Conversatio Divina

In Urgent Times, Slow Down to the Pace of Trees

Jean Nevills

Have you ever stood in the presence of a tree and listened to the wind pass through its leaves?  The roots and body stand defiant and unmoved. But listen. The branches stretch out their tongues and whisper shhhh.

– Cole Arthur Riley

01.  Keep Me Safe

While Mom is sleeping, I step outside to the back yard, to the 3+ acres of lawn shaded by 60-year-old alders. This tree I know knows me. As a 4-year-old I pumped the swing high while stretching my toes to touch its younger limbs. Now, I lean in, laying first my palm and then my cheek against the damp bark, a trunk so large my arms can’t reach ‘round. It has weathered decades of northwest rain and wind.  It will weather this season. So will I. My mother might not.

Trees make symphonies without their trunks ever moving, almost as if the stillness of their centers amplifies their sound. The tree may appear still, but if you look closer, you’ll see that each leaf flails with breath. The tree may seem alone, but plow deep and you’ll unearth its secret gnarled roots—the grotesque and the beautiful—creeping in the soil, reaching toward the ancestors. – Cole Arthur Riley

Mom is not quite ready to accept her mortality. At 95, her soul “reaching toward the ancestors” who wait for her, she doesn’t want assistance from anyone that is not already tending her. She seems to think she’s doing fine, that we’re doing fine. But I see, and I think she knows, she is Not.

I am this week her care-giver, bearing witness to the terrible beauty and vulnerability of mom’s body preparing her for her Life to come. I am her helper as she continues here, in a body that is frail, fragile, weak, tired, and failing. It’s not that I’m trying to keep her here, but merely assist her in what she has said she wants, to remain in her home until the last. She loves this place, her flower beds and potted garden, the lawn and the old trees dressed in new leaves.

Walking in their shade, I feel the pull toward their aliveness. They seem to remind me that I’m here to witness and accompany—I cannot do mom’s process for her. And yet, peering through the doorway of that liminal hallway that mom has entered that serves as the breezeway from life to Life, I am not in charge or responsible for making anything happen for her.

Mom’s declining any treatment or hospitalization does not diminish my concern for her, for how her daily tasks are reduced to rudimentary movements. I have to relinquish any sense of urgency to interfere with her decline. Her steps are labored and halting. That is the pace then, for now, of my days with her. Slowed down. Nigerian philosopher and activist, Bayo Akomolafe, wrote in a recent post:

I learned, a long time ago, about a particular saying from the continent I grew up on: “the times are urgent; let us slow down.” ….The call to slow down works to bring us face to face with the invisible, the hidden, the unremarked, the yet-to-be-resolved. Sometimes, what is the appropriate thing to do is not the effective thing to do…The idea of slowing down is not about getting answers, it is about questioning our questions. It is about staying in the places that are haunted.  

We’ll take whatever time and whatever turns she takes. I question our questions, and I listen to what in her is haunted. And, for now, mom is still in a body that needs loving care.

I can only begin to imagine the refining tangle of faith-doubt-bewilderment that mom is having to navigate, all while negotiating the personalities of three daughters and two caregivers that rotate in and out of her life and home, tracking her body’s functions—or malfunctions at this stage.

My mother has, and I have, been convinced there is a multi-dimensional unseen realm, though at the same time, I am truly un-knowing. While trusting my experience (and hers) is in and with Reality, I still have to acknowledge and as much as I can suspend conditioned disbelief and suspicion of the Gracious Good that renews my faith and gratitude day by day.

So, while mom sleeps, these friends, the faithful trees, help return me to the 4-year-old’s trusting wonder, when Mystery was so easily accessed and received, and I lisp again the childhood prayer:

Jesus, tender shepherd, hear me;

Bless this little child ….

Through this darkness be thou near me;

Keep me safe ….

02.  A healing and slowing down Practice with Trees

“After a dark, overcast winter’s day, or a prolonged period of rain, go out into the sunshine. Take a stand and spread out your arms, palms up. Tilt your head up, too, and let the sunshine land on your face, your hands, the rest of you. Feel the sun on the surface of your skin. With this act, you are becoming like a tree. You are acting like a tree, with your arms spread out towards the sunshine just like the leaves in a canopy.

….The feeling you have on your skin is a dance with the short-wavelength energy of the sun. This dance has a name in the ancient world of the Celts.  t is called the song of the universe, Ceolta na Cruinne. It is real. You can feel it for yourself.”

– Diana Beresford-Kroeger

03.  A few Suggestions from a Spiritual Director on “Yes, but how” to resist urgency and be slowed down

  1. Sit or stand in the presence of a tree, noticing its roots and trunk as you stand still. Take five slow breaths. Reach out your hand to touch, lean in, or embrace it. Listen to the rustling leaves “shhhh.” Memorize with your body, the feel, sound, scent, and pace of your breath. Let the tree’s stillness and whispering hush accompany Gods invitation and assurance to you: Be still, and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations; I am exalted in the earth!”   (Psalm 46:10 NRSV)  
  2. Slow your conversations to make space for questioning your questions. When you are listening to someone and they stop speaking, wait three or four seconds before you respond. Hold the space open for the hidden, the unremarked, the yet-to-be-resolved, or what may be haunting.
  3. Practice presence and the Presence of God. Take a walk with a young child or a friend whose steps are slow. Staying present to them as a witness and companion, notice what happens in your own body, mind, and spirit as you are slowed down. How is God’s Presence coming to you and through you to your companion?
  4. Going a little deeper: Often what is most wanted during difficult times of transition in life—in a family, in the nations, in the earth—is the assurance that the Thou-Art-With-Me-God truly is with us in all things. To cultivate trust in and an awareness of the withness of God, we invite you to listen to Dallas’s 1993 talks on Practicing the Presence of God, or visit the Curriculum page for the small group or self-paced course Practicing the Presence based on those talks.

04.  References

Cole Arthur Riley. This Here Flesh, New York: convergent, 2022, excerpts from the preface, p. vii

Bayo Akomolafe.

Diana Beresford-Kroeger. To Speak for the Trees, Random House Canada, p. 190.