Practicing the Small Stuff

Canada Violet

Canada Violet

Ordinary. Common. Unremarkable. A weed that I pull up from my garden bed. True, I don’t often see white violets like this, but its cousins—the blue, purple, lavender, and yellow violets —are so abundant that I hardly noticed them when hiking on a spring day. I did read, however, that there are more than 400 species of violets and that few books or people bother to identify them all. I probably wouldn’t have noticed this Canada violet (I think that is what it is) except for the fact that violets helped to save the AT hike for me.

Seriously.

I wrote in my last post that the difficulty I had in climbing mountains with a 30-pound backpack had led to my facing a mental challenge—which I was losing. Muttering, among other things, that this backpacking thing was way too hard, I was stuck in a downward spiral of negative thinking. That is exactly when the violets made their grand entrance and saved me. All right, I know God is the one who saves. But the violets were, at the very least, God’s means of grace.

Of course, the violets had been at my feet all along; I just hadn’t paid much attention to them. Perhaps it was the book I had been reading that drew me to look around and notice them. I’m also guessing that the Holy Spirit’s timing had something to do with this as well. In Backpacking with the Saints: Wilderness Hiking as Spiritual Practice, Belden C. Lane writes:

A …responsibility that arises out of my solo encounter with wild terrain is the need to honor and bless the land. Offering praise along with the other inhabitants there—simply practicing appreciation—is the finest gift I’m finally able to leave. When you’re the only human present, you have a particular responsibility to take pleasure in the place. To have a mountain to oneself is to shoulder a responsibility…. [Y]ours is the task of blessing white oak trees and swallowtail butterflies, reindeer moss lichen and box turtles. (p.83)

It occurred to me that day that I might be the only human to notice each particular violet blossom, to acknowledge its living presence in what amounts to a short life. How astounding, it seemed, that so many individual violets made by a beloved Creator could go unnoticed! How full of extravagant grace creation is! There is no question, given our theology, that even something that has evolved into an ordinary violet is included in God’s creative word, “And God saw that it was good.” How could I ignore what God offers as a good gift?

So I began to thank each violet that I passed—yes, literally. Sometimes I could barely get out one thank you before the next step would pass ten more violets. At other times the thank you’s slowed to every other step or so. Thank you…thank you…thank you thank you thank you. Such abundance.  It wasn’t long before I began to be distracted from the pain of the climb and truly amazed that on this day I could be one human being that was present to bless this otherwise inconspicuous plant life. By the time I reached the top of the mountain, the neglected “stinking thinking” had been revealed for the empty prison that it was. In its place there was new room and freedom for a deeper gratitude to seep in. Soon I was grateful that I could be climbing (you read correctly, grateful for “climbing!”) in this wilderness place at this season of year to witness such a crowd of these tiny, individual beauties.

Does this seem rather corny? To say “thank you” every time one passes a plain violet? Sure it does. Does this appear too undignified and trivial to be taken seriously as a spiritual practice? Absolutely. But “practice” is a good word for it. The “thank you’s” didn’t stop with that one climb. On other days and on other mountains, there were other creation gifts to thank: I particularly remember the help of blue spiderworts and, later in the season, fire pinks (which are really red in color). One week there were thank you’s for the sustaining fragrance of wild azaleas around each new bend. (I could smell them before I would see them to thank personally.)

I only write about all this, and rather sheepishly at that, because I am trying to be honest about the pilgrimage. I suspect this violet thanking thing was not my idea, but something given—by God, of course. I don’t have the humility and unpretentiousness to rely on something so simple, but would have come up instead with a much more elaborate method of dealing with my negative thinking—and failed miserably, of course. But what I deem to be God’s simple plan was much better: because “thanking violets” was so easy a child could do it, it barely required any mental/physical energy, and I had none to spare.  Because it was at the level of a 3-year-old, it kept me humble and that’s a good place to be when one needs to depend on a “higher power.”  Because if I made it to the top, I certainly couldn’t proudly claim it as my accomplishment, but would have to continue taking each climb with it’s practice of thanks one grace-filled day at a time.  Because this thanking prayer practice was paying attention to something beautiful in creation, I was helped to stay in the present moment rather than worry about the future.  And finally, the obvious gift of this unsophisticated thanking prayer practice was this understanding: the more one is full of gratitude, the less reason and room there is for the negative stuff.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt.18:3) Is it any surprise, then, that on a spiritual pilgrimage seeking renewal, I would find myself invited to walk like a child who needs practice in saying “thank you”? I think I can go along with that for awhile.

Comments

  1. I can’t help but think that if we were to continually practice the “small stuff” such as thanking the violets, then we may also in time find ourselves faithful in the bigger stuff such as thanking and appreciating and encouraging each other, not only for the things that they *do* for us, but also simply for who they are, by virtue of the fact that they are there. Loving without needing a reason to love, but merely because life is connected to life. Thanks for the beautiful reminder!

    • Wow! Thank you for pushing this one step further into our relationships! Great insight and a wise suggestion about how the practice can proceed from here. Now that you mention it, it seems so obvious. (Exactly why we need the Body of Christ to learn from each other.)