Rule of Life – Practice Solitude and Attentiveness

I will make time for solitude and will practice paying attention. Walking will slow me down and I will take time to notice what is there with me. I will explore the forests and other contexts of creation. As with reading, walking often gives me new energy. I have learned there is a great deal of similarity to exploring a neighborhood, a forest, or the printed page. A healthy spirituality for a preacher does include an exegesis of the text, but it is also helpful to exegete our surroundings. One becomes practice for the other. God is active in the text and in the neighborhood. I desire to be faithful to both as contexts for me to be with God.

I hope to continue developing the skill of attentiveness. May I be attentive to birdsong and plant life. May I discover the holy in the particular. Thomas Merton saw a collie with a feathery tail and the blank side of a frame house and found beauty. He listened as all day long the frogs sing and stated it might be the one of the best days he has ever known. The sun, dead grass, snowflakes, fire, soup, toast, hills, pines, and books prompt for him holy thoughts. I desire to become more attentive and to recognize the presence of the holy.

Wendell Berry practices attentiveness. He has a knack of starting with what is obvious. He might be talking about trees or birds or a farmer’s field. Suddenly these things become windows to other things like love, amazement, and blessing. Perhaps I should schedule a retreat. Or schedule a regular practice of retreat. Perhaps I should spend more time in the forest, perhaps an overnight or a series of hikes. How can I distinguish what I do for pleasure and what I do to feed my soul?

In our tradition it is common to raise our hands as a hallelujah. It is not unusual to say it out loud. Can a hike serve as a hallelujah? Can one step become Hallelujah and the next Amen? Can a journey through the forest be a celebration of praise? Annie Dillard seems to think so. “I go my way, and my left foot says Glory and my right foot says Amen; in and out of Shadow Creek, upstream and down, exultant, in a daze, dancing, to the twin silver trumpets of praise.”

Can creation’s grandeur make my soul sing? Can I be attentive enough to see the handiwork of God for what it is? Am I able to recognize creation as gift? Perhaps the forest canopy is a good place to listen to Genesis 1 or to Job 38. Perhaps a mountain stream is a place where I can practice seeing? I want to put myself in places where I can see and hear what is going on around me. I want to wake in the forest to the dawn chorus. Even though I may not recognize every singer, I can enjoy every song. Interestingly, the morning song of birds is sometimes referred to as matins, the same word used for the first prayer of the day. Even when seeking solitude one is never alone and I will join creation for morning prayers.

In order to become more attentive, I will pick up field guides and take them into the wild in order to learn to identify berries and trees by sight, birds and insects by sound. Perhaps this will help me to slow down and enjoy creation’s goodness. Will I ever be alert enough to hear the moment that cicadas sing the last notes of their day time song as katydids begin their evening chorus? Will I ever hear that moment when they overlap in harmony together?

I have come to realize that spiritual growth does not occur only in activities labeled as “spiritual.” I admit the wilderness has a tug on me. It is always pulling me in its direction. I have a natural preference to wade in streams, stare at sky, and hike the forests. However, I often find myself surrounded by tall buildings, concrete sidewalks, and asphalt lots. No matter the different places we find ourselves, it is important to keep our eyes open in order to capture the stories that may be found there. We cannot stop looking when walking alleys, sitting in coffee shops, talking on the street. We are always exploring beauty, searching for wonder, and looking for ways that God is at work. No matter the context, whether wading through creeks or concrete, whether surrounded by humans or other wildlife, may I recognize them all as gift.

A Handbook about Being a Spy

Virginia Stem Owens has written an interesting little volume And the Trees Clap Their Hands. The subtitle is Faith, Perception, and the New Physics. These things are discussed but this book reads more like a confession, Stem Owens reveals she is a spy. She is busy ransacking the world for secrets. She stuffs them in her pockets while going about her business undetected. It could have been titled A Handbook about Being a Spy. In this book it is her intention to pull the reader into a spy story.

