The Wisdom of the Woods

“What I know of the divine science and holy scripture, I learnt in the woods and fields.”

– St. Bernard of Clairvaux

In southeastern Pennsylvania, USA, the leaves are falling, the wind is breathing cooler, and the air smells rich with the scent of wood fires. We have a cycle of seasons here. They rise and fall from spring to winter like the very lives we live. And every season is a chance for us to taste again the sweetness and the sorrow, to pass through by a gaze at creation, our own life in miniature. From the green fire of a youthful spring, to the ripe joys of summer, and into the contemplative colors of fall… we prepare ourselves for the quiet sleep of winter. We hear again that “still sad music of humanity” that haunted the poet William Wordsworth. Then the green fire awakens us again for a new springtime.

Personally, I love the fall most of all. The very air has such a richness to it; the leaves are burning in a last shout of glory, and their earthy incense is a melancholic fragrance. It draws us into our past. The burnt gold of the evening horizon, the red-rimmed maple trees, the barren branches with their thousand tiny fingers, stretching out into space, stark against a deep night sky. Sheldon Vanauken wrote in A Severe Mercy of a character who was equally moved by the movement of the seasons. Though he was himself too young even to know the meaning of beauty, when he had looked up at a delicate tracery of bare black branches against the icy glittering stars: suddenly something that was, all at once, pain and longing and adoring had welled up in him, almost choking him. He had wanted to tell someone, but there were no words, inarticulate in the pain and glory. It was long afterwards that he realized that it had been his first aesthetic experience. That nameless something that had stopped his heart was Beauty.  Even now, for him, ‘bare branches’ was a synonym for beauty.”

The autumn is when I often pick up again one of my favorite books; J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. That journey begins in the fall of Middle-Earth, a season and a place that Tolkien says is our own, just buried deeper under the leaves in the book of our history than can be remembered. The time is a sad one and restless; the Elves are moving through the Old Forest. And with them something of the magic of the world, the ancient ways, the high poetry is leaving too. They are moving towards the Grey Havens, singing hymns of Elbereth and Earendil, and in shadow under starlight, they are leaving Middle-Earth forever.

As I walk the woods of this equally melancholic time that we live in, and look at the tumultuous days we’re experiencing in the Church and in world affairs and in the culture at large, with story after story of our brokenness and sin tumbling into the next like dry leaves scattering, so much seems to be fading. In our noise and haste, our worry and fear, many lessons are left unread and unlearned. We’ve no time for them, or for each other, as we scroll and click through our smartphones on disembodied news and events far off. We are missing the gift of the present.

Again, the poet Wordsworth once pined that “The world is too much with us, late and soon. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon…”

In my own life, and the cycle of its seasons, how many times have I forgotten the wisdom that came through the present moment, and being present to it? How often in “getting and spending” have I been inattentive, absent, and ignorant of the deep breath I need to take now to ground myself again in the leaves at my very feet that rustle with Truth, the Beauty that comes to me in this honey-gold slanted shaft of sunlight, or in the Goodness ontologically bursting from the person or the place or the created gift in leaf or bird that exists beside, behind or before me in this journey?

To return to The Lord of the Rings, after the tragic fall of Gandalf, the iconic leader and protector of the Fellowship, the company find themselves bewildered and distraught. Aragorn takes them to a place he knows that might afford some healing and direction, and a chance to take that much needed deep breath. Led by the elves, Frodo finds comfort in a moment of presence and attentiveness to his surroundings. He finds peace not in the past sorrow or the unknown, dangerous future, but in the present.

“As Frodo prepared to follow him, he laid his hand upon the tree beside the ladder: never before had he been so suddenly and so keenly aware of the feel and texture of a tree’s skin and of the life within it. He felt a delight in wood and the touch of it, neither as forester nor as carpenter; it was the delight of the living tree itself.”

– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

As the leaves of this fall continue to tumble, and here I mean the stories of the failings of men in the news, from the heart of the Church to the wider circles of the world of politics and culture, let’s be present here, now. Let’s be awake, alive, and attentive to this moment, to the touch of the “living tree itself” that is, the Body of Christ in which we live and move and have our being. From the peace He affords and the promise of a new springtime, may we move forward in our journey.

Bill Donaghy

Bill Donaghy has spoken internationally on faith and the New Evangelization since 1999. Through his work with the Pontifical Mission Societies, Bill gave hundreds of talks on the spirituality of mission to young people throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond, creating a teaching and speaking ministry known as He holds an Associates Degree in Visual Arts, a Bachelors in Philosophy and a Masters in Systematic Theology. In addition to his full-time work for the Theology of the Body Institute, Bill teaches at Immaculata University. He and his wife, Rebecca, live outside of Philadelphia, PA with their four children.

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