Featured, Holy Wild, Poetry & Music, praxis

Holy Adoration: Fire as Prayer

“How do I pray without fire?”

– question asked once in a dream

Just the sound of the word reminds me of fire: adoration, the heart aflame.

This is the first kind of prayer I ever really learned. The prayer I come back to again and again.

burningwaxsticks_CaitlinDoe

The strike of the match on the box, the scrape, the hiss — and then the little wick of the candle catches and holds…

This moment, this motion — it is a word in itself, a softly-spoken mantra of devotion. Shivering there, changing a little from one second to the next. Sometimes wavering. Sometimes utterly still. Swaying around its center of gravity in the wake of my breathing-out and breathing-in again.

It is enough: to sit before the altar each morning, to light the single flame, to watch it catch and hold. It is enough to show up to this act of intention. Without the need to grasp what cannot be grasped. Without the need to name what cannot be named.

To hold my heart like a candle wick, steady, upright, held open to the presence of my gods.

To hold my heart like fruit, or a flower, or a handful of seeds in an open palm, that they might arrive — might alight so gently, their touch barely felt — enticed, invited, uncompelled. To be eaten as the earth will one day eat me, slowly, bone by bone…

But then: sometimes it’s not enough. All this gentility — this steady, quiet kind of praying. The little bent wick sunk in its pool of wax, rooted in place, giving itself only just a little at a time.

“Let us pray with a good fire,” the Druids say.*

And so I pile up the kindling, some of it still wet from the rain. Under its skin, sap hisses and snaps where the fire licks it clean. Smoke slithers out between the splinters, unwinding upwards like incense. The husky whispers of my more selfish desires. I give it all to the flame.

It can take a long time for the damp kindling of my life to catch fire. I might sit for an hour making my inadequate offerings, poking here and there, wincing when a bit of wood shifts and suddenly the flame sputters out, suffocated, all but lost.

It is a ritual of unwavering attention, this kind of prayer. Arranging and rearranging, gathering in, working with what I have, trying to make room — opening up space for the fire to breathe. In a world that insists we fill every spare moment with progress, or at the very least a busyness that approximates it. It can feel like a radical thing to make space in my life for waiting and failure and stillness, to open up my lungs in song to my gods and let them breathe me empty.

It is not as clean and easy as a candle flame. It is the kind of prayer driven by longing, by frustration, by unrealized vision…

Until finally, I have sat before the smoking embers long enough, watched the wood turn first charred black and then white with a loose skin of ash. Watched the flame slip along each thin twig as if along a twining labyrinth of praise and recrimination, watched it run its course and meet its end and flicker out again. Until my whole body, my whole being has grown quiet and raw and I think, This is it, I have given everything I have and it hasn’t been enough…

And then, the moment I realize I was wrong.

blueflame_TracyRhodes

Sometimes what I want is a wild fire. A fire that roars. A fire that beats at the air with its bright fists clenched. Sometimes I want prayer like a fire that claims everything it touches. Prayer that ripples out across the rough dark surface of the world like music spilling down endlessly from the night sky, carrying the stars with it. Prayer that rolls over the vaulted ceiling of the heavens with thrilling impossible lightness — a fire round and hot like laughter, dragging the lush purples of faraway galaxies in its wake.

Prayer that turns over into adoration — into a joy that burns so hot, it blossoms like a blue flower inside every thrumming ember, unfolding its quiet petals one by one. As still and steady as an open palm.

Sometimes what I want is to give my whole life over to this adoration, to the hunger of the ones I love.

To be so bright inside that you cannot look, and cannot look away.

The Sufi poet Hafiz writes:

Love wants to reach out and manhandle us,
Break all our teacup talk of God.

If you had the courage and
Could give the Beloved His choice, some nights,
He would just drag you around the room
By your hair,
Ripping from your grip all those toys in the world
That bring you no joy…

You cannot get there with a candle flame. You cannot get there by wanting to be useful, reliable and tame.

You can only open your most secret heart like a furnace door, smoky-dark and so hot that to touch it — even for a moment — will leave a mark.

