On a recent retreat, while walking in the meadows on an early autumn day, I felt a glowing, powerful presence – in the wind, the light on the trees and meadows, the smell of the air. It was a familiar feeling, one of peace and joy – a deep, simple at-homeness I have known now and then throughout my life. And yet I hadn’t felt it for some time, and I was deeply moved. It filled me for days. It made me think of Henry David Thoreau’s phrase, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.”
This saying can be considered from several angles, but I was thinking of its spiritual dimension. It struck me that wilderness is often the place where we encounter God – and in that encounter is the preservation of the world. Sacred texts of all traditions are full of stories of people encountering God in wilderness.
Psalm 19 speaks beautifully of the divine manifest in nature:
The heavens are telling the glory of God:
And the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech
And night to night declares knowledge.
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. (1-4)
In this voiceless, wordless speech, somehow we know the glory of God. Elsewhere the psalmist says, “Deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts; all your waves and your billows have gone over me” (42:7). There is a deep center in us which communicates with the deep in nature and the deep of God. This deep center in us resonates with and is filled by this Spirit.
Retreat is a practice for connecting with our deep center. It helps to be in a deserted place, a quiet place in nature. It is necessary to slow down. Abbe Henri de Tourville, a 19th century French priest, counsels: “Avoid all strain and effort, try to be quiet and passive, breathe in the grace of God as you breathe in the air, with tranquility, without effort, without self-consciousness. By this deliberate calm and quietude you will gain more than you can conceive.”
We are so busy and distracted these days, so over-stimulated, that we are often alienated from our own depths. On retreat – in slowing down, in sacred silence, in the beauty of nature, in spiritual community and the embrace of prayer – we can open to the Spirit, and be filled by it, and share it for the preservation of the world.
Director, Dayspring Silent Retreat