Spiritual restoration in the wild
January 24, 2023 / By Rev. Henry Frueh, UNY Spiritual Director
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the 2022 Issue II of the Advocate, which focused on spiritual wellness. The Rev. Frueh is a retired clergy member of the Upper New York Conference and a former hospice chaplain. He continues his ministry as a Spiritual Director.
Nature saved Jesus from burnout. Overwhelmed by pastoral demands, he retreated “to a deserted place,” had soul-talk with God, and returned with perspective and passion. (Mark 1:35-39 NRSV) He favored open air mountains, meadows, deserts, and the sea for silent retreats. He ministered in the synagogues; he was ministered to in the wild.
Trappist monk Thomas Merton advocated the same: “How necessary it is for monks to work in the fields, in the rain, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind: these are our Spiritual Directors…” (italics added).
But how? Once free of confined church office, pulpit, meeting room, and hospital room, how do we “speak” with nature? How can a pine tree become our Spiritual director?
Francis of Asissi, patron saint of the natural world, in his Canticle of Creation helps us: “All praise be Yours, my God, through Brother Wind … Sister Water … Brother Fire … Sister Earth.” He knew wind, water, fire, and earth as his kin. They were family, the outdoors his home of origin, a “haven of blessing and a place of peace.”
Wind. Water. Fire. Earth. The same four elements the ancients identified as comprising the universe (also the same four that Merton named above). They are our natural Spiritual Directors.
Here’s a brief course in Spiritual Restoration in the Wild 101:
First, enter an undisturbed place of nature with no agenda. Check your onerous backpack of pastoral cares at the gate. Turn off the sound and fury of your mind (and your cell phone, and your music app).
Now … simply … observe and notice. Forget words. Use all five of your God-given senses. Listen. See. Touch. Smell. Taste.
“There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;
Yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19:3-4 NRSV)
For those with “ears to hear and eyes to see,” these spiritual directors will guide. For example,
The element of fluidity and cleansing. Watch a stream flow around rocks dropped by a glacier 10,000 years ago. May our spirits be so fluid, so flexible, so adaptable to that which we cannot or should not control. For “love does not insist on its own way…” And when I immerse my muddy, overheated self into a frigid Adirondack stream, or my irritated self into a lake’s still waters, or my wounded self into the anointing salt waters of the sea … I hear the words, “Remember your baptism, and be thankful.” And I rise, dripping with “… goodness and mercy shall follow me….”
The element of freedom, renewal, unpredictability, the Holy Spirit. Invisible, yet powerful in its effects. Wind bends, but does not break, fragile infant grass – yet uproots and splinters long-standing trees asunder. Wind clears stagnant air, portends change, carries the seeds of new life. “Lord, raise me up on eagle’s wings. Refresh my flagging spirit. Drench my parched soul. Enliven my stagnant sermons!”
The element of roots and fruits, of grounding, of nourishment. Walk barefoot upon God’s holy ground. Notice textures of rock, sand, dirt, vegetation. Be grounded, centered, drawn to the gravity of God’s love. Explore the life-giving layer of humus – a billion microscopic bacteria per teaspoon. Observe plant life rising in glorious forms. If sure of identification, taste wild bunchberries, partridge berries, raspberries. Make tea from crushed twigs of sassafras, black birch or hemlock trees. Above all, seek humus’ cousin, humility, the pastor’s superpower. For “love … is not boastful or arrogant.”
From 93 million miles away, the sun is the source of all fire on Earth. Feel its heat. Meditate on its gifts: the flames of illumination, of warmth, of purification, of inspiration, of community. At night, be a modern “wise one”: follow the fires of stars, planets, and moon toward the “one true light that enlightens the world.” Then, like Moses, return with face aglow from an encounter with the divine, love for God and flock, and passion for ministry.
For those whose circumstances negate a venture into the wild, these gifts of nature’s elements are still available. Museums of natural history bring them indoors for up-close (and sometimes, multi-sensory) observation. Streaming services offer detailed footage and commentary of far-flung aspects of creation. And books provide abundant fodder by insightful observers of nature; an excellent example is Annie Dillard’s, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
May the forest be with you!