Opening to the Spirit in Creation

I see myself within the Quaker Universalist tradition, which affirms that there are many paths to Truth, and that no one religious tradition could ever comprehend the whole Truth. I believe that we can always learn from each other. My particular path, although not involving belief in a personal God or a Creator, is one to which I have felt strongly called. I feel that this is a good time and place to share, with Friends beyond my immediate circle, the spiritual practice which is a part of this path.

My ultimate faith is in the evolving, creative Universe, or the continuous Creation, as revealed by personal experience enhanced by cutting-edge 20th-century science, and whose spiritual dimension may be perceived through mystical experience. I have come to think of (and at times vividly experience) the Spirit as the self-organizing activity or intelligence which permeates the Universe. This Spirit of the whole manifests itself as sentient, self-organizing activity in each being, element or system: each galaxy, atom, flower, breeze, woodland, person, and gathering of persons. In this sense Spirit is the deepest essence at the heart of the dance of emptiness, energy, and form that constitutes reality or nature, rather than something outside of or above nature.

I have evolved a practice of worship in which I seek the Spirit or Light both in seated, usually indoor, worship with others, and in mostly outdoor solitary engagement with the natural world. Each of these ways of worship seems to interweave with and complement the other. The Spirit that I sense inwardly is the same intelligent activity present in the dandelion or the thunderstorm. I need to turn worshipfully both inward and outward to fully sense this Mystery.

So I share some of my practice and its fruits here, drawing a few experiences from a journal that I have kept for many years. Perhaps this will interest some Friends, however their theology may vary from mine, in entering into wild nature as part of their pursuit of the Divine. We live in a time when the inspiration and learning that may come from such deep engagement can help to ground us as we struggle with the growing fragmentation of Earth’s integrity.

On my "deep listening" walks, I generally go slowly, leisurely scanning with a generalized attentiveness, opening my senses and heart to how I might be moved or addressed by the Spirit in nature and its many voices. Like Annie Dillard, I "retreat, not inside myself, but outside myself, so that I am a tissue of senses. Whatever I see is plenty, abundance. I am the skin of water the wind plays over."

My direction and pace vary according to my body’s inclinations in response to land and sky. I stop often, as my scanning is drawn into narrower focus by particular places, things, or happenings. Pungent tree bark, a flower, or a rotting log may invite exploring through touch and smell. I am alert to which place, sunlight-dappled grove, cloud pattern, buzzing insect, or puddle on the path is inviting me to stop and gaze, entering into its particular motion, imagining what it is doing and sensing, within this land, community at this moment. What is this place or being saying to me? What gifts is it offering me? How is the Spirit moving me? But I try not to think much, staying mostly with sensation and emotion. Later journal writing, or sharing with a fellow seeker, may allow more reflection about such meanings.

Walking quietly on the damp wood mulch trail, I hear pairs and small flocks of Canada geese honking, see them through the trees circling above the lake. They splash together, honking excitedly, on the far side of the lake. I head downhill into the woods, turning left on Whitetail Trace.

The light is a blessing, illuminating the still bare trees and down leaves, warming my face, waking the still reluctant Earth, waking me up to the wonder of life. I weep, feeling that old longing, that sadness/joy of old lovers reunited, thinking "I belong here. Why have I stayed away this long?"

Although the field I am moving through is all brown, tan, grey, and rust tones, I feel the aliveness all around me, everything expressing the Mystery in its own unique way. Beyond the field, the woods’ dark, grey-barked trunks reach into the blue sky.

—March 1996, birthday walk

It’s a cloudy, at times drizzly day in the low 50s. I just returned from the meadow south of Enright Avenue. I found myself drawn to a big oak in the woods beyond the meadow, and then to two basswood trees near the oak. There were catkin-like flowers hanging all over these trees, silhouetted against the grey-white sky. Lingering and gazing for a while, I felt moved by this flowering life reaching out to the sky, out to the insects and winds, here on this slope above the muddy Ohio River on this sopping pre-spring day. I could feel the land wakening, and myself, too.

—March 2004

Walking out from the house
into the gathering July evening,
dull with too much good
I finally leave sidewalk and traffic.
Treading on damp mowed grasses
I come to the hushed grove
silhouetted against softly lit
horizon after sunset.

Mosquito nips my neck.
Light breeze caresses face and nostrils.

I stand emptied, drawn into
the ripening stillness.

The grove’s maples rise
dark in the fading sky,
whispering in the cool breeze,

—July 2001

In meeting for worship today a tall lily-like flower in a pot on the mantel was blooming white with blushes of pink. It was a bright, brisk, partly cloudy day, and the two blossoms seem to reach out to me and to the bright day.

