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Story

Everyday Ignatian is a series written by guest contributors, chronicling their daily lives and experiences through the lens of Ignatian spirituality.

By Mary Beth Keenan

Out on a solo hike near the beach, my mind and ears were attuned to every sound. I did not want to be greeted by something unexpected, adventuring on my own in an unfamiliar area. I teetered on the edge of vigilance and anxiety, presence and mindfulness. Nature is a happy place for me, but I am also aware of the potential dangers the wild brings.

I paused, curious, not wanting to startle the creature in the brush anymore. I was expecting a toad to come hopping my way. Much to my surprise, a small dark crab scuttled out from the ground cover. Squatting to examine it more closely, I breathed in deeply, thanking the crab for its presence, for the reminder to keep my eyes and heart open while in nature.

As I continued down the trail, I thought about other times I experienced anxiety in the wild while outside. Once, on a desert hike, I spent the first mile consumed with fears about rattlesnakes. I missed the amazing landscape around me as I peered over every rock before stepping, calculated how long it would take to get back to the ranger station, and listened closely for the distinctive rattle. When I paused long enough for the anxiety to turn to healthy vigilance, I stood in awe of the views I had been missing.

When in nature, the teetering between vigilance and anxiety usually ends up in a healthy place; I am more attuned to the environment around me, to the wildness of our Creator. I notice things that bring me deeper into relationship with the divine. However, when I have time to let my mind wander and unwind, my imagination can team up with my anxiety to come up with some fairly catastrophic images. Rather than paying attention to the thoughts that come across my mind, the anxious energy takes over. Because of this, I have been hesitant for years to open myself up in prayer to the possibility of an anxiety spiral. I do not have much practice or trust in letting my imagination meet the wildness of God in quiet moments.

As a new mom, the unique dynamics of my mental health became more potent and more powerful. While up in the middle of the night with a nursing baby, my mind would wander into the scariest corners. Flashbacks from our traumatic birth experience quickly turned into visions of the different ways I could lose my daughter. I clung tightly to the rosary in these times. I needed the accompaniment of Mama Mary, and the rote prayers kept my mind from spiraling.

I explained this dynamic to my spiritual director; she celebrated the prayer life I had built while also encouraging me to have a more open posture. She invited me to imagine Mary in the room with me while I nursed. What conversations would we have? How would Mary encourage me? What would her presence feel like?

I tried that the next night, expecting to find Mary sitting on the day bed, giving me new nursing position ideas and validating how hard this season is. That is exactly how my prayer time started. However, it quickly transitioned to a more imaginative moment as my anxiety spiked and I asked her for help.

Rather than speaking, she took her mantle off (the outer cloth she wears as Our Lady of Guadalupe). The mantle unfolded, fluttering out a now open window in the nursery. It grew in size and gently floated over top of our property. Carefully, it floated down, tucking itself in tight at the edges of our house, just like a parent tucks the sheets in under your legs for a tight wrap. Mama Mary showed me that she was protecting our house, tucking it in nice and safely. A wave of gratitude and peace settled over me.

I was shocked that the Spirit and my mind had come up with this visual together. I have intentionally watched this image play out many nights since, continuing to find solace in it. The baby in my arms that night is now a 4-year-old with some nighttime anxieties herself. While the surprise visuals from God served me in that moment, it gives me great peace to be able to pass it on to my daughter. She too has benefited from imagination, prayer and divine surprises.

Each time I open myself up to the Spirit, my imagination and my curiosity, I grow more trusting of our collaboration. Slowly, imaginative prayer has become a place that I turn to when I seek a sense of the divine, just like nature. Through nature, I have always found it easy to see God: the creative, loving and magical attributes of the divine are tangible to me in creation. When I give myself the time and intention to slow down, a posture of holy noticing allows me to be astonished by what I see. God delights in creativity and the delight expands into a desire to surprise me through awe and wonder.

So, too, in my prayer life. I still have to overcome some anxiety to enter into open prayer, but I have seen the fruits of this practice. I ground myself in positive experiences from the past and images from creation that bring me peace. I breathe in the truth that there is wildness, goodness and surprises to be found in nature and in prayer. I know that the divine will lurk beneath bushes as I walk the pilgrimage of life. But, just like that crab on my walk by the beach, if I approach nature and prayer with curiosity, God will surprise and delight.

 

A Prayer for Holy Noticing in Nature

O Divine Creator,

Enter this space with me.
Allow me to see your presence among the
plants, animals, sky and dirt.
Guide me to a sense of curiosity and wonder.
Help me to feel peace in not knowing
what this time will offer.
Allow me to greet each new creature with reverence.
I open myself to surprises, delights and memories.

In Your Creative Name,
Amen.

 

Mary Beth Keenan is a writer, artist, and stay-at-home-mom. She writes at the intersection of ecology, motherhood, and integrated living, often with a sprinkle of mental health and spirituality. An advocate for self-care and authenticity, she loves running, listening to others’ stories, gluten-free baked goods, and children’s books. She lives with her husband and two small children in Northern Virginia, USA. Find more about her, including her poems and essays, at www.mbkeenan.com.