When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
by Mary Oliver
Poetry has a way of speaking beneath the surface of things. It opens us up to the possibility of more than we can rationally know. Mary Oliver speaks of her desire for quiet and simplicity. The trees offer her the invitation of both the possibility of her desire and the way forward.
A dear person copied this poem for me today, and it speaks deeply to the unquiet held in all the tasks I have to complete and the quiet offered when I walk in the forested path behind my house. I can easily lose all the busyness in my world when I enter the opening to this path among the trees. It is from a place of quiet that I sense my soul settle in. Have you ever encountered a contemplative walk of listening with all your senses to your surroundings?
May I invite you to try it out? First, start down the path with a pause as you embark with the intention to be aware that you are in God’s presence. Then pay attention to all your senses.
Close your eyes and listen to all the sounds around you: the birds, the insects, the rain falling, your foot moving the rocks beneath, people talking, and the wind blowing through the trees.
Then open your eyes and notice the variety and shades of colors in the shadows and the sunlight. Draw your attention to your sense of smell; what do you notice as you focus on the scents around you. Remember, your sense of smell is connected to your sense of taste.
Lastly, notice your body and how it moves along the path, your heart beating, and your lungs moving the air in and out. Draw your attention to the way the sun, wind, or rain feels against your skin. All of these different means of sense create a symphony of sounds, sights, scents, and sensations.
I have discovered that a regular practice of this kind of spiritual practice helps me settle in my inner journey and to move more grounded in my outer world. I would love to hear your thoughts as you encounter this kind of exercise.
As I leave you to enjoy a space of trees for yourself, I have one more poem to share by Wendell Berry..
I’ve been doing some reading for my spiritual formation doctorate program about how to walk alongside communities of faith. The books span across a range of theological understandings and disciplines, such as theology, sociology, and psychology. I am finding that I am resistant to the traditional models presented. I think part of that is due to my own journey toward wholeness and my prior understandings.
For example, most of my life, I have forced myself to meet the expectations of others. I have grown to understand that complying was part of being responsible and a “good Christian.” Through the last few years, I have been on the journey of noticing when I am forcing myself and then following the invitation of healing and wholeness with gentleness and grace.
When I notice my tendency to force myself to fit in or “do right,” I stop and listen to what is going on internally for me. In doing so, I listen to my desires and woundings to discover the way forward. Listening deeply to my soul requires intentionality. David Benner defines our soul as the reflective space where we make meaning of our experience from the events throughout our lives. Using his psychological lens, he further defines both our soul and spirit as ways of living instead of as traditionally understood as parts of ourselves. 
An essential component in this journey is our tendency for self-deception. The truth is every one of us shares this same struggle, and we are unaware. The Johari window is a means of communicating that struggle visually. It illustrates our inner selves as being divided into four parts. One part we know and so do others, this would be our most visible part. One part we know but we do not let others see our private world. Others can see one part, but we are not aware of its hidden aspects inside ourselves. The last part is unknown to both us and others.
Spiritual writers would use the language of false self and true self. A greater self-awareness allows us to know our own tendency toward self-deception. As we continue to build up what we “should” be like, we tend not to notice our own actions or our motivations. At times, we may choose to not be aware of our internal workings but often we do not know how to live any differently and remain unaware.
For example, let’s consider the practice of gratefulness. If someone from my spiritual direction practice came in and spoke about being restless or discontent, I would not encourage a practice of gratefulness. That would devalue what was going on internally for them. If someone felt restless or dissatisfied, I would wonder what is underneath those feelings. What is the invitation for them?
Often, these seemingly negative feelings are an invitation to greater freedom in our relationship with God, ourselves, and others. I would encourage someone meeting with me to share more about their struggles. I might even walk them through a healing prayer where they take their feelings or an image that represents that feeling to God to discover God’s view. It is in a place of non-judgment where we can begin to understand what is going on inside of ourselves and to begin to see our own belovedness in God’s gaze. I trust God to meet each of us in our struggles. Through our experience of being met by God, we can realize all of us belongs in God’s intimate gaze.