She has been verified in the last census. The house she lives in, the clothes she wears, the food she eats, the cars she drives do not distinguish her from others. She disguises as an ordinary citizen, making her contribution of children, taxes, and casseroles while all the while she is up to something different. Stem Owens strikes a trail and sticks to it. She spreads her senses wide and pulls them back in to see what she may have snared in the wind. She is on a stake out, waiting in unlikely places “ready to pounce on reality should it choose to reveal itself.” She stalks and ambushes, wrestles and gouges whatever meaning she is able, “You must be ready when it comes flying at you.” Readiness is in contrast to self-indulgence. Self-indulgence is fatal for spies. “To ring bells and go barefoot is self-indulgent, and would only call attention to yourself.”

There is danger in this vocation. The greatest is not to be discovered or even to be tortured. The greatest danger for the spy is to forget the mission. The worst thing that can happen is to forget who you serve or to begin thinking that Babylon is all there is. The danger is real. She knows this because she is surrounded by many who have already defected. She is surrounded by others who have forgotten or even renounced the mission. The danger is real. The spy spends so much time and effort learning the language, adopting the customs, and practicing the habits of this land that gradually she becomes her cover. It is easy to forget what one is about.

She knows her way around. She does not need a map for where she lives, but one is necessary for what she hopes for “It is buried treasure that needs a map.” So she slinks out the gate with map in hand. She is disguised not by her own skills or cunning but by the blindness of those around her. She understands the constant danger. But if she winds up like John the Baptist with her head on a platter, she will not blame Herod or the headsman. They are only issuing the known penalty for those who commit such treason.

Winter Adventure

It feels like Winter, finally. And the forecast calls for snow. Makes me want to do something wintry. Maybe I’ll put on a lot of layers. Test the strength of the ice on the lake. Get out the snow shoes. Light a fire. I have been watching the trailer for the movie The Revenant which looks like a winter adventure. Maybe I’ll go check the trap line, fight a bear, and crawl back to camp. Or maybe I’ll just go watch the movie.

I am reminded of the following;

I try to spend as much time as possible in the winter forest. It is a great place to sharpen the senses. Contrast, movement, and sound call attention to themselves in a hurry. Things are more visible in the bare deciduous woods, including evidence that something has already been there before you arrived. Then there is the winter forest at night. The senses sharpen more clearly. Temperature heightens the sense of cold on your nose and cheeks. Looking at the sky feels like a spectator sport. Noise and movement gain your attention quickly. It is not difficult to find yourself on the alert. If you are nothing else in the winter woods at night, you are aware. Sometimes you hear something, see something, discover something that makes this all feel like an adventure. But the fact is, in the forest it is always likely that you were discovered first. Some things are sure to grab attention, like the cold of a winter night. Other things are more subtle and require sharpened senses. I hope to be attentive.(Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now, p.29)

Sounds wintry. I am glad I do not have to fight a bear or crawl back to camp in the snow in order to experience some winter adventure.

Capturing Stories

The wilderness has a tug on me. It always seems to be pulling me in its direction. I have a natural preference to wade in streams and stare at sky and hike the forests. However, I often find myself surrounded by tall buildings and concrete sidewalks and asphalt lots. No matter the different places we might find ourselves, it remains important to keep our eyes open in order to capture the stories that may be found there. We cannot stop looking across the terrain, remaining attentive when walking alleys, sitting coffee shops, talking on the street. All the while exploring beauty, searching for wonder, and looking for ways that God is at work.

Surrounded by Danger

I look across a small field and notice a cat in a small tree.  I suppose that cat enjoyed hunting in that field.  I suppose that cat had been successful in that field before and was hoping to find success again.  Cats are hunters, predators, carnivores.  But on this day, at the base of the tree looking up at the cat was a red fox.  This picture demonstrated where these two were on the food chain.  Roy Bedichek suggests that “the body odor of his prey excites the predator so that his mouth waters and every fiber of his being becomes taut and every sense alerted.”  I suspect that the cat felt as if he used one of his nine lives.

We are not exempt from this feeling.  We may strut around as finely evolved creatures driving our fancy cars in our designer clothes or walking about with our expensive tools and toys.  We may feel as if we are the top of the food chain, but, as Diane Ackerman points out, “our adrenaline still rushes when we encounter real or imaginary predators.”  The fact is, sometimes we are the fox.  But, other times we feel like the cat.

