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..
Over the last several posts, I have shared about listening to our hearts and allowing whatever we find there, to teach us. This morning, during prayer, I discovered that I was feeling a little overwhelmed by all I needed to do. There is a lot on my plate as I am working toward forming this ministry. I enjoy it all, but there is a lot to do.
In noticing my feeling of being overwhelmed, I could just push through it and tackle everything that is on my plate. I could also decide to not do some of it. I could even decide to take a nap!
The thing is, being overwhelmed isn’t a bad thing and it doesn’t need to be fixed. In noticing it and listening, I realized I am overwhelmed because, well... there is a lot to do. This is true and I enjoy doing all these tasks. The invitation is to notice, not judge or resist this feeling, allow it to teach me, and then let it go.
What I sensed through this process was an invitation to allow myself to be present in God’s presence. I can trust the journey one step at a time while following God’s lead and not the next hurried task. Even in so many things to do, the chaos of busyness can subside, and I can move forward one step at a time.
In this transformational journey, we don’t become something different than we are. We become more fully who we have always been. The refinement or trueness of the journey is bringing us back to the likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27) in which we were created. It seems amazing, yet true - how could it not be?
The barriers and walls we put up, hide who we really are. They distort our very essence, both to ourselves and to others. We form them in reaction to something. They become a diversion to the true life journey we are invited to pursue.
The dissonance in our lives, the despair, pain, loss - the unsettledness - what often feels like shifting sand beneath our feet are an invitation to embrace the uncomfortableness we feel. With God, we can discover the lies, fears, or doubts that are the root or support of any barrier. In this journey of continued self-discovery, we are becoming more and more our true selves, more fully in-tune with who God created us to be. Each of our strengths becomes ever so much deeper, fuller, and truer.
So what do we do? We listen, we listen with our whole selves to what our inner teacher is teaching us. We listen to the unsettledness we feel. We notice our reactive responses and the places we are uncomfortable. Instead of reasoning them away, we listen to them and open ourselves to God’s gaze in the midst of the pain, unsettledness, loss or whatever is going on in our hearts. We listen…
The practice I use as a regular rhythm in my life is The Examen Prayer. This prayer was first shared by Ignatius of Loyola during the 16th Century. It is an opportunity to look at what happens during a day with God. During the practice, you can either look at your day, one event at a time, or hold two contrasting questions. This is the handout I often use in the classes I teach.
A continual practice of the Examen Prayer can be part of the journey toward greater self-awareness and a deeper relationship with God. As we show up vulnerably with God, we can experience peace and reconciliation inside ourselves. As we experience greater peace and unity, this same peace and unity flow to our community.
In the process, we wait in the light. This journey of transformation is passive on our part. The invitation, for each of us, is to show up in it. As we wait in the light, we can begin to see our own belovedness in God’s gaze. We begin to surrender to that very place, our belovedness and God’s reminder that God is always for us!
People often ask me about the safety of being quiet in contemplative prayer. How do we know what voices we are listening to? How do we make certain that we aren’t either lying to ourselves or listening to evil spirits? How do we know that we are being guided by God?
These are good questions. I have had to work through them myself. It seems that these questions come from a religion focused more on self instead of God. Thinking more about what I need to do to be safe in contrast to focusing more on the character and love of God.
I’m absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God’s love because of the way that Jesus our Master has embraced us (Romans 8:38-39, MSG).
This is a verse which seems to speak to part of these questions. It captures part of God’s view of us. We will never be separated from the love of God. The Message translation speaks about this love based on an embrace with Jesus. It brought to mind another verse from John 1.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1, NRSV).
John is speaking about the Logos (Word) as Christ. The Greek word translated as with shows an intimate face-to-face relationship.(1) This is the embrace we are invited to experience, to enjoy, to dance within, and to be an invitation towards.
As we live life, it seems there is much that gets in the way of living freely within this embrace with God. Both Jesus and Paul spoke about being one with God - this is the intimate face-to-face relationship we are invited to experience. So what gets in the way?
It seems we place many barriers in the way and believe they protect us. Imagine a wall of our own making blocking our ability to experience God’s love. We aren’t really separated from God’s love but we are unable to experience God’s love as safe and true. Let me explain.
Spiritual writers talk about a true self and a false self. Our true self is who we are created to be. We are all created with an Imago Dei, Image of God (Gen. 1:26-27), in us. This is who we have been created to be.
As we grow and live in the world, we learn to protect ourselves by placing a false self around us. This false self is anything we want to be perceived as - beautiful, rich, smart, athletic, kind, a good Christian, even weak and needing to be rescued. We use these labels to define ourselves as we strive toward who we think we need to be, instead of freely living who we are created to be.