Only know that nothing is so precious it will not burn.

whatdoyousee_EileenMcFall


* Though they stole it from Hinduism.


Photo Credits:
• “burning waxsticks,” by Caitlin Doe (CC) [source]
• “Blue Flame,” by Tracy Rhodes (CC) [source]
• “what do you see in the flame?” by Eileen McFall (CC) [source]

"Queen of Wands," by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law © 2010
Holy Wild, Mythology & History, Theology

Q&A: What is the Song of the World?

The latest issue of the Alternative Religions Educational Network’s newsletter just came out this past weekend, and I was excited to be included as one of those featured in an interview with the editor, Christopher Blackwell. We chatted about my background being raised in a liberal Catholic tradition flavored by my father’s Irish heritage, and how that shaped my spiritual journey towards Druidry as I live and practice it today. It was great fun! You can read the whole interview here.

"Queen of Wands," by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law © 2010One thing we touched on was the Oran Mór, or as I usually call it, the Song of the World. The Oran Mór is, in my view, very much like the concept of the Tao: it is both “the way of things,” a guide or path to follow, and also “the way things are,” the complex and irreducible nature of existence itself. Chris asked me to talk a little bit more about how this cosmological concept is reflected in my Druidry. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Christopher: You refer to something that you call the World Song. Could you explain a bit more of what that you mean by that?

Alison: This idea of the Song of the World is open for debate in modern Druidry — I don’t know many other Druids who work with it, although it’s become a central aspect of my own practice. There is a phrase that is found mostly in the oral traditions of Scotland and Ireland, known as the Oran Mór (or “Great Song”). In Christian times, it became one of the names used to refer to God, although there’s some evidence in Celtic mythology and folklore that suggests the idea goes back to pre-Christian times.

For me, the Song of the World is something like Divine Harmony — it’s not a personal creator god, so much as the on-going creative process of the universe discovering itself, unfolding playfully and joyfully in an endless and infinite variety of ways, all of which are part of an exquisite harmony that is inherent to existence yet always changing and deepening. In his book The Salmon in the Spring: The Ecology of Celtic Spirituality, Jason Kirkey explains it this way:

“The concept of the Oran Mór makes explicit a belief that existence is song and therefore a process rather than a thing. God, to the Celtic imagination, is Being not a being; the process of Becoming rather than something which creates; the on-going self-creation or atuopoiesis of the cosmos.”

This isn’t exactly monism, because the World Song isn’t a “substance” or a deity. Just as you cannot create a symphony with a single instrument alone but must have many instruments playing together in harmony, and yet you can still experience the symphony itself as a unifying whole in which all of these individual instruments participate.

In the same way, each of us has a song that we are singing by the way we live our lives — the ways we move through the world, the very physicality of our embodied selves, create vibrations (quite literally! but also metaphorically and spiritually) that participate in and actively create the Song of the World. We join with it our own voices, the music of our bodies humming, pumping blood, inhaling and exhaling, neurons and nerves buzzing. The air we move through shifts around us with every stride, and our laughing and crying shape it. When we sing and move and live in harmony with the World Song, our own songs are amplified, modulated and carried along — our lives become beautiful, our hearts become soft and permeable, our minds become nimble and familiar with the patterns of how things dance.