I would say that the practice of gratefulness would only enforce our false self. Experiencing God meeting us in our ungratefulness, discontentment, or restlessness, allows healing, integrating our false self and true self. I’ve seen experiences like this bring peace to people, and their presenting problem falls away to a greater understanding and a deeper intimacy with God.
Often, the lies we believe in our core are replaced with a core truth, bringing gratefulness that arises organically within and can’t help but be expressed externally toward others. We don’t have to act it out when we don’t feel the truth of it – being grateful when all we want to do is complain because of pain, hurt, or a core lie we have held for our lifetime.
Practicing gratefulness isn’t the problem but pretending to be grateful when all we feel is discontent isn’t helpful. We do not need to “fake it till we make it.” When we discover ourselves as restless and ungrateful, a practice we can embrace, instead of complaining, is first to notice what is going on in our hearts without judgment. Non-judgment means not assigning a value of good or bad to our noticings. Once we notice, we can listen with God about what is going on in our soul and allow God to show God’s view. As we experience the grace and gentleness of God, we can encourage others in this open, gentle, and compassionate way.
 David G Benner, Spirituality and The Awakening Self: The Sacred Journey of Transformation (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2012), 121, 137.
I recently re-read Holy Longing: The Search for a Christian Spirituality by Ronald Rolheiser. It was first published in 1999, just as I was beginning full-time pastoral ministry. Twenty years later, after retiring from being a pastor and with the benefit of life experiences over the past years, this book provided an entry for cultural and personal reflection. I appreciate Rolheiser’s humility in stating upfront his focus on Christian spirituality and “acknowledges God speaks in many and diverse ways, and no one religion has a monopoly on truth.” My experience of listening and experiencing God in different cultures and through different people has resulted in greater freedom, joy, and awe. I have caught glimpses of God in a variety of pools of wisdom in and outside the Christian tradition.
Foundational to this book is the belief that everyone has a spirituality, but it is not clearly understood as to its meaning and source. Rolheiser uses the word eros to describe the fiery energy at the center of our lives – a sacred fire of creative energy that drives our spirituality and Christian practices. He suggests we are not restful or serene creatures, and eros is connected to our seeking and searching. For me, the words wrestling, passion, desire, intimacy, and longing come to mind.
Twenty years ago, Rolheiser already recognized our cultural context was post-Christian and post-modern. I was certainly not as aware of this shift as I am now. In hindsight, the significance of this transition for individuals and religious institutions in the West means we are navigating new terrain and traveling off-the-map. Phyllis Tickle described an every 500-year cycle of historical upheaval as rummage sale. We take furniture out of the attic and decide what to keep and what to let go of to make room for new acquisitions.
A key quote from Holy Longing continues to resonate with me for its relevancy in our current cultural context:
“Each generation has its own dark night of the soul, its own particular temptation to despair, as it tries to find peace of soul and make peace with its God. Our own dark night of spirituality is very much shaped by our naiveté about the nature of spiritual energy; by a conspiracy against death and prayer caused by narcissism, pragmatism, and unbridled restlessness of our age; and by our inability to hold in tension a series of dualities.”
My experience of carrying tension within myself and with others during this rummage sale moment feels vulnerable, risky, and isolating. Rolheiser writes, “Accepting to carry tension for the sake of God, love, truth, in principle, is the mysticism that is most needed in our day. Almost everything within our culture invites us to avoid tension and resolve it whenever possible even at the cost of some of our more noble instincts....Waiting in frustration and consummation is not our strong point"
Connecting mysticism with holding tension in our off-road terrain is a hopeful insight regarding a way of faithfulness with only enough light for the next step. For some, mysticism is suspect, but the writings of the mystics have shaped my spirituality and the Quaker tradition. For instance, the founder of Quakerism, George Fox, recounts many mystical experiences in his journal. Friends across time and places have gathered together in the silence of Waiting Worship to listen together seeking guidance, comfort, and encounter with Presence in their midst.
