Grounding the Spiritual Path

Rev. Peggy Clarke

I studied in Ireland during the war. It was very intense and from time to time I was spiritually exhausted, completely depleted of hope. One morning our teacher put us in the van and drove quite a long way to a park. When we arrived, he told us to explore and be ready to leave in six hours. It was nice. I left my friends behind and wandered around. I sat on a big rock and wrote for a while. I got some ice cream. I followed a path through the woods to see where it would lead.

The path went on for quite some time but ultimately opened up and when it did, I was confronted by astounding Beauty. I stopped. There wasn’t any way for me to continue to move; I had been overtaken by the stillness of what was before me. The landscape was so silent, my stillness was the only appropriate response.

The park, it turns out, was Glendalough. What was before me was the majesty of two mountains and a clear, motionless lake that lay between them.

Earth, teach me stillness.

As I stood, silently, others came up behind me on that same path and each one stopped as I had. I think our resistance to motion came from profound respect for the lake and the mountains that stood still in that spot for millennia. We were demonstrating reverence to the gods of the mountains. It was a moment of veneration ultimately broken by some children running up behind and then around us.

I moved closer to the lake, sitting on the sand before it. I let the water, I let the mountains, I let the stillness heal me.

Earth, Teach Me Stillness.

My time in a war zone was particularly intense, but I’ve lived in other kinds of war zones. I suspect we’ve all had versions of war zones in our lives. Are there places in your life that feel that way? Places you need to get on your armor before entering, places you need to be armed and ready?

Our planet can be a difficult place. I wrestle with this reality, wanting so much for things to be different. I wish gentleness and compassion were at the core of the Earthbound experience, but suffering is also part of what it means to be alive. I fight to end it in a thousand ways, but I also challenge myself to confront it, to face into the reality of what life is on this difficult planet.

Many years ago I was watching a documentary. A polar bear was with her cub as the narrator told us the cub would starve to death soon if she couldn’t find him food. The lucky mama tracked a seal family hiding beneath the ice. Another mama and her babies. The polar bear slammed on the ice over and over again as the frightened seal hid her cubs beneath her trembling body. The polar bear couldn’t get through. She continued the long walk in the snow with her baby beside her, doing everything she could to find him something to eat.

There it is. Someone will die. The seal or the bear? Someone’s baby won’t make it. That’s our reality.

Earth, Teach Me Suffering. Earth Teach Me Caring.

In the face of that, my concerns can seem small. I might worry about money sometimes, but I’m not worried that my baby will starve to death. Humility, by definition, means “knowing your proper place”. Standing before the mountains at Glendalough or confronting the reality of suffering on this planet, I am humbled. I know my place.

Earth Teach Me Humility As the Blossoms Are Humble With Beginning.

This year, I’ve become completely committed to a dozen tulips planted right in front of my house. It’s been years since they were planted and I’ve never seen a single one bloom. It’s an annual tradition for a mob of deer to demolish them before they even get a chance. But this year is different. I have a new strategy and it’s working. Beautiful tulip buds are showing their heads, gently, slowly stretching through the soil, soaking up the sun and rain, and getting ready to open and let us all bask in their glory.

And every morning, I check on them. There’s very little I can do at this point. I found a way to keep the deer away, so now the rest is up to them. It is my job to wait in grateful anticipation.

Earth Teach Me Humility. Earth Teach Me Limitation.

In the wintertime, we enter a state of semi-hibernation. Everything slows down. Trees lose their leaves, annuals die and perennials shrink back beneath the ground. Birds leave town. Squirrels and raccoons and groundhogs make themselves beds they can sink into for a long winter’s nap. Even fish snuggle into the mud and wait for the cold to pass.

Then we begin to hear it. If we walked outside, we’d hear it now. The birds return. The chipmunks wake up. The ducks are swimming on ponds. The dogwoods bloom and the hyacinths fill the air with sweet perfume.

It doesn’t matter how difficult the winter was. Spring always comes. Life always returns. Color and light and new life are never far away, no matter how dark and cold and dead the winter feels.

Earth Teach Me Regeneration.

Long cold winters can happen at any time of year. Seasons of death or illness or loss of financial security or mental health can make any July feel like January. Long nights worrying about how you can feed your children or long days sitting bedside to someone you love or empty afternoons missing someone who is no longer sharing your days or nights can happen at any time of year and the riot of a freshly bloomed field of daffodils isn’t going to change that.

Only time can heal those wounds. Time and courage. The willingness to stand your ground even as the wind blows around you, even as storms brew. Healing comes from living through those painful days, from waking up in the morning and facing yet another difficult day, from going to bed even on nights you know there will be no sleep. Recovery is available when we weave time with great intentionality, when we risk honesty and vulnerability.

