My Cathedral of Canyon Walls

By Noël Russell

I’ve never really known how to pray.

Raised wearing Sunday best, taught to kneel, heads bowed, hands up, we would enter service in the shadows of magnificent cathedrals—where worthy men ushered us beneath ornately painted arches.

The preacher would speak in eloquent invocations that echoed off gilded walls, and anoint our heads with Holy Water. Reverent priests broke bread as ornate depictions of the Divine hung high above us cloaked in white and so far out of reach. In that sacred space, we were commanded to righteousness, compelled to atonement, and pressured on presentation and performance. Achievement was announced by invitation to participate; many were cast aside.

Church was the place where people came to meet God. But I was doubting, angsty, and a little wild—so when I left home, I left church behind too, vowing to never again enter those stained-glass structures with towering walls.

These days, I’m married to a minister. And even though I deeply value the truths which I was raised with, I’ve yet to find myself spiritually at home in an institution where many aren’t welcome. Those sanctuaries seem to provide no real sanctuary at all.

Still, these days, I feel more spiritually connected than ever before, because I’ve found my communion table laid out the wild— rivers overflowing, beckoning our bodies to wade in and be refreshed, pews of fallen logs calling for all to rest their weary limbs for a while, an abundance of songs—bubbling laughter and the call of cliff swallows—echoing off the canyon walls.

An aisle through Mojave Desert wildflowers.

Just the other day, someone asked if I attended church, and I answered yes. Because last Sunday, I walked in the shadows of magnificent granite cathedrals while soaring ravens ushered me beneath patinaed arches. I doused my body in holy spring water, broke bread in front of a glowing campfire. I read words of redemption on leaves and flowers, in the stars and storm clouds.

So, each Sunday, I visit the place where people have come to meet God for ages. My spirit is moved by celestial sounds of roaring cascades, and I find Heaven reflected in glassy creek beds.

Here, there is no place for righteousness or atonement, no pressure on presentation, no need to perform. At this church, all are embraced by grace because there are no outsiders, outside.

Parked for the weekend, in a cathedral of canyon walls stained by the colors of sunset.

I still may not really know how to pray, but:

When I breathe in deep and fill my belly up with air,

When I wade in the creek, lay beside the sea, and paddle beneath towering granite monoliths sparkling gold in the morning light,

When I lean my head out the window and let my hair ride the wind waves on the long drive home,

These are the sacred moments when something sublime moves through me.

And, as I stand beneath the pine trees and hear the breeze whoosh through their needle-draped bows, I wonder if all my years of reaching for words of worship have been in vain. Because, is there really any way to utter words of praise that sound as beautiful as this?


Do you feel spiritual in the outdoors?

Photos courtesy of Noël Russell.

Noël is a first generation American, a part time vanlifer, a full time fun-haver, and a member of the She Explores team. Whether for work or for play, you’ll often find her, her husband, and their two rescue mutts traveling around the Sierra Nevada in their converted Econoline, named Francis Ford Campola. Learn more about her at noelruss.com and find her on Instagram.