I had a serendipitous discovery yesterday. I've begun reading Nature as Spiritual Practice, by Steven Chase, a book I expect to refer to again here. In his preface, he refers to a phrase of Gerald May, "the power of the slowing," saying that it means if we give careful attention to nature, it has the ability to slow us down to its pace.
I was intrigued by the phrase, which resonates with what happens for me as I take photos and also as I work with them later. I googled it and discovered that it comes from May's book, The Wisdom of Wilderness. A quick online check revealed that neither the local library nor the nearby seminary had a copy. "Oh, well," I thought, and turned to getting ready for the morning's direction session.
Later in the day, a friend asked me to ride along on a short trip to Kalamazoo, suggesting we could visit the Friends of the Library bookstore while we waited for her violin bow to be re-haired. They have a room full of a wide selection of books. I began perusing the Religion shelves, and there it was -- May's Wisdom of Wilderness, on sale for a dollar!
So I've been sidetracked from the Chase book, reading instead May's vivid stories of his encounters with the Power of the Slowing, which he experienced as a vivid Presence, welcoming him, slowing him, and reconnecting him with all nature around him.
One of his paragraphs jumped out at me as fitting well with this past week.
Nature, I think, knows nothing of concepts of time or of the present. Nature--our own and that of the world around us--lives in Presence instead of "in the present." Rather than moving through time, it simply exists in cycles and successions:sound and silence, light and darkness, birth and death, activity and stillness, courting and nesting, eating and sleeping. Everything is rhythms. Everything is seasons. p 71
The rhythms and successions have been swirling this week -- from warm temperatures bringing along the snowdrops and, amazingly, a dandelion in the front yard, to yet another round of snowfall and the sight of birds at the feeder at Pathways Retreat this morning.
The dandelion is a cheerful golden sunburst, and yet I realize I greet the snowdrops with delight, and the dandelion instead with a sense of "What? A weed, already?" As I slow down and reflect, this does not seem right. Each is what it is, and the dandelion's yellow is a welcome burst of early color, to be received on its own humble terms. Perhaps the Power of the Slowing will slow me further, enough to welcome that gold sunburst, and to wonder what became of it in today's snow. It's too dark to check now -- perhaps tomorrow.
It was a rainy weekend for the annual Assembly retreat at Camp Friedenswald, but a group of us were able to explore the woods with Carol Good-Elliott Saturday morning, before the showers started.
We ambled along, stopping to examine the diversity of shapes on sassafras trees (oval, Michigan shaped, and two thumbed), the rich purple of squashed pokeweed berries, the golden eyes of a tiny spring peeper. Carol had us using all our senses, tasting anise-y sweet cicely, listening for woodpeckers and warblers, rubbing our fingers over the raised ridges of papery beech leaves,.and sniffing spicebush and sassafras leaves (which, according to the grade school children who visit Merrylea where Carol works, smell like Lucky Charms. We went with "lemony, " or to at least one person, "Lemon Pledge"). And even with a gray damp day, and lots of brown leaves around, there were plenty of colorful leaves to admire.
Sparks of light of a different sort...
After I posted about the Soil and Soul Retreat I attended at Maple Tree Meadows a few weeks ago, several friends expressed interest in learning more about what Karla Kauffman has in mind for the farm.
So yesterday five of us spent the morning visiting with Karla, learning about this wounded farm and the healing place she hopes to create here. The Gleason family were early settlers in the area, and farmed this land for over 150 years. It's been through many configurations, including a state-of-the-art dairy operation decades ago, and years as a horse farm, known as Gleason Meadows.
Eventually it was sold, and over time became more and more wounded. Karla bought 12 and a half acres of it four years ago and has been slowly working on renovating the old farm house and developing plans for the rest of the land.
She dreams of hosting a small community of fellow healers, who would tend to the land, and provide a space where others could come for rest and renewal -- perhaps offering a sanctuary for rescue animals and a place where veterans and others suffering from post traumatic stress disorder could spend time working with soil and soul. But all this is down the road -- for now she would be happy to have a small group of people who could help her consider how to give the dream body and prioritize the tasks.
In the meantime she is hosting once a month retreat days with the Soil and Soul theme from May through October, inviting women who serve in healing roles of many kinds (pastors, teachers, nurses, spiritual directors) to spend four hours in study, soil-work, soul-work, and fellowship.
And we shared many sparks of light -- the laughter and sharing of dreams, the birds singing in the maple trees, and fellowship on a beautiful summer morning.
During the Soul and Soil retreat on Thursday, I spent the contemplative prayer time roaming with my camera. The last ten or fifteen minutes of that I slowly circled Karla's herb bed, focusing in on some of the intriguing shapes and patterns. Until I slowed down and looked, and looked again, none of them had made even a tiny "blip" on my consciousness, even though we had gone past the bed several times.