This idea — that we each have a song, a soul-song, and that everything, the landscape and the gods and the world itself, has a soul-song as well — underlies a kind of lovely animism that permeates everything, everywhere, and fills it utterly with life and movement. It bestows a special sacredness to space, to limits and the separation of necessary absence through which limited, finite beings move. The Song of the World offers us a way to understand our unity and community without sacrificing our individuality and uniqueness, our creativity and our freedom.

~~~

We talked about so many topics, this is just a small taste! So I hope you’ll head on over and check out the rest of the interview, as well as the other interviews and articles featured in the issue. (And thanks again to Chris for the chance to share with his readers!)

Meanwhile, I’m curious: for those fellow Druids out there, is the Oran Mór part of your approach to Druidry? Does it shape your beliefs or practices in any way? If so, how? And if you’re not a Druid, do you have a similar concept in your own tradition?

Let me know in the comments!


Have another question for the Q&A series? Leave it in the comments below, ask me on Tumblr, or email me.


Photo Credit:
• “Queen of Wands,” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law © 2010 [source]

Holy Wild, story

Nobody Likes You Because You’re Perfect

“One day I am sweet, another day I am sour,” says the Irish trickster god Manannan mac Lir in his guise as the disheveled traveling buffoon whose hat is full of holes and whose shoes squish with puddle water when he walks.

This is my kind of god.

Manannan mac Lir Statue, by Rodney Harrison

It is nearly impossible to take writers seriously, and when you are a writer, this can be a problem. Writing is the kind of thing that almost everybody thinks they can do, and for the most part they’re right. It’s hard to take yourself seriously when the whole world is jabbering on, billions of people putting words together every minute of every day, stringing them along extemporaneously as if they were born to it. Pretty much anybody can conjure a whole castle of conversation out of thin air. It’s enough to make you cringe when you realize you’ve spent hours mumbling to yourself over your keyboard, painstakingly crafting sentences a syllable at a time, leaving thoughts half-finished like abandoned scaffolding because your dreamed-of spiral staircase turns out to have a wobbly step or two.

This is why I normally hate to write about writing. But someone told me that readers like to hear about “the process,” and since my work isn’t the kind of thing that makes for a photogenic Pinterest post, this is the best I can do. So here’s my process: one day I am sweet, another day I am sour. It’s Monday morning. Guess which one I am today.

Maybe you started out with a clear intention, compelled to write because you had something you desperately felt needed saying. Not me. I’m like the painter who paints not because she has something important to say about agriculture, but because she finds the beauty of sunlight on hay bales captivating, because she truly, honest-to-gods loves watching the way paint dries. I’m the worst kind of writer: the kind who likes to hear herself talk. I drool over delicious turns of phrase because of the way they feel in my mouth. I shiver pleasantly over puns. I write because there is a constant narrative voice in my head rehearsing the inflections and intonations of lightning versus lightning bug, and I might as well put that down somewhere. It’s the only way to make it stop. Also, I think I’m pretty good at it.

Awful, isn’t it? To think you’re good — maybe even really good — at something anybody can do. And the better you are at it, the more the results are supposed to look effortless, full of easy grace. There is a story from the ancient Taoist sacred text by Chuang Tzu about a butcher who is a master of his craft, with knives that never go dull. Of course everyone credits the knives. The townspeople speculate that the butcher must have discovered some magical metal so strong that it never needs sharpening, no matter how many cows he slices open. But the truth is, the butcher explains to them, that his knives are actually quite ordinary. They never go dull because he does not actually cut through flesh and bone — he simply finds the spaces that are already there, and slips his knife inside.

Sometimes I like to think that I’m aspiring to the same kind of mastery as the butcher, working with quite ordinary words, finding the spaces within things to slip in syllable by syllable until the world splits open. Such work takes patience and precision. Sometimes you have to wait a long time for those spaces to open up before you. A rushed job can leave you with nothing but a bunch of blunted clichés, unappetizing tripe trailing behind you like a bit of embarrassing toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

