My boots crunched through decaying leaves as I wandered a familiar path through the woods. Bundled in my winter coat with a thick scarf, the light started to fade and the crispness of the autumn evening was exhilarating to my tired body. Heavy stratus clouds filled the sky, hugging the nearby shores, with a few dull strands of golden beams penetrating the gray.
On that night, the year was also fading with the day. Those woods and waters had been my escape through a year of heartache and searching. My brain would go on autopilot during my woodland wanderings as my frequent visits had burned neural pathways through my brain. The more I visited, the more my body would crave the respite and the beauty of the natural world that I found in this place time and time again. A menagerie of delights always awaited me:
The glitter of sun sparkling on the water.
Eagles and blue herons soaring overhead.
Swallows skimming the water for sustenance.
Wild orange daylilies sprinkling the shoreline with color.
Driftwood decorating the sands with aged sculpture.
The gnarled bark of a tree branch beckoning as a bench.
Where the sand comes to an end at the foot of the woods,
A canopy of trees forming a cathedral ceiling overhead.
My sanctuary is a little estuary off the Chesapeake Bay. An ecosystem of wonder in each and every season. After a time of uprooting, it’s my mini Eden where I come to meet with God. There I escape the city and the highways, the noise and the stress of life that distract from what’s going on inside of me.
In the summer months, my companions—my faithful, bird-loving German Shorthaired Pointers—and I spend hours in that haven. We hike the woods, mostly swimming and patrolling the shoreline. I marvel at the dogs doing what they were meant to do.
I usually wade through the water with them, throwing sticks and skipping stones. I collect acorns and shells, and, later in the year, the colorful fallen autumn leaves. I bird-watch and count the ripples from fish that surface. I listen to creatures scurrying and to the breeze blowing through swaying trees. This experience of creation has become a tangible manifestation to me of what is beautiful, good, real, and true. The harshness of my life then becomes dimmer. Contentment and peace take seed in my heart.
With that transcending peace, in the stillness of my sacred refuge, I find that questions come. The restlessness in me surfaces as I ponder my existence, my losses, my grief. In my sanctuary I can safely wrestle with purpose in my broken world. How can I live as a faithful steward of the gifts God has entrusted me with? How can I cultivate and care for the created world around me? How can I even think of these things if I am not well and when my battles have left deep wounds? If I am not resting in my creator, am I not just a helpless, restless wanderer, as Augustine would say?
And so, I come to the estuary off the Chesapeake Bay time and time again, and my soul is slowly restored. As I take pleasure in creation, I am connected to man and woman’s time in Eden, when all things were very good and without sin and shame. Layers of shame, that keep me hiding from my creator, start to slip away.
Through each season, I observe and experience the biological processes of renewal. Dead branches come alive with soft shoots of springtime buds, turning to full, deep green leaves of summer. Flicks of yellow and red appear, which become falling debris. As the weather cools, the geese gather and fly away, knowing their direction. Everything turns brown and ices over. Cracks appear, the thaw starts, and life begins again. One day, I spotted a cocoon sheltered on the inside of a leaf—a snapshot in time of growth and a more beautiful and free life to come.
The wonder of creation sparks imagination. Its beauty and rhythm starkly shows that there is a plan for the redemption of my heart, soul, and life, giving hope for the road ahead. In the anxious moments of the week, my mind now goes to that sanctuary, drawing on the memories and the sensations for a moment of meditation and serenity. And so I’m growing and healing, strengthened in the confidence that I reflect the image of my creator.
In every season, I am drawn to that small slice of creation. And there I learn dominion begins with delight.
In those first days, before sin and sorrow and separation, God called his creation—all of it—very good. He blessed his work. God created his first children in his image and commanded them to go forth and create—to steward the earth and be who he created them to be. “For all His creatures were His pleasures; And their whole pleasure was to be What He made them,” describes Wendell Berry. God’s call to dominion starts with his blessing of creation.
Dominion is what we were called to do; it’s an elusive purpose that I’ve lost sight of, distracted by suffering. To delight in creation allows my creator to speak to my soul, heal my heart, and restore my body. I welcome the love of my heavenly father who has always been there, calling me home to him with the invitation to participate in the work to which he has called me. This healing experience of delight restores me, and thus my purpose, to participate in creation, to create and steward the gifts in me and around me.
One late fall evening found me wandering a new path. Low tide revealed a hidden entrance to a steep slope, a new perspective. And that’s where I saw it—the grey gave way to vibrant yellows, oranges, reds, and blues. There was an unmistakable mirror effect reflected across the still water, doubling the glorious beauty. The only other person I’ve ever found out there, a quiet man who likes to photograph the eagles, smiled in solidarity with me at the stunning sight. “I’m not one to exaggerate,” he whispered as I walked by his post, “but this is a one in a million sunset.”
My heart was filled. An ordinary night turned into a glorious sight and experience of beauty. As the chapter of a decade ended, that’s what my sanctuary has been for me: a year of transformation. I am healing and finding meaning in my suffering, and purpose after pain, renewing me for my purpose of creating, stewarding, and making culture for his kingdom. Refined by the elements of flood and fire, the delight in creation has blossomed wholeness in me.
I watched the colors dance and change to deepness. I sat with no sense of time aside from the disappearing light. In the humming of this ecological masterpiece, there was peace.
Cover image by Dave Hoefler.