Most of us are intelligent enough to stay away from big predators.  We do not swim with sharks.  We do not challenge bears.  We do not reach into the mouths of big cats.  We can acquire a weapon to protect ourselves.  Our houses are able to keep the obvious predators out.  Most of us feel safe in our surroundings.

Most predators are of little concern to us.  Lady bugs are carnivores.  Diving beetles eat spring peepers.  A praying mantis has been known to take a garter snake, mouse or hummingbird.  But why do we talk about carnivorous insects when they have their own worries?  We have a local plant called a sundew  that eats the insects.  The sundew is covered with a series of short hairs or tentacles that are covered in a sticky gel that makes it look as if it has morning dew on it all day long, especially when it glistens in the sun.  Insects are attracted to this glistening nectar, become stuck, and the tentacles close around the victim.

How alert should we be?  Is it safe to swim in a farm pond or the local lake?  To dip our toe in water where largemouth bass and bullfrogs live?  Fact is, the largemouth bass is a fierce predator.  Small ducks have been known to become bass food.  It is aggressive enough that if one grew big enough, it would consider you to be food.  Same with a bullfrog.  Of course, neither  worry us while wading in their waters.  But if either thinks it could fit you in its mouth, it will try to eat you.  Some things are at the top where they sit or swim, as long as no one more fierce shows up.

Is it safe to come out of the water?  Driving along the Susquehanna recently, I watched a big bird with deliberate wing beats fly gracefully over the river.  It had a white head and white tail feathers that contrasted with its otherwise dark body.  We are just beginning to see Bald Eagles around here and although I rather enjoy it, the residents of the river probably do not.  Still, the fact is that raptors have been watching us for a long while.  These birds with keen eyesight and strong beaks and great talons perch on fence posts and telephone poles and in trees along highways.  Perhaps to watch for small mammals, perhaps to keep an eye on those of us driving by.  The Great Horned Owl possesses talons that are capable of crushing the skull and severing the spine of its prey.  They are covered with soft feathers that provide insulation but also permit them to fly gracefully yet silently while in pursuit.  Like flying ninjas with built-in weapons.  They sing their songs at night to announce that this is their territory.

Are things any safer indoors?  Richard Louv tells us that the Environmental Protection Agency claims that indoor air pollution is the number one environmental threat to health.  “A child indoors is more susceptible to spores of toxic molds growing under that plush carpet; or bacteria or allergens carried by household vermin; or carbon monoxide, radon, and lead dust.”  He goes on to say that some link indoor play to obesity.  “So, where is the greatest danger?  Outdoors, in the woods and fields?  Or on the couch in front of the TV?”

What most of us are probably unaware of is the invasion of endoparasites.  Invaders from the inside.  Gordon Grice says that parasitic worms attack humans as often as mosquitoes do.  “At this moment, more than one billion human beings carry within their bodies a nematode worm called Ascaris lumbricoides.  About one in every thirty humans is under attack from the fluke that causes schistosomiases; one in six hosts the hookworm.  Even in the well-medicated United States, 40 million people are afflicted with pinworms.  The results of these diverse infections will vary from no noticeable reaction to excruciating death.”

Of the parasites Annie Dillard asks “how can this be understood?  Certainly we give our infants the wrong idea about their fellow creatures in the world.  Teddy bears should come with tiny stuffed bear-lice; ten percent of all baby bibs and rattles sold should be adorned with colorful blowflies, maggots, and screw-worms.  What kind of devil’s tithe do we pay?”  She goes on to ask if “we live in a world in which half the creatures are running from – or limping from – the other half?”  She later concludes, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along.  I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too.”

I think about the Copperhead hiding in the spring forest.  The Black Bear that walked across the stream where I fished for Brook Trout.  The long-legged heron that stalked the field along Conodoguinet Creek.  That biting bug who was trapped between my clothes and skin in the garden.  The mosquitoes that have nibbled on me all summer long.  The ticks who feasted on my blood.  The dust mites that hide in my pillow.  The endoparasites that attack from inside our bodies.  The bass that eats ducks for dinner.  That diving beetle who was eating the spring peeper.  The sundew plant that will lure the insects in for lunch.  The Red Tailed Hawks that stand watch over fields and highways.  The fox that chased the cat up a tree.

