Category Archives: Prayer

What the Trees Said – Where Prayers Go

eagles nest

Your prayers
birdwings
flutter among our leaves
settle in the crotch
where eagle builds her nest
cushion and cling
to the little talons of her brood
who carry them off to towering
cliffs, broad rivers, wetlands, tundra,
borne on ascending thermals
to deliver your hearts’ longing back
to your frail lives
transformed,
untamed, fierce,
windswept.

eagleflight

A bald eagle’s nest weighs on average 1000 pounds, but can reach 2000 pounds.

What the Trees Said – Coyote

coyote

Last night coyote,
whose mother
raven said
was hit
on the highway,
turned himself
three times
scratched
sank
midst the gnarled
knees
of grandfather oak
tucked his face
beneath his tail
and slept til dawn

May we all find among the trees resting places for our sorrow.
Go out among trees today.

What the Trees Said – The Invitation

Northwest Temperate Rainforest

Give up.
Stop fixing,
yearning,
grasping.

As I am in you be
in me.

This effort
to separate
distinguish
yourself
is so
hard
on you.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not be subject again to the yoke of slavery. Galations 5: 1, NEB

I am off to spend some time listening to trees. Perhaps I will bring back messages. In the meantime, you might consider what you are trying to fix, hanging onto, or hungering after, that, in truth, you have already been set free from, or possess in great fullness. At least that is what I aim to do.

So Full of God Is Every Creature

StFwolf

Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and a book about God. Every creature is a word of God. If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature – even a caterpillar- I would never have to prepare a sermon. So full of God is every creature.  Meister Eckhart                                                                 

My black lab whinnies with a high pitched cry outside my door when I start to meditate. I get up and let him in. He turns in circles on the rug several times then lays down with a thud, head between his legs, and sighs deeply.  Before she died my cat always turned up to settle herself in my lap. Animals are often present with us as we pray. Dogs, cats, rabbits, snakes, herons, fish, coyotes, possums, deer, cows, a wild boar, turkeys, quail, even a mountain lion showed up a time or two to speak of God to me.

A few weeks ago the neighborhood fox paid a call at 4:00 am. My dog was out guarding and began to bark excitedly. When I went to the window I saw the fox, close to the fence, and Elijah on the inside quietly looking at each other.  No more barking, just eyes meeting. After while the fox turned and walked out to the middle of the street and lay down under the streetlight. The two continued their silent communion. I stood at the window wondering what was going on. Then the fox stood and walked to the neighbor’s front yard, curled himself up, and appeared to go asleep. What was communicated, what information exchanged, what dog and fox questions had been answered? It was a mysterious encounter that likely would not have happened if I had been outside with Elijah. Would the two had shared that long gaze and the peace that gathered up between them?

Eli 5.13

If I were alone in a desert
and feeling afraid.
I would want a child to be with me.
For then my fear would disappear
and I would be made strong.
This is what life in itself can do
because it is so noble, so full of pleasure
and so powerful.

But if I could not have a child with me
I would like to have at least a living animal
at my side to comfort me.

Therefore,
let those who bring about wonderful things
in their big, dark books
take an animal – perhaps a dog-
to help them.

The life within the animal
will give them strength in turn.
For equality
gives strength in all things
and at all times.   Meister Eckhart

St. Francis prays over the animals Bensiger

Animals participate with us in our shared life, exchanging their sensory awareness with our own. As we interpenetrate each other’s awareness, our communication results in shifts affecting each other. German philosopher, theologian, and mystic (1260-1327), Meister Eckhart writes of receiving strength and life from a child or an animal. Children and animals possess a kind of innocence and presence to their awareness, which adults may lack.

A Rabbit Noticed My Condition

I was sad one day and went for a walk;
I sat in a field.

A rabbit noticed my condition and came near.
It often does not take more than that to help at times –
to just be close to creatures who
are so full of knowing,
so full of love
that they don’t – chat,
they just gaze with their marvelous understanding.
   St. John of the Cross in Love Poems from God

Chambers_bosseron_charles_c_b_St_Saint_francis_assissi_animals_thumb

How do animals enter your prayer and contemplation? What do they teach you? What shifts happen in you as you commune with them?

In my book, Letters from the Holy Ground, I took a look at the presence of animals in our lives and prayer:

From the beginning, animals had figured in my journey, but now they began to show up more in my writing. And they were not content to simply add color and amusement, the dear things wanted to speak. The animals developed a following among some of my readers. The dog, cats, and rabbits even received occasional cards and inquiries. I seemed to have struck a chord.