Some of my favorite Christian mystics include Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich, and the unnamed author of the Cloud of Unknowing. These mystics offer a language of interconnection and hospitality toward themselves and others. Their understanding continually disrupts and invites us to expand our framework regarding the how and why of God and how we make meaning of our world. I find the notion that we must all be mystics and live in mystery, to be life-giving and expansive. This mystery is not something to be solved but a mystery that continues to unfold and suggests we must wake-up to all the different ways of knowing. This unfolding invites us to trust our inner experience in addition to the certitude often valued in statements of doctrine and belief.
What helps us wake-up? How do we make space for our new understanding of experience and learning? What allows us to hold tension as we seek connection and meaning within the pressure of unanswered questions and shifting times? A word closely associated with the mystics is contemplation, which describes a way of life that allows for inner stillness and silence that opens up and syncs the knowing of the head, the heart, and the gut. This movement of integration allows us to heal our distorted and limited vision and wake-up to experiences of Divine encounter all around us. We will take a more in-depth look at this invitation in the next blog post.
 Ronald Rolheiser, The Holy Longing: The Search for A Christian Spirituality, 1st Ed. in U.S.A (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 41.
 Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012).
 Rolheiser, 40.
 Rolheiser, 224.
 Rolheiser, 216.
Have you ever been in a discussion or listening to a presentation where one word or phrase sends you down an unexpected direction? I suppose that the new direction in your mind could be considered helpful or maybe not so helpful, but your mind follows the path ahead.
There is research that states that we can only understand or take in whatever we encounter through our current lens. This lens is defined by our current set of knowledge, including both conscious and unconscious understandings. We only know what we know, and new information comes through that filter.
I had an experience where I brought a quote to a gathering. It was from a mystic that spoke deeply to me about community and shared contemplation. It had words in the quote that at one time would have triggered my own feelings rooted in past religious understandings. In my current understanding, these words don’t cause that kind of reaction for me because I have redefined them. I’ve had to work through the implications of often viewed exclusionary terms through a different lens. For me, the phrase was open, free, and inclusive. I understood the words based on the author's mystical understanding of God as Love, which is evident in his other writings.
Others struggled with the words and reacted to the exclusion evident in the phraseology present in the quote. I had missed it, and they reacted to it. If we are only able to understand through our own lens, the acceptance or reaction to a phrase tells us much about the lens we currently use.
In an undergraduate class I teach, Christian Faith and Thought, I use a slide of the words kindergartners use for the Pledge of Allegiance. The young students use “Richard stands” instead of “Republic Stands” and “the library down the hall” for “liberty for all.” These familiar words make much more sense than the words they have never heard before. We only know what we know, and we understand through that lens.
One of the gifts of teaching this course is allowing students to discover the lens they use to understand the world without judgment of themselves or others in the room. As they begin to trust the space we create together; they begin to identify their own lens. Then they can allow others in the room to help them redefine it in some ways and to further define it in other ways.
This kind of understanding is the gift of noticing where we get triggered. It allows us to take notice and to look deeply into what is going on in us, just beneath the surface. This process requires letting go of judgments toward those who disagree with us. We can only let go of our judgments when we notice them without judging ourselves in the process. Those who disagree with us aren’t the enemy, and neither are we. The dissonance created by being triggered helps us to take notice of our lens and surface how we make meaning around what we hold to be true.
The gift of doing this in community is allowing others to help us notice what we aren't able to see ourselves. Maybe it is more significant than we have understood previously. Often, this gift happens as people who live in a place of privilege listen to others who are part of an oppressed people group in some way. When we listen to the other, we can hear the full story and begin to hold the space that our view is only one facet of the larger picture.
My experience offered an invitation to listen without becoming defensive, as others were triggered. I could discount their experience, or I could follow the invitation to notice and allow their understanding to further refine and define my own. It gives me a broader perspective of community and walking alongside others.