As much as I might aspire to some modest mastery, there are other times when I remember another story from the Chuang Tzu text. This one is about a withered old tree that escapes the forester’s axe because it is so bent and twisted that its wood is good for nothing. There is a blessed freedom in being useless. There is a kind of beauty in being defiantly true to your own knobbly nature. (If the act of mutilating the sacred world with a thousand vowel-edged knives weren’t scary enough, the gangs of new media — ragers against all things “poetic or naïve” — make success almost more dreadful than silence. In an online world of machismo-ridden barroom brawlers, no one roots for the girl who brings a knife to a fistfight.) Sometimes having something to say makes it worse, and the pressure to articulate the world, to slice and splice, to always be sharing some deep insight into the blood-soaked guts of reality… is enough to make me want to put down my knives and go learn how to paint landscapes.

What I’m trying to get at is that writing with any kind of intention or commitment is rather terrifying. I recently read an article about what’s known as the “Pratfall Effect,” which is basically the strange psychological phenomenon that makes someone more likeable when they make mistakes (like spilling a cup of coffee). This basically terrifies me because, like most people, I’m a fraud. My livelihood is based on the illusion of selective competence, when the reality of my life is much messier than that. There are days when I’m convinced that I’ve sabotaged my own career by being too much in love with my medium, too concerned with writing beautifully, too entranced by the sharp and shiny edge of the knife. They say that an artist uses lies to tell the truth. The writer, at his best, tells lies so well that he disappears entirely from view, leaving only the lies themselves as imaginary castles in the air so well-built that for a time the reader believes herself to be a welcome guest. But how is the writer who disappears from view supposed to casually spill his coffee? And if he does it intentionally — if he writes in the coffee in its wobbly cup, being sure to mention the broken handle and the logo that reads “I Hate Mondays” — just to put people at their ease, doesn’t that, too, make him a fraud?

This is also me.

Manannan appears in folktales sometimes as a buffoon and sometimes as a richly dressed traveling bard of talent and renown. When he is a buffoon, he is scoffed at and ridiculed, but his words are sweet and his music sweeter. When he is a master of his craft, he is welcomed with open arms into the highest courts, where he inevitably comes off as a fake and an ass. When he is at home, he is a king whose otherworldly castle is thatched with white birds’ wings. (We’re back to impossible castles again.) But the half-thatched homes of the mortal bards will never be complete. While the poets are out gathering more feathers, the winds have already swept away the last day’s work.

Which is the real god? The king, the poet, or the wandering buffoon? Which is the real writer? Which is the real me? Do I want to be famous, or do I just want to be heard? Is it even possible anymore to separate the desire to be heard from the need to market yourself as a celebrity brand? I’ve said that I love the sound of my own voice, but that was a lie. I was being flippant. What I love is the sound of many voices, and the way they play off one another. Within that cacophony, I sometimes catch a strain of melody, the Song of the World that sings through all beings. If I can play along with that melody for just long enough — if I can get myself and my opinions out of the way long enough to do justice to that beauty — where is the “real me” then? Buoyed up by the beauty? Or hidden away behind the words? This piece of writing here, this is not my voice. Not really. When I write, I’m almost always doing an impression, even if it’s just an impression of myself. I’m always adopting a voice, even when that voice is ostensibly my own.

How do you put the “art” back into “artificial”?

I love the ambiguity that good writing embodies, when that ambiguity is played intentionally. I love when the space within words sings like the body of a well-tuned guitar. (How many different ways are there to read the title of this post? Nobody likes you because you’re perfect — nobody likes perfect people; being perfect is not why they like you.) How closely do you attend to the multiple meanings of things?

They say that in jazz there’s no such thing as a wrong note. Improvisation is a risky business, but there is also a certain freedom within the structure of chord changes and drum solos. Any note can become the right note — the perfect note — depending on the notes that follow. Jazz is about the on-going creation and re-creation of context.

Some folks adore jazz as the earthy, evolving music of a messy, complex humanity. Other folks think jazz musicians are convoluted, insufferable frauds squeaking and squawking their way towards a false elitism.

The son of the sea is a jazz musician. He’s my kind of god.


Photo Credit:
• “Manannan mac Lir Statue, Northern Ireland,” by Rodney Harrison [source]

Contemplation & Meditation, Holy Wild, Pagan Blog Project 2013

Lectio Divina: Reading the Book of Nature

Book Altar - Empty Page and Waves

As pioneers striking out to revive or reconstruct a spiritual heritage that has been broken and sometimes lost completely over the intervening centuries, we are hungry for regular practices that can help us connect more deeply to these wellsprings of authentic religious experience. Pagans and polytheists today draw on many different traditions and cultures from all over the world in search of helpful techniques and approaches to the spiritual life. One of the most popular forms of religious practice is the use of meditation to still the mind, seeking enlightenment or sacred union from a place of stillness and silence.

