When I was 15, I met God in a Vermont meadow.
I was riding a horse bareback in the July sun, feeling his warm hide and coarse hair under my shorts-clad legs. I was in the middle of the meadow, which gradually sloped down into a glittering spring-fed lake. The meadows were high and uncut – the grass was encasing my hanging feet.
I stopped my horse to soak in the sweet smell of red clover, which boasted purple round blooms that were Dr. Suess-like in their joyful presentation. A sense of rightness flooded me – I felt strong, safe and secure. As the bees buzzed around me, I concentrated with all of my might, soaking in every detail. Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply and imprinted the smells in my mind – the scent of sweaty horse, the leather of the reins, the sweet smell of the grass and clover. I listened to the drone of bumblebees and the gentle breeze moving the grass. I opened my eyes and took in the swaying grass, the lake in front of me, and the texture of my horse’s mane. I vowed to myself: “I will remember this. I will remember this exact moment every time something goes wrong this year. Every time I don’t make a team. Every time I get a bad test score. Every time I feel excluded. If I can just bring myself back to this moment, and remember how I feel right now, I can get through anything.”
And it helped. When times got tough, I pulled out that sense of place, that sense of well-being, that sense of rightness. I escaped to a location that was safe and beautiful. I would picture the meadow and hear the steady breathing of my horse and look at the lake through his pricked ears, an organic kaleidoscope. I used this visual image throughout high school, and it gave me peace no matter what my circumstances.
The Holy Spirit at work
At the time, I didn’t equate this feeling of safety, beauty and well-being with God. I would have called myself a Christian—I had grown up in the church, but God was academic to me. The personal relationship, the inclusion of Jesus into my everyday life, did not yet exist. However, when I reflect on that sense of rightness, beauty and security, it’s clear that the Holy Spirit was working on my heart.
When I was in my mid-20’s my head faith dripped down to my heart and changed my life. However, there were some things that stayed the same, including my preference for communing with God in a natural sanctuary.
I’m writing this on a February night in Clearwater, Florida, though I live in Michigan. I’m here because I struggle spiritually and physically through Midwest winters. My mental state lags and I become depressed. I have no energy, no joy, no feeling of close communion with God. Until a few years ago I had no choice of changing locations, but now I have that freedom. For the past two years I’ve spent January through March in Clearwater.
When I’m here, I rejoice and give thanks, for I see God’s handiwork everywhere I look. I’m bombarded with gulls, crustaceans, corrals, invertebrates, herons, and egrets. I awake to birdsong and startle fiddler crabs on my morning walk. I talk to fishermen who explain the meaning of brackish water, and how it attracts different species than the ocean does. I watch ospreys fly overhead with fish clutched in their talons. As I walk the beach and sift through the thousands of shells, my heart is full. Everywhere I look I see God the creator, the artist, the lover of all that is beautiful.
The sanctuary of nature
My preferred place of worship doesn’t have to be in Florida or Vermont, but it has to be in nature. The older I become, the more I understand that the nature which surrounds me brings me closer to God. When I was in my 20’s and working in a climate-controlled Chicago skyscraper, I struggled to remain joyful and connected to Jesus. Noting how deflated and blue I seemed, my husband suggested an outing with our dogs in a forest preserve. Being in the woods, hearing the birds chirping and my dogs panting, soothed my soul. I felt that same sense of rightness I experienced 10 years previously, but this time I understood its source. From that point on, I made it a point to take a long walk in the woods with my dogs each week. I needed those woods like a bee needs nectar. They gave me strength and nourishment, and I met God there.
Pipe organ music gives me chills, praise and worship songs can spur me to tears, but to me the best music is that of waves, birds, dog tags, and rustling leaves. Stained glass windows delight me, but the color of Lake Michigan on a calm day is even more exquisite. I breathe in deeply when incense is used in my Anglican service, but I prefer the scent of a freshly mowed field with a subtle undertone of manure. I love being with fellow Christians in a church sanctuary, but I also never feel alone in my natural sanctuaries – God-created living things are teeming around me, whether I can see them or not.
My God is an awesome God, and worthy of worship anywhere, anytime. I won’t always have that sense of rightness and safety, and I’m called to worship Him nevertheless. My recent back injury is a perfect example – I could hardly stand, much less tramp through the woods, and I spent many hours chatting with God while flat on my back. But when I have the choice, my preferred sanctuary is outside in His creation.
Thoreau famously wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately. . .” and I agree. Nature makes me deliberate in my communion with God. I slow down, breathe deeply, and enjoy a long visit with the King of Kings.