I remembered someone saying in a recent meeting that each person is held in God’s love. Do I feel or believe this? I’m thinking that love is a human experience, but that it does exist as part of a larger pattern of the Universe: the sentience and allurement of all things, the erotic communion of each atom with certain other atoms, of stars with other stars to form galaxies, of flowers (like the lily on the mantel) with light and with insects as the plant seeks to create seeds. So in this sense each being, element, and self, including myself, is held within the nurturing embrace of the Mystery, the generative matrix.

And spring, including this pre-spring day, is a perfect time to experience this more-than-human love directly. I felt myself being called to witness to this experience during meeting for worship, but looked at my watch and it was eleven o’clock.

On the way home we stopped for a walk in Eden Park. The sky was a pageant, a show of light and shadow, as puffy, flat-bottomed clouds sailed past. I later walked alone down the street and entered the trail into the woods. The clouds continued coasting through from the west, growing larger, more brilliantly gilded by the sun, dark-bottomed, laden with rain, which just now spattered on the window behind me here in the bedroom where I write.

I am being called out by the flower on the mantel, by the swelling red maple buds outside this west window, by the gusting wind and brilliant sky, by the Spirit, out of my winter house into the world again.

—March 2004

I am drawn south across the creek and into the ridge-top woods. There are a pair of piliated woodpeckers calling, flying away and close together through the trees. I hear them and others again and again. Later I see a pair of ducks burst from the pond. And soon after, a pair of turkey buzzards high in the sky, circling near each other and then moving into a long glide together, one just behind and above the other. They all seem to say something about Deborah and me. I’m gathering some lichen, bark, moss, and fern to bring her. I realize that I want to be more affirming of her and show her my love more often.

I step out of the woods into a meadow, part of a savannah-like mosaic of meadows, with autumn olives and red cedars, interspersed with patches of young woods and occasionally peninsulas of older woods. The sky is so vivid blue, up through the arms of the bare trees!

I stop and ask the trees, the woods, the birds, the All: "Should I, after these 12 years attending Community Friends Meeting, seek membership?" Immediately I see Jamie, Tim, Eric, Deborah, and the faces of others I care about. I feel supported by them and by this nonhuman community on my particular, strange journey, and sense a strong affirming response to my question.

—March 2004 birthday walk

Just before the autumn equinox this year, I was sitting silently with friends in an outdoor meeting for worship. We sat under an ash tree whose leaves were shimmering in the blue sky, filtering sunlight and shadow across our faces. Images flowed through me from the night before: singing around the wood fire, and walking away from the fire’s warmth up the hill into the darkness to lie under the brilliant stars, gazing into the immensity and feeling a part of it. Then walking with others, occasionally shining a flashlight, to the lake, where we gazed again at the distant fires above and, looking down, saw stars in the grass all around us! They were glow-worms, maybe signaling to each other with their slowly waxing and waning lights.

Then I found myself speaking out loud to the worship group, saying something like the following, which I share now with you as an invitation:

Come into the wild! Come into the forest with me. We open to the forest within during seated, mostly indoor worship, to the untamed flow of images, to the whisperings of something vast from beyond ourselves.

Risk opening in like worshipful manner to the same untamed, wild intelligence moving through all the Creation: the breeze in the treetops, the brilliant stars, wildflowers in the meadow, the turning of the Earth toward evening and toward morning, the first subtle signs of fall.

We are all threads in this one fabric, members of this one flesh.

And if you feel a sudden pulse of joy, gazing into a bed of black-eyed Susans, don’t fear that you’re being caught up in pagan idolatry! The flowers can be windows opening into the Whole of things, expressions of the Divine Presence. Each galaxy, each butterfly, can be felt as a word spoken by the All, as a particular gesture of the Whole, or God—as can you and I.

There can be a wonderful rhythm between worshipfully turning within, turning to other people, and turning to the rest of Creation. Any one motion of worship is incomplete without the others.

So open the door, step from your safe house, and come silently into the wild, untamed world, waiting and listening for the breath of the Spirit . . . listening!

Teilhard de Chardin wrote, "By means of all created things, without exception, the Divine assails us, permeates us, and moulds us. We imagine it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers."

May we open more often and more deeply to this fire, this Light, allowing our lives to be transformed.

Bill Cahalan

Bill Cahalan is a member of Community Meeting in Cincinnati, Ohio. He leads retreats for Friends interested in beginning or deepening their practice of opening to the Spirit in Creation.