Nature As A Holy Teacher: Golden Moments

October 30, 2022

Golden Moments – The Ginkgo Tree

Sioux Spiritual Center rests in a hollow held by steep hills, the terminus of a long dirt road near the Cheyenne River about 100 miles mostly east and a little north of Rapid City, South Dakota. I arrived for retreat in late October, the time of year when short sleeves are comfortable in the afternoon, but good layers are essential at night, and snow might arrive at any time.

As Fr. Peter, my spiritual director for the week, listened to my heart during our first few meetings, he suggested this verse from Isaiah (42:1) for the following day, 

Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom my soul delights.

Fr. Peter’s guidance was to take time in prayer to hear from Jesus:  what he saw in me and my life the past year, what delighted him, what warmed his heart, how he held me up. 

The next morning I was up early. Waiting for the pot to brew while preparing to pray, I felt an inspiration to head to the log chapel, Woniya Wakan Oti (in English, “House of the Holy Spirit”).  Fortified by coffee, I zipped up my fleece, pulled on mittens, and slipped out the cozy kitchen into brisk air. Light frost and gravel crunched as I stepped off the porch onto the path. Breath condensed as I exhaled prayers for the grace to see the previous year through Jesus’ eyes.

Just beyond the footbridge, shimmering gold ginkgo leaves caught the first rays reaching over the ridge. Their brilliance illuminated turquoise berries nestled in the neighboring juniper and scraggly scrub oaks hanging on to former crimson glory.

Smiling as I passed underneath the branches, as if with a big happy sigh the ginkgo tree dropped its leaves all at once over my head! I watched wide eyed as everything that was bright and beautiful fell as one. Countless tiny fans applauded, dancing their way around me to earth, encircling the trunk in the still air. 

After a mystified pause I moved on to the chapel. Was this how Jesus saw last year, I wondered, a cascade of golden moments? 

Sun was pouring out honey pools on the chapel’s pine floor. I followed an urge to lay down. Warm floorboards received and distributed my weight, and then I lost track of time as I imagined playing in a pile of gold-leaf-moments with Jesus. Fleeting images of caring for others and being cared for, comforting, cooking, cajoling, connecting, confronting, swirled around me.

When I look back now, I notice the tree trunk. In my mind’s eye, I see the structure of barren branches, ages older and wiser than the leaves. Leaves who in their season nourished the tree’s growth and provided oxygen to breathe before returning to enrich the soil, food for the future. 

Grateful to re-experience a deep consolation almost a decade later, I am reminded of how the Book of Proverbs (3:13-18) personifies Wisdom,  comparing her to precious wealth and as a tree of life:

Happy are those who find wisdom,

    and those who get understanding,

for her income is better than silver,

    and her revenue better than gold.

She is more precious than jewels,

    and nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand;

    in her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,

    and all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;

    those who hold her fast are called happy.

This year, during a season of remembrance, I once again take to heart Fr. Peter’s encouragement to look upon my life through the eyes of Jesus:  His Tree of Life upholds me still. Wisdom’s ways don’t always feel pleasant and peaceful, but in holding fast to her, I am happy, blessed to receive the wealth of experiencing God’s love and grace through priceless moments as numerous and luminous as autumn leaves soaked in sunshine.

Going Deeper

  • Listen to Seasons of Love from the musical, Rent.  525,600 minutes. How do you measure a year?
  • Ponder the ancient mystery of ginkgo trees in the short reflection, Night of the Ginkgo, from the Sidewalk Department of New Yorker magazine.
  • Talk a walk, becoming aware of the trees around you. Notice leaves – gold, ruby, garnet, topaz. Some might still be emerald. Others tarnished brass hinting of life well-lived. Find a sunny spot to lie down or a sturdy trunk to rest your back against with Wisdom. Ask for the grace to see what Jesus saw in you and your life this past year, what delighted him, what warmed his heart, how he held you up. Offer a prayer of thanksgiving to the One who upholds you.
  • Reflect on Autumn with Rainer Maria Rilke

The leaves fall, fall as from far,

Like distant gardens withered in the heavens;

They fall with slow and lingering descent.

And in the nights the heavy Earth, too, falls

From out the stars into the Solitude.

Photo by Cole Keister on Unsplash

Jenéne Francis is an aspiring contemplative in action who finds writing creative non-fiction and short fiction a fruitful spiritual practice. She also enjoys adapting and offering the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius for days of reflection and retreats. Jenéne recently retired from the Midwest Province of the Society of Jesus after many years supporting Jesuits and colleagues who serve retreat houses, spirituality programs, parishes, and as hospital chaplains and other pastoral ministers. Having spent her first career at the Procter and Gamble Company in product development and manufacturing, followed by more than 20 years in Jesuit ministry, Jenéne gets great satisfaction offering her engineer’s head and poet’s heart for “the greater glory of God.”

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