Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Hugging Trees

I'm a tree hugger. Literally. I have been known to actually hug a tree or two. In fact when I was wrapping up my sabbatical and heading north from San Francisco to Seattle I stopped in Redwood National Park and did my best to hug one. I realise it may sound flaky to some but it offered me energy and strength. I received it gratefully before continuing on my journey.

Consequently I was very pleased a few weeks ago when I was asked by our Women's Spirituality group to come out to their retreat weekend and share some thoughts about nature connection, and especially Forest Church, which I've blogged about previously. For more information check out It was easy to say yes given that the retreat was being held a few minutes up the road from me at Loretto Maryholme in Keswick.

They were gathering just before Candlemas or Oimelc in the Celtic calendar. This is the beginning of spring (the equinox is mid spring by Celtic reckoning) because this is the time of year that the sun is noticeably stronger. This is a celebration focused on light so  it was a nice coincidence that they had made lanterns from tin cans the evening before.

As I sat in front of the fire I offered them my thoughts about nature and how Spirit offers us wisdom and insight. Inspired by the work of Noel Moule (his website is, who I had the privilege to meet when I was at the Greenbelt Festival last time, I shared with the group about Christian animism, the idea that everything is alive, sacred, connected, has a spirit, should be nurtured and respected, and how if we are attentive to the gospels we can see these ideas in Jesus' teachings and actions. Hearing Noel speaking in those terms had been so affirming of my own spiritual experience and I was glad to offer something of the same. 

I also shared with them the practice of sensio divina which I'd been taught by Bruce Stanley at the same Greenbelt where I met Noel. A bit like lectio divina, sensio divina is a practice of listening attentively to a place or thing or event in nature, experiencing G-d speaking through it. Just as you would do when approaching a passage in the bible, you begin by centering in the present moment with mindful breaths, and then appreciating the scene or object as a whole before becoming more aware of details. Again like when reading a passage you move from that to a more imaginative process, becoming less an observer and more of a participant, attentive to the insights that come. It's an amazing practice which continues to speak to me and I was pleased that so many wanted to go outside even though it was chilly. 

For those who preferred not to go outside I had spread out magazine photos of nature and invited them to write a psalm (this is again a practice I learned from Bruce, this time in his book about Forest Church. I chose that option for my own reflection. 

As I looked at the various photos I kept feeling drawn to one from an old edition of National Geographic I clipped out many years ago. I felt drawn to the verdancy of the misty scene of a brook and cedar trees seen below. 

There was something about the image that spoke to my spirit. When I had first picked up the photo I thought the child in the foreground was lying on a stone slab, but then I suddenly realized he was laying on a log, not unlike the log in the background covered with saplings. In that moment I knew what I wanted to say. I offer you my psalm:

Blessed are you mothering God.
A majestic cedar with roots sunk deep into the ground,
you lean against the soil, creating space for new life to grow.
You lay down your life that I may live;
you give yourself freely that I may be nurtured.
I give thanks for the gift of your strength and nourishment.
Beneath the shadow of your trunk I find shelter;
in the security of your womb I find comfort.
May you continue to uphold me
as I sink my roots in the foundation of your love.

You never know how people will receive an unfamiliar teaching so I was thrilled when everyone returned and they shared experiences of deep connection, how they regularly experience G-d in nature, how they had received inspiration from the experience.

When I said I wanted to start hosting Forest Church in Richmond Hill, I received an enthusiastic response. I'm clearly not the only one who hugs trees.

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