God in the Rain

I awoke this morning to the sound of rain. It turns out the forecast is for rain all day today in the vicinity of the retreat house.

My first thought was one of disappointment that the retreatants would not be able to wander over to the Sacred Heart chapel (one of my favorite spots; I wrote about it here), sit out on the dock that juts into Lake Winnebago, walk on the nature trail, or pray the outdoors stations of the cross.

But then I began to settle into the cocoon of silence the rain enhances. The retreatants are already in the silence of not speaking (and I hope also refraining checking e-mails or surfing the net).

Somehow the rain seems to intensify the silence of my surroundings. As I sit here writing this, the only sounds I hear are the quiet movements of the chefs preparing breakfast (the staff here does a better job of respecting the silence of retreats than any other retreat house I’ve been to) and the rain falling against the window of my room.

I also remind myself that God always gives people on retreat exactly what they need. And that the retreatants can and will find God in the rain just as they would have found God at the lake, the trail, the chapel or the stations.

Please keep me and the retreatants in your prayers.


Dominion Is Not Exploitation

I’ve finally had a chance to dig into Laudato Si, Pope Francis’ encyclical on the environment that came out while I was on retreat. Others have already written much on the document and provided helpful distillations of the major points (e.g., here), so I will not offer any major summary here, but limit myself to a single observation.

The account of creation in the Book of Genesis (written, as Francis observes in “symbolic and narrative language”) speaks of humans being granted “dominion” over the earth.  Some have always misinterpreted that language as justifying “unbridled exploitation of nature.”  In the encyclical, Francis

forcefully reject[s] the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.  The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to “till and keep” the garden of the world…”Tilling: refers to cultivating, ploughing or working, while “keeping” means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.  This implies a relationship of mutual responsibility between human beings and nature.  Each community can take from the bounty of the earth whatever it needs for subsistence, but it also has the duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.

The earth is not ours to do with as we will.  We are stewards of an earth that belongs to God.

There is much having to do with care of the environment we can argue over – what are the best means go address pollution or climate change, and so forth.  Much that is in the realm of prudential judgment.

But what is not open to debate is our obligation to till and keep – to “protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations.”  And that is an obligation imposed on us collectively and on each of us individually.

Being Outside

My dear friend Maria Scaperlanda captured beautifully in a blog post my the feelings that overwhelm me, particularly this time of year.  She writes

I simply can’t get enough of being outside.

Sometimes I am in awe at how much nature affects me, how deeply it blesses and renews my spirit. It’s not about just recognizing the beauty in creation—and the hand of the Creator, but about the peace and grace I find just being in it.

I know, I know. Nature can also be fierce, unpredictable, combustible, extreme.  Trust me. I know. I live in Oklahoma!

But no matter what I need, or what emotional state I’m in, or how much anxiety I’m fighting, or what feelings are bubbling from deep inside me, or how dry my prayer life seems… I look at clouds in the sky, or listen to the concert put on by the birds in my backyard, or feel the wind come sweeping down the plains and across my face—and I breathe deeper.

God is here. The Beloved is within me… and I can rest in the Beloved.

When the weather permits, I walk to and from the UST St. Paul campus to take the shuttle to the law school (which is is downtown Minneapolis), rather than have my husband drive me as he often does during inclement weather.  When I do it is my favorite time of the work day.  Especially now.  What new bud has popped open today?  What colors will I see?  What birdsong will I hear?  It is different every day and as I smile my way along the 20-25 minute walk, I breathe deeper.

Getting My Hands Dirty

I grew up in an apartment in Brooklyn, so gardening was not a pasttime of my youth.  Even now, Dave does most of the gardening.  Our prior arrangement, when we first moved into a house with a yard, was that Dave’s domain was the flowers and mine, the vegetables.  But after putting up with my overplanting as long as he could stand it, Dave took over the planting of both.  My quip re the vegetables has become, “Dave sows, I reap.”

