Praying in the great outdoors
I stepped off the plane just as the sun was rising behind the Andes, casting an inviting pink glow that gradually spread across the Chilean sky. Feeling rather like a 21st century Elijah in need of rest and restoration, I was beginning a welcome sabbatical spending six weeks in Chile.
During that time, we would be travelling through that long thin country, which is squeezed between the Atlantic Ocean and the Andean mountains, and offers almost 3,000 miles of land and islands packed with fascinating history and geography. As someone who leads Wild Church in the middle of the gentle green English hills and valleys and who is inspired by praying in the great outdoors, I was looking forward to exploring God’s magnificent creation on the other side of the world.
‘I was looking forward to exploring God’s magnificent creation on the other side of the world.’
And so we began our journey of adventure: travelling along the hot dry roads of the northern desert; following vertiginous winding paths in the southern mountains of Patagonia; bumping over the tracks that led us alongside brilliant turquoise lakes and rivers on the flat plains. As anticipated, I was inspired by never-before-seen views and sights.
A different pattern
For the six-week trip, we were travelling simply and lightly (well, one suitcase and a small backpack, which is very light for me!) and I wanted to reflect that simplicity by exploring a different pattern of daily prayer to mark this season of rest.
At times on our journey the sights of the great outdoors inspired silence – no words or language were necessary, as we worshipped in God’s cathedral of creation. At other times I was grateful for Anne Lamott’s three simple words as part of my everyday prayer: help, thanks, wow.
‘I was grateful for Anne Lamott’s three simple words as part of my everyday prayer: help, thanks, wow.’
A ‘wow’ prayer sprang to my numbed lips as we stood aboard a wind-buffeted boat at the foot of a glacier that stretched hundreds of feet above and below us, our eyes dazzled by the blue-whiteness of the icy cliffs. Above the roar of the wind, the glacier creaked and groaned, revealing ice caves where the water had pushed its way inwards.
Looking into those icy caves, I could not help but continue to reflect on the journey of Elijah. Rather like the Old Testament prophet’s journey, this sabbatical was giving me an opportunity to rest from the busyness of parish life. I was able to lay down my usual responsibilities and to rest, and I found – often in the most surprising ways – that there were kind, God-given people who would bring me food, refreshment and kindness. These were often my ‘thanks’ prayers.
But the similarities with Elijah’s journey didn’t end there, as I too discovered hearing God’s voice in unexpected places, mirroring Elijah’s own experience on Mount Horeb.
‘Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’ Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind, and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake, and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire, and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.
1 Kings 19:11–12
Chile is a country known for its howling winds, particularly in the Patagonian mountains where it was, at times, impossible to stand up.
And, due to its geographical position, this ribbon-like country experiences the shuddering of frequent tremors and earthquakes, along with the roar of volcanic eruptions and the explosive fire and streams of lava that follow.
‘I discovered hearing God’s voice in unexpected places, mirroring Elijah’s own experience on Mount Horeb.’
Several smoking volcanoes were in our sights as we travelled south along the range of towering Andean mountains.
The God of surprises
And then, rather like Elijah, I encountered the God of surprises. I had expected to meet with God, to hear him speak, in the great outdoors: in the awe-inspiring views of his magnificent creation; in the power of cascading waterfalls; in the breath-taking heights of the mountain tops. And I did find him in some of those places.
But it was in the story of a deep, silent cave in the northern desert where I was most profoundly moved and inspired, where a desperate ‘help’ prayer was uttered and taken up by others across the world.
On our journey we met and stayed with some interesting people, including the Anglo-Chilean Bishop Alf Cooper, who had been chaplain to President Sebastian Pinera in 2010. It was in this year that 33 miners were trapped in a deep, deep underground chamber, when the mine where they were working suddenly collapsed. Alf recounted this powerful story to us.
For the first 16 days the world did not know if anyone had survived. But, entombed in the dark earth, was the faithful, prayerful miner Jose Hernandez, who gathered the 32 other men and insisted that they pray daily.
‘Entombed in the dark earth, was the faithful, prayerful miner Jose Hernandez who insisted that they pray daily.’
Estamos bien en el Refugio
And so it was, on the day that the men had each consumed their last daily teaspoon of tuna, one of the drill probes searching to locate any survivors in this unchartered mine, hit a hard obstacle and accidently veered off into the area where the men were sheltering. Rejoicing, the men sent up a note on the probe: ‘Estamos bien en el Refugio. Los 33’ (‘We are all well in the shelter. The 33’). Alf Cooper has a framed copy of this note on the sideboard of his home in Santiago.
It was to be another 52 days before the men were finally brought out; the rescue challenged engineers across the world. But the everyday prayer continued in the dark depths below and the heat of the arid desert above. Later Jose was to speak of the presence of a 34th miner who was with them throughout: Jesus.
This story of faithful prayer which became a way to life for over two months in the silent darkness below the desert, surprised me, moved me, refreshed me, gave me life and helped me – Elijah-like – to hear God’s voice. It has stayed with me on my Chilean journey and beyond.
‘This story of faithful prayer surprised me, moved me, refreshed me, gave me life and helped me to hear God’s voice.’
I invite you to join me in reflecting on your own journeys:
- What is your own prayer journey looking like at the moment?
- How can the prayers of others inspire you in finding a way of refreshing or creating your own ‘Prayer as a way of life’?
- Where is God surprising you?