Psalm 23 – Jules Rattray – Last year I finally graduated from my Masters in Outdoor Environment and Sustainability Education, and although the title sounds pretty scientific and formal, My research focused mostly on Psychology, more specifically Ecopsychology, Ecotherapy, and non-formal self guided outdoor education. In January this year, I made the mistake of talking about this to Jill, Karen and John Walsh who all quickly became interested in what I was saying. What happened next? Well, I’m standing here aren’t I?!
So, I wrote my research thesis about several themes in my life and also a book I had been inspired by called Wild (Strayed, 2012). The title for my work was: Wild Inspiration: An Autoethnographic Exploration on Overcoming Fear and Finding Peace in Nature. For anyone who doesn’t know, Autoethnography is more or less an academic form of storytelling, giving the researcher the opportunity to illustrate the interconnectedness of our life experiences in a way that conventional research methods can’t. Now, don’t worry! I am not going to read you my thesis! But I would like to indulge in the storytelling part a little and tell you about my finding peace and healing in nature.
My mum always tells me when I am nervous to remember that there will be an end time to whatever it is I am worrying about, that either way there will be a conclusion. I am doing this now, but I thought it might help you too… so, if this is really terrible just remember, by 11:30 it will all be over and we can just forget it ever happened! Alright, that is the British self-deprecation over with – at least for now anyway – so I will begin!
“I bundled on my scarf and winter coat and moved to the door, as I opened it I could feel the winter air was crisp, and outside I noticed everything was different, everything was glistening. Unbeknown to me, it had snowed through the night, enough to stop traffic and close schools, enough for the world, or at least the town, to fall silent. There were no cars on the road, and I wondered if the doctors’ surgery would even be open. As I walked slowly down the street the newly fallen snow compressed under my feet, squeaking and crunching as I went.
When I arrived at the doctors’ surgery, I felt the peace of the snowfall leave me at the door. My doctor was in and I had barely sat down before she came out and called my name. “What can I help you with today?” she said as we went into her office, I felt the anxiety rise up inside me. “Well,” I said, “I have this lump…”
When the surgery doors glided open, the cold air rushed over me bringing me back into the world and despite everything I had just been feeling, a calm came over me. I looked up at the branches of a tree, they were laden down with snow, bending under its weight, yet even under such pressure, they seemed more beautiful than ever. I let the cold, fresh, air and the silence sink into me as I walked back home. There was something so perfect, that among all my chaos, nature had brought me a rare and beautiful morning, that even though I knew somehow that my life was about to change forever, I felt nothing but deep peace.”
I was 26 when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 Cancer. In those early days of my diagnosis I lay awake at night, wondering whether I would live or die and why I had wasted so much time in life. As time went on and with so much time for self reflection, I came to realize that I had been living a selfish and shallow life and I felt truly ashamed of who I had become.
I underwent eight months of a chemotherapy treatment. It was a very long, grueling, and lonely road. By the end of my treatment, hearing the news I was in remission was a huge wave of relief. But in the weeks and months that followed, I couldn’t shake the feeling I had lost every ounce of my dignity and I wondered how I could ever get it back. Despite the abundant gratitude I felt that I had been given a second chance, I struggled to find a way back into a ‘normal’ life. I felt so much guilt for surviving when others who were more worthy and courageous had lost their lives.
Through all of the hard times I experienced during my journey with cancer, there was one thing that remained constant and apparent to me: The beauty of nature. The day my GP told me I needed to see a specialist about the lump in my neck it had snowed all night, the air was crisp and peace had descended on our little town. When I lay sick in my bed on my birthday, the smell of freshly cut grass found its way through my window, leaving me wondering if anything had ever smelt so beautiful. At times when I couldn’t sleep for all the fear racing through my head, we would drive down country roads lined with trees that arched over us as though they were protecting me from what lay ahead. The day I left the hospital after my last chemotherapy session, the sun shone through the trees, warming my face and reigniting my heart.
These and many other moments were deeply powerful and intimate experiences that became imprinted in my mind. They were moments in nature that brought me to a higher emotional state, they might be described by some as peak experiences. However to me they seemed like something more, something divine, little moments where I would experience heaven on earth. I was seeing the world through different eyes, what I had previously taken for granted had now become sacred wonders. There was an abundance of life in nature and I was desperately drawn to it. It was a stark contrast to the shadow of death I had felt hanging over me for almost a year. And while I still have no idea why I began to feel this way, I became convinced that these moments were calls from God.
I can hypothesize that perhaps it was because I felt so broken it caused my mind to resort to childhood teachings from school. That the idea that I could be forgiven for my trespasses was a great comfort to me, or that my subconscious mind was relating the skies to the heavens with God watching over me. Perhaps I was searching for a meaning to life that could not be explained only by science. Or maybe I was looking for a purpose when I felt like I had been saved but could not understand why. Whatever it was that caused this feeling of God, I have to admit, I was pretty uncomfortable with it.
