Awareness

I went for a hike today on the grounds of the Roslyn Retreat Center in Richmond, VA where the UCC is hosting a time of reflection and centering for clergy from across the U.S.  The lush green hills and blooming flowers reminded me that, in some places, spring hasn’t forgotten to come.

I made my way into the woods and down the trails not so much afraid of getting lost as of missing something.  Pausing frequently to inhale the smells of nature, I could feel an at-one-ment with God and a creation that reflects the beauty of the holy so aptly captured by the Psalmist.

The aroma of lilacs was overwhelming.  I wanted to bottle it up and take it home.  The entire feeling of walking down this trail with the butterflies in the air around me, dragon flies lighting on rocks, and deer darting back and forth between the trees brought joy to parts of me that are easy to forget exist.

The desire to take the whole thing with me was almost unbearable: the cool breeze moving the sun-warmed air, the way the rays pierced through the leaves above me, the sound of the stream and the occasional fish that broke through the surface.

I realized though that being able to put it all in my pocket and carry it with me would ruin it.  I could carry the essence, but not the substance; and I finally realized that was better.

It was like a place that I’d seen so many times before, yet had never seen in my life.  It reminded me of what Barbara Brown Taylor shared in Holy Envy when she was a child and her dog ran away on a walk.  She finally caught her dog by the tail and led it back toward home.  Eventually the farm buildings came into sight and she could see a barn, but she couldn’t tell which neighbor’s barn it was.  In some ways it looked like one neighbor’s and in some the other’s.  She felt disoriented and confused, but ultimately, she realized it was her own barn.  She just had never noticed it in the same way before.

Everything I took in seemed so familiar because I still carry the essence of other such glimpses of something otherworldly in thin places that were different, but quite the same.

These gifts are only visible when I’m really paying attention.  It’s not that they aren’t always there, it’s just that I’m not always seeing.  Such encounters don’t only happen in nature, but in people as well.  In his book, Life of the Beloved, Henry Nouwen shares what his friend Fred reminded him: “[L]ook attentively at what you see, and listen carefully to what you hear.  You will discover a cry welling up from the depths of the human heart that has remained unheard because there was no one to listen.”  It takes times like this when I’m fully present to be able to see and hear both the serenity and the longing – that in nature, in another person, and even in the depths of my own being.

I recall a conversation we recently had in church about the trinity.  It’s utterly baffling and seems to be a formula constructed by humans to explain the inexplicable.  In many ways this is true.  But when you’re in the thin places and see the shadow of the divine in a person or a place, it seems to become something much more beautiful and much more necessary.  Perhaps the trinity is as much or more of an expression of our need for God to be certain things to us at different times as it is for God’s need to be revealed to us right where we are at – if only we have eyes to see and ears to hear.

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