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Monk in the World Guest Post: Kathryn Coneway

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series form the community. Read on for Kathryn Coneway’s reflection “Sanctuary at Home and Deepening Relationship with Neighbors.”

There’s a tall straight oak tree growing behind our house; its thick trunk stretches straight up and then branches open like an umbrella at the top above other trees. I can walk around the base of the tree, stepping on thick roots that anchor it to the earth. In some places, a smaller root wraps over the larger main root; I imagine this as a glimpse of the vast network in the ground below. 

My favorite side of this tree faces away from our house, hidden from view by the thick stem. I look out toward a creek in the distance. This side of the tree gets the most sun; it feels warm against my back. As the seasons change, I delight in the call and response of bird song in the mornings and marvel at the noise of the wind through branches. In a light spring rain, I notice the canopy keeps the large trunk mostly dry even as the roots and ground around become soaked. The tree shelters a pool created by an uprooted tree that fell nearby. 

I’ve lived in my house nearly 14 years, but it is only in the last 2 years that I’ve begun to venture regularly to this spot, finding sanctuary through monthly, weekly, and daily pilgrimages to the base of this tree; over time my visits have grown more frequent. When I visit, I sit on a root or stand and lean against its broad trunk. In the privacy of the forest, I pray aloud, words of thanksgiving, concern, questioning. I feel seen and heard.

Previously, I saw the forest behind our house as a nice backdrop. I vaguely remember the fall of the tree that made the pool years earlier, we noticed the opening in the leaves and a bit more view of the creek in the distance. Six years ago my work shifted to working at home and I began to pay more attention to the afternoon light and sunsets behind our house. Even then, I observed from my deck, seeing the forest in the distance as a landscape, a pretty view. It was only when I began a regular visit to one spot, that my relationship began to deepen with this sanctuary and the living beings within it. 

In a podcast this winter, theologian and naturalist, Mary DeJong, suggested a shift in wording from “shelter at home” to “sanctuary at home.” This idea resonated for me as an artist and writer working from home and seeking to deepen my relationship to the natural world. She went on to suggest how when feeling isolated, one could seek presence in nature. She encouraged listeners to see what they notice outside as an interaction with natural elements rather than a one-sided observation. This description aligned well with my own sense of feeling seen and heard with this tree in the forest. It also reminded me of what I have learned as a monk in the world practicing contemplative photography. With a posture of receiving images rather than taking pictures, presence is about relationship. 

I am not the only visitor to this spot; one day as I sat with my eyes closed, I heard a low growl and opened my eyes just in time to see the busy tail of a fox walking away. Other times I hear deer splashing through the reeds along the creek. This spring I celebrated the return of a large snapping turtle who visits the pool, staying close to the tangle of roots from the upturned tree and likely feeding on large bullfrog tadpoles darting about. 

I am learning the names of plant neighbors too, beginning to recognize different stages of growth. In April, mayapple pop up on the forest floor; last spring I lost track of them before getting to see any blooms. Now, with more frequent visits, I check daily to see their growth and hope to see a bloom. This spring as the trees began to bud sprout leaves, I felt like they were saying their names as the signature leaf shapes became clear. I’ve been noting the date that each one bursts with new leaves. Initially, I was surprised that so many saplings were sweet gum, but then remembered the bright red and purple shapes of the autumn leaves. The tall oak was the last to bloom, its new leaves were only visible in silhouette along the high branches. Eager to see the leaf shapes, I was delighted to find a few small bundles of yellow pollen and new baby leaves on the ground; it felt like a gift from the tree. 

As a monk in the world, this natural sanctuary helps me practice stability and also encourages me to grow and deepen. I delight in the return of seasons as well as invitations to new discovery. The more I visit this space, the more it sparks my curiosity and invites presence and wonder.

I think of the scene in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry where the fox and the prince speak about what it means to tame something. At one point, the fox describes to tame something as “to establish ties.” Their discussion mentions the relationship between the prince and a rose he cares for as an example of taming. It seems self-important to imagine taming a tree, particularly such a large and independent one that asks nothing in the form of care from me. Instead, I can imagine that this tree is taming me, deepening my ties to the forest and living things around it through my visits to this sanctuary in my own backyard.

Kathryn Coneway is a mixed media visual artist, author, and educator; view more of her work She provides workshops to foster connections between creative and spiritual practice. Kathryn is the author and illustrator of two children’s books, COLLETTE A Collage Adventure and Oops Paint. Kathryn lives in Alexandria, Virginia with her family.

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