Spiritual restoration can be taught by the trees. I used to live near a tree that had caught a bullet. The tree was shot. That happened maybe 50 years before I got there. The tree, very slowly, almost imperceptibly, grew around the bullet. The tree stood its ground, remained rooted in Earth, and healed the broken places. The bullet remained. The tree remained. The tree continues to stand vulnerable to whatever is next. We can learn from the trees. We can learn the strength of vulnerability and the resilience needed to last a long time. There is power in knowing bad things happen, that loss is inevitable, that life is full of change and the unknown is a frightening, but not a permanent, place.

Earth Teach Me Resignation. Earth Teach Me Courage.

I believe that these qualities are all necessary these difficult days. We seem to be facing some major crises. The slow erosion of our democracy as big money purchases our national lawmakers; a renewed form of slavery for people of color that hides behind the criminal justice system; the gradual elimination of safety nets for the poor; and the exponential increase of carbon in our atmosphere altering Earth’s ability to sustain human life. Just to name a few.

If we are going to live well, live successfully, live joyfully and be effective agents of change in these difficult days, we will need to know stillness and resignation and courage and regeneration and limitation and suffering and caring and humility.

Earth Day is a time for gratitude for Earth and all the lessons we can learn from her. We do this every year. We remember our grief and we reconnect with the ground on which we stand. This is our work. Rejoicing, Reckoning, Reconnecting and Committing to Mother Earth.

Earth Teach Me to Remember.

So often when trying to reconcile the evils of the world with the idea that there’s a god in charge, one with all power who knows everything, who is just and merciful, the response is that god has given us free will, that if bad things are happening, that’s on us. I’m not going to get into the theological inconsistencies, but I do wonder a little about the responsibilities of that kind of freedom. That’s not the god I believe in, but the free will thing seems fairly apparent to me.

The birds seem so free as they fly above us, as they sing from their perches, as they leave town for the winter and return in the summer. They do experience a different kind of freedom than we do with our Earthbound bodies, but birds aren’t anarchists. They fly looking for food and materials to build their nests where they can lay their eggs and keep their babies safe. They fly to escape predators or to protect their own or to flee an oncoming storm. They experience necessity. They are free to ignore their own needs, as are we, but most of what they do is because they have an instinct to survive.

They also have an instinct to help each other survive. When geese are ready to travel, they find other geese also ready and they fly in a V pattern to make the trip easier on the group. The one at the front has the hardest job, confronting the winds and navigating their travels. They take turns, each leading the way for a time and each benefitting from the power of travelling together.

If one goose is having trouble, she will land and two others will follow. They stay with her until she’s well enough to travel again or until she dies. They don’t know her. They are just travelling companions. But they stay together in times of difficulty.

Earth Teach Me Freedom. Earth Teach Me Kindness.

People come to worship on Sunday, bringing their hunger and broken hearts seeking replenishment and healing. I know that feeling. That need for deep rest.

This week, we are celebrating Earth Day. Earth is everything around us and within us. Humans and other animals, other species all of whom can bring us rest. We can learn lessons from paying deep attention. We can find what we need in a field of flowers or a room of friends or under a 400 year old oak tree if only we allow ourselves to be healed. The ocean. The sunrise. The hoot of an owl. The leisurely blooming of the dogwood. It is here we find respite, on this shared land on this exquisite planet we find ourselves again.

Earth teach me stillness
            as the grasses are stilled with light.
Earth teach me suffering
            as old stones suffer with memory.
Rev. Peggy Clarke
Earth teach me humility
          as blossoms are humble with beginning.
Earth Teach me caring
            as the mother who secures her young.
Earth teach me courage
            as the tree which stands alone.
Earth teach me limitation
            as the ant which crawls on the ground.
Earth teach me freedom
            as the eagle which soars in the sky.
Earth teach me resignation
            as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration
            as the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself
            as melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness
            as dry fields weep in the rain.


  1. Peg, this is exquisite. Thank you. I will look forward to returning here to see what you and others write. I found the following prayer that I will be reading on Friday night to our Guild for Spiritual Guidance gathering. It was originally read at an Earth Day celebration in NYC while I was attending Seminary. I do not know the author. For me it has some connection with what you wrote:

    "Today we know of the energy that moves all things: the oneness of existence, the diversity and uniqueness of every moment of creation, every shape and form, the attraction, the allurement, the fascination that all things have for one another.
    Humbled by our knowledge, chastened by surprising revelations, with awe and reverence we come before the mystery of life.
    We who have lost our sense and our senses--our touch, our smell, our vision of who we are: we who frantically force and press all things, without rest for body or spirit, hurting our earth and injuring ourselves: we call a halt.
    We want to rest. We need to rest and allow the earth to rest. We need to reflect and to rediscover the mystery that lives in us, that is the ground of every unique expression of life, the source of the fascination that calls all things to communion.
    We declare a Sabbath, a space of Quiet; for simply being and letting be; for recovering the great, forgotten truths; for learning how to live again."

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