Growing up in Northern Idaho, I was surrounded by mountains and forests. I don’t remember a time when forests did not tug at my heart and fill my imagination with thoughts of adventure. As a small child my parents took my brother Dwayne, and me, on annual camping trips to a state park on the far northeast side of Lake Pend Oreille. There my dad would make us small toy canoes, complete with sails, out of birch bark. This state park is virtually unchanged since that time, and I try to visit the campground every summer, when I go bass fishing with my brother.
As a high school student I regularly went hiking in the mountains around Sandpoint, Idaho, together with my best friend (now a professor of theology and philosophy in Scotland). Jim and I would climb to the highest point of a given mountain, and pray together. We could understand the Prophet Moses meeting God on Mt. Sinai, for we too felt the presence of God on the mountain. To this day I feel closer to God when hiking in a forest, and the grandeur of the mountains that surround the Puget Sound inspire me, and lift up my soul.
When we first cleared the land to build the monastery, we cut down as few trees as possible, desiring as we did to have the buildings appear as though cupped like a kitten in the hands of God. We even named our forest after Saint Seraphim of Sarov, who himself sought solitude in a forest. Our forest not only provides that needed solitude, but gives us oxygen, allowing us to breath. Like the forests throughout the whole world, ours provides good air to breath, and fills our lungs with the sweet odor that only a forest can provide. Is it any wonder I consider myself a conservationist?
Monks have always had a special place in their hearts for forests. Coptic and Ethiopian monks have been known to plant trees on desert mountains whereupon monasteries have been built, and calling these places, “holy forests”. Russian monks sought their solitude in the Northern Thebaid, forests that became their desert.
For me, forests and mountains have always been associated with prayer. My first chapel was at the end of a hidden trail, in a forest that was just a short walk down the beach from our home on Lake Pond Oreille. I’d constructed a small altar out of driftwood, and nailed a cross made out of tree branches on a tree behind the altar. When in college, my first encounter with an icon took place during the very summer I’d visited the Redwood Forest of Northern California, for the first time.
Our temples are like forests in many ways. When we enter into an Orthodox temple we are encompassed in the living presence of God, and our spiritual lungs are filled. It is oxygen for the soul that we breath in, and the forest that surrounds us is none other than the cloud of witnesses, the saints, who join us in worship before the Throne of God. The oxygen we breathe in is God’s Grace that flows out to all who would seek the safety and sanctuary that awaits us in God’s Holy Temple.
With love in Christ,