I returned home from two weeks in Ireland longing for more regular communion with open spaces, rivers, dirt, grass, trees, birds, wind, rain, clouds, rocks, cows, sheep, goats, bugs and the great outdoors. Spiritual director Christine Valters Paintner calls earth the “original monastery” – a place set apart to deepen our connection to God.

Climbing the 600 steps to top of Skellig

Throughout time contemplatives of all sorts have nurtured their spirits through communion with the earth. Previously uninhabited deserts and islands removed from ordinary life were natural sanctuaries. In the 6th century Christians built a monastic community atop Skellig Michael island off the coast of Ireland – one of the sacred places we visited during our trip. The 600 steps we climbed were just one of three paths the monks who inhabited the island between the 6th and 12th centuries built to navigate the steep climb from the Atlantic Ocean to their stone slab home 600 feet above.

Stone dwelling huts atop Skellig

In the 10th century St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote that the natural world is our greatest teacher: “Believe me as one who has experience, you will find much more among the woods then ever you will among books. Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master.”

On Monday morning one of my soul friends and I took a walk in Pasadena’s Arroyo Seco (Spanish for “dry gulch”). Best known as the home of the Rose Bowl, the Arroyo’s trails, native plants and wildlife remind me that even though I’m far from the green, moist, cool motherland that made my soul sing and skin ever-so-happy, I can still find ways to nourish my connection to nature. The desert beauty of the Arroyo held us as we shared our hearts with each other.

Afterward we wrote poems using an exercise from Poemcrazy: Freeing Your Life with Words. Spontaneous and birthed by intuition rather than efforts to write “good” poetry, we painted pictures of God’s work in our innermost beings. I wrote about my Irish roots while her poem perfectly captured the essence of our conversation in the Arroyo. Stunningly beautiful and rich with meaning, I asked her if I could share it here. It reminds me that sacred places aren’t just beautiful for what we can seen, but for how they give birth to the unseen ancient wisdom that we can only hear if we make space to listen.

Disrobe

The wide expanse of sky
echoes your own heart’s desire
and you glimpse for
a clear moment
the wings of your own soul soaring.

It is time to stop
tinkering with borrowed dreams
that you wear like an
Ill-fitting dress
stiff-collared, pleated skirt
your arms limited
by taffeta sleeves.

It is time to shed the layers
and slip into
your own luminous skin.

Tentatively, at first,
you begin to disrobe.

Cantankerous voices mutter
your behavior is offensive,
oblique. As you persist
in your unraveling
of thread and fiber,
buttons and lace
the rumble turns
to shouting
Should!
Must!
Don’t!
Do!
Angry venom bubbles over.
Poison eyes, clenched fists.

But you are fully naked now,
not a shred of the old dress left.
the voices are lost
in the rush of wind,
and you realize
you are flying.

A poem by Stephanie Jenkins, Labor Day 2014

Stephanie didn’t set out to be wise or compose a great poem. Yet when she first read this to me, it went deep into my soul. Reminiscent of Mary Oliver, I think it’s a masterpiece! Thank you Stephanie for allowing me to share it here.

Atop Skellig Michael with Little Skellig in background

Nature and creative expression are powerful sources of grace in our lives, yet can feel frivolous amidst all the ordinary demands of life. I pray that you may find what nourishes you and be fiercely committed to making time and space for those things. Even if it means walking in a dry gulch instead of on an Emerald Isle. Maybe you’ll discover you can fly!