Dear monks, artists, and pilgrims,
The following reflection is excerpted and adapted from an article that appeared in Presence: A Journal for Spiritual Directors International earlier this year. It speaks to what feels like the heart of the work I do in reclaiming an intimacy with creation and letting her wisdom guide our contemplative practice.
The creatures and trees are spiritual teachers
“Believe me as one who has experience, you will find much more among the woods then ever you will among books. Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master.” — Bernard of Clairvaux
In ancient tradition, there were often holy men and women who were described as having a special relationship to animals. Benedict of Nursia, for example, befriended a crow who was later said to have saved his life. It was said of Kevin of Glendalough that an otter would sometimes bring him salmon from the lake so he could eat. There is a story about Ciaran of Clonmacnoise in which the boar became one of his first monks. These special connections and relationships to animals were once a sign of profound holiness.
In one of his letters, 20th century Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that this is what the monastic life is all about: “The monk here and now is supposed to be living the life of the new creation in which right relation to all the rest of God’s creatures is fully restored.” We are called to live the life of the new creation in which right relationship to all creation is restored. We are not anticipating its arrival, but living its becoming.
When we allow the creatures to teach us, we move into a posture of humility, of laying down our human-centric perspective and receiving new insight as the ancient monks did.
The elements are spiritual directors
“How necessary it is for the monks to work in the fields, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind: These are our spiritual directors and our novice masters.” – Thomas Merton
The elements of water, wind, earth, and fire offer us wisdom and guidance. They are the original soul friends. Air is the gift of breath we receive in each moment, the rhythm of life sustaining us. Breath reminds us of Spirit moving through us and guiding our direction. Fire is the gift of life force and energy and we might call to mind mystics across religious traditions that imagine God as the living flame of love which burns in each of our hearts. Fire reminds us of our passions.
Water is the gift of renewal and replenishment, sacred in rituals of cleansing and baptism. The sea calls us to remember our own tidal rhythms. The elements at the communion table and ritual feasting emerge from the earth, the act of eating is sacred and holy, also sustaining our life and work. Earth reminds us of our own earthiness and mortality, calling us to claim what is most precious to us in each moment.
Sometimes we imagine the ideal spiritual life as one of stillness in a retreat center or monastery. But as Merton reminds us, it is our embodied engagement with the world that reinvigorates our connection to the earth and how we might learn from the elements.
The mountains and flowers are the Saints
“The bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength. The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance.” – Thomas Merton
Humans are not the original Saints, we find the first examples in nature. Poet David Whyte has a beautiful line in one of his poems where he asks, “Why are we the one terrible part of creation privileged to refuse our own flowering?” The animals and the elements live their fullness without holding back and in them we can discover what it truly means to become a saint. They teach us how to live out our own sainthood by no longer refusing our true nature.
This is the heart of contemplation, to remember our true nature, to free ourselves from the ways we refuse each day, to listen into the invitation to become who we really are. We might consider inviting in nature as an ally in this journey and invite in trees and companion animals as witness to what it means to live into the true self.
(We are offering a brand new live intensive/retreat in Scotland next June 12-17, 2018 at the beautiful Bield retreat center to explore nature as wisdom guide more deeply.)
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner