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Listening to Creation
Listening to Creation

The Preaching of the Trees

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Barbara Mahany writes of the converting experience the Book of Nature had on the Christian mystic Brother Lawrence: 

Sometimes, when closely reading the Book of Nature, the profoundest of lessons are learned from the quietest, most quotidian of happenstance. Suddenly seeing what you might have walked past countless dozens of times. Being awake to gospel in the plainest of wrappers. A buck-naked tree, perhaps. A tree whose very nakedness suddenly offers aha! 

Brother Lawrence [1611–1691], the seventeenth-century barefoot friar who found God in the pots and pans of his monastery kitchen in Paris, told one such story. In his one published work [1], a collection of fourteen letters, a wisp of an eighty-page volume I once unearthed from a library’s musky archives, he wrote how a tree in winter, stripped of its leaves, played the pivotal role in his uncanny conversion. It seems the good brother absorbed the tree’s stark emptiness, and, in that way that saints and wise souls do, he saw beyond it. He imagined the possible. As it’s recorded in his little book’s preface, the soon-to-be-friar stood before the naked tree picturing its branches soon filled with tiny leaves as if clasped in prayer. And thus he was hit, head-on. The surging sense of the immensity of the Holy One all but knocked him down, realizing the life force, the beautiful that would burst from the barren. In his little book’s preface, I was struck most of all by how strange it is that divine attributes can sometimes be seen in something so common. And how we’ll miss the whole of it if we refuse to be stopped in our tracks. 

Mahany describes some of the sermons offered by the Book of Nature: 

What are the sermons that the woods—those places of betweenness, repositories of ancient stories—might impart from their fretwork of branches and twigs, their columnar trunks and the boughs that hold up the sky? Certainly, there are tales of resilience, the way they stand against whatever time and the weather gods hurl their way, tornado or drought, ice storm or Noah-like rains. And lessons to be learned of holy communion, the way the woods and the birds and the scampering critters all keep watch, share food, warn each other of danger, create ecosystems that moderate heat and cold, store water, and generate necessary humidity. What else of the time-tested truths, laid down like the rings revealed in a fallen tree’s stump?… 

My temple, my mosque, my church of the woods, where the center aisle is earth rubbed raw, threadbare, not unlike a great aunt’s mothballed Persian rugs, where the vaulted halls are awash in shifting shadow and numinous light, bathed in a mystical halo, it is the holy place to which I return and return. It is a woods that preaches to me, fills me with wordless wisdoms. It is the place where I behold the awe-inspiring mystery of how I hope heaven will someday be. 

[1] Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God.  

Barbara Mahany, The Book of Nature: The Astonishing Beauty of God’s First Sacred Text (Minneapolis, MN: Broadleaf Books, 2023), 46, 47, 49. 

Image credit and inspiration: Benjamin Yazza, Untitled (detail), New Mexico, 2023, photo, used with permission. Click here to enlarge image. Awe is as close as the way a butterfly alights on a flower in the yard outside.  

Story from Our Community:  

I find peace in sitting in my “garden room” during my prayer time. Sometimes I get distracted by watching and interacting with nature. If I’m very quiet, I get all kinds of visitors. The chipmunks are the most inquisitive and will come quite close. During wintertime, I enjoy my prayer time surrounded by indoor plants. These days, I never worry about getting distracted from my prayer or stillness practice. I feel these encounters with other living things are opportunities from God to rest in the beauty of Creation and restore my soul. —Mary Margaret G. 

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