In my childhood Christianity was not a big part of our lives, it seemed to everyone around me that going to church was something to be endured rather than enjoyed. But what stood out to me from the little I did know was that Jesus knew how to love, and for a time, I held on to that. Somewhere along the line between my late teenage years when I realized that I was gay, and my getting diagnosed with cancer I lost my way. I lost faith and along with it my ability to love and find forgiveness for people who hurt me. I was not able to reconcile Christianity with who I was any more. I was not welcome there and they were not welcome with me, how could I welcome a religion that rejected my love? Or worse a religion that rejected my family and friends, friends who have made the excruciatingly painful decision to have an abortion, Family who are Muslim, or atheist, friends who are Jewish, friends who are Trans. Once you truly know the love and compassion in a persons heart, you can not stand beside a religion that would turn their love away. So, no, no thank you, I had long since decided that Christianity was not for me.
But, despite all that I protested, I continued to feel this call in the wind, in the rain, in a blaze of sunshine, in a birds song, on a crisp winter morning, in the crashes of thunder and the clouds in the sky. The more time I spent outside, the more I came to understand that everything , every living thing, is connected. As John Muir put it so well: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”. I became so convinced of my need to reconnect to nature, that I started to spend time outside everyday. My shadow of death was shifting, finally beginning to make way for green pastures.
My return to Christianity has been a slow jog, maybe a marathon, rather than a sprint! However one of the things that pulled me and allowed me to even entertain the idea was what I guess was a sign, or a coincidence! Throughout my Cancer I would often hear in my head Psalm 23. Not the “You’re dying, let me read this in the scariest voice possible” version! But a beautiful song version that is most well known from a British TV show called “The Vicar of Dibley”. Certainly I was able to relate to the image of walking through the valley of the Shadow of Death, but I was also having these wondrous moments in the outdoors, The green pastures! Those moments gave me respite from all I was going through, and even if just for a moment in time, they restored my soul. I felt that if there truly was a creator, then nature was the real cathedral, no building could contain the divine.
I stopped searching for an answer to why I survived because I now understood there was no answer to that. Surviving or dying from cancer is a lottery, just as much as getting cancer in the first place is. Asking why I survived was the wrong question. What I do know is that facing the possibility of death was the shock that 26 year old I was needed. This sounds extreme and I would never wish it on anyone. Certainly I am beyond privileged to be alive and no doubt undeserving of the second chance I was given, but like I said survival is a lottery. Without the shock of cancer I would still be that same person, yet now for me to return to the self-serving journey of my past would be unthinkable, I choose instead to follow Jesus on a path to love, compassion, justice and radical inclusivity. And I came to this path through the forest, through a snowfall, through a sense of wonder, through fleeting moments in nature that healed my broken soul.
I would like to share just one more thing with you about Psalm 23. As I already expressed, this Psalm is very meaningful to me, but I must confess, I am a questioner, in fact I am rarely convinced by anything to the point that I wouldn’t go back and take a second look. So a while ago, I found my self thinking about this Psalm again. I must have been feeling cynical too! “Well, it’s a nice sentiment” I thought, but really It seemed to be promising grand things and ignoring all the pain and struggles that people go through in life. Having a faith in God or Jesus to guide you does not mean that everything is provided in abundance, or that suddenly life and death are care free if we just believe hard enough.
After doing some reading around that subject, I discovered some bible historians have a better explanation. Rather than seeing these green pastures as infinite fields of green grass, instead consider the land in Israel. The land where shepherds tend their flock are barren hillsides where only small tufts of grass grow when water collects by the rocks. There is no life long provision in these green pastures, instead the shepherd guides them forward, finding just enough to sustain them for a day. In reading that, I found it made so much more sense to me now. God does not answer all of my prayers, but at times when I have been broken and lost in the wilderness, I do believe He has given me just enough to find a glimmer of hope, enough to keep moving forward, and most of it has come to me in nature.
We as an animal species have become so far removed from all that is wild in nature, that we have failed to remember that we are a part of it. We truly belong outside, in the lands that bring such wonder and beauty. Yes I mean those picturesque ones we all instantly think of, The mountains, lakes, the Oceans, streams and forests. But don’t forget about our own neighborhoods, take a walk outside and pay close attention to all the natural life around you, or open a window, close your eyes and listen to the rustle of wind in the trees. Examine the cracks in the concrete, I assure you, you will find even the weeds that grow amongst us show strength and resilience, after all they are still capable of growing beautiful flowers. God is with us in all that is living, and if you step outside into that cathedral, you might find just enough, just exactly what you need.