What did whimsical animal fantasy have to do with spiritual formation? Did the creatures serve a purpose beyond a literary device and medium of revelation? I became curious about why animals held so much joy and interest for me and my readers. I think it is because animals naturally possess the poverty of spirit I was seeking for myself. Gerald Vann observed that the condition for happiness is a deep sense of our creatureliness. I think part of becoming ordinary is the discovery and deep acceptance of the joy and freedom in our creatureliness. The animals help ground me and remind me that I, like them, am subject to One larger and greater than myself.

Contemplation, consolation, ecstasy, may have a tendency to inflate a person. Being entrusted with the spiritual care and nurture of others, likewise, may puff up our egos. The animals seemed to call me back to the earth, to simplicity, to surrender and trust.

But ask the animals and they will teach you:
the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
ask the plants of the earth,
and they will teach you;
and the fish of the sea will declare to you.  (Job 12:7–8 )

Animals do not lie or pretend. They do not sin. They seem to know that God’s omnipotence undergirds everything. Animals disarm our logical defenses and help us overcome our human resistance to grace. I even came to identify a state of being in myself I called “rabbit power.” Rabbit power meant humility and the wisdom, balance, and earthy connectedness of an animal that lives as a prey species, close to the ground and mindful of its vulnerability. I connected rabbit power with taking off my shoes and walking barefoot. In my experience, no rabbit has ever appeared to pine after being something other than it is; rabbit power was a place where I could gratefully be who I am and therein find deep delight and peace.

Finally, communion with animals reflected my desire for union with God. To cross the chasm from one species to another and find communion and a sense of mutual respect and regard seemed to mirror my longing to connect with God. To establish a connection, an understanding, however slight with something wholly other than oneself, is to participate in the eager groaning of a creation seeking wholeness and unity with its Creator.

Spend some time praying with an animal this week. Let me know what you  learn. I would love to hear about some of the marvelous understanding creatures give to you.

 Seal on lap

Here is a wonderful complement to this blog post.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hdUCzbCuYk

Severed

sea

Drawing her arms
through the salt sea
legs straining
giving her body
to the task

she swam among
the floating limbs
reaching after them
before they turned
to sink slowly down

to shocked shipwrecks
astonished clams
coming to rest in a cloud
of silt, the softly yielding
residue of other remains.

She heard no sound
but her breath
and the slip slosh of sea
as she ploughed the
surface of their sorrow.

She thought
she could retrieve them
gather the fragments
siphon up the spilt blood
return to all donors

bring mothers
their sons and daughters
reborn,
wrapped in seaweed

take this leg, uprooted,
to the young man
Here it is yours, she’d say.
I found it in the sea.

So deep, so wide the wound
of flesh and bone
so piercing, urgent the ache
to be re- membered.

__________________________________

for those whose lives have been blown apart
for those who must pick up the pieces

Loretta F. Ross, 2013

You Will Die Before You Finish This Prayer

“I think what is going to help you most when you start your prayer – and it doesn’t matter whether it is long or short – is to make quite sure that you are certain that you will die by the time it is ended, that you will finish before your prayer does!” cheerfully advises the fourteenth century English author of the Epistle of Prayer.

The author, most likely a country parson, is writing to a young person, who asked for advice on how to control the mind when saying prayers. This is a request I often hear. Some things never change in the praying life.

I recently tried the parson’s advice and it about did me in. I attempted to make certain I would die before I completed my prayer, and learned that there is little like death to focus the mind:

The world rushed in with her fetching beauty, her clear blue sky, and yellowing maple leaves, waving, “Don’t forget about me, and me, and the red bird house, and the wren, and the dragonfly and the glaciers gripping the ground, and the wild horses pounding over the plains. The wind, whooshing leaves down the street, sent a shower of glimmering memories – babies, kitchens, ginger snaps, story books – I gave thanks for galoshes to help me wade through all the goodness. I will be ancient or dead before I finish stringing the pearls of this gratitude.

After the gratitude came the love, flowing up to the porch, running under the door, pooling at my feet and rising, slowly to my knees. I climbed up on the table and the love still mounted. Love is the color of spring and snow and fire. It moans and sings and weeps. It tastes bittersweet, smooth and creamy, warm and rich as hot chocolate. Then I grew bold and dared to believe that I could breathe in it, could breathe under-love, and that I would not drown or melt in it. So I slipped off the table and swam a few strokes around the room, then let the love sweep me out an open window into the world, buoyant and giggling.

