From the Backyard (of my Parents’ Farm): A Week of Retreat with the Book of Nature

Two weeks ago, I was blessed with a week of retreat. Every year, the Diocese of La Crosse organizes a week-long priest retreat for the clergy of our Diocese. Since my past assignments were “school heavy,” a high school teacher for seven years and a college chaplain for six, I seldom attended our retreat since it landed in the heart of my academic schedule. Now that I have an assignment where my roll with Regis Catholic Schools is administrative, I was able to attend our priest retreat for the first time: And it was wonderful!

In light of Covid-19, the retreat was held virtually. As you can imagine, there were many concerns I had about whether or not it would really be a retreat while staring at a computer screen every day. The organizers were sensitive to this and encouraged us to find a safe place to provide a “retreat house environment.” When I prayed about it, the answer came quickly: The family farm!

Since my parents and brother who runs the farm are all vaccinated, I knew that it would be a safe place to be for my retreat. For astronomical reasons, I also wanted to go home so I could enjoy the night skies. The skies over the family farm are not the darkest in the state, but they are dark enough to see the Milky Way. In the spirit of 2020-2021, Murphy’s Law was in full force as I was treated to a week of clouds and cold. However, the last morning of the retreat provided clear skies, allowing me a Milky Way capture just before dawn. I miss these skies.

As the retreat progressed, a central theme emerged: To believe in an all-loving God is rather easy for people to accept, but do our actions toward others and ourselves reflect that belief? At one level, this theme isn’t terribly Earth shattering – It’s something I’ve used in homilies in the past. However, there was something about how it was presented in the retreat that spoke to me in a new way. This theme awoke topics of gentleness toward self and others, forgiveness, mercy, and healing. Most of these thoughts will remain in my prayer journal, but one of the themes that emerged that fits nicely with our blog is the following: Do I act lovingly toward God’s Creation – The Book of Nature?

As I’ve written on in the past, Pope Francis proposed two new Works of Mercy for the faithful to embrace: To Care for God’s Creation and Contemplate God’s Creation. On the surface, these Works of Mercy are rather commonsensical – In order to perform works like feeding the hungry, give drink the thirsty, and shelter to the homeless you need a healthy environment and society to provide for the needs of others. At the same time, I get the sense that these Works of Mercy have not taken hold of people the way the Holy Father hoped they would – And that includes me.

What? Fr. James, the priest who writes on Care for Creation isn’t caring for creation? Scandal! Before you decide to unsubscribe from our blog, let me explain. When applying the retreat theme of viewing God one way and relating with God another, I began to see that when it comes to caring for creation and contemplating creation, even though I have made improvements in these areas, there’s still a lot of growth for me to achieve.

For example, since my sabbatical, I’ve noticed a renewed desire to make the contemplation of creation an integral part of my prayer life. My week of retreat showed how this desire has taken root through an experience with some Sandhill Cranes on our property. Every morning, I would go to the shore of Spring Lake. It’s literally a spring-fed lake that shares part of its shoreline with our family’s woods. A trout stream flows out of our woods and I “discovered” that it is a literal landing pad for about 20-30 migrating Sandhill Cranes. Every morning they would congregate on a sandbar just off our woods and take off to the local fields. In the evening, they would return to bed for the night. When I shared this find with my parents, they recalled family going down to “the swamp” to see the cranes. I was stunned… Why didn’t I remember this? I then had a moment of compunction – It took me 47 years of life to realize we had this amazing gift in our woods. Amid the peace and joy of each morning, there was also a twinge of regret, “I could have enjoyed these mornings for so many years, but my ignorance prevented me from doing so.”

Amid the joy I felt in these moments of prayer, I wanted to share with everyone how God was bringing peace to my heart through these cranes’ morning routine, but then it happened: An environmental ethos began to flourish.

Could sharing this location actually hurt these cranes? How do we need to treat our woods to make sure these cranes keep coming back? We have an artesian spring on our property, how do we keep the water clean for our family and the wildlife in our woods? What other wildlife do we need to be attentive to that we might not even know lives in these woods? How is God calling me to be a good steward of creation?

It was at this point that I knew I was having an authentic experience of God’s love. Every time I sense a closeness with God taking hold it brings great peace and joy, but also a hint of frustration and compunction as my life is now a little more complicated, knowing my actions need to change. To put it another way, I thought I was doing a good job with care for and contemplation of creation, but I now see a vision of both that points to major areas of growth. Welcome to the spiritual life!

Spiritual Exercise: How can you contemplate God’s creation today? When you decide how to do so, also be attentive to how that contemplation calls you to care for creation. It’s a powerful combination: A heart of gratitude for God’s creation and hands ready to be dirtied with caring for that creation. But be careful. You just might find yourself in an odd tension between the love God has for you and the change of heart that love asks us to embrace.

The Milky Way over the Kurzynski family farm just before dawn.