God’s First Language

Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and mystic, has returned to God’s eternal embrace, at age 95.  Fr. Keating famously said: “God’s first language is silence.  Everything else, is a poor translation.”   Keating reintroduced us to the ancient wisdom that it is in silence, that we hear God’s voice.

In our plugged in, hyper busy world, full of distractions…it is silence that provides an antidote.  Silence offers us respite from the exhaustion and anxiety, that results from our constant hurrying and preoccupation with much and more.

When I was a boy, I knew this.  Near my house was a wetland, where we explored and played.  Walking through the woods as children, we immersed ourselves in the sounds and smells of the forest…rich loom, scented pine needles, bubble of the brook, call of the birds….all called us to become open and reflective.

Silence, in such a sacred place, allowed us to hear the voice of our Creator.  Martin Luther said:  ‘The sound of wind, the movement of water, call of a bird are logoi (little words), from our Creator.

As I grew older however, I often forgot to listen.

I became preoccupied by dreams and schemes.  My life became active and busy.  At times, more times than I care to acknowledge, I became disconnected from the beauty and richness, that only comes from first being quiet.

Fr. Thomas Keating at Snowmass Monastery, Colorado

Thomas Keating however, came into my life as a breath of fresh air.  A teacher who through his books and lectures and simple witness, offered a series of spiritual practices.  Reminding us of what we knew as children.

He called it, ‘Centering Prayer’.

Centering Prayer is a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship. http://www.centeringprayer.com

Centering Prayer is not meant to replace other kinds of prayer. Rather, it adds depth of meaning to all prayer and facilitates the movement from more active modes of prayer — verbal, mental or affective prayer — into a receptive prayer of resting in God. Centering Prayer emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God and as a movement beyond conversation.

For those of us who are Christian, it leads us into communion with Christ.

Several years ago, I attended a retreat in Maryland.  The culmination of the retreat was a practice called, ‘The Great Silence’.  For 72 hours we didn’t speak.  We began and ended each day with 30 minutes of ‘Centering Prayer’.

On the third day of silence, I awoke to find that the colors of the forest, fields and sky had become more vibrant than any I had ever seen before.  A woman, at the far end of a meadow, greeted the morning by singing a Gospel song.   I found myself entering into the very melody, that she sang.

Words can’t adequately capture what I felt and experienced that day.  I can’t prove, measure or quantify what came to me.

What I do know, is that silence, an intentional practice of being quiet, created the essential environment, within which I was able to see with new eyes and hear and receive with an open heart.

Isaiah, an ancient prophet and mystic said: ‘Listen and your soul will live’.

I knew this to be true as a child.   Thomas Keating gave me a practice, for returning to the Source of all that is good, lasting and true.   Thank you, Fr. Keating.

Christmas in the Woods

In the midst of the deep darkness of December, made complete with the Winter Solstice, is the promise that light follows. Advent, the prelude to Christmas,  invites us to anticipate the embodiment of this light, in the life of a baby named Jesus.

This can be hard to believe when the temperature is cold and the sun sets so early.  Hard to believe as a metaphor of hope, when the political winds blow contrary to so much that I hold sacred and dear.

With such dark thoughts in mid December, I climbed into my Subaru and headed 90 miles for Canterbury, New Hampshire. I’d heard about a little church that invites seekers to unplug, breathe deeply and walk mindfully in the forest.

Warming barn for Church of the Woods

I drove up a snowy road to Church of the Woods   http://kairosearth.org and parked adjacent to a small barn.  Standing in a field, adding logs to a campfire, was Steve Blackmer, pastor of this unusual church.

Steve, a forester by profession, has become an ordained Episcopal priest.  His parish is the outdoors.  Most often congregants are sent out into the woods, in silence, to commune with our Creator.

Church of the Woods is tapping into a truth that most of us know but so often forget.  That that great mystery we call God/Spirit/Creator, is heard and sensed most clearly when in nature.

Early Christians had a name for this truth:  ‘The Book of Nature’.  They believed that in nature we hear and experience the voice of the Creator reminding us to be humble, thankful, mindful.  Inviting us to make room for awe and wonder.

Martin Luther spoke to this truth when he wrote: “The call of a bird, water in a stream, the wind through the reeds, are little words to us from God.”

Steve invited us to walk the snowy paths of Church in the Woods.  We worshipers were a mix of ages from three to seventy plus.  He invited us to listen carefully for little, holy words.  After a time of wandering, a bell called us back to the barn with its wood stove.  There we warmed our bodies and shared gifts from our walk.


On the altar was the Eucharist, to which we added decorative touches of pine cones and hemlock bough.  Steve spoke ancient words inviting us to consume the bread and drink from the cup.  Each a symbol of God’s grace.

Once all were served, Steve poured wine onto the ground, reminding us that the fertile soil is the source from which the wine and bread come and to which we will one day return.

Now late in the afternoon, the sun had begun to set.  It was time for me to drive home.  I left feeling calm, centered and thankful.  Thankful for the Book of Nature that had spoken so gently and clearly.  Reminding us that ‘little words’ from God are being spoken for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.

This season may we remember that light always follows darkness.

Wishing you a blessed Christmas.