A Thin, Green Veil

Jun 17 / Heather Mayer

A year ago in March, I went into the Blue Mountains with a backpack full of grief and hope to leave some of it behind with the pines. I was attending a Nature Bathing and Spiritual Formation retreat with Spiritual Directors International. Though I was entering into the trip with sadness, I was also tremendously excited for what I would learn and experience. It was incredible.

Since then, I have become certified as a forest bathing guide and have incorporated the principles of forest bathing into my spiritual direction practice for those it speaks and lends resonance to.

However, the full-scale explanation of what nature does is still largely intangible. My lived experience informs me that something beyond science is at play. So often, I conduct a session sitting outside on Zoom with my directee on the screen across from me, and a robin will hop across my yard, or the wind will pick up, and something so rich and mysterious places a fingerprint on my soul. Or I will host a forest bathing session and the participants will remove their shoes, letting their toes sink into loom and moss, and we are suddenly teary-eyed with emotion and awe. But awe with what?

What significant and veiled thing are we experiencing when green and creaturely things steal our collective breath and point us to God? What precisely thins the veil as sunlight glints on a willow leaf, or we witness the colorful barbs of a sea urchin through foamy saltwater? 

If I sit quietly and ask my soul what is unraveling or being rebuilt in those moments, the first word that comes to mind is authenticity. It is uniquely human to try and be something other than who we are. Creatures can adapt and evolve.

Like humans, the survival instinct can require that animals, trees, and flower bulbs do all sorts of things that deviate from the normal flow of a season if the environment requires it. But those deviations are coded into the DNA of a thing and are created adaptations that allow for change but don't make an animal or a plant something other than what it is.

Humans are born with the blessing and the curse of a promise: "You can be anything you want to be!" The fact that humans can't be anything other than human is inarguable. But we have the potential and the possibility to morph in ways that nature cannot, or perhaps in its wisdom, does not. Authenticity becomes what we lose in our early years, hoping to regain it in the second half of life. When I walk in the woods, I know the season and the time of day based on what the flora and fauna are displaying. 

I can count on when the forsythia will bloom in March and when and where I will see Trillium blossoming. I can plan my son's birthday based on the tulips and know when the sugar maple has reached November based on the particular hue of the leaves. That kind of dependability is primordial. It reminds us that matter is neither created nor destroyed and that we share cells with oceans and galaxies. What a miracle it is that the eyeballs of reindeer turn blue in the winter to help them see the light at lower levels.

Recently, I was with my family in Maui, and a woman in the market stall serving shaved ice asked if we would like a local tip to see the sea turtles come to nest for the evening. We trekked dutifully down to the secluded beach she directed us towards and noted that the fishermen were leaving and that the few loungers were packing up to head home for the evening.

We worried we might have gotten the location wrong, with everyone leaving just when we were told to arrive. But we waited. And just as she said they would, moments after the sun dipped, green sea turtles patiently rode the tide into the beach and made their way onto the sand. I wondered for how many decades that same turtle family had been coming to sleep at that same place. How ancient was that ritual? All I knew at that moment was that I was the recipient of an inexplicable tug towards God's love and mystery. 

Within nature's authentic existence is an offering. We, too, are invited to be within the sanctuary of the non-human world. When I entered North Carolina's Blue Mountains for the retreat, I felt permission to grieve honestly. I hiked and walked and sat and laid prostrate and allowed my body to be in every position while I processed my emotions. I saw God everywhere- in the knots of the white pine bark, the ripples on the lake water, and the wild rhododendrons that had just started to bloom.
There was a chapel on the grounds of the retreat center, but as a group, we opted to gather each evening in the outdoor chapel, carved right into a hillside next to a creek and a pine grove. And though the chapel's acoustics were lovely, I sang louder and with more zeal with the other retreatants when we were all gathered together on that creek's edge with the sun setting at our backs. 

If the exact reason my blood pressure lowers and my breathing starts to match the exhalation of the trees when I enter a quiet space in nature can't be known, then let it remain a mystery. The truest things in my life always hold an element of the ethereal. Let us wonder and let it be so, and simply thank God for the example of how to live with authenticity and trust that nature so benevolently gives to us. 

Heather Mayer

Heather is a lifelong seminarian and seeker of those moments that thin the veil. She holds a undergraduate degree in psychology, a Master’s in Spiritual Formation from George Fox Seminary, and is a certified Spiritual Director. In the vein of “everything is spiritual”, Heather is also a preschool director and teacher. Her approach to early childhood is the same approach she takes in spiritual direction- that all persons carry the image and the wisdom of God within, and that our intimacy with God can grow when we are encouraged to approach spirituality with curiosity and wonder. Heather finds her deepest connection with Creator God in nature and in the presence of children and animals. Her call to spiritual direction lives in her desire for all God’s children to know and trust in their belovedness. Heather has a heart for equity, and she has found a niche in working with the LGBTQ community and all seekers of Love who have been told that something about their essence did not belong. In spiritual direction sessions she delights in helping people learn to trust the voice of God within that says we never have to betray who we are in order to be loved and cherished by God. 

You can reach out to Heather on her website by clicking here