Even though some of these labels are good attributes, manufacturing these identities in ourselves becomes difficult to sustain. It is more like we are pretending to be what we ought, instead of living from a grounded place of freedom and acceptance of who we are. The false self isn’t necessarily bad. It is only an illusion that keeps us from living out of God’s loving embrace. From this false self, we are actually living “rightly” in our own strength.
So the barriers, the false self, we put in place get in the way of experiencing God’s intimate face-to-face relationship. Love doesn’t feel like love coming in or out of these barriers. The love that is real becomes distorted.
We all have these barriers. As I love another, the love is distorted through my barriers as well as through theirs. It can get very messy living as humans together. That is where grace, defined as acceptance and belonging, comes in. Believing we are all doing our very best and accepting we will all do this living together, very imperfectly.
Now, let’s go back to the verse we started with from Romans. If nothing can separate us from God’s embrace of love, then when we experience God’s embrace as unloving, what do we do? For me, I have begun a practice of noticing my own barriers that tend to distort God’s love.
First, that requires me to actually pay attention to what doesn’t feel settled inside of me - allowing those feelings to come. I need to be open to my own feelings instead of rejecting them as negative or bad. This requires a trust in God’s intimate embrace of love and allows God to show me the fears, lies, or doubts I have accepted as lived truth. These falsehoods have power and take up energy or space in my life as strongholds. They control my behavior more than I would like to admit.
In allowing God to touch these places, I can live from the freedom of being loved and accepted by God, regardless of anything. This can help me live with an ever-deepening singleness of intention toward God. From this place, I can begin to be absolutely convinced (Paul’s words) of my security within God’s intimate face-to-face embrace with me. From there, I can grow deeper in living within a singleness of intent toward God.
You can see this is a cyclical dance as we learn to love and be loved by God. As we realize we are more secure in God’s love than we knew, we are invited to be ever more trusting in prayer. This means trusting ourselves and God in God’s desire to go to any length to communicate with us in relationship. God is trustworthy in God’s fierce love for us, each one of us.
So why is contemplative prayer safe? It is safe because of who God is. God is for us and desires to meet us in prayer. Our desire for more of God is actually meeting God’s fierce desire for us. We can trust God to meet us in this space, regardless. It isn’t about fixing ourselves but allowing ourselves to surrender to our own belovedness and to accept God is for us.
(1) Cleon L. Rogers Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Pub. House, 1998), 175.
II spoke a little about an invitation to contemplative prayer in another blog post; An Invitation to Quiet. There is still more information than can be handled well through a blog. I thought, since I introduced the subject, I could follow up with a means to practice it. Using the word practice is intentional. It really isn’t about getting this “right” at all, it is only practicing and in doing so remembering you are in God’s presence.
What does it mean to be in God’s presence? Jesus, in John 14, shares with his disciples a request he has for the Father since he is leaving them.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you (John 14:16-17, NIV).
Jesus requested the Father to send the Holy Spirit. Notice the bold words. When I was in seminary, one of my professors pointed out that the Greek words used for “with you” were actually two different Greek words. The first one communicates that the Holy Spirit is in our midst. As you navigate life, the Holy Spirit is in your midst. The word used for the second “with you” communicates a more intimate position. The Holy Spirit is beside you. The last word I would like to point out is even more intimate and is translated as “in you.”
The Holy Spirit is in our midst, beside us, and in us, all the time. This isn’t occasionally but always. This is being aware we are in God’s presence. We always are in God’s presence. Isn’t that amazing! There is nothing we need to do. There is no way to earn it or make it happen. It is always true. We are always in God’s presence. I find that utterly amazing!
Wait, there is more…
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to his world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God - what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2, NRSV).
Here, Paul is writing to the churches in Rome. Notice in verse two, we are not to be conformed but are to be transformed. The Greek words used for both of these show a passive response – we can either be conformed, something done to us, or be transformed, again something done to us. They also imply a continual process without a starting or ending point. It is always happening. This transformation isn’t about achieving or getting it right but allowing ourselves to be in God’s presence.
St. Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite nun from the 16th century, shared a picture which provides another way of looking at our journey, it being a little like the wax used for a wax seal. The wax isn’t able to impress the seal into itself and it also isn’t able to make itself soft for the impression. The only thing the wax can do is just be there. So like us – we can only be present in this space with God and whatever does or doesn’t happen in this time and space with God is in God’s hands.(1)
So with this understanding, we are invited to remember contemplative prayer isn’t something to strive toward, quietness isn’t something to achieve, and there isn’t a path to do this “right.” Remembering this is a practice and not a goal is important. When you are letting go of the noise around you, becoming internally quiet, and you notice your mind has wandered, gently bring your attention back to being aware that you are in God’s presence and your intention is to quiet your mind.