When I came across the English parson, I had been feeling little gratitude and not the least bit buoyant. Instead of gratitude and this exuberant love, sorrow and longing for God had occupied my heart. My praying life had honed down to a narrow naked ache, like a thorn, for several weeks. I hurt. I went to sleep with the thorn and woke with it, a stab of incompletion and desire, lodged like a fish hook in the center of my being. There was no one thing I could name that would satisfy or heal this pain, but only the one whose name was above all names, who was before there were names.

The thorn was part grief and a prickly call to deeper freedom. As I grieved recent and old losses in the midst of many present blessings and considerable gladness, I was being weaned from some of the things of this world, which are lesser than God. And it hurt. I sensed there was something I was to let go of, but I couldn’t quite see what that was, though it seemed to have to do with some of my mental constructs, attitudes, ways of naming and holding what I knew as reality. It seemed to have to do with who I thought I was and how I held myself together. And this felt really, really scary.

So I prayed, meditated, read holy words, exercised, talked with friends, listened to and felt deep compassion for others. I also played a lot of mindless solitaire on my phone.

I went to the Antiochian Orthodox church down the street, where, except for the jean clad worshippers, I felt I had stepped into an ancient Syrian synagogue where Paul might step out and begin preaching any moment. I let the tonal chants in four part harmony wrap around me, as the icon saints gazed out from all four walls. Each word and act in worship was directed, not to audience appeal, market demographics, or video screens, but to the Holiness that filled the space. It was clear most of the people, as well as all those saints with their sorrowful eyes, also had thorns of longing love in their hearts too.

I have had periods of prayer like this before and trusted God was at work somehow. I know that uncertainty, alienation, and disorientation are part of growing in faith. The temptation during such times is to turn in disgust on oneself, dredging up failures, mistakes, weaknesses, and falling into a dark pit of self-negation. Yet I have learned over the years, that it is precisely, when we feel the most pitiful, that we are most in need of our own tender compassion and love.

During this time I gobbled up The Cloud of Unknowing, another fourteenth century English classic I first read years before. The writer affirmed what I was experiencing and assured me that it was God at work in me. He counsels “to reconcile yourself to wait in this darkness as long as is necessary, but still go on longing after God whom you love. … Your whole life now must be one of longing… And this longing must be in the depths of your will, put there by God, with your consent.” Rats, there seems to be no escape, short of solitaire or The Voice.

I recently realized with relief that the thorn was gone. The longing remains, but the acute pain is gone. This was a few days after I imagined that I would die before I finished my prayer. I have no idea why or how it left. I am just grateful to not feel so gripped and mournful reaching out to the heavens. Living in the cloud of unknowing and uncertainly is difficult to those of us who take pride in our intellect, our ability to be in control, to know things, and manage our own destinies.

Some religion is all suffering and damnation. Some religion is all sweetness and happy thoughts. Mine is sorrow and love. In the painful friction of sorrow and love new life ignites, leaps forth, and gives light in the darkness. Lately the words to When I Survey the Wondrous Cross have been singing themselves in my mind. So much of Christianity is mystery and wonder to me. I am clueless. I go walk around the block with my dog, praying that God make something holy of my life. I do not care what it is.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

See, from His head, His hands, His feet
Sorrow and love flow mingled down
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were a present far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
– Isaac Watts

Have you ever found yourself wandering in the cloud of unknowing without a prayer, but the longing of your heart, the aching desire for God?
If you wish, share a little of your experience here.

How to Pray

Want to learn how to pray? Forget words. Forget about getting the right name for God. Forget fidgeting about how to sit or stand or hold your hands. Forget whatever you have been taught about prayer. Forget yourself.

And go gaze upon something or someone you love. Look long and deeply at something which gives joy or peace –

that penetrating lime green of the spring woods, and the wet black branches like some ancient language of scribbles and runes scrawled all over the forest

the path of the sun, trailing like a golden ribbon across the floor, climbing up the table and tying itself neatly around your tea cup

the sleeping boy in his Superman PJs, smelling of grass and child sweat

Next: Let yourself be held there in your looking and wonder. Do you feel that subtle magnetic force that seems to gently grasp and suspend you before your beloved?

Breathe. Relax.

Notice what wells up in you and what recedes. Various feelings and thoughts – some positive, some negative. Simply observe the play of your inner life as you gaze upon beauty.

