Aaron Rosen is founder and director of the Parsonage Gallery in Searsport, which explores issues of ecology and spirituality through contemporary art. He is a professor of religious studies and directs the Henry Luce III Center for the Arts & Religion in Washington, D.C.
The Christian season of Lent — a 40-day period of prayer and introspection — is now upon us and Easter is around the corner. It’s the perfect time to ask what Jesus himself did when he needed to look inward.
To put it in 21st-century language: What did Jesus do for self care? It turns out, Jesus had a special thing for the wilderness, and especially the mountains.
Divinity did not make Jesus immune to exhaustion. In the Gospels, his supernatural powers quickly drain from overstimulation and have to be replenished by meditation in the wilderness. The Gospel of Mark opens with Jesus hard at work curing the sick and casting out demons. At Capernaum, “the whole city was gathered” to observe his miraculous deeds (Mark 1:33).
Jesus indulges the crowd, like a rock star signing autographs until everyone leaves the arena. But it takes its toll. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). When the disciples finally track him down, they all but beg him to return, reminding him that “Everyone is searching for you” (Mark 1:37).
After particularly exhausting miracles, like feeding the 5,000 with loaves and fishes, Jesus needs distance not only from the crowd, but even his closest companions. “Immediately he made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray” (Matthew 14:22–23). Jesus understands intuitively that he needs to pull away from the smothering gaze of the throngs who follow him and seek relief in the environment.
Recent research has demonstrated the restorative power of exposure to nature in various ways. The same physical activity pursued amid vegetation outdoors instead of indoors enhances the physiological benefits of the activity in ways that further reduce stress.
A 2022 study focused specifically on the benefits of “awe walks” for seniors and found that those who practiced looking with fresh eyes at the world experienced greater mental health benefits than the control group. Looking at the natural world can induce a calming effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, and it’s no wonder that the Japanese practice of forest bathing, or contemplative walking, has become so popular for urbanites.
Jesus was able to seek out distant, dark, and elevated spaces with relative frequency. But just how accessible is this kind of isolation in modern life? Even in the mid-19th century, from his privileged retreat on Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau sensed the encroachment of modernity. He wrote: “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. . . . What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”
Even more than industrialization, our primary hurdle to experiencing nature’s grace, according to Thoreau, is our spiritual inattentiveness.
What Thoreau obscures, of course, is that access to nature can be brutally unequal. Communities of color — including vast numbers of Native Americans in Thoreau’s day — have been repeatedly driven off lands coveted for their beauty or natural resources. And as Dina Gilio-Whitaker, Dorceta Taylor, and other scholars of environmental justice remind us, marginalized peoples today continue to be pushed into areas in which the environment is downright toxic.
Even the opportunity to seek respite under shady trees along hot city streets, or contemplate the stars despite light and air pollution, are rarified commodities, available only to denizens of certain postal codes. Any celebration of the spiritual replenishment individuals might experience in nature must be accompanied by an urgent effort to secure this privilege for all. Tellingly, even when we study Jesus’s rare moments of self care, he guides us down a path that calls our attention to others.