Is anything safe around here?  Is anyone?  What should we make of this backward food chain?  One where plants eat insects.  Insects eat amphibians.  Amphibians eat fish.  Fish eat birds.  Birds eat mammals.  And parasites eat us all?

I think of these creatures and wonder why we are not always looking over our shoulder.  It is time to be attentive with every fiber of our being.  Every sense on alert.  Paying attention with every step.  There are predators among us.  It is safe to say that not all predators are monsters of cruelty.  But sometimes, when humans share territory with creatures, the result is something bad.  Of these creatures, Grice claims to “celebrate their beauty, even the dark side of it.”

Expected Business

We celebrated His arrival as a Middle Eastern baby.  But then an angel did give advance notice.  We celebrated His return from the dead.  But again, an angel announced this so there would be no doubt.  And again, we celebrated His arrival as Spirit.  But the rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire were pretty good clues that something special was going on.

These appearances remind us that He could show up anywhere at any time.  And there is no telling what He will look like.  After acknowledging such visits, it seems that we would always be on the alert.  What will He look like?  When will He show up?  Where will He appear next?  How will He arrive?  Who can predict these things?

I meet with a group on Sunday mornings to read and discuss the bible.  Not long ago we were reading from Matthew 25.  This is an interesting chapter where actions matter.  What we do matters.  Our practice becomes important.  Preparedness, the way we manage what we have, and the way we respond to others become extremely important.  A bridegroom enters to find some who are prepared and others who are not.  A master returns from his travels to find that two servants have invested wisely while one has not.  A King arrives to find that some have demonstrated mercy, but others have not.

Matthew knows how easy it is to get lulled into normalcy, seduced by the mundane.  We start thinking that nothing is extraordinary.  We can be no farther from the truth.  Matthew knows that it is possible to receive visits from the divine and pass it off as nothing special.  Matthew wants us to be ready.  Be prepared.  Be on the alert.  Be about the business that is expected of us.

Matthew tells us that without announcement, He shows up as a bridegroom, as a traveler returning from a journey, as one who is hungry, one thirsty, one homeless, one shivering in the cold, one sick, one in prison.  Who knows what to expect from this God who shows up like the least of these, whenever He wants, and anywhere.  A God who shows up unexpectedly with no concern for societal norms.  We may already have other plans.  Doesn’t He know that we like advance notice?  Where is the angelic announcement?  The rushing mighty wind?

Are we attentive to what goes on around us? Expectant?  There is light on the horizon, what will this day bring?  Am I prepared?  Have I invested wisely?  Will I share food with the hungry?  Drink with the thirsty?  Share warmth with those who are cold?  Comfort the sick?  Greet the stranger?  Give hope to the prisoner?

We could be host to the divine.  It would be wise to be kind to that uninvited guest at the next dinner party.  Next time you walk into a roomful of people, scan the room, He could be anywhere.  God does not seem concerned about invitation or RSVP.  Your next appointment – better be on your toes.  Be on the alert.  What will He look like?  When will He show up?  Where will He appear next?  How will He arrive?  Will I be about the business that is expected of me?

Fortaste: an Amateur’s Definition

It is overture

the smell from the kitchen

and the saliva before the first bite


it is the inside pounding before you jump

heartbeat before the whistle blows

and the tensing before the wave crashes


It is the moment before opening your eyes

anticipation before turning the page

and the dip of your brush into color


It is the tug before you set the hook

your gaze before the arrow flies

and the thrill of the hunt


it is the breath before song

and the space before prayer

It is fleeting gift

Things to Look for on Warmer Days

Already this year we watched the borough bloom with magnolia, pear, and cherry blossoms.  With forsythia and hyacinth and daffodil.  We watched as those gave way to redbud and dogwood and tulips.  As the ground temperature has warmed, lettuce, beets, and onions have started to shoot above ground in the garden out back.  So far, the rabbits have enjoyed them most.

