake City neighborhood, I had no intention of "sounding the day of the Lord" as had George Fox on Pendle Hill, but I was open to walking in prayer. As we followed the winding furrows of an old jeep trail up a foothill draw and onto open ground, Grace and I often shared our "joys and concerns," as they say in the small town church where we were married. On other mornings we kept to ourselves, climbing quietly toward first light.

On days when my "concerns" were embedded in a recurring internal monologue all but emptied of hope, breaking the silence was of little use. It was better to walk and breathe and listen for the sweet song of the lazuli bunting, if I could listen to anything at all.

Winding up through that first ravine full of magpies and towhees and scrub oaks, leaving behind the latest wave of new luxury homes that were steadily carving into the flanks of the foothills, we rose up over the bench that had once been the shoreline of an ancient lake that covered much of the Great Basin.

From the top of the knoll, we walked out into the eerie nightwash of city glow. Like green grass in stadium light, the soft browns and tans of the wide slopes between us and the ridgeline above were ratcheted up a few shades too bright to look entirely real. The thin layer of haze that hung over the valley bent symmetrical streetlight rays of blue, red, green, yellow, and white until they shimmered. Below lay the great grid of the Mormon Mecca, illuminated arteries bisecting the rectangular blocks that Brigham Young had laid out so meticulously.

On some of those pre-dawn foothill climbs, I walked casting two shadows. The smaller of the two was a silhouette blotting out a body’s worth of light cast by a West Desert moon bound for Nevada. The other was an elongated shadow cast by city light that crept up the ridge toward the hazy stars of Cassiopeia.

In the margin between grid glow and the darkness of the north slope, city light spilled over the crest of the ridge and dissipated, as did the remnant snowbanks that tapered off into clumps of oak that rose up out of the canyon shadows. Deer shuffled through the oak leaves. Coyotes and porcupines occasionally appeared then disappeared, headed for cover. Often we heard a great horned owl hoot.

Over the crest and onto the north slope, shortcutting the curve of the ridgeline in front of us, we crossed patches of remnant snow, ice crystals flashing moonbeams up from the hardened crust of wavelike drifts. We walked in the imprints someone else had made a day or two earlier, digging hands into the crust upslope on the steeper pitches. Back up on the wind-worn crest of the ridge, we followed the exposed ruts of a trail carved out by the tires of renegade four-wheelers. On toward the still-distant summit, morning stars grew dim in the yellowing sky.

On a ridge only a little less steep than this one, a wild gait and a shortness of breath once revealed my lack of mountain experience. Eyes riveted to the top of a pass, I was more interested in the destination than I was in the process of getting there. An older mountaineer took notice and offered some simple, yet sage advice. "As the slope gets steeper," he said, "shorten your steps. When you take a step, take a breath. And when you take the next step, let it go."

When I practiced that technique properly, climbing became a kind of moving stasis: the oxygen coming in fueled a slow and steady burn instead of an energy inferno. If I could stay focused, I was rewarded with the energy to get to the top of the pass and beyond.

As in worship, those early morning Wasatch walks had a way of opening trails into a less constricted inward landscape. Often, I carried a word or a phrase in thought, something I had heard spoken out of the silence at meeting, or a passage that had lingered from the Quaker writers I’d been reading. Stillness, they told me, opened space in the heart for the inward light to dwell. Reading about this kind of opening was one thing. Praying into it was another.

I know that some people have the spiritual discipline to pray ceaselessly in a jail cell or in a kitchen washing dishes and I know that I am not one of them. But as the ridge turned steep on the final approach toward the summit of that foothill peak, I was forced to pay attention to that step and breath rhythm without which I would have quickly come to a windless standstill. I tried to wrap each breath around a few words—two syllables for every inhale, two for every exhale: "Be still . . . and know . . . that I . . . am God."

On the circumference of my vision, looking to the south I could see Olympus, Timpanogas, Nebo, and other snowcapped Wasatch Peaks. The Oquirrh Range and the Stansbury Mountains, the first crests of the rocky waves and troughs that made up the Basin and Range country, defined the horizon as I looked out toward the dry side of the valley. Beyond the tip of the foothill spur on which we walked, bare rock islands floated like holy land hallucinations in this dead sea desert. Rimming the eastern edge of the Great Salt Lake, stretching north to Ogden and beyond were the marshes and wetlands and bird refuges. Between the lake and the spine of the Wasatch Range headed north, was a geographical alleyway between mountain and lake for migrating songbirds, as well as 18-wheelers on the interstate, that were only passing through.

As space opened out near the high point of our walk, so too, from time to time, an inward way seemed to open, much as I had come to experience in meeting for worship. I don’t mean to suggest that a cluttered mind cleared in that instant of topping out. Just as it had taken many steps and many breaths to gain a few thousand feet over our Salt Lake neighborhood, it had taken many moments of prayer to empty myself enough to feel as though there was a longer pause between my thoughts.

There were days when I found only a fleeting relief on the mountain, when the descent was the inverse of the ascent. Like the night-blooming primrose we passed on that foothill ridge, any opening I experienced on the way to the summit would fold in on itself as the brightness of the morning came on. In the rising tremor of morning traffic, chest muscles pulled taut. Lungs were emptied of Wasatch air.

Descent was especially disheartening on days when the inversion seemed to have settled in for good. There was some solace in knowing that only 1,000 feet up, I could walk into cleaner air, not to mention a little sun and sky. But each foothill ascent through that layer of cloud and the subsequent descent back into the gray miasma deepened my longing for a break in the weather.

When an inversion finally began to lift, the light that came streaming down across the high snowfields of the Wasatch would surely melt a little of whatever needed thawing. So too, in some small way, did those early morning ascents onto that foothill ridge. Or so it seemed as I let the contours of that slope shape my steps, and followed the prayers that I carried in one breath and then another, up the ridge toward the summit.

The sheltered spot behind a boulder where I would wait for Grace to catch up wasn’t exactly a summit. It was one of several high points on a ridgeline that ran straight and treeless, except for an occasional scattering of firs and pines and curl-leaf mountain mahogany, before it dipped down into a saddle and curved around to a higher peak at the head of City Creek Canyon. It wasn’t the high point on that long crescent of a ridge, but it was a good place to watch the light as it streamed through the craggy peaks to my east, falling first on the high ridge of the Oquirrh Mountains along the far western edge of the valley, then down their scrub oak flanks, slowly sweeping up the shadows of the Wasatch that lay across the city. As in meeting for worship, it was a place to dwell, for a moment or two, in the Light of a day’s slow turning.

Peter Anderson

Peter Anderson teaches writing at Earlham School of Religion. He is also the editor of Pilgrimage (, a small magazine devoted to reflective and autobiographical writing. This article is excerpted from First Church of the Higher Elevations, a recently completed collection of essays on mountains and prayer which will be published in the spring of 2005. He currently lives in Crestone, Colo., where he meets with a small worship group.