It is often assumed that the West has no equivalent to the Eastern religious practice of meditation. People living in modern Western cultures today increasingly look to the variety of spiritual practices of stillness and contemplation to be found in religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism: from zazen or “sitting” meditation, to yoga and Tai Chi. Community colleges offer classes in transcendental meditation, and local churches host group meditation sessions along with their usual Bible studies. Western medicine has even recognized the physical and psychological health benefits of regular meditation. Eastern meditative practices are no longer just for New Agers, Pagans and occultists — these days, everyone’s doing it.

What many enthusiastic practitioners might not know is that Western culture has its own heritage of contemplative meditation to be explored. One such practice is Lectio Divina, or “divine reading,” an approach to spiritual study and prayer developed in the late twelfth century within monastic communities throughout Europe, and still practiced to this day by Catholics all over the world. Lectio Divina involves four stages of spiritual practice: reading, meditation, prayer and contemplation. Within the Christian tradition, it is most often used as a way of studying the Bible as the Living Word of God, a key to intimate relationship with the Divine, rather than as a text to be analyzed from an historical or theological perspective.

The practice of Lectio Divina is not limited to the Christian Bible, however. Those of us who see the natural world itself as a place full of sacred beings and divine presence can adapt the techniques of “divine reading” to engage more authentically with Mother Earth. Moving gently and reverently through the four stages of Lectio Divina not only connects us with the uniquely Western traditions we’ve inherited from our ancestors, but it also helps us to open up and listen more deeply to the on-going story of wild holy earth.

But before we look at how we can adapt the practice of Lectio Divina as part of an earth-centered spirituality, let’s take a closer look at the four stages as they’re usually practiced within the Christian tradition.

The Four Stages of Lectio Divina

Originally, the practice of “divine reading” simply meant studying the holy scriptures with attention and reverence, making the sacred texts of the Christian tradition a foundation for both solitary and community prayer on a regular basis. By the late twelfth century, however, the term had taken on a more specific meaning as a form of methodical prayer used in monasteries, and by the sixteenth century the practice of Lectio Divina had been formalized into the four-stage approach still in use today. Each of the four stages has a unique role in preparing the practitioner to enter into the stillness and receptivity of contemplation.

Lectio (Read) — The first stage of the practice is pretty simple and straightforward: reading the selected passage from scripture. Rather than reading scripture in order to gain an analytical or intellectual understanding of the text, however, a practitioner of Lectio Divina approaches the passage as a kind of mantra, to be read slowly several times, calming her mind and body so as to enter into a state of attention and receptivity. Unlike a mantra, however, the same passage or verse is not used every time, and so the experience of Lectio Divina is always changing, shaped by the nuances of the passage being read.

Meditatio (Meditate) — The second stage is to meditate on or ponder the passage that’s been read. The term “meditation” here is not used in exactly the same way as it is when referring to, for instance, the Zen Buddhist approach to meditation. Instead of striving to quiet the mind completely, the meditative stage of Lectio Divina is a gentle exploration of the passage’s meaning and living relevance. Meditating on the sacred text allows the practitioner to seek out the personal relevance that the passage has for her, and how its message speaks to her in the moment, here and now.

Oratio (Pray) — The first two stages of Lectio Divina — in which the practitioner first reads and then reflects on the passage — leads naturally to the third stage: response. In Christian tradition, prayer is seen as a conversation or dialogue with God. By reading and reflecting with receptivity, the practitioner opens herself to the promptings of spirit. In the third stage, she responds spontaneously and naturally to those promptings, guided by her own deepest longing for connection and authentic relationship with the Divine.

Contemplatio (Contemplate) — In the fourth and final stage of Lectio Divina, the practitioner at last enters a state of quiet stillness or “silent love,” in which prayer gives way to restful, silent contemplation of the Divine presence. This stage is most similar to the meditative states reached in many Eastern practices, in which the mind is stilled and the practitioner’s sense of self-identity becomes porous, transcended by an experience of mystical or ecstatic union. The first three stages help to prepare the practitioner to enter this contemplative state, but they also serve to ground her in the community (through reading and reflecting on a shared sacred text) and in herself (through the act of articulating her response through prayer). For this reason, the final stage of contemplation in Lectio Divina is not mere “navel-gazing” or escapism, but a culmination and fruition of the spiritual work done during the first three stages.