I will continue to keep watch on the garden, however I also have an interest in what lies on the forest floor.  As the ground warms, green undergrowth has started to emerge from underneath the browns.  While walking among the poplars I taste dandelion, spice bush, and wild mountain mint.  But those are not the things I am looking for.  I am stalking morchella, the common morel.

These spring delicacies are not your grocery store mushroom.  Gather a bunch, slice them lengthwise, and refrigerate them in salt water.  Roll them in your favorite batter, sauté them in butter and you will be looking for more.  Give one to someone else and they will do anything you want for another.  Having finished a small batch last night, I am getting a little anxious to find some more.  They taste like spring to me.

Last year I found my first one April seventh.  This year, things have been a little slower due to the cooler weather.  But finding morels is about more than the weather.  The weather may put you there at the right time but it is also important to be in the right place.  So, it is best to start by looking for trees that mushrooms seem to hang out with.  If you find potential territory, stake out a perimeter like a crime scene investigator.  Search it thoroughly.  Look closely.  And when you think you have looked enough – look again.

One Saturday last year I was mushroom hunting.  My sunglasses were on top of my hat when I walked into the woods.  When I got back to the car they were not.  While retracing my steps, I noticed my boot lace had become untied.  When I knelt to tie my boot, there was a morel.  A pretty good reminder that it is always a good idea to have another look.

There are other reasons to pay close attention.  Warmer days may bring out mushrooms, they also bring out the Northern Copperhead.  A pit viper whose coloration happens to match the dominant colors of the forest floor perfectly.  It is not unusual to cross paths with a Timber Rattlesnake.  But, though we are told that they are more abundant than rattlesnakes, I do not see many copperheads up here.  I am willing to bet that they have seen me.  It is true that some activities seem to be safe enough – but one never knows what else lurks in cover.

Paying Attention to Autumn

One September night Keightley and I stayed in the Tuscarora.  We built a fire, cooked meat on sticks, baked a pan full of bannock and listened to acorns fall from a nearby oak tree all night long.  I lean against a tree above the Laurel Run and notice the reflection of a log that is lying across the creek.  The log appears still above the water, but the reflection below reveals that it is dancing.

Evening air is becoming cooler.  Darkness keeps arriving earlier.  There is no denying the fact that autumn is here.  The trees are turning colors.  It is really quite a show.  Autumn has a look about it.  The poplars that were bare when I stalked mushrooms in the spring are now turning yellow.  I think of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting Avenue of Poplars in Autumn.  In 1884 he wrote his brother to say that he had made “a rather large study of an avenue of poplars, with yellow autumn leaves, the sun casting, here and there, sparkling spots on the fallen leaves on the ground.”  Every time I see the painting I think it looks as if the trees are on fire.  Autumn has a look, and I like it.

If you have been listening you have heard the song of crickets in the daytime.  This seems to have something to do with the temperature.  All summer long, they sing at night because it is too hot during the day.  Now we hear them sing in the day because it is too cold at night.  In fact, some claim that crickets can help you determine the temperature.  Amos Dolbear published a manuscript in 1897 with the research on this.  It is known as Dolbear’s Law.  At its most simple formula, count the chirps heard in fifteen seconds, add forty, you should get an approximation of the temperature in Fahrenheit.  Cricket song is known as stridulation.  Simply, a formal term for the song produced by rubbing body parts together.

We once caught an Eastern Fence Lizard and had him as a guest in our home for a few nights before releasing him.  We would catch crickets and toss them in with him.  We would listen to them sing from the back corner of the house.  We experienced stridulation.  And then, silence.  If you count the chirps of a cricket for fifteen seconds and you get zero, he may have been sharing an aquarium with an Eastern Fence Lizard.

It is a good time of year to carry a bow into the woods.  I can hear sit com character Barney Stinson now, “ghillie suit up.”  Walking through the forest it’s as if a fire has been lit.  Colors burn at the top of the trees.  Leaves fall like sparks to the ground.  If one lands on my head will I be able to understand other tongues?  They crunch under my feet as colors are unveiled.  Sounds like autumn to me.  I walk through various shades of red, orange, and yellow.  It is as if the fire is catching.  The true colors of the leaves only begin to show as they begin to die. Is that what it takes to reveal our true colors?