Notice the voice which says, “You need to get moving. There is a lot to do. Should I fix potato soup for supper? I really can’t stand that woman.” Keep returning to what you love. Allow your love and appreciation of this portion of the world draw you in to its Creator and Author, that pulse of the Spirit which animates all of existence.

For that is what Holiness is doing in the creation – luring us, catching us up, and reeling us into the Heart of Reality and Divinity through the things of this world. God threads us through and beyond what we love to deeper love and freedom in the realm of Grace that is called God’s kingdom.

Really. God will use anything, anyone to draw us into God’s self, God’s being, and into  truth, into love, into amazement, and wonder. What draws you into this prayer will likely be something uniquely suited to you, your aspirations, your interests, your peculiar, and particular existence. So specific is God’s summons to you. So beloved are you by God.

All that is required is your consent – your yes, your willingness to take the bait, to bite into creation with appetite and hope.

After looking at God in this way for a while, a word or two, a spoken prayer may emerge from your heart. Something you want to say to God. Something you desire from God. Go ahead and whisper your words to God. Then be silent and listen.

A Peace will come and settle over you, a calm, perhaps, a gentleness, an assurance of some kind.

Afterwards, before you turn back to getting things done, do a little self inventory:

Have you changed in any way after this time of gazing? Is there a difference in how you are feeling or thinking? Is there something from this time you need to stay with or return to? What would you like to say to God about this time? What would you like to hear in response from God?

And this, my friends, is a prayer.

This is a way God speaks.

This is a way the Word Made Flesh calls our name.

This is a way we answer.

Other Praying Life posts on prayer you might enjoy:

What Is a Prayer

Contemplation – Circling a Definition

Paying Attention and Taking Your Time

A Calm and Quiet Soul

You can help support The Praying Life by donating to The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer. Just five or ten dollars will make a difference and help pay some of our costs. Your gift is tax deductible. Donate Here. Thank you so much!

Exploring Solitude: Becoming Real

Here is what I want you to do:
find a quiet secluded place so you won’t be tempted
to role play before God.

Just be there
as simply and honestly as you can manage.

The focus will shift from you
to God,
and you will begin to sense his grace.
                                                 Matthew 6:6 MSG

Nobody is watching. Go ahead. Be yourself. Relax. You walked off the stage of your life performance and the audience has all gone home. Feel the weight of that armor, the heavy guard you wear night and day about your shoulders and neck? You won’t need it now. Lay it down.

Oh. Wait a minute. It appears that not all of that audience has gone home. A few hitched a ride into the hermitage in your mind. Take that broom in the corner and chase them out. As long as you do not invite them to sit down, and then start feeding them milk and cookies they will leave. Their harping and commenting will begin to sound sillier and sillier to you in the context of your wilderness.
Go ahead. You can’t hurt the furniture here. Put your feet up and settle into that delicious and utterly joyful place of being yourself, your true self.

A wonderfully freeing aspect of solitude is that nobody cares what you look like. Nobody is there to comment upon, critique, approve, or disapprove of your actions, attitudes, words, mannerisms, personality preferences, and quirks. No one has expectations of you or needs they want you to meet. No one is going to call or drop by unannounced.

Go ahead. Remove that hot stuffy mask.

We have a public face we present to the world. In some cases it is brittle, artificial, and controlled. We put on the mask of a happy person, a competent person, a funny person. But a mask is a limited snap shot of the person we really are, which may include being happy, competent, and funny, but who we really are also has depth, texture, responsiveness, and spontaneity, which masks cannot communicate.

When the face we present to the world is the same nuanced face within us, people call us authentic and real. What we show on the outside has integrity with what is in the inside. The phoniness, pretension, and the effort of maintaining a façade are gone.

I loved taking people out to the hermitage. I would show them around the grounds and cabin, give them some orientation, and, leaving them alone for a few days, drive back to town. Then later, they arrived at my doorstep to drop off the trash, the empty water bottles, and return the key. When I opened door, I was amazed at the differences in the guests. The tension and stress were gone, and an ease and lightness filled their movements. And their faces, soft and smooth like a child’s, wore a refreshing, unguarded openness and simple presence to the moment.

After I spent a long period in solitude, a friend reported that I looked like the Velveteen Rabbit. “Worn and soft. Well loved, and real,” she said.
There is nothing like solitude for peeling off the layers of pretense and inviting a soul into deeper authenticity.

