Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it! ~ Genesis 28:16
Last week eleven of us drove down to Ghost Ranch for a retreat on “Seeing the Divine in Nature.” We pulled into the Welcome Center with the red-yellow cliffs of the ranch surrounding us. Luminous green cottonwood trees graced the grounds and spread their arms to sky and sea, pine trees nodded peacefully to us. When I stepped out of the van and stretched, the scales of worry and fear fell silently into the soft dirt. I was home. An old Irish Blessing says it well, “May the soft winds freshen your spirit. May the sunshine brighten your heart, and the burdens of the day rest lightly upon you.”
The first Sunday that our church shut down due to the pandemic, I had planned a personal retreat to Ghost Ranch, but I never made it. The world seemed to close overnight as we sheltered in place. Our routines and sacred places changed. I remember how quickly the abundance of deer and fox came out of hiding and wandered unafraid across Weaver’s and Humiston’s hayfields. As vehicle traffic diminished and pollution dissipated, Shiprock stood tall and clear to our south. When we went inside our homes, the wild animals came out to their natural home.
I remember seeing a mother fox standing watch in the field south of Cottonwood Park as her kits playfully tumbled with one another and ran in an out of an empty irrigation pipe. They leapt with unbridled joy, ballet dancers in an unchoreographed dance. They did not notice me, their audience of one.
Walking the back roads of Mancos, I made sure no one was watching and then raised my hands to the sun and the birds soaring overhead. I was hopeful, with our newfound stillness, that a bird would land on my hand, and we could talk about all things great and small. But they just passed flirtingly overhead. Maybe someday they will choose to land on my shoulder.
My daily walks during the early days of the pandemic grounded me and kept me somewhat sane. “In each of us there is a place where we go in the middle of chaos to escape the fray. It is that “home” place, that hiding place, that soft place where no memories of it come with ragged edges and no thought of it is tinged with fear,” says Sister Joan Chittister.
Where are our “home places”?
Perhaps there is a tree that we grew up with in our backyard. A quiet place on a hill with a flat rock that we can sit on and see over town, but our neighbors cannot see us. A slow bend in the creek where the water cascades over a fallen log. Sister Joan writes that we need sacred places to which we can return when life overwhelms us, and we need to be still and turn inward. We need divine places of “our dreams and hope of our hopes.”
“Let us become alive to the splendor that is all around us, and see the beauty in ordinary things,” said Thomas Merton. Then miracles and wonder happen as the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The everyday becomes sacred and holy.
Jacob flees for his life and falls asleep in the desert. He uses a rock for his pillow and has a dream of angels descending and ascending from heaven on a ladder. God speaks to Jacob and assures him that he will not abandon Jacob. He wakes up and says, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it” (Genesis 28:16). Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Having woken up to God, he would never be able to sleep again, at least not to the divine presence that had promised to be with him whether he could see it or not.”
I am not sure if we find divine places or if they find us, probably a little of both. We need places where “we and nature become one” says Chittister. Places where the scales of life slip off us into the abyss. Places that nurture our soul and our “cup overflows.”
“It’s that natural place within us where the roar of the water or the silence of the mountains or the warmth of the desert or the moss of the swamp soothes our souls and make us feel human again, at one with the universe again,” says Sister Joan.
May the sun shine down upon us and may rivers of living water flow from our hearts (see John 7:38) as the Divine Presence saturates our lives. Amen.
Blessings and peace,