That said, some words trigger me due to my background. When I encounter those words, the invitation is to take notice and allow the fuller perspective of the community to refine and define my understandings. This process is the gift of doing this work in community. It is part of the contemplative life - living in the giving and receiving flow of the Love of God. It is a beautiful thing and flows from a small group of people, through the one meeting, and way beyond into all the world. That is living in the flow of goodness and Love.
We don’t often have opportunities for this kind of discussion in our current political climate. We tend to debate, deciding who is right and who is wrong, instead of a public discourse that allows all those involved to be transformed. This work can not be done in isolation. The invitation is to allow disagreements and let the one in front of you speak into your life and you into theirs.
I will be teaching a series through the Companioning Center this fall - Discovering Your Lens. We will travel through 6-week courses designed to take a look at what has shaped what we hold to be true about faith. The first session will look at how our faith has been shaped through history, and the following one will be what we hold true about Scripture and the impact of our beliefs. These 6-week courses will be an opportunity to share in community what we believe and allow the community to help us look at the implications of those beliefs as well as redefining them. It isn’t about changing someone else’s lens, but it offers an opportunity to learn from others who might not believe the same way we do. In the journey together, we can notice ourselves, our lens, and others as we are all transformed together.
Check out companioningcenter.org for more information in coming weeks.
In my two previous Dorothy Day posts, I covered Dorothy’s backstory as she sought both a relationship with God and the flow of social justice coming from being in love with that God. You can read each of them again: Part One, Part Two.
A Continuation of the Story…
Dorothy, through the Catholic Worker, felt it important to write from eyewitness accounts and not to take information from other newspapers. In that she wanted to create followers through her writing by grounding it in radical politics and Catholic theology toward the cause of social justice.[i]
Peter and Dorothy understood that government charity created victims of the system. Peter’s vision was to form “Houses of Hospitality” for those unemployed by the growing technology of the industrial age. His main goal was to create farming communes to care for people while teaching them to care for themselves and one another. These places grew with the distinct need at the time. When quarreling in the communities became a problem, the solution was manual labor. In this understanding people all lived and worked together to make a way forward.[ii]
With the view of community taught through the Catholic Worker, the FBI wondered if the paper was a front for Communism. One worried citizen complained about the writing and pointed out the sickle on the side of the farming communes’ article. In the 1930’s, Hoover started investigating the movement to discover if there were sinister motives behind it. They even suspected Dorothy was actually born in Russia. Hoover wanted to arrest Dorothy, but after six months they found nothing. She was categorized as one of the least dangerous suspects. Dorothy and the Catholic Worker Movement continued to be investigated by the FBI until the 1960’s.[iii]
The goal of the Catholic Worker was more than just writing about history, it was also about making history through influencing society. This was accomplished by providing community and informing community. Finances were an important component of meeting these goals. Dorothy refused the capitalistic approach of advertising, high subscription rates, or even government grants. Money was not a neutral commodity. There was always a cost to accepting funds so small contributions was the main resource keeping the paper in print.[iv]
Dorothy’s stand on money also came with a push back from the government. She felt it was inappropriate, given her pacifist views, that she would contribute to the purchase of items for war, so she protested by not paying war taxes. In the early 1970’s, the IRS demanded $300,000 in fines, penalties, and unpaid taxes over six years. Previously, she had not registered as a non-profit because it went against Catholic Worker principles. When the New York Times heard of the IRS’s demands they wrote about the issue stating the IRS must have genuine frauds to chase. The IRS eventually dropped the case. This issue highlights the contrast between the Catholic Worker movement of personalist simplicity and the bureaucracy of the modern government.[v]
When you love people, you see all the good in them, all the Christ in them. God sees Christ, His Son, in us and loves us. And we should see Christ in others, and nothing else, and love them. There can never be enough of it. There can never be enough thinking about it. St. John of the Cross said that where there was no love, put love and you would take out love.[vi]
In 1948, Dorothy wrote this statement in her journal while helping her daughter Tamar through her pregnancy and delivery of her third child. It was a guiding principle throughout her life. Her work was influenced deeply by her understanding that everyone has that of God in them, every person has value. As we look back on Dorothy’s life, we can see how her own humility developed and how the influence of life experience impacted her view of others. Her understanding of the world and how it worked influenced both her audience and those she lived and worked alongside.
