Going Deeper into the Woods

Deep in the woods I stopped for a second just to breathe in the sweet warm smell of the forest.  Desiré and I hiked for hours. Now neither of us could hear the distant sounds of cars whizzing by on the main road.  The morning’s raindrops still patter down, hitting leaves as they fell, giving a percussive background to the occasional songbird’s call.  Time slowed and I was only aware of the forest enfolding me with these calming sights and sounds, the perfumed air, and the soft earth beneath my feet.  The rain resumed and we laughed as we ran for shelter under a beech tree.  Sitting on a rock for a moment, the gentleness of the rain mesmerized me.

After a moment I said, “Well, we’re already wet, we might as well keep going.” We walked quietly in the light remnants of the passing storm.  The narrow path became easier to navigate as the spiderwebs crisscrossing suddenly became visible, highlighted by drops of rain hanging on their invisible stands. Gently, we lifted each of the many spiders out of our way.  

Back at camp, warming up beside a hard-won campfire built from damp branches, I thought about how odd my week-long retreat was this year.  It seemed like a great idea to go camping when my retreat center closed due to Covid.  I love camping and the forest is always an easy place for me to enter the presence of God.  

Most days I set aside time in the usual rhythm of retreat to pray, but that rainy day was just spontaneous and going with the flow felt natural.  I realized before that moment by the fire I had not formally prayed or journaled that day, and yet I knew instinctually that I did in fact spend the day in prayer.  That time in the woods, as I set the routine of retreat aside, I realized: the hike was my prayer, the talk with my friend was my prayer, the forest was my prayer.

When I shared my experience with a sister she asked, “Have you ever heard of forest bathing?” 

She sent me a few articles and I found that forest bathing was a new name for something I instinctually sought: to be still in a forest where the sights, sounds, and smells aid my meditation.  I thought immediately of an immersion trip to a reservation where Chief John shared a similar practice of going to be in the forest when a person is physically or spiritually ill; the ancient practice melding easily with Christian prayer.  

I sat with my journal on the last morning and a surreal sadness came over me knowing this time was ending all too soon.  Mentally, I collected all that had happened during the week.  As I prayed, a green oak leaf fell squarely on my journal.  I chuckled, thanking God for one last gift on my retreat as closed my journal, keeping the leaf tucked between the pages.