Stained-glass Trees

19 07 2014

The Spiritual Practice of Creating Sacred Space

by Brittany Longsdorf, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

Most of my life, I have lived in rural towns and villages in the Southern and Midwestern USA. I was raised by wide-lined cornfields and formed in the branches of oak trees. These spaces were sacred to me, though I often undervalued their spiritual essence while living among them.

photo 1When I was in college I read a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It suggested that trees can be a home once you destine one to be. In a light-filled, clarifying moment I realized I had always done that—I somewhat unintentionally had made tree-homes.

Tree loves of my past flashed through my memories:

  • An ancient oak that sprawled over a creek near my grandparents’ house in Alabama, where I would fish and read novels.
  • A tall and rotund walnut in the woods by my house as a teenager, where I would cry and vent.
  • A circle of three pines that I ceremoniously dubbed “heaven” at Graceland University, where I used to study, laugh with friends, and discuss theology.
  • A warm, yellow ginkgo outside my apartment at seminary, where I would sit for hours, attempting to discern vocation, call, and mission.

These tree-homes were intentionally created sacred spaces where I felt safe to live fully in the present and explore my relationship with others and God.

My husband and I recently moved to Boston, and I am thoroughly enjoying the adventure of living in an urban place for the first time. The city is abuzz with life, diversity, and culture. Working as a university chaplain I am blessed with meeting incredible students every day and exploring spiritual formation in this generation in new and beautiful ways.

But for a while, I struggled to make this vibrant city feel like home. I missed the cornfields, the bubbling creeks, and the chirping woods. Facing the stress and labor of moving, starting a new job, and setting up a new apartment, I was determined to find another tree-home among the Bostonian brick and mortar.

The large maple in our front yard sits next to a busy road, which didn’t feel quite right. A beautiful magnolia on the lawn outside my office is convenient, but it’s always surrounded by students and picnickers.

After a few months, I found an ancient weeping willow in the Boston Public Gardens that had been planted nearly 200 years ago. The curving branches barely caress the ground, and I can sneak under them into a holy green fort of peace and prayer. I seek those willowing arms every couple of weeks and journal, meditate, and pray.

In our search for spiritual growth in experiencing the sacred presence we often wait for the Spirit to “find” us. In our quest for holy awareness, we want to be shaken, stirred, or struck with an overwhelming emotional experience of God. In waiting for these moments, we often forget we can seek, find, and create.

What I discovered through my tree-home search is that sometimes we can “find” the Spirit by intentionally creating sacred space. Rilke said a tree becomes a home if you destine it to be. We can name those sacred places, those holy havens, ourselves.

We can turn something entirely ordinary into hallowed ground for prayer, for peace, for spiritual formation. These are places for faith, places for hope that we create through intentionality and thoughtfulness. Katie Harmon-McLaughlin says it beautifully in her poem:

I pray with my whole heart
That generations from now
The stained glass leaves
Of setting sun trees
Will still remind people
Of hope

You have the ability to create holy spaces—to make a tree a stained-glass sanctuary, turn a porch swing into a church bench, or transform a candle on your work desk into a sacred altar.

Not all tree-homes are trees: Discover the sacred space unique to you. Push yourself to grow, change, evolve, and create in the spaces you find holy every day.

We grow in love and relationship as we join in community at church on Sundays. This is a beautiful, sacred time of assembly and worship where we join in our calling as the body of Christ. Further your spiritual formation by acknowledging you also have the opportunity to continue to grow throughout the week in all the sacred spaces of the world.

The stained-glass trees of setting-sun leaves are holding firm in their old holy ways, awaiting your discovery. Seek those tree-homes and stand firmly beloved and blessed on your holy ground.




2 responses

19 07 2014
Erica Blevins Nye

Marvelous, Brittany. Thank you!

19 07 2014

Wonderful!! It took me to spaces past and present that have held me and made God’s nearness real! Thanks for the reminder to keep creating such spaces!

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