Roots and Branches

Category: Monthly Reflection


Roots and Branches


Grateful for the Spring weather finally coming to our corner of North Carolina I bought my first plants of the season. I planted most of them only to learn that a frost was predicted that night but so far they seem to have survived. To be honest I’m not much of a gardener but I love to see the perennials emerge every year and I never cease to be amazed that they do it without my help. Nature is awesome and I never want to forget it. The psalmist says it well: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork. One day tells it’s tale to another, and one night imparts knowledge to another. Although they are not heard, their sound has gone out into all lands and their message to the ends of the world.” Psalm 19:1-4. A significant part of prayer has become for me listening to creation, learning from the wisdom of growing things and the creatures that inhabit the earth.

I am reading A Sunlit Absence by Martin Laird, a companion volume to his earlier book Into the Silent Land. He talks about contemplative prayer using many metaphors from nature which are helpful in discerning where we are in our journey with God. Today the image that addressed me was that of a tree with its deep roots, grounding it in the earth. Laird says ”Prayer is not content to stay up in the branches of our minds” for that is where all the other things that claim our thought are located. (Buddhist teachers speak of “monkey mind” and even if you have never seen monkeys in their natural habitat you can probably imagine the busy, frenetic, leaping from branch to branch, grabbing a snack, gathering a few fleas from a sibling, and rarely staying still.) Instead prayer works its way down through the foliage and trunk and into our roots and in this way it becomes one with God ”the Ground of all.”

How does this happen? It is when we are faithful to a daily practice of contemplative prayer that we are enabled to move down deeper into the nourishing Ground of our being; to be rooted in God’s love. I have never met anyone who is not plagued by thoughts that intrude into the silence we seek in prayer. Fr. Keating has an encouraging comment on this issue. He responded to a religious sister when she commented that she was just no good at centering prayer because she had been invaded by thoughts throughout her practice in the group that Keating was leading. He told her that she had had all the more wonderful opportunities to keep returning to the center. Sometimes thoughts won’t let go of us but we can keep letting go of them as often as they “pop up” in our minds and in this way release more deeply into silent prayer.

“But thoughts, too, point to, emerge from, and manifest this Ground. Our very being doesn’t have to pray. We are already prayer.” I found this last comment especially encouraging for it is a reminder that thoughts are not of themselves problematic for they often come from the God of grace to whom and through whom we pray. That’s what happens to me as I ponder the trees in my yard newly covered in leaves and the plants that have risen once more above the surface of the ground. They point me to the Ground of Being, the Creator whose ways are beyond my knowing but whose creative presence is manifest all around me. I know there will be dark times when little seems to be happening above ground and I need to be content with gestation that is the precursor of fresh growth.

The image of being rooted in God is used in the Epistle to the Ephesians where the author prays for the recipients of the letter:  “I pray…you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through the Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” Ephesians 3:16-17. Sometimes the practice of prayer can seem daunting and the Source to whom we pray far from our meager efforts but in this Scripture we are reminded that Love is the very Ground that nurtures our roots. We can trust the Source of our life and being who is always silently at work in and through us and in the whole created order of planet earth.

A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness and Contemplation – Martin Laird, Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-19-537872-6