Later, as we gathered around the dining table for lunch, one of the other retreatants told me she had discovered a new contemplative practice. She had ended her prayer time sitting quietly on the porch, sheltered from the light rain, looking out over the yard and the herb bed, and watching me contemplate the plants with the help of the camera. She discovered that it can also be contemplative to watch someone else in the midst of going slowly, looking, trying other angles, looking again.
This past week I spent a half day at Karla Kauffmann's Maple Tree Meadows farm, for a Soil and Soul Retreat led by Karla. Karla is a chaplain and spiritual director (and court interpreter and sustainable foods enthusiast and a woman with a hearty laugh and lots of energy) who dreams of creating a contemplative Anabaptist sustainable farm community on the 12 acres she purchased four years ago, a small section of an over-100 year old farm. In addition to the farm house and fields, she has a couple barns and other outbuildings and a healthy crop of barn swallows.
Following the Benedictine pattern of study, work, prayer and hospitality, Karla led us first in an hour conversation on a chapter in Ellen Davis' book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.
Then we had an hour to work in the soil. Cathy and I nearly cleared this small weedy patch near the barn, where Karla plans to have a small garden. I enjoyed the coming and going of swallow shadows on the ground, as the birds flew over us to land on the nearby wires.
We dutifully stopped work when the bell rang, moving to a block of solitude -- for prayer, journaling, walking the land or simply resting in the shade.
I sat for awhile on the front porch, barely journaling and instead enjoying the shade of a huge old maple and the view of a sunny meadow with flitting butterflies and swooping swallows, before I went exploring.
As Karla says, this is a wounded farm that has suffered a lot of neglect and that she is slowing mending. This is the back view of one of the barns, home to an enthusiastic vine and a colony of barn swallows.
The window you glimpse through the door is featured in the photo below and was part of the flight pattern for the swallows.
I contemplated the swallows in flight as they entered this window and flew on through the barn, and hoped to catch a glimpse of their graceful swoop in a photo, but I was never quick enough. The best I could manage were the two below, who paused in their flight, perhaps taking a mini-retreat of their own.
Our retreat ended with a tasty feast of green salad, chicken salad, hard boiled eggs, potato sourdough bread, stir fried garlic scapes, yogurt with strawberries,and iced tea sweetened with maple syrup, prepared by Karla from local foods (including the syrup from her trees). We ate out in the shade of a maple, enjoying the breeze and good conversation with the other participants.
A good day, tending to soil and to soul in beautiful June weather on an old Michigan farm.
And just a few more photos from the retreat, for friends that would have liked to be there. The theme was Driven or Drawn: Tending Spirit Movement, with presentations by Father Bill Sneck, SJ.
Mary Lou Weaver Houser created the visuals for our time together, and slowly added to this center visual as the retreat proceeded. If you’re wondering about the cobwebby look – yes, it’s floss, picking up on Father Bill’s description of doing a daily examen of consciousness as a good and necessary habit, similar to regular flossing.
The collage in the background of a waiter is also thanks to Father Bill, who likes to use the waiter as an image for his work of spiritual direction. He sees the Holy Spirit as a gourmet cook serving up a rich banquet, while Father Bill is the waiter who knows the menu of many possible prayer exercises, readings and activities; he listens to his directee’s hungers and offers menu “specials;” he is subordinate to the relationship between the diner and the chef, only one part of a good dining experience.
This unplanned still life caught my eye as I was journaling the first night. It captures many features of the retreat – flame-colored leaves gathered out in a beautiful natural setting; helpful presentations and the encouragement to put what we were learning into practice (doing the consciousness examen, formulating a proposition to test with Ignatian style pros and cons); quiet times for reflection and journaling; good food; good worship times. The sheet of music came from an evening worship session and brought its own spark of light for me. It’s the yearningly beautiful melody for a version of Psalm 139 (#556 in the Hymnal Worship Book, a tune by Ananias Davisson called Tender Thought). And the words of the last line are very fitting for thoughts on light and darkness.
If deepest darkness cover me,
The darkness hideth not from Thee;
To Thee both night and day are bright,
The darkness shineth as the light.
And one last photo, taken just as I was leaving. You can see the front view of this statue in the previous post. Here he is more anonymous, a pilgrim setting out. It makes me think of the angel’s message to the women at the tomb in Matthew’s telling of Easter morning. “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here…he has been raised, and indeed, he is going ahead of you to Galilee…” It’s a good reminder, as I return to the routines of daily life, that Jesus goes ahead of me. And that there’s always that pilgrim’s staff, ready to be picked up and used on the Way. (See it waiting there, in the corner? I didn't notice it until after I'd taken the picture.)
All the traveling took me to and from the Mennonite Spiritual Directors Retreat, held at the Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. This building used to serve as a training center for 200 – 300 Jesuit novices. Now it is a retreat center, with a small resident Jesuit community.
A full day of sunshine on Tuesday, combined with ample quiet reflection time, allowed me to roam the grounds, discovering many moments of light out in their rolling hills.
My third floor window.
My approach to contemplative photography --
Tell about it."
Mary Oliver in "Sometimes"