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“Never forget the earth,” my mother told me. Going through a particularly trying time, and attempting to distract myself, I had gone out into my garden to pull some weeds. I felt better afterwards, which didn’t surprise my mother. Even into her late 80’s, she continued to work, daily in the good weather, in her yard. After she lost my father, she would find solace in picking her Bing cherries, pruning her raspberry bushes, or cleaning up her flower beds.
She had grown up on a farm, and, like her own mother, she viewed the earth as a comforter and a friend, good for her body as well as her soul.
I learned early on to seek refuge in the natural world. As a child, I would walk alone in the woods at my grandmother’s farm, where I would lie down in a bed of leaves and sleep. As I drifted off, I would gaze at the pattern of interconnected branches and sky above me. My anxieties would evaporate. I felt connected to the elemental. The trees took me into their company. I felt the joy of pure physicality – my own body embraced by the body of the world.
In my search for God as a graduate student, I turned again to the natural world, making frequent, silent sojourns at retreat houses in remote and often hauntingly beautiful settings. On my daily walks, the natural world always served as my guide to a world of deeper reflection.
I remember one retreat I made in the November of the final year of my doctoral work, nearing the end of the allotted time for completing my Ph.D. The bulk of my thesis work still loomed before me. I would need to write about 300 pages in six months in order to cover the subject in depth. How would I produce that many pages? How would I bring them all together in a coherent whole?
One Friday night, in a state of desperation, I hopped on the train and headed for a retreat house in the suburban wilds, just outside the city. In my youthful hubris, I made the decision that I would stay there until God spoke to me, either telling me to quit the Ph.D. program or providing me with the inspiration necessary to complete the work.
On the first day, anxious thoughts rushed through my busy mind. On the second day, the thoughts began to clear, like a lifting fog. On the third day, I began to notice the world around me: the chatter of the nuthatches as they fortified their nests for winter, a flaming crimson leaf that still, in November, clung to its branch. Gradually, my mind filled with the sights and sounds of nature. I walked and I walked, and by the fourth day, I had begun to live entirely in the present moment.
Out walking on the fifth and final day of my retreat, a pea soup fog descended. Too late to turn back, I kept going. Where was “back” anyway? Fear began to set in. The woods stretched for miles. People had gotten lost there. And worse…. Scenes from a Sherlock Holmes’ style murder mystery unfolded in my mind.
Which way should I go? Slowly I made my way but I had no idea where. Then, through the fog, I heard the chattering of nuthatches. I remembered their tree at the edge of the field. I walked towards the sound and began to feel a very slight rise in the earth beneath me, and I recognized the small hill I walked up each day.
As I continued to walk, the sights and sounds around me began to recede before an inner stillness, a calm that seemed unassailable. Nothing could disrupt my peace, my clarity. My mind had become a clean slate, ready to write on again, not by something outside me but by something within me.
Looking back, I realize now my first real experience of meditation happened at that moment. I had asked a question and in the clarity of meditation, I could hear the voice of my own spirit offering the answer. Which way do I go to get out of this fog? Should I continue the doctoral work or not? The answers: just keep walking, one step after another. Just keep writing, one page after another.
“Never forget the earth” – I often call to mind my mother’s words and remember what I learned on that retreat: I do not need to go anywhere to find God. In a very physical way, God exists all around me — in every atom of the physical creation. He isn’t just in the pattern: He is the pattern. Creator, Maker, Fashioner – God’s names touch the earth and He touches me.