As you think about embarking on this kind of prayer practice, I would recommend setting a timer for 5 minutes or a bit longer to try it out. Make sure that the alarm sound is a gentle sound intended to call you from prayer. This way you won’t constantly be checking the time and can let that piece go.
One way to begin a practice of quieting yourself in God’s presence is to imagine yourself at a stream. You will notice that all kinds of ideas will pop into your mind. Just place them on a log that comes by and allow each thought to float down God’s stream. When you become aware that your mind is thinking about something else instead of being quiet, gently place your thought on the next log and let it go. Your mind will wander and that is completely okay, just gently bring your attention back to your desire of being quiet in God’s presence.
The gift of this kind of practice doesn’t necessarily happen during your prayer time but during the rest of your day. Some spiritual writers state that this practice is a means to exercise your spiritual muscle of “letting go.” When we learn to let go of our own agendas and our desire to belong and be loved in prayer, we can let go of so many things outside of prayer. This is a practice that allows us to receive the freedom of “letting go” in so many areas of our life.
(1) Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, translated by E. Allison Peers, (New York, NY: Start, 2012), 74, Kindle.
But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret: and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matt. 6:6).
I’ve always understood this verse as a reminder that prayer was private instead of trying to impress others. When we see this verse in connection with the ones previously, that makes sense. However, I have discovered that as I look at the words from the original language, I see a more nuanced understanding.
We tend to understand words used in Scripture through our own cultural lens. However, our understanding of words changes within our own lifetimes. Think about the slang words used in older generations versus younger generations. In addition, a word in one language doesn’t exactly match a word in another. Often times, part of the original meaning can be lost in translation. Part of the joy of even an elementary understanding of Greek is learning these differences.
In this passage, Matthew writes about Jesus instructing those close by him in how to pray. He uses a form of the word pray that suggests a form of praying for themselves. It is considered a middle voice which implies doing the action in a way that benefits the one praying.
Then he gives a command that is an appeal to their will. Go into your room, shut the door, and pray. Interestingly enough, the word used for room is a secret chamber, an inner room, a closet. Jesus is instructing his hearers to intentionally go into this inner chamber.
Jesus continues on telling his hearers that the Father is in this secret place and sees what is happening there. The word used for sees actually communicates a constant seeing that is viewed as a true reality. The word used for secret can also be translated as hidden. The same root word is used to describe the hiddenness of the treasure or pearl in Matt. 13:44-45. Here the hidden treasure describes the Kingdom of Heaven and is of great worth.
It seems to me that Jesus is instructing his hearers to a deeper understanding than going into a private place to pray. Maybe this private place is deep within their own soul. I have found this quiet form of praying more consistent to what I sense in these words of Matthew and in my own faith journey. This private place seems to be even beneath my own thoughts and words.
Contemplative prayer, or more specifically Centering Prayer, has become an important part of my daily rhythm. It is in accepting the invitation to become quiet in order to hear God, to experience God’s love for me. This goes beyond a particular request, to a place of trusting God to meet me in this quiet place.
It is an invitation to let go of my own agenda, my own need to protect myself, and my ideas of how to meet my own needs. We all desire to belong: to be seen, heard, believed in, and known. As we let go of trying to meet these innate desires ourselves, we can rest in the truth of God’s personal love for us. This goes beyond what I know in my rational mind and into a lived out experience in my soul.
How do we become quiet in prayer? If you have ever tried to be completely quiet, you know it isn’t as easy as it sounds. Try setting a timer for 5 minutes to get an idea of how difficult it is. Once you intend to be quiet, all the thoughts, once held back by the busyness of life, come to the surface. So in the noisiness of our intention to be quiet, gentleness is the approach. It is important to remember that being quiet in prayer or practicing Centering Prayer isn’t something to strive toward, quietness isn’t something to achieve, and there isn’t a path to do this “right.”
Centering prayer is a much larger topic than can be handled fully here. I will discuss it in future blogs but experiencing it with others is beneficial. We do cover the practice in my spiritual formation groups and Contemplative Prayer and Journaling Retreats.
Some people in my previous formation groups have shared that life slows down for them. Nothing changes on the outside but the slowness, the place of rest, is on the inside amidst the chaos of the world around them. I wonder if this is the reward or benefit of going into our inner chamber that Jesus spoke about.
I would love to hear your thoughts as you engage this practice.
Hello, I'm Kathi Gatlin. Thanks for stopping by!