My annual retreat this year was beautiful, deep, and even had a number of practical “takeaways” that I’m already putting into practice in my daily life. I prayed for all of you, my readers, and in a special way for those who sent in prayer requests and intentions.
From each day’s Gospel reading (primarily from Matthew and John 6’s Bread of Life discourse, and including the Gospel for the Transfiguration), my retreat director singled out a theme for my retreat: “Signs, Wonders, and Wondering.” It was a great theme for my retreat, but it’s also a great theme to explore in this blog. Signs are a form of communication that I haven’t explored that much here, and yet almost all communication uses signs or forms to communicate a deeper reality.
If we think about it, all of creation is really a sign of God’s communication with us. For me, nature has been and continues to be a particularly poignant way that God communicates to me. One encounter in the woods during retreat was especially touching.
“White-tailed deer” by USDA photo by Scott Bauer – Image Number: K5437-3
One morning I rose early and walked to the Concord River to a special spot where I often go to pray while on retreat. My prayer spot is a narrow piece of land that juts out from swampland into the river. This morning I’d already run into two beautiful does–mother and daughter, probably–and they had disappeared into the woods so fast that I almost didn’t believe I’d seen them. While I was sitting by the river, a majestic young stag walked out to the shoreline a short distance up the river from me. He saw me, but I was far enough away that he didn’t seem concerned about me. After feeding and drinking for a while, the stag stepped into the water and started making his way towards me.
I think it was at that point I stopped breathing.
With fairly well-developed antlers, the stag was so beautiful and strong, and yet also vulnerable. As he got closer, I started realizing how big he was. The thought flashed through my mind that us sharing the narrow piece of land I was standing on–which was barely wide enough for two people–would not be a good idea.
Of course he wouldn’t come that close. Would he?
In that moment, the stag finally seemed to realize that I wasn’t part of the landscape. He stopped, raised his head, and took a really long look at me.
After another breathless moment, he turned toward the shore and casually sauntered back into the woods.
I stayed and prayed for another 10 or 20 minutes, then started walking back. As I approached the forest’s solid land and the main path, I caught a glimpse of the stag–waiting for me?– on the main path. I stopped and caught his eye. His tail flashed and he left–not at a run, but faster than his previous sauntering pace.
My experience with the stag so struck me that later that day, I broke my internet retreat fast and looked up the Celtic symbolism of the stag. I’d often prayed with Psalm 42, “As the hart longs for running streams…” but this time the stag didn’t seem to represent me or my longings, but Christ.
I found I’d been correct in my remembrance that in Celtic tradition, the stag was a symbol of Christ. Although I didn’t find the reasoning particularly compelling, I used the symbolism as an entry into prayer. Why had I been so moved by the stag, in addition to his reflection of the beauty of God?
The stag’s beauty, gracefulness, and power were all striking. I’ve never even seen a stag with such well-developed antlers before. But what also struck me was the stag’s vulnerability. Although he might have been watching protectively over the does I’d encountered earlier, I saw him alone. And when I was concerned that he might get too close to me, I wasn’t just concerned for myself. I also realized that if he gets too comfortable with people, he is an easier target during hunting season.
Christ is striking in his beauty, graciousness, goodness, and power. But like the stag, Jesus, too, is strikingly vulnerable. The difference is that Jesus chooses to make himself vulnerable. For our sake–for my sake–Christ took on our human nature and underwent all the fragility of a human life here on earth, ending up by being put to death by crucifixion. And Jesus continues to make himself vulnerable for me every day in the Eucharist. Truly present in the Eucharist, Christ hides his majesty, glory, and power, making himself vulnerable every day for me.
All of nature can “speak” to us of God. My encounter with the stag–in all his power and vulnerability–became a powerful symbol with which I could contemplate an aspect of the mystery of Christ’s love for us.