The Wisdom of the Woods

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, we have a cycle of seasons. They rise and fall from spring to winter like the very lives we live. 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.”

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, have I been inattentive, absent, and ignorant of the deep breath I need to take? Have I neglected 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? What about 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?

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.

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