Dorothy believed it was not enough to help, to give what you have, to pledge yourself to voluntary poverty – she felt that one must live with suffering – to share in their suffering – to give up privacy, mental, spiritual comforts as well as physical.[vii] It was this belief and her understanding of the Christ in everyone that drove Dorothy to walk a different kind of life with the Love of her life, God. She valued people and she wholeheartedly became one with them. She wasn’t afraid of their suffering and put herself with them.
The Catholic Worker was the first publication advocating civil disobedience as a legitimate means to protest war. They encouraged burning draft cards and withholding war taxes. Dorothy viewed jail time as a badge of honor.[viii] It was walking alongside others, while not distancing themselves from others’ suffering that drew them out to picket alongside other protestors.[ix] This kind of action was greatly encouraged. During this time many felt that organizations for workers were connected to Communism. The Catholic Worker Movement didn’t follow society’s fear but stepped right into the fray of valuing those who were oppressed by the system. Dorothy was not afraid to step into the conflict and encouraged others to do so as well.
“Community – that was the social answer to the long loneliness. That was one of the attractions of religious life and why couldn’t lay people share in it? Not just the basic community of the family, but also a community of families, with a combination of private and communal property.”[x]
Dorothy understood the long loneliness throughout her seeking for being loved by God, not finding that safe place with the people she encountered early in life. Once she discovered the true love of God, she invited others to share in that experience by loving them, suffering with them, and walking alongside. She stressed the importance of living in community like Jesus modeled, with personalism, pacifism, and voluntary poverty. Her’s was a radical approach, back to the roots, and based in intellectual traditions.[xi] She remained on the Catholic Worker staff until 1975, with her last speaking engagement in 1976. She stopped being as engaged due to health and once she slowed down, she suffered three minor heart attacks, became too tired for visitors, spent quality time with her daughter, and died in 1980.[xii]
During her lifetime, Dorothy wrote against war while people in the government and the church thought she was crazy, subversive, seditious, and traitorous. Subscriptions for the paper took a steep drop. Yet her writing showed that a Catholic social policy could be lived out authentically. What people discounted her for, was eventually proven right. Her conscientious objections to war were once an embarrassment for the church and now the Catholic Church holds space for that political stand.[xiv] The Catholic Worker now has 90,000 subscriptions and still sells for a penny a copy, still being funded by small donations.[xv] There are currently 216 communities in the States and 33 international communities following the Catholic Worker Movement.[xvi]
[i] William Dow, “Dorothy Day and Joseph Kessel: ‘A Literature of Urgency,’” Prose Studies 33, no. 2 (August 1, 2011): 136, 143, https://doi.org/10.1080/01440357.2011.632221.
[ii] Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day (Chicago, Ill.: Thomas More Press, 1989), 218–19.
[iii] Nancy L. Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 131.
[iv] Ibid., 41.
[v] Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub., 1999), 124.
[vi] Day, The Long Loneliness, 250.
[vii] Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, 159.
[ix] Day, The Long Loneliness, 241.
[x] Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, 166.
[xi] Ibid., 261.
[xii] Roberts, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker, 7.
[xiii] Ibid., 167.
[xiv] Chittister, “Dorothy Day,” 74–75.
[xv] Raboteau, American Prophets: Seven Religious Radicals and Their Struggle for Social and Political Justice, 71.
[xvi] “Catholic Worker Movement,” accessed August 4, 2018, http://www.catholicworker.org/communities/directory.html.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!