Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes – including you,’ writes Anne Lamott.
That’s not to be flippant, in a pandemic; but her words remind me that, far from finding lockdown restful, it’s been hard to unplug mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and I expect it has for you.
And so, as restrictions ease, let’s not assume we should be automatically primed for action. The Bible speaks of finding ‘rest for the soul’ for good reason, and thankfully the summer now offers restorative opportunities, even if we can’t go on holiday.
The trick, I’ve found, is to keep it simple. On the summer retreats I lead, we take a few steps barefoot, for example, to feel the grass beneath our feet. It can earth us, in a most heavenly way. Often, this evokes childhood memories, too; as if the child in us knew, all along, that here we stand on holy ground.
Summer touches the soul through the senses, doesn’t it? The Victorian nature writer Richard Jefferies describes a saunter which, for him, became spiritually immersive: ‘The grasshoppers called and leaped, the greenfinches sang, the blackbirds happily fluted, all the air hummed with life. I was plunged deep in existence,’ he writes, ‘and with all that existence I prayed.’
How wonderful! At a time when we still can’t quite get into church, he reminds me that Creation offers a uniquely worshipful space with all God’s creatures, of which, and with which, we’re one.
A summer’s day certainly aids the spiritual act of contemplation, which we tend not to do, usually, in a hurry. Walt Whitman admits, unashamedly: “I loafe and invite my soul, I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” It takes courage to permit one’s self to be at ease; though the psalmist urges us, too: “Be still and know that I am God.”
Not that ‘rest for the soul’ means everlasting idleness, of course. I led a retreat for St Paul’s a couple of years ago, and we spent time in Green Park, one of London’s most verdant spaces. I encouraged us, in the spirit of Psalm 23, to lie down in its green pastures, to ‘be’.
In our group was an exhausted psychotherapist, who’d been working with children in war-torn areas. We went actively to some delightful spiritual ‘places’ that day, but he reported that for him, these few minutes, of taking rest in God’s Creation, are what energised him most fully, for the work that lay ahead. We’re restored, no doubt, for good reason.
That day, we also tried the simplest form of ‘one-breath meditation’. The head photographer of National Geographic, Dewitt Jones, developed this practice on location, to help him take in the beauty and wonder of Creation, in order – beautifully, wonderfully – to pass it on.
On the in-breath, he’d whisper, ‘We take it all in’, and on the out-breath, ‘To give it all back.’
The gift we receive, perhaps, is the gift we become. Ready, to work again.
Try one of these, this week
• Try the ‘one-breath’ meditation, now (and each day). Breathe slowly, deeply, and remember the words: “We take it all in … To give it all back.” Be conscious of receiving God’s love, as you breathe, in order to give that back to the world around you, beautifully, wonderfully.
• Take a few steps on grass with bare feet. Savour the sensation. Find restoration in the physical touch which reaches to the soul.
• Pray, not just with words, but with your whole being, as you spend some time outside, Be conscious of the life around you: the creatures, the trees, the earth. Offer your prayer from within that unique, worshipful space. (And why not remember, while you’re there, to pray for the community of St Paul’s Cathedral, as it gets ready to re-open its own space partially; or for your own local church.)
• Spend a few minutes contemplating one specific part of nature – a blade of grass, a leaf, a stretch of water, a flower … Let nature teach you stillness. Just observe it. Nothing more, but nothing less.
• Lie down (if you can!) on the grass, and give yourself permission to be ‘at ease’ for a few minutes each day.
• Take your Bible outside, and read Psalm 23. Meditate on what it means for your soul to be restored.
This is one of a short series of weekly summer reflections called ‘Into the Light’ for St Paul’s Cathedral. Click here to sign up for free.
Brian Draper works as a speaker, retreat guide, labyrinth curator and creative consultant, seeking to help people of all faiths and none to see the world from a creative and engaging spiritual perspective. His books include Soulfulness: Deepening the Mindful Life (2016) and Soulful Nature (2020). He is a regular contributor to BBC R4’s Thought for the Day. http://briandraper.org/