Between Earth and Sky: The Physicality of Intellectual and Spiritual Growth

I went wilderness canoe camping for the first time the summer after my tenth birthday; it is family tradition to mark this birthday with a trek to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on the northern border of Minnesota. Since that trip, I’ve been up there a handful of times, most recently this last July. My experience in the Boundary Waters resonated with a question I had been thinking about for several months already. Towards the end of this past semester, I found myself yearning to be in a classroom more than ever because raw moments of conviction seemed to be triggered only by my professor’s words. I became frustrated by how purely academic intellectual and spiritual growth seemed. Yet this summer, I discovered that engaging with the physicality of the world is an integral part of developing one’s mind and soul. It brought me to reflect on the physical qualities of the real world, my relationship with creation, and the nature of self-discipline as integral components of intellectual and spiritual growth.

At 7:00 a.m. on a beautiful morning, our canoes were loaded, and we paddled quietly away from our entry point. The sun warmed my right arm and gently vaporized the last traces of mist that floated along the shoreline. In the space of a few hours, I was hot and tired. The magic of the moment disappeared, and I wished that we would just reach our campsite. During that first day of canoeing, I realized I was treating the real world as an ideal which manifests itself at some point outside of my current place. It startled me how quickly I disregarded the world I was looking at for an imaginary one. But the real world was the mud I was knee-deep in, the wind I was paddling against, and the mosquitoes biting my back where I couldn’t swat them. It was the world I could touch and see and feel: a tangible reality of the present moment. Thinking about this real world doesn’t mean thinking about something outside of your reality, just as developing one’s intellect or soul doesn’t mean developing something outside of yourself. Spiritual and intellectual growth are not just academic ideals. They are part of the present, real, and physical world. 

While wilderness camping, I began to understand that finding God in the natural world is a very physical aspect of spiritual growth. As Christians, we are called to actively seek God in creation. In Romans 1, Paul says that we are without excuse if we fail to see the mark of God in His creation. In an academic setting, it is easy to equate spiritual growth with intellectual pursuits. Pursuing goodness, beauty, and truth is not only academic, it is a pursuit built into the fabric of creation. This is what Paul means when he says that God is present in the world. On one particularly long and exhausting portage, I remember being struck by how artfully made the natural world is. I was in awe of the craftsmanship of mushrooms. I felt like I had been welcomed to look through a little window into the heart of God. In Genesis, God recognizes that the world He created was good, and our recognition of the same is in itself a little prayer—being in awe of creation leads to a grateful heart that reaches out to God in thanksgiving. 

Part of intellectual growth is cultivating self-discipline, and one particular experience in the Boundary Waters deepened my understanding of what that means. One morning, we had to paddle five miles into a strong headwind. It was miserably hard, and I wanted to give up; I wished that I could close my eyes and be whisked away to a comfortable bed. But I found very quickly that my negative attitude affected my effort. I had to find within myself the willpower to persevere and face this challenge with the intention of progress. I found eventually that I fell into a kind of rhythm. When I would gauge how far I had come by how much bigger the cliffs in the distance had become, I gained a little bit more confidence in my own ability to respond to hardship. When I eventually reached the far shoreline, a deep satisfaction welled up inside me: I had done it. Self-discipline is at its core an intellectual exercise because it involves strength of mind, but it also requires strength of character. Intellectual growth is not simply academic. Hillsdale’s motto “strength rejoices in the challenge”  is not just a claim about managing academics, it is a call to develop strength of character through perseverance. 

Together, these reflections on physicality deepen one’s understanding of what it means to develop one’s mind and soul by exploring the relationship between intellectual, spiritual, and corporeal experience. Wendell Berry states in The Unforeseen Wilderness that “whether [man] intends it or not, the wilderness receives him as a student.” In my case, the Boundary Waters welcomed me as a student of actuality. I learned that my mind and soul are designed to engage critically with my surroundings. The pursuit of virtue and excellence is not an abstract experience, it is a single thread which God has woven both into our very beings and through the fabric of the created world. Our minds and souls are fashioned not only to strive for higher things, and ultimately for God, but to do so with our feet planted firmly in the mud, our muscles aching, and our eyes fixed on the artistry of creation. 

Carolyn Howell is a sophomore studying English and biology.

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