“Creation itself is a sacred text through which the presence of God is revealed to us.” –Christine Valters Paintner
Last weekend, I hiked with my family through a gorgeous piece of woods in a state park close to home. The trees were green with young leaves. Warm sunlight illuminated young ferns and a myriad of purple, white, and yellow wild flowers emerging from the forest floor.
“Did you know that some people describe nature as the first Bible?” I asked my kids before we arrived at the Big Woods. “Why do you think that is?”
I received blank stares, which is okay. I’ll keep talking. These kids surprise me sometimes with what they retain when I think that they are not listening.
“Nature can tell us about God if we are paying attention.” More blank stares.
“When we walk in the woods today, let’s keep our eyes open. What do you notice? What makes you wonder? What do you think God might be trying to tell you on our hike?”
I think my kids just hiked for the pure joy of moving their limbs and climbing rocks down the stream. It is fun to be just a little bit wild. And this is good.
I tried to keep my eyes and heart open. I had a little help.
I couldn’t help but notice the flowers as we marched along the path in search of the main attraction–a waterfall at the end of this particular hike. I noticed the flowers–small dots of color among the green–but I didn’t pay them too much attention.
Then a volunteer naturalist standing along the path struck up a conversation. “Do you want to see something that you can only see here?”
We stopped. She pointed out a miniscule flower hidden next to the path. “This is a dwarf trout lily. These flowers are only found here. In these woods. No where else in the world.” We would never have known to look for it. It was so tiny, it wasn’t much to look at. But it’s amazing to think we got to see this rare and endangered plant. We would have missed it completely if the naturalist hadn’t been there to show us what we didn’t even know to look for.
Another naturalist was waiting for us a little further down the path. “Do you have any questions about any of the flowers that you see?” We stopped again. We took a closer look at the flowers near our feet. “What are those?” I asked pointing to some purple flowers on long stalks. “Those are phlox.” I could see the resemblance to the phlox I’ve seen growing in gardens, but I wouldn’t have been able to put them together on my own. She pointed out buttercups. And she told us how we could distinguish yellow violets from the buttercups by the violet’s heart-shaped leaves. The small, white flowers that were everywhere are false meadow rue. She pointed out trillium–three pure white petals on long graceful stalks. A member of the lily family.
There were many more flowers than I initially thought. As I crouched down to take another look around me, I noticed an unusual looking flower. It was camouflaged. And beautiful. “What is this?” I asked. “Oh, that is a Jack-in-the-Pulpit. You have to look for those, don’t you?”
It is amazing what we can see—what is in plain sight when we stop, when we slow down and open our eyes.
And I loved the gift of someone coming alongside me to help me identify what I was experiencing and seeing.
I need this with more than just flowers. I’ve needed someone who could tell me, “Yes. Those questions are good questions. They are part of the journey.” I’ve needed people to ask: “What is it that your heart wants?” I hadn’t realized the importance of that question. I’ve needed people to reassure me that it is a normal part of the spiritual journey for the fiery feeling burning in my chest, the one that got my attention, to fade and that this tends to happen as our relationship with God becomes more intimate, more subtle, more like the air we breathe. I’ve needed people to remind me to keep my eyes open for the way that God works and speaks into our lives: through synchronicity, through dreams, through our bodies, through the dreams and desires that were planted deep inside of our souls.
We need people who can point out to us what we might miss if we keep marching along, business as usual. I need those people. I’m so thankful for them. I’m thankful for walks in the woods that remind me of these things.
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A Practice for You: Contemplative Walk
I am really enjoying Christine Valters Paintner’s book Water, Wind, Earth & Fire: The Christian Practice of Praying with the Elements. This is a rich book. In her introduction, Paintner quotes Chet Raymo:
“All my life has been a relearning how to pray–a letting go of incantational magic, petition, and the vain repetition of ‘Me Lord, me,’ instead watching attentively for the light that burns at the center of every star, every cell, every living creature, every human heart.”
Paintner’s book helps us to learn how to pray in this way. She offers us a beautiful array of reflections on the elements and practices that help us to pay attention to the ways that God may be trying to get our attention. The questions that I asked my children were adapted from Paintner’s description of a contemplative walk. This may be a practice you’d like to incorporate into your own rhythm.
I’ll paraphrase Paintner’s description:
Take your time and walk slowly, without an agenda. Keep your awareness on your immediate surroundings or on your breath. “Be receptive to each moment as it unfolds before you, holding it lightly in your awareness, bringing both intention and attention to this time.”
First Notice. What do you notice? What captures your attention? What is inviting you to pay closer attention?
Move to wondering. “I wonder …?” I wonder why this grabbed my attention? I wonder what this has to say to me? Paintner advises: “Let the wondering draw you to a deeper sense of conversation with the holy presence.”
As you return from your walk pay attention to the questions and stirrings that remain in you. You may want to journal your response.
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This week, I hope you get a chance to walk outside with eyes and heart wide open.