But there is something special about working outside.  I spent a good bit of time earlier today raking out the leaves which served to protect various plants during the winter months.  It was hard work and required care to not disturb some of the early growth, but it felt so good.  I’m not sure if it is the consciousness of the change of seasons, the feel of the sun as I labor, seeing the green emerge from beneath the leaves, or just getting my hands dirty – likely it is some combination of all – but I came in from my work with a feeling of well-being and peace.

Even those of us who have academic jobs like the one I have are not meant to sit at our computers all day. And while I’m happy there is a Snap Fitness around the corner I can go to early mornings to work out, there is no substitute for getting outside.

So go get your hands dirty.  If you don’t have your own yard, join a community clean-up, or help a friend in their garden.  Get outside.  And enjoy.

The Singing Wilderness

Yesterday was the final session of the Heroes and Heroism undergraduate honors seminar I taught this J-term. The three hours were devoted to presentations by each of the nine students on the final papers they wrote for me.

Their assignment was to write a paper on a public figure other than one of those we discussed in class that met the definition of heroism the student developed based on our class discussion. I also asked their paper to also include discussion of a non-public figure or a fictional character who met their definition.

Reflecting the students’ different majors and interests, we had a presentation on a broad range of heroes that included, among others, two Roosevelts (Teddy and Eleanor), Fr. Damion Molokai, Emma Watson, George Bailey (from It’s a Wonderful Life), and Hazel (from Watership Down).

One of the heroes presented by one student was someone I was not familiar with, Sigurd Olson, who, as it turns out, is a beloved nature writer and was an influential conservationist who played an important role in preserving a number of national parks and wilderness areas, including the Boundary Waters areas in the northern part of Minnesota, where I have enjoyed hiking and kayaking.

Olson was a deeply spiritual person who understood that we need, in the words of his son, places away from the ordinary distractions of everyday life where we can be quiet and listen – to listen not so much to the leaves and the birds but to “the real.”

Here is a short video of Olson that my student showed as part of her presentation. It resonated deeply with me; perhaps it will with you as well.

First Hike of the Season

Yesterday was the first weekend day this year that I was in town, I had a clear morning calendar and the weather was warm and sunny. And that could only mean one thing: my first hike of the season. I dusted off my hiking shoes (the Merrill’s that took me across Spain on my Camino), picked up my friend Dan, and off we went to Fort Snelling State Park.

This is nothing new to people who have been following this blog over the years, but there is little else that is as good for my soul as hiking. It grounds me (no pun intended) in a way nothing else does.

Yesterday we saw an eagle in flight and a deer running through the woods. We stood on a bridge with our eyes closed just listening to the flow of the water underneath. We talked some and walked silently for part of the time. We laughed as we hopscotched our way through the muddy or washed out portions of the path (having ignored the sign that said the Pike Island part of the trail system in the park was closed). And I could feel my body thanking me, especially my legs, which truly were meant for walking. We were only out for about three hours, but it was glorious.

We can experience God everywhere – in the city, in the suburbs, in shopping malls, at the workplace, in our homes and in the homes of our friends. But there is something special about being with God in nature.

I’m planning on plenty of hikes in the coming weeks and months. I hope you get out for some yourself.

Visual Symphony

One of the things I love about living in the Twin Cities is access to so many hiking trails within a short distance from our home. Yesterday, Dave and I spent a couple of hours hiking some trails in the Carver Park Reserve (a mere 15-20 minutes from us). The sun was shining, the trails meandered through woods, lake and marsh areas.

What fascinated me most yesterday were the cattails and marsh grass. Standing slightly above the marsh, I could look over at a broad expanse of the cattails and grass as they moved with the wind. Different areas moved in slightly different directions and at seemingly different paces. Yet somehow it all seemed to work together. I was watching a visual symphony; that is the phrase that came into my head as I stood there and i can’t think of any better way to describe it. To be sure, I love the sound of wind moving through trees and grass. (For me, it is right up there with the sound of running water.) But yesterday it was the visual, not the auditory “sound” that transfixed me. The beautiful whole created by the varied parts.