In the days of silence and company kept only with crows, meadowlarks, and the possum, who comes looking for food under the moon, one becomes aware of the vast amount of energy and time, which may be spent on building facades and presenting a particular face to the world. The hours of calculation and strategizing to strike the right note in a speech, the stress filled preparation and rehearsals to achieve a certain affect. We have all been encouraged to become marketers and publicists for our careers, our work places, and even our very lives.

Here relationships degenerate into a potential sale, or a possible connection to a step up the ladder. Social media invites us to fashion our lives on a global stage, where our preferences are watched and matched to product ads which pop up before us.

In contrast to the world of hype nothing is for sale in the wilderness. Further, in the wilderness your stuff and your “brand” start to become embarrassing — all that lipstick in your purse, the three jars of face cream, the books you lined up on the book shelf, those clothes you shopped for.

The wilderness around you takes on a depth, beauty, and fascination that cannot compare to that iPad you just had to have or that “outside the box, edgy high concept” project you have been working on. The world beyond your wilderness begins to  seem artificial, crass, and out of sync with a deeper more profound rhythm.

Oh course, it makes sense that the natural world would inspire you to drop off what is unnatural and false in yourself – those postures and attitudes you take; that pride that you use to hide your vulnerability and need.

Besides, you are not going to fool that turkey vulture soaring over the pasture. He may be pecking at your bones one day and won’t give a damn about what kind of car you drove. The lake, teeming with turtles, bullfrogs, fish, and dragonflies is unimpressed with your credentials.

Yet a few creatures may be curious about your presence. There is nothing you have they desire. All they can offer you is their own mysterious being.
The cows, snuffling at the window, wake you at dawn. A large black angus is peering into the cabin. Her face is framed by the window and the chintz curtains.
You go out barefoot in your pajamas to shoo the cows back into their pasture. There are several mamas with their young ones. You stand still gazing at each other. You watch their massive ribs expand as they breathe, their dark eyes, and pink tongues. They watch you, seeing how your feet are getting damp in the dew, considering your breath, your two legs, and your white silk pajamas.

Your being interpenetrates with their being. A conversation and exchange occurs beyond words. Atoms shift, energy moves, recedes, and gathers in the spreading light. Then they turn, their hooves sinking into the damp earth, swishing their tails, and go back through the broken fence.

Nobody in the wilderness cares what you did last week. Or what you didn’t do. One of the calves looks back at you, slowly chewing grass, hanging out both sides of his mouth.

You feel you need to get right down on your knees in your pajamas and repent of something you do not have the words for.

Oh my God, forgive me for not seeing,” you pray.

Solitude Practice

  • Do you find yourself caught up in playing a role or meeting others expectations and needs unnecessarily?
  • What is it you let go of, when you let down your guard?
  • How does being alone in nature help you be yourself?
  • In what way might the wilderness call you to repentance, or seeing in a new way?

Next post in this series: Exploring Solitude:
So What Do You Do Out There All Day Long?

Exploring Solitude: Where the Wild Things Are

Come away by yourselves to a lonely place,” Jesus

God then told Elijah, “Get out of here, and fast. Head east and hide out at the Kerith Ravine on the other side of the Jordan River. You can drink fresh water from the brook; I’ve ordered the ravens to feed you.”  Elijah obeyed God’s orders. He went and camped in the Kerith canyon on the other side of the Jordan. And sure enough, ravens brought him his meals, both breakfast and supper, and he drank from the brook. I Kings 17: 2-6 (Msg)

Nothing better expresses the urgent call of the wild for me than John Masefield’s Sea Fever.

I must  go down to the sea again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by, . . .
I must go down to the sea again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied; . . .
I must go down to the sea again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife; . . .

Wild places and wild things invite us to themselves. If not the sea, perhaps, the mountains, the desert, the plains, or the forest draw you. The trout in the stream, the grizzly bear turning in his sleep, the mushroom popping up in the moist woods, the redwood tree dwarfing all else in its magnificence summon us to gaze in wonder and appreciation and share in the communion of all beings.

Shifting from Virtual Reality to Reality
In the wilderness we smell, and see, and touch, and hear, and taste – not a virtual reality, but reality. And here, we are likewise smelled, seen, touched, heard, and tasted. We not only change and act upon our surroundings, we are also changed and acted upon by those same surroundings. In the wilderness, we find again our place as a member of one of the species of beings on this planet. We leave our thermostatically, controlled environments and modern conveniences to feel the bracing chill of  the wind in our face, the tickling blurred vision through snow dusted eye lashes, the heavy ache in our calves after walking several miles.

