Journal

Contemplative Life

What We Need to Nourish Our Souls

My husband and I live on an Air Force base, and a few weeks ago, I went for an afternoon walk along the trail that circles the runway. I had just purchased a jogging stroller from my sister’s neighbor and wanted to give it a try, but the timing was terrible and the heat felt abrasive. As I looked ahead at the long curve of unshaded pavement, I felt a rush of frustration. Where were the trees?

Now I know that trees around a runway are more of a hazard than an amenity, but for a girl who grew up in southwestern Pennsylvania—a state whose name derives from the Latin for “woods”—a treeless trail is a very sad prospect.

In undergrad, I often retreated to the woods behind my church to pray and reflect, and with every successive move and season, I have found a place —a secret spot—that is usually wooded and often by water. It’s where I go to reconnect with God. To bathe in the beauty of His creation. To just listen and be in His presence. 

So there I was, in a fairly new place, facing a familiar feeling: that surge of discontent that comes when we sense the absence of something—something we dearly wished we had. And instead of reflecting on all the things God had given me in this current season, all I could think was:

I wish there were woods.

Almost immediately, as if in response, I heard the quiet whisper of the Holy Spirit say: “Find your trees.”

When I wanted to complain, God was asking me to be proactive. And as I sat with those words, I realized that “Find your trees,” meant more to me than simply finding a wood to walk in. It meant finding “a circle of quiet,” to use Madeleine L’Engle’s phrase: space and time set aside to nourish the soul. The demands of motherhood had left me depleted, and God was reminding me of what my heart needed: agenda-less time with Him. Behind the surfacing frustration was a heart longing to rest and be restored. 

Do you know the feeling?

Too often we allow our routines and responsibilities to crowd-out our life with God and the invitations He places right in front of us. Instead of seeking greater intimacy with Him, we ignore our longing for more and settle for less-than-fully-alive. With so many pressing needs and obligations, it often seems hard to justify taking time to “soak” in God’s presence or give him uninterrupted time; it seems unproductive or, perhaps, even a little selfish.

But we need to push back on the voice that says, “keep working,” and, instead, diligently and proactively seek-out times for God to replenish us. God wants to be with us, and for us to enjoy Him without an end or an agenda; and it is only when we have received God’s love ourselves that we can offer it freely, and authentically, to others.

Proverbs 4:23 instructs us to “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” Our hearts are our most valuable assets—the seat of our mind, will and emotions and the locus of our life with God. If left untended, our hearts can harden. Disappointment, loss, unprocessed grief and unresolved guilt can render them like de-commissioned mines: dark and inaccessible. But if we make heart-tending a priority—if we listen and yield to the word of God and the Holy Spirit within us—we will overflow with His life.

How we tend our hearts will determine the course of our lives.

So what are your “trees”? What is it that your heart needs for your life with God to flourish in this season and for you to bear much fruit? It could be a spiritual discipline—like silence or solitude, scripture reading, attending a retreat or committing to spiritual direction. It could be a desire for more consistent and meaningful community or the need to fast from the grip of some technology. Or it could it be something much less “spiritual” sounding, like taking a nap or going to a Nat’s game or taking time to paint, read, run or cook. God knows exactly what we need for our hearts to be rekindled, and sometimes what we most need is to let go of a little responsibility and allow ourselves to play. If, as you read this, you know exactly what it is that God has been inviting you to do (or not do), I encourage you to stop procrastinating and take the next step. But if you don’t know what your heart needs or is asking for, then the “not knowing” is, itself, an answer: an invitation to get alone with God and ask Him to show you.

The beautiful thing about God is that He invites us into a process of discovering who He has made us to be and what He has called us to do. Instead of giving us an agenda, He invites us on a journey with Him. God could have told me exactly where and when to go for a walk. But He issued an invitation, instead: “find your trees”— and He let me discover the rest. 

I encourage you to set aside time this week to be honest with God about the state of your heart. Bring before Him those areas of your life that feel frustrating, overwhelming, fragile or thin, and ask Him what your heart is longing for in return. Trust that He cares about these very things and listen for His gentle (and often-surprising) response. God knows exactly what we need and how to supply it, and we can trust that He will respond in kind, creative and restorative ways.