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A Spiritual Walk in the Woods

A (Perhaps) New Definition of Prayer

“The closer we come to Nature, the closer we touch the core of life … Nature makes us aware of the preciousness of Life. Nature tells us that Life is precious not only because it is, but because it does not have to be.” – Henri Nouwen

If prayer is a moment in your day when you consciously choose to connect with Spirit or Life, every step I took while walking through the rainforest of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington was prayer.

The towering Sitka spruce, fir, hemlock, and cedar trees were breathtaking in the scope of their sheer, majestic size and incredible number. The understory filled with “tiny” trees that were, surprisingly and funnily, the size of those in the east coast forests that I frequent. The under-understory dizzied me with its collection of ferns of shapes and sizes I’d never before seen.

The circle of life and death

The attempt to absorb all this had me in a state of deep reverence for this explosion of Life. It was the creative force of death, however, that moved my wonder and awe to something I now recognize as prayer.

You see fallen giants do not simply slide away into decay. Almost immediately they become nurseries for new life – mosses, fungi, insects, and even tiny mammals. With time, however, more magnificent, beautiful, and unbelievably gigantic life springs forth.

Some of the tallest and most numerable trees in the rainforest are hemlocks. Tiny hemlock seedlings are not strong enough to burrow through the deep covering of humus (decomposing leaves and plants) that makes the soil of the rainforest so lush. Instead, they take up residence on the backs of their fallen ancestors – nurse logs.

As a fallen hemlock decomposes, it provides nutrients and a sound, sturdy, loving foundation for its great-great-grandchildren. We witnessed this over and over again as we spotted rows of hemlocks (already 50-100 feet tall) marching along like soldiers.

The love that can flow from death

From death springs an abundance of life. Life more expansive and meaningful than one glorious life lived. Dying in the rainforest reveals a grand gesture of love. One such “love-letter” stopped us in our tracks.

In the picture at the top of this essay, if you squint a little, you can see the heart shape formed by the intersection of the nurse log (collapsing a bit in the middle) and the roots of the newer trees it is supporting. The “heart” is easily twice as tall as I am. The baby hemlocks – already taller than most trees in the woods around my town in southeastern PA.

The message I took from that lovely nurse log? Not only does Life goes on beyond death, but that Life is Love in action.

You can connect with Life (and death) anywhere at all

Home now, the impact of that love letter has not faded. Walking around my yard, exploring the growth and death that occurred in my gardens during my absence, I feel the aftershock of the awe and wonder I felt in the rainforest. I realize that while roaming far afield is something I desperately love, I don’t need to do so to connect with the powerful pulse of Life I sensed in the rainforest.

Life is right here. Life is all around us. Life is patiently growing and changing and becoming – in our backyards and in us, too.

Death is right here, too. Big, huge losses, yes. But more often the series of smaller “deaths” that are necessary to our growth in life. Jobs coming to an end. Relationships breaking down. Passions waning for hobbies and interests.

Without death, there is no space for new life. The rainforest showed me that without death, we lack the “humus” we need to support our growth – the wisdom of experience, the flexibility to change course, the forgiveness for mistakes made, the humility to say “whoops!” and try again.

An invitation to walk through your life prayerfully

Like Henri Nouwen, I love to walk in the woods to draw closer to the pulse of Life. As he wrote:

“everything [on my walk in the woods] spoke of You. Everything: the clouds, the trees, the wet grass, the valley with its distant lights, the sound of the wind. They all … made me aware that everything is indeed good. In You all is created good and by You all creation is renewed and brought to an even greater glory than it possessed at its beginning.”

As you walk through your life, I invite you to do so prayerfully; choosing to connect with the pulse of your Life and Life all around you. It helps as we navigate life’s losses. It helps to heighten our joy in celebrating life’s glories.

Are you curious about less “expected” ways of praying? Take a look at the new spirituality page on my website. Or reach out! I love helping people recognize the spiritual meanings hiding in each and every moment of life.