Monday, September 18, 2017

The Prayer Tree

Compassionate Creator,
within and beyond all things,
holy are your names.
May your ways of wisdom and compassion,
clarity and courage
be known and embodied by all.

Grant what we need each day
in bread and insight.
Loose the cords of mistakes that bind us
as we release the strands we hold of others' guilt.
Do not let surface things delude us
but free us from all that holds us back
from our true purpose.

From you radiates all life and love,
the song that beautifies all.
From age to age it renews.
May your compassion be the ground from which spring
all our actions of body, speech and mind.


This prayer to the Compassionate Creator is one I've being praying a lot lately. In fact, I've been praying it at least twice a day – and always at the same spot: beside the tree that features in the photos of this post. This particular tree grows beside Minnehaha Creek, not far from my home in south Minneapolis.

I pause at this tree each morning and afternoon as I walk to and from my bus stop. You see, each week day morning I catch the #5 bus on Chicago Avenue, which takes me to Abbott Northwestern Hospital where, since the end of last month, I've been working as a resident chaplain. I've discovered that my time of prayer at this tree is a beautiful way to prepare me for my chaplaincy work . . . as well as to start and close my work day. It has become a holy place and time, to be sure.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I feel very connected to this tree. Also, the prayer I pray beside it is one which has long been very meaningful to me. I shared part of it at The Wild Reed back in 2009. Later in a 2013 post, I shared it in its entirety for the first time.

You might be wondering where this prayer comes from. The short answer is that it's a version of the "Our Father" which, in large part, is Neil Douglas-Klotz's translation of the Aramaic words of Jesus. I say "in large part" because I have adapted it somewhat. Douglas-Klotz's version can be found in his book Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus' Words. It can also be found online, here.

Much of the beauty of this experience of prayer is due to the tree by which I pray, along with this tree's location. It really can feel like I’m in the woods. Yet it’s woodland located in the heart of the city: a paradox, of sorts – a world within a world.

In many indigenous spiritualities, including the indigenous or pagan spirituality of Europe, any tree can be representative of the tree, that is, the World Tree or Cosmic Tree. In numerous religious traditions the World Tree is represented as a colossal tree which supports the heavens, thereby connecting the heavens, the terrestrial world, and, through its roots, the underworld. The Tree of Life, which connects all forms of creation and is mentioned in the Judeo-Christian Book of Genesis, is an expression of the World Tree.

To get to the oak tree by which I regularly pray, one must go off the paved pathways. There is a track, but no doubt for many, it’s a hidden, unknown one. And yet it’s one that leads to the “Tree of Life.” All of this brings to mind the Beloved and Antlered One, “seeker of the forest’s hidden paths,” a powerful and beautiful way of acknowledging all the different, unorthodox ways that one can seek and find the Sacred.

During my forays into this urban wilderness, I rarely encounter other people, especially in the early morning. I have no problem with this. Indeed, it appeals to me. I also must admit that the incongruence of my walking this dirt track in the woods dressed in my work clothes – tie, vest, and all – appeals to me.

There’s a sense of two worlds merging, of crossing over into a different time and/or dimension. If the experience were to be visualized, say, in a graphic novel, it could be as a Victorian gentleman traversing some future and/or alien world. Indeed, I’m drawn to such characters, stories, and images – from the time traveler of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine to Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan) of the BBC series The Living and the Dead (left and below).

They are men – cultured and sensitive – who, in some inexplicable way, find themselves out of place and/or time. And yet they deal with this – despite feelings of trepidation and even of fear. They take risks, and are prepared to venture into the unknown – while all the time snappily dressed! So, yes, they are definitely hero-figures for me, but not so much in an action-hero sense but rather a grounded-hero sense.

Without trivializing the matter, I think it is possible to ask the question: Are the things that inform and animate these rather fanciful depictions – the sense of journeying, of boundary crossing, of encountering the unexpected and unknown – are they that far removed from the often nebulous role of the chaplain?

Deeper still: Do I not potentially enter a whole new world, another’s life, each and every time I enter a patient’s room?

Are there not unknown and strange realities, truths, even specters that I may encounter and be asked to engage with in my pastoral interactions?

How do I stay grounded in my own embodied reality and truth while still being present, attuned, and attentive to others?

I have no definitive answers, but I do know that I’ve come to experience groundedness through my daily prayer by and with the oak whose roots are nourished by the waters of Minnehaha Creek.

Which brings to mind and heart another realization: When I first started walking along the creek in late August it was still summer. The foliage was full and deep and green. In the last few weeks, however, things have changed. Of course, this is not surprising, given that September is very much a time of transformation, the time in the northern hemisphere of the “darkening equinox,” the balance between sun and shadow. Given how much of my spirituality resonates with themes and images of journey, balance, and transformation, it’s little wonder I find myself drawn to the Autumnal Equinox in a few days' time, and to the very sensually-discernible ways it is manifested in the woods I walk through every day. One can see it in the changing colors, hear it in the softly falling leaves, and smell it in the wet and decaying vegetation underfoot.

