In They Come Back Singing: Finding God with the Refugees, missionary priest Gary Smith, S.J., describes the chapels in some of the Sudanese refugee settlement villages where he served. Several consisted of four walls and a grass thatch roof, susceptible to fires and termite infestations. Others were not buildings at all, due to the poverty of the communities. Instead, the refugees gathered to worship God and celebrate the Eucharist under huge trees. "The Kobo 'chapel' is on a small promontory that overlooks the West Nile," Smith writes. "Large rocks beneath a towering tree on the promontory serve as pews" (p. 173).
Even though our new old parish church is in need of an update and expansion (which we hope will come next year), it is far more luxurious than the refugees' modest open-air gathering spaces. Still, there's something elemental about praising God in the midst of His Creation.
In college I took a class called "Christian Prayer: Practice and Understanding" - one of the true blessings of my educational experience. For an assignment I chose to write a long paper on praying in nature. I titled it "Under the Fig Tree" after the passage in John, where Jesus tells Nathanael He saw him under the fig tree. (I once read that it was Jewish custom for men to study the Torah under trees.) My paper explored Franciscan creation theology, Jesus' preference for praying on mountains and in gardens, and the rich symbols in nature that speak of our relationship with God (or maybe I just made that last one up now...it was five years ago!).
Some days I long for a simpler, more rural life where I can "get lost" in a forest or meditate on a trickling brook or field of wheat. I am reminded of the giant horse chestnut tree I befriended in the Botanical Gardens of Leicester, England (pictured above). As a visiting student in a two week "immersion experience" of British history and culture, I often escaped to the gardens during our unscheduled time to exercise and to pray. The horse chestnut tree's branches swept the ground around it like a skirt, and I would slip between them to take shelter underneath. In that peaceful place, I lifted my heart to God in prayer and song.
Where have you found a sacred space outside of church?