I tried to capture it on video, but it was impossible. If I stood from where I was watching, the image it too far away for you to see it. If I moved onto the boardwalk that puts the cattails and marsh grass at one’s fingertips, I was too close to capture anything but the grass just in front of me.

But perhaps some experiences are not meant to be captured on video. They are just meant to be enjoyed in the moment. And, of course, you can always take a walk over to the Carver Park Reserve and catch of showing of the Visual Symphony yourself. There, as everywhere, “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

The Therapy of Gardening

The other day I passed a store window with a t-shirt hanging in it that read: “Gardening is cheaper than therapy…and you get tomatoes.”

Without minimizing the value of talk therapy for many people, there is something to the words on the t-shirt. Horticultural therapy is based on the physical, mental and emotional benefits that come from gardening. The interaction with nature and working outdoors have a positive effect for many people.

Specifically regarding mental and emotional well-being, I read that gardening “is considered a serene occupation, an oasis of calm, a grounding experience. The combination of the fresh air and the physicality of the tasks helps oxygenate the bloodstream and energize the physical body while simultaneously releasing endorphins involved with stress alleviation. Numerous scientific studies validate the calming effect of the garden by showing findings that reveal simply being in a garden lowers blood pressure.” That certainly accords with my experience of the calming and grounding nature of being in the garden (although I admit that lately my joke is that Dave does the sowing and I do the reaping in our garden).

It has been hard for anyone to spend much time outside in the Twin Cities in recent weeks. It seemed (until the last day or so) to be raining constantly. But if you have your own garden, or access to a community garden, try to get out there once in a while. Play in the dirt, get your hands dirty. Grow flowers, herbs, vegetable. Just get out there. And enjoy.

Trees: A Gift from God

I just got back from today’s hiking adventure: Lake Maria State Park. What a wonderful day!

I love trees. I especially love trees in the fall. Someone may quibble with me about whether the “peak” viewing of the changing leaves was last week or this week, but today was gorgeous. Shocking reds. Brilliant oranges. Golden yellows. Each color beautiful in and of itself, but together – breathtaking.

And that’s just the leaves. The trees themselves were majestic to behold. Even the fallen ones captivated me.

All day I kept thinking: Gift from God. All of this is gift from God. For us. And then, when we had gotten back to the trail center, we decided to do one last short trail – an interpretive trail that had an accompanying pamphlet explaining the sorts of things such pamphlets do.

The last item in the pamphlet was labeled, “How Valuable are Forests?” In answer, it quoted the following from an unknown author:

I am the heat of your hearth on cold winter nights, the friendly shade screening you from the summer sun. My fruits are refreshing draughts quenching your thirst as you travel on. I am the beam that holds your house, the board of your table, the bed on which you lie, the timber that builds your boat. I am the handle of your hoe, the door of your homestead, the wood of your cradle, the shell of your coffin. I am the gift of God and the friend of man.

Thank you God, for the gift of trees.

Fall Hiking

I just returned from an eight mile hike with my husband in Afton State Park. It was a beautiful day for a hike. Clear blue skies and sunshine and comfortable cool walking temperature.

I write here with some frequency about hiking because, as my posts suggests, it is an activity during which I am acutely aware of the presence of God. The sun shining on my face, the trees majestically reaching upward, the birds singing – all feels and speaks of God.

Afton is a fairly large park (as may parks here in the midwest are), and at one point, I thought to myself, “I’m not exactly sure where I am.” And I felt God and I say at the same time together, “That doesn’t really matter, does it? We’re here together and that’s enough.” Indeed, it was.

I spent a lot of time smiling today. Hiking does that to me. Fills me with joy.

If you have been feeling down, my advice is simple: Get yourself out to a park. It doesn’t need to be one with twenty miles of hiking trails, like the one I was at today (although there is something nice about being in a place large enough so you don’t hear the sounds of any vehicles). But someplace where you can walk on some dirt paths between a canopy of trees and hear the birds. Be with nature. Be with God.