In the process of wilderness dwelling, we shed the heavy brittle shells of our self importance and settle in with all our relations – brother sun, sister moon, and cousin fox. We discover the deer we are watching are also watching us.


Solitude may occur, of course, away from wilderness in the midst of a noisy crowd, in a beehive high rise apartment, or on the back porch with city sirens screaming past. However, many of us find solitude most easily and fully in a place apart in some natural setting. For over twenty years I found my wilderness solitude in a one room cabin with a stone floor, built into the side of hill on a small lake in northeast Kansas.

The call to the wilderness runs deep in some people, and expresses itself as unappeasable longing, or a palpable need to be in wild places among wild things. These persons often feel compelled to seek out remote spots away from power grids, traffic, concrete, and housing developments. Some struggle to explain and justify their desire to family and friends.

Wilderness as Arena for Spiritual Growth
The Biblical Hebrew word for wilderness is often used interchangeably with desert and includes many varied kinds of terrain, arid and semi arid, pasture land, mountains, and the sea.

The wilderness, a place uninhabited by the human species, is a significant location for the spiritual journey, both in its literal and figurative senses. The Bible understands transformation and spiritual growth as a process, which involves the experience of both physical and psychic dis-location and re-location. The experiences of being lost and being found, of moving from a familiar land to a strange new country appear over and over in the Biblical narratives.

An important aspect, then to solitude and our development in faith, is that exposure to wilderness, both in the physical geographic sense, and in the internal experience of the self. I will set aside consideration of internal wilderness to another post, and focus here on the external physical places and settings in which we find solitude.

As a species and as varied races and ethnicities, we have been formed in part by the land in which we and our ancestors have made our living. The lay of the land itself, the richness or poverty of its soil, the vegetation, wild-life, presence or absence of water, winds, and temperature have shaped our economies, our languages, our diets, our health, what we value, and our religions.

David Abram in his masterful book, The Spell of the Senses – Perception and Language  in a More-than-Human World, writes about this relationship of humankind to the earth and its features and all that dwell upon, within, above, and in its waters.

our bodily rhythms, our moods, cycles of creativity and stillness, and even our thoughts are readily engaged and influenced by shifting patterns of the land. Yet our organic attunement to the local earth is thwarted by our ever-increasing intercourse with our own signs. Transfixed by our technologies, we short-circuit the sensorial reciprocity between our breathing bodies and the bodily terrain. Human awareness folds in upon itself, and the senses – once the crucial site of our engagement with the wild and animate earth – become mere adjuncts of an isolate and abstract mind bent on overcoming an organic reality that now seems disturbingly aloof and arbitrary. (p. 267)

Abram writes of our relationship with the whole of creation as an interpenetration and mutuality in which all parties are affected, changed, and interdependent. The creation is not something I act upon, seek to dominate, or control, but rather the creation is a whole gathering of life with which I may enter into a relationship of mutual benefit.

In the past seven years the consequences of our lack of communion with nature has received attention and comment as Nature Deficit Disorder. The lack of time spent out doors by children and adults is suggested as a factor influencing several illnesses, including obesity.

Starving for the Undomesticated God


Over many years I have observed person after person starving for such connection and communion. Some would trek across the country just to sit in a simple cabin without  running water in a Kansas pasture in order to touch in to such a relationship. With some notable exceptions, namely camp and conference ministries, the church has largely ignored this fundamental need. Though our faith was formed in our ancestors in deserts, tents, mountain tops, sea shores, ship wrecks, storms, and many solitary encounters with the Holy One, we insist that most of our faith be nurtured in buildings and classrooms under florescent lights. We further claim that knowledge of God may be gained by memorizing a set of propositions articulated by theologians, who gained most of their credentials in similar buildings and classrooms.

In contrast, we meet an undomesticated God in the wilderness, an unpredictable, wholly other God, who is neither tamed by sedate doctrines, nor penned up in church polity, nor leashed to political issues. The waves and meadowlark give testimony, the stones hold the stories of the ancient ones, the Spirit hovers over the waters, the prophet emerges from his cave, and hears the still small voice of the Lord.

Most pastors have heard from the person, who apologetically recounts the familiar reason for his Sunday morning absence. “I am closer to God on the golf course or in my boat out on the lake.”  

