I am a big hiker, so when this past year I saw that the news was encouraging a walk in the woods as a cure for lockdown stress, I agreed heartily. There are good scientific reasons why time in the woods relieves stress. Science tells us our upright physiques evolved for walking long distances, so what makes the body happier than a long walk? Our eyes see more shades of green than any other color, a vestige of early man’s time in the forest that now adds extra delight under a forest canopy. Our tri-partite brains are awakened in the woods too: the “fight or flight” response of the “reptile” brain (“is there something behind that tree that’s going to eat me?!”); the simple pleasure center of the “mammalian” brain (“gee, that cool breeze is nice!”) and the contemplative human neocortex (“Someone created this, I am awed, and should be thankful”).
A walk in the woods has curative power. Part of that power must result from the neocortex calming the reptile brain with the knowledge that there is nothing to fight and nothing to fear: this place is God’s doing. As to that last realization, Christian contemplatives got there long before the scientists. Thomas Merton, our greatest American contemplative, wrote about trees and forests as follows:
[a] tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be, it is obeying Him….The forms and individual characteristics of living and created things, of inanimate things, of animals and flowers, and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God. Their inscape is their sanctity. It is the imprint of his wisdom and reality in them. [“Things In Their Essence” in New Seeds of Contemplation
Merton was a Trappist monk who lived some of his life in a hermitage, but he also wrote for those laypersons trying to live “lives of contemplation in action and purity of heart”. He described that life as follows:
One is content with what is. One does what is to be done, and the more concrete it is, the better. One is not worried about the results of what is done…At such time, walking down a street, sweeping a floor, washing dishes, hoeing beans, reading a book, taking a stroll in the woods – all can be enriched with the contemplative and obscure sense of the presence of God. [ The Inner Experience at 66.]
We also enjoy walking and talking together, sometimes becoming “pilgrims” — sharing a journey down paths our ancestors once trod to a holy destination. Thus, when in Spain and you conclude your Camino, you reach the portal of the Cathedral, you fit your fingers into the finger-grooves worn under the little statue of Santiago, and you touch the hands of the many millions of pilgrims before you. Or when in Ireland you labor up Croagh Patrick on the last Sunday in August to take communion with 20,000 other pilgrims, on a path allegedly 5,000 years old, you walk in a communion of saints, living and dead. Indeed, when we walk, we move through both space and time.
This is especially true when hiking in Connecticut. The rolling hills are the imprint of a massive glacier that melted away only 16,000 years ago. That glacier left hills, river valleys, stream beds, and ridgelines. Our paths in the woods were predestined to go along the ridges, because who wants to get their feet wet? Connecticut’s woods are full of the marks of little men too — stone walls tumbled mills, animal pens — left by colonists who conquered, planted, and then moved west, leaving the forest to reclaim their fields. Those colonists’ walls, like the glacier’s ridges, direct where you go.
So, it was with those usual observations of time and space in mind that I came off the Aspetuck Trail one afternoon along Route 58, on the same weekend that the jury was deliberating in the George Floyd murder case. I found that someone had planted a sign near the hikers’ parking lot. The sign read: “MLK YES, CRT NO”. I knew MLK must mean Martin Luther King, Jr, but CRT?
Later that day, I learned CRT stands for Critical Race Theory, which is a way of contemplating American society through its race prejudices, race structures, and race results. African- American scholars created and many support CRT theory. Other people of color do also, as well as many whites. The basic point is that the civil rights legislation of the 1960s did nothing radical to change the social position of African-Americans and that much more needs to be done to reform American systems. As a lawyer, this makes sense to me, because I know laws are passed to try to change behavior, but the mere passage of a law does not mean that the behavior changes. Think of drunk driving, or littering, or murder. No one would argue that the Fifth Commandment put an end to murder.
I am no expert on Dr. King, but it seemed odd that this sign would set up “CRT” in opposition to “MLK”. So I did a quick google for Dr. King’s most famous speech, the “I Have a Dream” speech of 1963, and found him saying that while Lincoln had freed African-Americans from the bondage of slavery, African Americans still remained bound by racism, and that progress must continue beyond civil rights legislation. Dr. King said:
And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
That sure sounded like CRT to me, so I dug a little deeper on the alleged MLK-CRT conflict, and found that a trend had developed over the last year to deny that racism still exists as a functioning part of American society, to argue that Dr. King was “color blind”, and that the country could no longer be described as “racist”. They would argue that, in a mere 60 years, America had “evolved” so radically that 1963 America no longer exists in 2021 America. Hence, the sign: MLK YES; CRT NO.
But that is not the Catholic position. In fact, twice in the last 40 years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued pastoral letters stating just the opposite. In 1979, the Bishops stated: “Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church. Despite apparent advances and even significant changes in the last two decades, the reality of racism remains. In large part, it is only external appearances which have changed”. Brothers and Sisters unto Us at 1. n 2018, the Bishops stated:
Racism still profoundly affects our culture, and it has no place in the Christian heart….What is needed, and what we are calling for, is a genuine conversion of heart, a conversion that will compel change and the reform of our institutions and society. Conversion is a long road to travel for the individual. Moving our nation to a full realization of the promise of liberty, equality, and justice for all is even more challenging. However, in Christ, we can find the strength and the grace necessary to make that journey.
In this regard, each of us should adopt the words of Pope Francis as our own: let no one “think that this invitation is not meant for him or her”. All of us are in need of personal, ongoing conversion. Our churches and our civic and social institutions are in need of ongoing reform. If racism is confronted by addressing its causes and the injustice it produces, then healing can occur. In that transformed reality, the headlines we see all too often today will become lessons from the past. [Open Wide Our Hearts at 6-7.]
It’s an odd thing to read the Bishops’ words from only a few years ago and reflect on that sign by the road, which for me that day was a kind of personal, negative headline. A misleading one. A scaremongering one. A sign of “fight or flight”. The Bishops’ invitation to conversion raises analogous questions: how did we get to where we are today? What cold force shaped our footpath, what wall kept us going in this direction rather than another? What memories and habits made us do this rather than that? What company do we keep when we walk? Are we walking with God?
As discussed above, finding God in the forest is easy. No one has made a business of whispering evil about the trees. God’s Creative Love is all too obvious to admit of any evil. It would be wonderful to walk into a crowd of strangers the way one walks into a stand of trees and experience the same kind of powerful change, but there are forces within us and around us that want to keep us fallen, hobbled, hateful. And yet we hold out hope that each of us can come to the same beautiful vision, to our own personal, ongoing conversion, that Merton experienced himself when he left the hermitage and went into the city:
In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness…This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Pete Maloney, J.D.