Early in the new year some friends, who for a long time in the pre-pandemic world had met and worked together on leading retreats that touched on “nature and soul”, gathered on Zoom to contemplate a return to this work. The following reflection is based on what I shared as we began our meeting.
“Now let us welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.” This quote by Rainer Maria Rilke, with its echoes of wonder and unbridled anticipation, is appreciated by many of us. I have always liked it; though my enthusiasm for the expressed sentiment is curious, because the imperative to welcome all things is a fierce one. Rilke is also the poet who wrote, “Let everything happen to you; beauty and terror.”
The call to boldly set sail into a year full of unknowns is particularly piercing in a dark time, when the unimaginable has befallen everyone. We are now considering returning to hosting and leading in-person retreats. Yet we only dare to plot a course knowing that the map may dissolve entirely as we leave the harbor. In such a time, planning anything is an act of courage and defiance.
Most days now I visit the long stretch of wildish woods that stretches along the Potomac River near my home. It is part of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park, which runs 184 miles from Washington DC to Cumberland, MD. There is a tree, a sycamore, which stands along the river bank a little downstream from Packhorse Ford. This tree is gnarly, shaggy, and thick and has been there for a very many years. In summer, the wide leaves capture the sun, rustling dreamily by the river’s murmuring progress. In winter the twisted branches make intricate, knowing patterns in the air. Near this tree indigenous people once trapped eels and fish in the shallow water; a canal was dug and mules trudged along towing flat-bottomed boats loaded with coal, flour, iron and limestone; and by this tree in the late summer of 1862, men died in the water while fleeing the Battle of Antietam. All the while the tree bore witness to these and other mysterious events, the roots reaching forever through the dark, moist soil, connecting with myriad lifeforms and the subterranean community of other trees.
Sometimes, when peering into the unknown sea of a new year, it is possible to remember that there are living beings who have stood watch in thin places for eons, tightly woven to what is timeless and transcendent. Perhaps they are the lodestars by which to travel to other deeper and wider horizons.
They point us far upstream where the essential work of spiritual and soulful transformation begins. We need them if we are to be the apprentices and servants who might help reconnect our species to an animate Earth and the vast family of breathing beings who are patiently waiting for our return. Perhaps with these more than human guides we might dare venture onto that unknown sea and begin the possibility of a voyage to a home in the unfolding story on the far side of all that we know and are now. Who can guess what that world on the other shore will be? The new year is full of things that have never been.
Watch this space for announcements, hopes, and plans for in-person retreats among the trees and wild, sacred spaces of Rolling Ridge and Still Point in 2022.