When we see nature itself as a constantly-unfolding story about the deepest, most sacred truths of life and death, we can adapt the practice of Lectio Divina as a creative approach to meditation that can strengthen our relationship with the earth. Here are just a few ideas about how to use the practice of Lectio Divina to engage with the stories of nature. Although we can approach each of the four stages of Lectio Divina as distinct activities that we can do one at a time on their own, we experience the most benefit from this kind of spiritual work when we bring them together into a single coherent, continuous practice.
There are as many ways to keep a nature journal as there are people who keep them. Some fill their journals with sketches, watercolors and diagrams of the plants and animals they find in the natural world, while others take notes, jotting down lines of descriptive prose or inspired verse to evoke a sense of wonder, curiosity and care about the diversity and beauty around them. Anyone can keep a nature journal: whether you're traveling in exotic locations or observing the gentle, gradual changes of the seasons in your own backyard. The act of journaling can open us more fully to the world around us, and invite the natural world into those interior spaces within our own souls. A journal can be more than just a record of where we've been; it can be the beginning of a whole new journey. There are two powerful techniques that I especially like to use when journaling out in nature, in order to move me from a place of mundane consciousness into a state of contemplation, attention and receptivity. They are: naming, and questioning.
Different stories will inspire different people. For some, cooking and crafting is their way of fostering a relationship with the natural world, while others might be inspired by the greater call to serve the community on a global scale through conservation. If our efforts are effective and the stories we tell are inspiring, does it really matter whether we approach the work with the courageous heart of a fighter, or the gentle heart of a farmer? My post on invasive species provoked some really wonderful discussion from readers last week, reminding me once again just how diverse our attitudes towards the natural world can be. Even when we all agree on what practical actions we need to take, our motivations and reasons can be very different!
Given how harmful an invasive species can be, it's tempting to see them as wholly bad, the "enemy" of a healthy ecosystem that needs to be eradicated. For modern Pagans seeking to live an embodied spirituality grounded in the sacred land, invasives are powerful allies in coming to terms with our own ambivalent role in the ecosystems we inhabit, and the possibilities and choices that lie before us. Too often our modern society encourages us to see nature as fragile and untouchable, and humans as the worst intruders of all. Befriending invasives can teach us valuable lessons about how to be respectful, loving citizens of the planet that we call home.
When we light a candle in our ritual space, we ignite a flame within ourselves. When we pour water or burn incense as offerings, we offer ourselves as well, to soak into the earth or rise in gentle wisps of smoke towards the sky. Imagining these things is not enough — the work demands that we engage not only with our minds and hearts, but with our bodies. This is the original meaning of celebration: a gathering, a time of coming together. We've come to think of celebration as an occasion for happiness and enjoyment, because this sense of wholeness that we find in company with ourselves and with others is deeply nourishing and joyful for us. But celebratory spirituality also means being fully present to sorrow and suffering, and giving our whole selves as much to hard work and discipline as to pleasure and delight. Celebratory ritual is about our willingness to be fully present to the world and its gods.
Our relationship with nature gives rise to a paradox, in the same way that love creates a paradox. The paradox of love closely parallels the on-going struggle we have with the question of whether we are a part of nature, or separate from it. When we think of nature as our beloved, we discover that the answer is in fact: both. To be a nature-lover is to recognize this paradox: when we love nature, we see that our love both unites us with and differentiates us from what we love. In this way our love of nature affirms the most basic truth of our experience as self-aware creatures: that we are both a part of and apart from the world around us, that we are both whole individuals ourselves, and united in a whole that transcends our individuality.
Not all of our companions will elbow their way into our lives and demand our attention. Some of them linger beyond the limits of our ordinary experiences, leaving only footprints and snapped twigs as traces of their presence. These are our guides to the depths of mystery and wilderness. They are dark wanderers who cross our paths only in the obscurity of a moonless night, whose form we seem to see only just on the periphery of our vision before it dissolves again into the tangled undergrowth of the unknown. They are the companions whose presence we sense with the thrill of uncertainty, that mixture of excitement and terror that gives rise to awe. Their breath is the sound on the edge of hearing that we catch just when we think we are alone. Lest we forget that nature is not only familiar and intimate, but deeply wild and strange. Lest we forget that some things are hidden, and will remain hidden. The bear is, for me, this kind of companion.
We want so very much to understand our gods, to know them intimately, to see how they work in our lives. It is tempting to dissect, to analyze, to categorize. And sometimes, it is necessary, even beneficial. We are categorizing creatures, we human beings. We pick out patterns as a matter of survival. When it comes to our gods, we reach for them not only with our prayers and offerings, but with our reason and our intellects — we would know them with our whole selves, in all their parts, in part so that we might know our own selves better in all our parts. The challenge is to delve into theology without killing its subject, to try our hand at analysis and critical thinking without pretending that the numinous divine is a dead thing that will hold still beneath our careful knives. Theology is not dissection. It is much more gruesome than that; it is vivisection.
What is ecological polytheism? That was the question that I knew I'd eventually have to answer. There was something going on in the root-webbed dark, some new kind of way of being Pagan that was starting to take shape for me. I tried to answer this question, or at least articulate it, in a couple of posts over on No Unsacred Place, and they became two of the most popular posts on the blog. I wasn't the only one interested in asking these kinds of questions, it seemed. Lots of other people were wondering the same thing. What is natural polytheism? How does ecology inform my theology? How can I bring science and religion into conversation for a more grounded and earth-centered Paganism?