Practicing Lectio Divina in Nature

Book Altar - Wild Pear with MusicThe four stages of Lectio Divina are simple enough that they can be readily adapted to many spiritual paths both within and outside the traditional Christian community as a way of engaging with sacred writings and exploring their deeper meanings. However, Celtic spirituality presents a unique challenge to the practitioner of Lectio Divina: the ancient Druids, priests of our Celtic ancestors, did not write down their holy texts but preserved them instead as an oral tradition passed on through the generations. What little of this sacred oral tradition that we’ve managed to preserve until today comes largely from tales and legends written down by monks, with glosses and layers of Christian interpretation overlaying the original myths. Of these we often have to rely on translations and reinterpretations in order to render relatively obscure myths a little more accessible to the modern reader. Lectio Divina can be a fruitful practice for engaging with these ancient Celtic stories and uncovering their personal relevance and power, but there will always be limits on how deeply we can delve into these texts passed down disjointed over a millennium or more of broken tradition.

Luckily, there is another approach we can take that will connect us with our Celtic ancestors through our love of the natural world, an essential aspect of Celtic spirituality both then and now. 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.

Lectio

We can “read” the natural world in many ways. One of the simplest ways is to head on over to your local library and find an ecology book about the bioregion where you live — any book that includes basic information about the geology, flora, fauna, climate, weather patterns and some of the natural history of your area. Familiarizing yourself with some basic facts about the natural landscape that surrounds you and the other living beings who share the land with you can help you see the “bigger picture” and your place in it.

After you’ve done a bit of research, go outside and spend some time quietly observing the natural world around you. It doesn’t matter if you live in a secluded hermitage out in the woods, or in a busy urban center full of bustling people, or even in a carefully landscaped suburban neighborhood. Nature is not something “out there” beyond human reach — we are deeply embedded in the natural world all the time. Learning about your bioregion will help you to recognize the unique ways that human life has adapted to the natural patterns of the area where you live, and how the land, its animals, plants, and weather have changed and adapted in their own ways.

Of course, you don’t need to be an expert in ecology to be an attentive observer of the natural world around you. Although there is power in knowing the names of things, there are also many non-verbal ways of “reading” nature. One of my favorites is drawing or sketching while out in the field. Settling down to capture a breathtaking panorama in watercolors or sketching the expressive posture of a bird or the delicate gesture of a flower forces us to really look at what we are seeing, to be receptive and attentive to the subtle details and nuances of nature. With practice, the act of drawing and the act of observing become one and the same — almost as though our sketch is a kind of “reading out loud” to ourselves as we capture our observations on the page.

Meditatio

Once we’ve spent time in attentive, reverent observation of nature, we enter the second stage of Lectio Divina. Now is the time to ponder, to daydream, to explore the personal meaning that the natural world holds for you as a denizen of the land. In ancient times, seers and oracles studied the patterns of weather and bird flight in order to divine messages of guidance or warning from the gods. This was not just a code in which certain events corresponded one-to-one with specific interpretations or meanings, but a much more intuitive, receptive way of opening to the messages of the landscape itself. In the same way that the alarm cry of a single chickadee can put all the other birds in the area on sudden, silent alert as the hawk swoops by overheard, we can learn how the patterns of activity and attention in the natural world around us shape our perceptions and influence our own behavior.

One way of approaching this kind of reflection is what Druid author John Michael Greer calls “discursive meditation.” In discursive meditation, rather than attempting to quiet the mind and silence any stray thoughts that might arise, we set off on a hunt, pursuing a particular idea or impression wherever it might wander, allowing our minds to lead us deeper into the dark, forested recesses of the soul. As you spend time outside observing the natural world, you may find yourself captivated by certain images or experiences. Through discursive meditation, you can probe more deeply and reverently into the meaning behind these intriguing scenes or inspiring events, exploring the connections that weave you into the natural world and how they express themselves uniquely through your personal experiences and observations.

Oratio