The autumn forest is stunning.  The changing colors.  The cricket song.  The dancing log.  The chill in the air.  Baked bannock.  The artist’s painting.  All of it.  I have been reading Donald Miller who is afraid that we might be missing something, “What I’m saying is I think life is staggering and we are just used to it.  We are all of us like spoiled children no longer impressed with the gifts we are given, it’s just another sunset, just another rainstorm moving in over the mountain.”

Can we not recognize these things?  Is it possible to look past them and take them for granted?  Are we not participants in the things that go on around us?  Are we not even spectators?  It’s as if we are seated in the audience but facing the wrong direction.  Can we ignore cricket song or the crunch of leaves in the fall?  Can we ignore the acorns falling from the oak tree?  Or the taste of meat cooked over fire on a slab of bannock?  If I were as alert as the reflection in the stream would I also be dancing?  If I were as attentive as the changing leaves would I be glowing like sparks from a fire?  If I were a Christian in Nero’s Rome would I give my life for a story that is greater than my own?  What are we to give in response to the gifts we have been given?

Spring Song, Sky Show, and Compost

Last week the frogs began to sing the first notes of their spring song.  Keightley and I caught them in the act.  I am reminded of Thomas Merton.  On March 19, 1948 he leaves his window open and writes “all day the frogs sing.”  Merton was a Trappist monk and spiritual writer so his day was also filled with contemplation, scripture, and prayer.  (Perhaps he spent that day contemplating on the early chapters of Luke).  But when evening comes “the frogs still sing.”  He goes on to say that “It has been one of the most wonderful days I have ever known in my life.”

I listen as the Foo Fighters sing “Say have you heard the news today, one flag was taken down, to raise another in its place” and wonder what Dave Grohl may have been reading before he wrote those words.  (I do not claim to know what arena of spirituality Dave subscribes to, just pointing out the spiritual tone of that lyric).  Whatever he intended, I hope he doesn’t mind that I plan to steal that lyric to use for my own purposes.

On March 16, 2011 an asteroid zoomed by earth.  This is not an unusual occurrence, as of that day astronomers were aware of 1,215 potentially hazardous asteroids!  2011 EB74 (asteroids have unimaginative names) came closer than the moon and was the size of a house.  It was only discovered a day before.  We are told that this poses no danger because an asteroid of that size would not survive entry into our atmosphere.  But I can’t help but wonder about the risk of something as big as a house flying at me with only a day’s notice.

Mercury and Jupiter have recently passed one another in the sky.  Saturn passed by the moon.  Not just any moon – the super moon.  Without a break in the action, we spin on our planet’s axis and orbit the sun.  There is a full aerial show nearly every night and we miss most of it.  Asteroids, planets, moons (we haven’t even mentioned the stars); it’s as if we are granted tickets to a nighttime circus.  We should have to pay admission to see this stuff.  Instead we purchase cable television and sit on the couch.

Here on the ground I spend time with a shovel.  Starbucks donates a bag of coffee grounds.  I turn it with kitchen scraps into the compost.  I add it into the garden where it breaks up this red clay like soil we have here in our part of the world.

Henry David Thoreau writes about life on the ground in Walden, “We are acquainted with a mere pellicle of the globe on which we live.  Most have not delved six feet beneath the surface, not leaped as many above it.”  He goes on “We know not where we are.  Beside, we are sound asleep nearly half our time.  Yet we esteem ourselves wise, and have an established order on the surface.”

Whatever we choose to call it, an asteroid passed by closer than our moon.  In cosmic terms, that is a close call.  Planets travel across the sky as if it is a highway.  We spin and orbit.  I am just hanging on for dear life hoping to notice what is going on.  On more fortunate days, we catch some of the action.  Super moon, compost, rock song.  So much goes unnoticed.  That does not suggest there is not plenty going on.  Even on our “mere pellicle of the globe.”  And on South Mountain, the frogs are singing.  I think Merton would say that it is a wonderful day!