But can’t you do that on Saturday, wonders the pastor, whose district superintendent keeps count of his worship attendance. He needs to show an increase this year. “You need to worship with the community too, and we need to have you with us,” he tells the fisherman.

Both are right, of course. We need the solitude and nature and we need the gathered  community of believers. Yet, perhaps, rather than feeling defensive, our pastor could become genuinely curious about her parishioner’s life in God and what he is telling her. “Could we get together sometime? I’d like to hear about what these times mean to you and how you experience the Lord.”

A Cabin in the Woods
My brother and his wife recently moved and their first project was to build a small cabin in the woods behind their new home. The one room cabin perches part way down a steep ravine in the woods, above a pond and a river beyond. My brother spends hours down there and confesses, most of the time he just sits and looks out the window, watching the birds and critters, and resting his sore eyes on a vista absent of manipulation by his own species.

Formerly a hunter of deer, my brother is now living in more intimate and complementary relationship with his relatives. He rises early each day to put out food. Keeping track of them, he gives some of them names. He is respectful of the space they need and watches for signs of illness, or overcrowding of the herd. He worries about the invasive mustard grass, which chokes out the native plants.

Likewise the animals of this ravine are more intimate with my brother. They are eating well, unafraid, and willing to share more of themselves with this human. My brother is changing too. He has lost weight and strengthened his legs from making the steep climb down and back from the cabin to the house. He has become an evangelist for the gifts of that little structure. “Solitude is magnetic,” he tells me. Yes, indeed.

He shows me a little book he keeps for guests to write their impressions of time spent in his cabin. I open the cover and read the longing and gratitude in their comments.

The Force which Draws All Things Together
Solitude and the wilderness, where we find it, are magnetic. The wild things and places draw us to them by the force of our common relationship with each other as creatures on this earth. We are drawn by our desire to connect with and to enter into communion with Reality in a deeper, truer way than we find in the glib, sound bite assessments that surround us constantly. Such communion changes how we see ourselves and one another. Thomas Merton writes in his second chapter of Thoughts in Solitude that the wilderness invites us to stand back from our lives so we see things in a new perspective.

We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our own bosom. When we let go of them, we begin to appreciate them as they really are. Only then can we begin to see God in them. Not until we find Him in them, can we start on the road to dark contemplation at whose end we shall be able to find them in Him.

 Get the Stink Blown Off
Do you postpone going down to your wild places until the time is right, until you have several days free, until you finish this or that project? I will tell you a secret. You don’t have to wait. Just go with whatever time you have. As Eugene Peterson, paraphrases I Kings 17: 2, “Get out of here and fast!” My mom’s version was, “You kids go on outside right now and get the stink blown off ya.” God receives what little time you can offer, a day, an afternoon, or ten minutes, and turns it into abundance with enough leftovers for you to eat on for the rest of week.

So go on. Get out. Go for a walk. Drive over to the lake or the beach. Take a blue highway home. Look around. Breathe. Smell.  Feel. Gaze into the eyes of a deer. Watch the eagle land and fold its wings on its perch above the river. Be seen by the squirrel, be blown by the wind. Be changed and shaped by the interplay and exchange of the animate world of which you are a beloved part.


Solitude Practice:

  • To what kind of wild places are you drawn? Have you been there recently? What keeps you from going?

  • What happens when you go? What changes or shifts do you notice in yourself?

  • Take some time to pray about your need for solitude and wilderness places. Listen for God’s response.

Next Post in this series on Exploring Solitude : The Wild Things Within


 



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Exploring Solitude: Why Bother?

Come away by yourselves to a lonely place,” Jesus

 What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits.
It has a bearing on the whole future of humankind and the world:
and especially, of course, on the future of religion. Thomas Merton

 

Over the next several weeks I will be reflecting on selected passages from Thomas Merton’s little book, Thoughts in Solitude. First published in 1956 the book is a collection of Merton’s musings about time he spent alone in a hermitage at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. Merton had been a monk for a while before he finally gained the Abbot’s permission to spend an extended time alone. An outgoing, gregarious fellow, he struggled throughout his life with finding a balance between his need for solitude and for community. His prolific, engaging writing brought seekers to the monastery and his ability to teach about the spiritual life attracted many followers.

If you have a copy of the book, you might want to get it out and follow along. You can easily find a used copy online, or check your local library for Thoughts in Solitude.

