Part 2 | snakes & ladders
Stephen Blackmer sent those of us gathered for Bread in the Wilderness into the forest every chance he got. This was in keeping with the practice of his own Episcopal congregation that meets in the woods every Sunday. He said they meet together around a tree stump altar come rain, snow, sleet, or shine and that there is usually no sermon, but rather individual jaunts into the surrounding woods for meditation, observation, and listening. This church reads both the Bible and God’s second book of revelation—creation itself.
I am still struck at the immense trust Stephen has in Spirit to speak, the woods to bear witness, and his human congregation to respond. Though a Eucharistic celebration takes place after the church regroups by their stump-altar, this symbiotic practice of “reading creation” feels very much like a kind of communion—a holy meeting, sharing, and mutual nourishing.
The first morning of our practice in Asheville, I stomped around, perhaps a little too sure of myself, until I found an enormous tree with sitting stones arranged underneath its wide boughs.
There was no ignoring the sacred nature of its shade as I settled myself on a flat topped stone, pulled off my shoes, and balanced my journal on my lap. The goal of the exercise, as I understood it, was to be still with creation and listen for God.
For thirty minutes.
I tried to move my mind to that blissful and bare space of meditation, but the free-wheeling river of my thoughts kept wrecking itself around many a worry and curiosity. Frustrated, I felt slighted or, worse, that I was cheating God, creation, and myself by not being able to focus on being present. I did not feel at home.
In his earlier directions, Stephen had mentioned simply putting one’s body in contact with the earth. I pushed my bare feet out over the rocky and twig-riddled soil until my entire body laid on the ground. Contact, indeed, I thought as I attempted to rest there with my skin in the dirt and my head upon the rock. Jacob’s ladder and snakes inserted themselves into my musings.
Obviously, like any good Sunday schooler, I thought of Jacob because my head was literally resting on stone, but the snakes were a different story. I was afraid to move too much for fear that I may attract or startle the nearest slithering critter into coming my way.
Snakes, snakes, SNAKES…
The memory of my most recent encounter with one—the first snake I had seen in close to 8 years or so—played over and over in my mind.
I saw the creature, a respectably sized black snake, a week prior to Bread in the Wilderness during orientation for my summer internship at Peacehaven Community Farm. It was an immersion, a sort of day-in-the-life experience of a Peacehaven caregiver. After a few early meetings I was rushed out the door for a hike about the 90 acres and a stop by their lake, an offshoot of the local watershed reserve. The walk out to the lake was lovely. I enjoyed seeing cows and talking with my hiking hosts. When the trailhead opened to a neglected and overgrown tractor road, however, I began to get nervous. Spaces like these are gray areas on the map of creaturely domains. There was nothing to do but to continue walking.
That is when I saw his slithering form rise, his head and a third of his body extended vertically in a hasty charge for the woods.
The snake was fast as anything I had seen in a while. And it was scared.
I could hardly breathe.
I am a f r a i d of snakes.
The memory of watching the serpent dart away, zig-zagging for his life through the tall grass made my skin crawl and, strangely, my heart hurt. Later in the week when Bill Brown discussed how the lions take the night shift and humans take the day shift (Psalm 104:21-23), I figured that I had trespassed on my brother snake. I understood that I had been in his area, probably his usual sunning spot. While I laid under that great tree during our first morning of meditation in Asheville, however, I was so paranoid that I had to pull myself from the dust and sit up again upon the rock, my eyes darting zig-zags across the stubbly turf. Instead of communing, I shivered with nerves, which is just about as embarrassing to admit now as it was to experience it then.
From within this state of anxiety, however, the great tree caught my attention.
It suddenly occurred to me that I needed to climb. the. tree.
I do not know exactly why or how I came to the conviction, but I looked up at that old tree and it seemed like its arms were waiting for me. I could see myself climbing before I even rose to do so. The height and arrangement of its lowest branches reminded me of a dogwood my brothers and I would climb at my great-grandparents’ house when we were children. In fact, when I made my way over to the base of the tree to see about clambering into its tiers, my muscles twitched on their own accord to hoist me up in the way they had when I was a girl. Only, that did not work now. I am no longer a child; my body had to work out a new way to do this thing it has always known how to do.
The newness of the task, however humble the climb may have been, ended up being a good thing.
Having to focus my mind and body singularly on one task allowed me to receive the grace I needed in order to commune with creation and Creator.
Climbing became a prayer, though I was still afraid of snakes, which felt ridiculous. I only climbed after slapping my hand on the far side of the next limb to make sure whoever might have been up there would know that I was coming. With each rung I had to decide to take the risk and climb.
To be continued.