Presence: Forest of Fear and Joy
by Paula Pryce
The following is part 2 of a Holy Week reflection provided by Paula Pryce from Vancouver, Canada. You can read the first part Absence: Forest of Longing here.
Forest of Fear and Joy
I throw open the gate to rushing wind and creaking branches. Not knowing what lies ahead, I step into the forest with my companions, fear, awe, and more hesitantly, joy.
Like many, perhaps even like Mary Magdalene, I have found myself increasingly worn by heavy times. A veil of uneasiness and loss had shrouded me. I dared to hope that I could free myself of chafing isolation, stand again in the forest’s open arms, and remember the hidden flow of bright, expectant trust.
So I headed to the mountains of southeastern British Columbia, near where I grew up, for a month alone in a woodland cabin. A privilege to sit on a mountain’s shoulder when people everywhere have clamoured for mobility and space. Around me towered the Selkirk and Purcell ranges and before me lay the deep, dark waters of Kootenay Lake. This enormous land and its formidable inhabitants – eagles, cougars, grizzlies – reminded me of my childhood perspective on humanity. Rising cliffs and glaciers, still black water, impenetrable forest all show up our smallness.
I learned as a child in the mountains how the smallness of everything creates the great whole, woven together by the Divine’s glistening web. Now I sought to remember that panoramic vision and wait with patience for the Beloved who connects us.
Beneath the forest’s cloak, I crafted my days as do the monks with whom I have studied: my own version of a Benedictine rhythm of ora et labora, or prayer and work. My prayer stool sat before a makeshift windowsill altar, adorned with incense, candles, and an icon of Christ Pantokrator, and also an increasing collection of treasures: scaly bark, jewel-toned lake pebbles, lichen, feathers, and marbled fragments from a wasp nest. Like steadfast friends who together watch and wait, they accompanied me in pondering ribbons of pearly light on branches, water, and peaks.
There I prayed and meditated four times a day. In between I cooked, washed dishes, read, and wrote. Mostly I walked.
Using ears and eyes and heart in that extended silence and stillness, I sought to attune my senses to the Divine as I stepped along the path. I listened intently and something began to take shape. Over my hours and hours walking through that ocean of trees, something magical emerged. Magical and completely ordinary.
I began to sense the flowing undercurrent of the Divine, and I began to find my courage. Courage to keep my vigil in the face of absence and death and uncertainty. Courage to trust the age-old wisdom that all shall be well.
I had not noticed before that ‘courage’ is very like the word ‘cougar.’ Each day I headed out into the temperate rainforest with cougars and bears hidden around me. Their tracks told the tale, leaving no doubt about my vulnerability. I cannot say that they did not inspire fear. As I hiked, I found myself stopping and listening, scanning the forest for movement and sound: the flute-like warble of a Varied Thrush, a chipmunk’s chittering, the rare thrum of distant noontime avalanches, a waterfall’s roar, the ratatat of Western Flickers foraging in the larch.
Still, I ventured deeper.
Before I left the city, I knew that spending time in solitude in such a powerful landscape might cause old darknesses to rise in me. As a young girl, when I felt threatened by the creeping mist of uncertain others, I learned to ask for God’s protection by invoking a circle of light around myself. I hadn’t called on that Divine circle of light in a great long time. I had forgotten. Now seemed like a good time to try again.
But as an adult with greater experience and knowledge, a defensive desire for self-preservation seems too much like a refusal to love. Can we be sent forth to love and serve if we recoil and fence ourselves in? Maybe that circle of light could transform from a tool of resistance and exclusion to a field of receptivity and welcome. Could I imagine receiving a bear or cougar with love? Could I see them as my neighbours?
This is when I sensed a shift. Choosing to stand vulnerable and open despite fear, I was surprised to find the stone cast aside and the tomb empty.
Before me, on the ragged juniper-edged trail, lay the remains of a freshly killed deer. My adrenaline rose and my heart raced, alert for the territorial hunter. But there was only silence. There she lay with gentle unseeing eyes and fur the colour of linen. Her twisted flesh and sinew lay scattered and torn like a shroud shaken off and flung into a corner. Red cedar sentries stood nearby, with angel hair lichen and glowing robes of chartreuse moss.
“Why do you look for the living among the dead?” they whispered.
Shafts of light pierced the forest canopy. I sensed the Beloved rise.
With a mixture of fear and joy, I turned quickly to retrace the overgrown path. Certainly, an aggressor could be at hand; there was a chance that I could be hurt. But I had chosen, with God’s help, not to let that control me. Like Mary Magdalene unsure and frightened at the mouth of an empty tomb. The Gardener calls her by name, and only then she understands and sees. Mary Magdalene takes her awesome fear and runs with it, full of vibrancy and joy, to tell the world that He is come.
‘Yes!’ is the only possible answer.
How dense the forest is, how alive with trundling beetles, emerald ferns, and cliffside hemlocks risking themselves to eye the sparkling lake. The mountain lion spreads herself languorously, keeping watch atop a verdant, mossy boulder.
How splendid and how terrifying is the transformation of death to life.
The Beloved radiates his field of love, generosity, and peace. We dare to trust, and find that absence transforms to presence and fear transforms to joy. Should we be surprised by the dissolution of fear?
Paula Pryce is a cultural anthropologist and writer at The University of British Columbia who studies contemplative religions and ritual aesthetics. Her latest book, The Monk’s Cell: Ritual and Knowledge in American Contemplative Christianity (Oxford University Press, 2018), includes ethnographic research with Cynthia Bourgeault and the Wisdom Christianity community. She is a board member of The Contemplative Society.
Thank you for these beautiful posts. I finally found space to read them, amidst the chaos of three young children enjoying their rainy school holidays in south Western Australia where our lockdowns have been few and far between. Even so, I got such a beautiful sense of place from your sharing and hope to travel to your part of the world someday. For now, I loved the imaginal journey you took me on, and to end up, land here where I am, in my kitchen with plenty of labore ahead of me, with a stirred and yet somehow peaceful heart. Thank you.
How wonderful, Zoe, that you have found your way to ora et labora at such a beautiful but busy time of your life. All shall be well!
Paula & all, this is multifaceted beautiful and refreshing to return to.
Blessings and gratitude,
Carole in Houston
Paula, thank you for sharing your reflections with us. I, too, grew up in the forest of the west coast of Vancouver Island. It is not difficult for me to embrace those stately trees as my friends. Even now, I love to walk in the forest. For me, it is always a place of respite where I sense the majesty of God’s great love & companionship. As I spend more time there I am filled with the knowledge that “All will be well”.
Peace & Love
The forest is indeed been a great refuge and teacher. Peace to you.
Paula, ‘…self preservation seems too much like a refusal to love…’ is the line that penetrated. Thanks for including it:
that, and the allusion to an undercurrent of untamed energy; what you can only yield to, not overcome.
Yes agreed, Bill – how wonderful + terrifying to acknowledge our smallness in the face of the untamed energy of the Divine. For me, this is Easter.
Thank you Paula!
This is so splendid an Easter offering.
Peace to you, dear Pat.
Certainly as we embrace, encourage, & practice “perfect love”…when, & where we can…our fear will be cast out!
The gifts which you received by choosing to be apart in nature reveals this truth. Each time we so choose such self-emptying, we will know renewed life (resurrection), alleluia!
Thank you, Karen. Alleluia, indeed!