I can remember the moment I fell in love with Yosemite. I was 18, standing in the meadow facing El Cap, watching speck-sized rock climbers make their assent. It was sunset. The late red-gold sun was filling up the valley. It was the rocks I loved—their permanence.
See, I grew up with the concept of a very personal God—a find-the-car-keys God, a Jesus who wept if you let your friend copy your math homework. This theology has its benefits. But for a hyper-conscientious kid, it also has drawbacks. Namely: it is really exhausting.
The granite rock faces flanking the valley seemed ambassadors of another God. One whose immovability invited me to rest.
My love for Yosemite has led me to John Muir’s writing. I read him because of the way he captures the park, but also because his works deal with spirituality in a refreshing way.
This is surprising considering Muir’s upbringing. His father practiced a zealous, exacting brand of Christianity: he whipped his son if he did not memorize his daily scripture, and he repressed most of Muir’s ambitions and hobbies, claiming they demonstrated vanity.
Muir broke away from this religion. But no resentment or fear shows up in his spiritual writing. Instead he takes an exuberant, almost child-like tone when he writes of God.
In an essay about a solo climb up a glacier, he describes the whole landscape as involved in worship: “This was the alpenglow, to me the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. At the touch of the divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness, and stood hushed like devout worshippers waiting to be blessed.”
In a letter to a friend, describing his return to Yosemite after time in the city, he writes that “all the rocks seem talkative.” Such a lovely, living echo of “the rocks will cry out!”
And, after describing a tough climb up to a view of the valley, he describes the scene, finishing with the meditation: "wholly infused with God is the one big word of love that we call the world.”
All throughout Muir’s work, there is this sense of relief. Relief at the discovery of a tangible God—one different from his father’s, one he could understand and worship.
Some have claimed that Muir’s spirituality is suspect because he renounced the black-and-white language of his father. I remember once being told to “be careful of Muir, because he wasn’t saved,” while watching a sunset in Yosemite.
Ultimately, it’s not my job to determine Muir’s salvation. And if I tried, what a waste that would be! I might have missed what the spirituality of his writing has taught me: Namely, don’t let the wounds of the past rob you of your sense of wonder—be open to beauty, and let that beauty reveal the divine, and let that become your new narrative: a world "wholly infused with God.”