I confess that my relationship with this Trappist priest has been rocky. He has both deeply inspired and deeply disappointed me. There is much I admire in his life and writing and a few things I do not. Just as I decide I am finished with the man, I am drawn back. Like us all, Father Tom, as a friend calls him, has his sin and warts, yet God has used him mightily. We may all give thanks that falling short of the aim which God intends for us (the literal meaning of sin) has never been a road block to the power of God working through human lives.

I choose this book, not because I consider it among the best on the subject. We have over 2500 years of excellent material on the spiritual practice of solitude. I hope you will share your favorite resources in the comments section below, or on the Sanctuary Foundation Face Book Page, or email me. I will be happy to compile your suggestions with others and make them available to The Praying Life readers.

Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton (Photo credit: jimforest)

So let’s begin with the Preface. Here Merton lays out what he is up to in this book and makes his disclaimers. He tells us his “thoughts here are simply thoughts on the contemplative life, fundamental intuitions which seemed, at the time, to have a basic importance.” His writing comes from his “relationship with God in solitude and silence and that “interrelation of our personal solitudes with one another,” which are for Merton “essential to his own peculiar way of life.”

Then he launches into a broad societal justification for such peculiarity. A number of internal and external obstacles make it difficult for most of us to develop and nurture a practice of spiritual solitude. I have listened to many people who struggle to claim the “legitimacy” of the practice, to respond to this call of God, and to be consistent in the “coming away to a lonely place” with Jesus.

I feel guilty. Isn’t it selfish? Shouldn’t  I be doing something – working at the mission, helping out at church, serving on committees? My friends don’t understand. My pastor doesn’t get it. I can’t even explain why I do this or even what happens. Am I only fooling myself and being lazy and wasting time?

I hope this series will offer some support for your practice and a rationale which gives permission and value to a pursuit largely neglected in our culture and religious institutions, but sorely needed. In the end, though, you must come to your own rationale and your own “thoughts in solitude.” For each of us will experience solitude in different ways at different times, and God will speak within you the language of the unique nature of the intimacy you share. And each must make his or her own witness to the truth.

Merton begins his book by looking at the larger culture in which he found himself in 1956:

In an age when totalitarianism has striven, in every way, to devaluate and degrade the human person, we hope it is right to demand a hearing for any – and every sane reaction in favor of man’s [ok, from now on in this blog series I will make Merton’s gender nouns and pronouns neutral] inalienable solitude and interior freedom. The murderous din of our materialism cannot be allowed to silence the independent voices which will never cease to speak: whether they are the voices of Christian saints, Oriental sages like Lao-Tse or the Zen Masters, or the voices of persons like Thoreau, or Martin Buber, or Max Picard. It is all very well to insist that people are “social animals” – the fact is obvious enough. But that is no justification for making them into a mere cog in a totalitarian machine—or a religious one for that matter.”

Thomas Merton's hermitage at The Abbey of Our ...

Hermitage of Thomas Merton at Gethsemane Abbey

Society, for Merton, depends for its very existence on the inviolable solitude of its members. This is because, as he writes, “to be a person is to possess responsibility and freedom, and both of these imply a certain interior solitude, a sense of personal integrity, a sense of one’s own reality and of one’s own ability to give oneself to society – or to refuse that gift.”

He ends his preface with: “What is said here about solitude is not just a recipe for hermits. It has a bearing on the whole future of humankind and the world: and especially, of course, on the future of religion.”

One of my pet peeves about Merton, especially in his early writing, is his penchant for sweeping generalizations and pronouncements. I happen to agree with this one. How might such a claim be true?  Is there really a relationship between the time you take to create some space and time to be alone with God and our future as a race and the future of religion? I think so. And I am not alone.

When there is a crisis in the church, it is always a crisis of contemplation. The church wants to feel able to explain about her spouse even when she has lost sight of him; even when, although she has not been divorced, she no longer knows his embrace, because curiosity has gotten the better of her and she has gone searching for other people and other things.
Carlo Carretto

 

Might part of our struggle with keeping solitude be because we have our arms around the wrong lover?

Solitude Practice:

  • Ask the lover of your soul to show what you are hugging closer to yourself than the Holy One.

  • Identify competing lovers.

  • What might it take for you rediscover God’s embrace and forsake all others? It might be easier than you think.

As Paul Simon sang to us, there are fifty ways to leave your lover.

Next Post: The Wilderness of Solitude

You can help support this series by donating to The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer. Just five or ten dollars will make a difference and help pay some of our costs. Your gift is tax deductible. Donate Here. Thank you so much!