For the ancients, autumn was full of the “magic” of change. For the Celts, among whom Cernunnos walked, this time of year was a profound reminder of the spiral of life – birth, growth, death, decay, and regeneration. This mystery is at the heart of the Autumnal Equinox . . . and indeed of all expressions of pagan spirituality.

And here’s yet another realization: it’s a very different experience walking through the woods and being with the oak in the morning than it is in the afternoon. It even looks in some mysterious way, like a different place. I’ve come to understand that this is because of the light. In the afternoon, there is what I would call regular or normal light, while in the morning there is the light of twilight – that mysterious in-between time that is neither yet also both night and morning. In this eerie light all looks different – enchanted, if you like.

I’ve discovered that I’m drawn to and have an affinity for in-between places. One of my favorite places in my homeland of Australia is a rock platform in Guruk (aka Port Macquarie), a place that at times can be both sea and land; a place where it can feel as though I’m walking on water!

I can’t tell you how much I love being at this place – this sacred place. By this I mean that whenever I'm at this particular place I always feel at one with the energizing and transforming presence within and beyond all things.

This Presence goes by many names: Life Force, the Universe, Divine Love, Great Spirit, Holy One, Sacred Mystery, God. I don't believe what name we use ultimately matters. What is important is that we find the name and/or image that best attunes us to this Presence, and that we then immerse ourselves in it, allowing it to awaken, energize, transform, and guide us. My experience of this place, this little rock platform on the south-eastern Australian coast, never fails to open me to all these things. And I’m finding my time with the oak tree by the creek, here in Minnesota, half-the-world away, is doing the same thing.

* Writes Angie O'Gorman in the Pax Christi USA booklet, Coming to Consciousness: Reflections for Lent 2011:

From the work of Neil Douglas-Klotz and others who have studied ancient Aramaic – the language of Jesus – we know that "The Lord's Prayer" is not as neatly translated into English as the biblical versions would have us believe. Most Aramaic words have several possible "literal" translations. The following analysis is based on Douglas-Klotz's book, Prayers of the Cosmos.

Abwoon d'bwashmaya, the first line of the Our Father in Aramaic, does not simply translate as "Our Father who art in heaven." Abwoon does not specify gender but rather the birthing process, and d'bwashmaya does not mean a far-off place in the sky where God reigns over us. It has more the sense of light and sound emanating throughout all creation. And Jesus would not have used the phrase "Kingdom of God." The image did not exist in ancient Aramaic. The closest form transliterates as teytey malkuthakh and carries a sense of unity rather than a style of government. Teytey meant "come," but also had a sense of mutual desire and fulfilment of a goal. Malkuthakh referred to a quality of governing that guided life toward unity. The word shares its root with Malkatuch, the name of the Great Mother (Earth) in the Middle East long before Jesus' time.

Jesus' message largely passed through Greek translators before coming to us, and thus we get a Greek rather than a Jewish or Aramaic worldview. Was Christianity lost in translation?

Above: My friend Mahad at the Prayer Tree – Sunday, August 12, 2018.

For other prayers I find particularly meaningful, see:
Prayer of the Week – August 3, 2015
The Most Sacred and Simple Mystery of All
Prayer of the Week – November 5, 2013
Prayer of the Week – November 14, 2012
The Art of Gentle Revolution
Prayer of the Week – April 12, 2010
A Prayer for Compassion

See also the following related Wild Reed posts:
Move Us, Loving God
Andrew Harvey on Radical, Divine Passion in Action
Active Waiting: A Radical Attitude Toward Life
Called to the Field of Compassion
"Window, Mind, Thought, Air and Love"
The Soul of a Dancer
The Art of Dancing as the Supreme Symbol of the Spiritual Life
Balance: The Key to Serenity and Clarity
Memet Bilgin and the Art of Restoring Balance
Sufism: Way of Love, Tradition of Enlightenment, and Antidote to Fanaticism
The Sufi Way
The Pagan Roots of All Saints Day
Celebrating the Coming of the Sun and the Son
In the Garden of Spirituality – Jeanette Blonigen Clancy
Beltane and the Reclaiming of Spirit
"I Caught a Glimpse of a God"
Integrating Cernunnos, "Archetype of Sensuality and the Instinctual World"
The Body: As Sacred and Knowing as a Temple Oracle
The Piper at the Gates of Dawn
Autumn . . . Within and Beyond
Winter . . . Within and Beyond

Images of the Prayer Tree: Michael J. Bayly (April 2017, May 2017, June 2017, September 2017, December 2018, and August 2018).

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