This kind of meditative reflection quite naturally leads to the third stage of Lectio Divina, the creative, spontaneous response of prayer. Poets, priests and shamans alike throughout the ages have been moved by the beauty and inspiration of nature to respond in kind, engaging in creative works of ritual, prayer and worship to express the reverence they feel for the world around them. Prayer can be a solitary act of praise or petition, or it can be a community ritual shared with others in a way that heightens our sense of how our personal relationship with nature is reflected in the relationships of those who live in this land with us.

Many of the gods of modern Druidry and Celtic polytheism are gods of nature, intimately related to the landscapes and natural forces of the earth. For some, even the planet Earth is herself a goddess, a fecund mother of all creation. Praying to these gods and goddesses of the natural world is an act of communion and connection — in fact, it can be hard to tell the difference between praying to the goddess of a river or a mountain, and praying to the river or mountain themselves. In the same way that Christians view their holy scripture as the Living Word of God, seeing the presence of Spirit in the text itself, modern Pagans see the unfolding story of the natural world as the manifestation of the gods’ presence in our lives.

Besides praying to the gods, there are other ways you can adapt this stage of Lectio Divina to a spirituality grounded in nature. If prayer is simply a form of reverent conversation, then you might feel moved by your observation and meditation on nature to converse with the many beings around you — even beings with whom you might not normally strike up a conversation. If you’re feeling inspired by your spiritual work, you can speak with the robins about the coming spring, or converse with the tree that stands tall and patient in your backyard to learn what lessons it has to teach you. You might even feel moved to speak out loud, to tell your own story to the waterfall or the evening breeze. There is a long tradition in indigenous and animistic earth-centered religions of speaking openly and devoutly with the plants and animals who share the land with us.

Verbal prayer is not the only form of prayer, either. Just as we can “read” the natural world by sketching or drawing it, we can also respond creatively through works of art: painting, sculpture, poetry, music and dance. These acts of self-expression can be a way of responding spontaneously and organically to a world that often defies our ability to describe it with mere words. As a practitioner of an embodied spirituality, you might try turning to ritual, dance and art as reminders that you are not merely an abstract mind trapped inside a meaty body. Your body is itself an aesthetic expression of who you are, and you can respond to the world through movement, color and sound as well as through language.

Contemplatio

Finally, we come to the final stage of Lectio Divina: the stage of contemplative silence. After we have spent time in careful study and observation of nature, experienced the thrill of the wild hunt as we chased after its meaning for our personal lives, and responded with our own acts of creative self-expression as a way of connecting and conversing with the sacred beings and gods that dwell here with us — we come to rest at last in the still center of our being. We enter into the silence and solitude of attentive listening, receptive to the experience of loving union with the natural world in all its complexity, diversity and mystery.

Within the stillness and silence of contemplation, we discover that the boundaries of self-identity that usually appear so firm and solid are actually far more porous, flexible and fluid than we realized. From a centered place of calm, we lose our strict sense of separation and isolation from the rest of the natural world. We enter into a liminal space in which we can experience the myriad connections that weave us together with poignancy and clarity. This kind of contemplation is not an escape into a silent void of nothingness. Rather, it is the practice of communing with the sacredness of the Many, joining in the ecstatic dance of natural forces in a way that brings us more fully into our own truest self without destroying or subsuming our individuality.

We carry with us all of the work that we have done during the first three stages of “divine reading,” entering more fully and completely into the always unfolding, ever-evolving story of the world. In this way, we come to know nature as a living story of which we are an intimate, integral part.

Bringing It All Together

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. After you’ve spent some time exploring each of these stages separately, set aside at least thirty minutes to an hour (or more, if you feel up to it) to explore different ways that you can bring these activities together. Find what works for you and helps you to connect more authentically with the natural world. Here are some ideas that you might want to try:

• Talking to a Tree — Find a comfortable place to sit near or underneath a tree, in your backyard or in a local park, anywhere where you won’t be disturbed. If you can, bring along a tree guide. Spend some time studying and observing the tree (lectio) — its bark, leaves and overall shape, along with any nuts, seeds, fruits or flowers it has. (If you don’t have a guide book, just take some time to carefully observe these details.) After ten to fifteen minutes of careful observation, begin to allow your mind to wander, following your thoughts and feelings as they meander through associations and memories (meditatio). Do this for another ten to fifteen minutes, but don’t get so lost in thought that you become distracted and lose sight of the real presence of the tree before you. When you’re ready, allow your meditations to inspire you to speak to the tree (oratio). You can speak the words silently to yourself, as though in prayer, but you might be amazed at how powerful it is to address the tree out loud, even if only in a whisper. You can tell the tree about a memory that has surfaced during your meditation or describe an experience or event that’s been troubling you, or you can simply express your praise and gratitude to the tree for its beauty and strength. You can even ask the tree to share its story with you. Finally, quiet your body and mind and enter into a calm, receptive state of attention (contemplatio) — spend another ten to fifteen minutes listening deeply to the tree, opening yourself up to its presence. Don’t expect to hear a response in words (though you might!), just allow yourself to sit in silent contemplative love with the being before you.

• Painting a Landscape — Head out with your sketch pad and art materials on a pilgrimage to find a quiet spot with an amazing view. The view might be of rolling hills and meadows, or an ocean shore, or a cityscape of buildings and treetops. Once you’ve found a good place, spend some time observing and sketching the panorama before you (lectio), sometimes examining the details of texture and contour, other times pulling out to see the “big picture” and notice the patterns of light and shadow, shape and balance. After you’ve finished your sketch, don’t move on to your final drawing or painting right away — instead, spend ten to fifteen minutes pondering the image you’ve created (meditatio), asking yourself how it reflects the physical, emotional and spiritual sensations that the landscape around you provokes. Once you’ve spent some time reflecting on your observations, begin the work of drawing or painting (oratio). As you work, think of your creative act as a prayer of thanksgiving and praise for the land to which you are a witness. After you’ve completed your work, set aside your colored pencils or paintbrush, quiet your body and mind and sink into a receptive, attentive state of listening (contemplatio). Allow yourself to release the work of your hands as something which is now complete and separate from yourself, a gift that you’ve given back to the land. Listen to the silent depths of the landscape before you as you sit in silent, contemplative love.

• Serenading a Waterfall — Seek out a place with falling water, whether it’s a waterfall in the woods, a small cascade in a creek that runs through the local park, or a desktop fountain in your home. As with the practice of tree-talking, spend some time observing and studying the waterfall (lectio), noticing how the light reflects and refracts off the surface of the moving waters and noting especially the myriad sounds the water makes as it rushes and sings over the rocks. After ten or fifteen minutes of listening and observation, allow your thoughts free reign to wander (meditatio), following the rhythm of the water as it moves as though dancing its way deeper into the porous recess of your soul. Drink in the insights that the water carries for you, pondering them, turning them over and smoothing them like round river stones. When you’re ready, begin to sing, chant or play music (oratio) — if you’ve brought along a flute, drum or guitar, you can use that instrument to try to micmic the sound of the falling water — joining your music with the sound of the waterfall in a kind of shared prayer. Your song doesn’t need to have words, but it can if you feel inspired. After another ten to fifteen minutes, fall back into attentive silence (contemplatio), listening to the music of the World Song as it sings through your own being and the being of the waters before you.

There are many other ways you can incorporate Lectio Divina into your practice of nature-centered spirituality; these are only a few examples. In each example, though, we see how engaging in the full, four-stage practice of Lectio Divina requires self-discipline and some preparation beforehand — for example, gathering together art supplies, learning a musical instrument, finding an appropriate spot out of doors. The preparation and intention put into this practice is an important part of the spiritual work, for it challenges us to take our work seriously as something worthy of devotion and attention. That attentive devotion is carried into the work itself, and we can draw on it as we meditate and engage with the natural world around us.

The fruits of regular practice of Lectio Divina is a soul-deep understanding of how attention, meditation, prayer and contemplative loving silence arise from each other in a sustaining, nourishing cycle. As with all cycles of nature, when we open ourselves to the fullness of such experience we discover that we are already a part of this turning, spiraling dance — and we can embrace our place in the dance with gratitude and joy.


This essay originally appeared in Aontacht Magazine, Volume 4 Issue 4, March 2012


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