I recently moved residences, and now during my morning spiritual practice I find myself looking out at an old red oak tree adjacent to a bird sanctuary. The predominant colors are gray, brown, and snowy white - except for the patterned shades of green lichen I spotted growing up the oak’s trunk. As I spent time with them, the lichen became beautiful to me in the wintry bleakness. Soon they captured my attention entirely, and I felt as glued to them as they were fixed onto the bark. Mary Oliver’s words in her poem Terns rose up from my memory, “But nothing you ever understand will be sweeter, or more binding, than this deepest affinity between your eyes and the world”.
After some time in silent communication I was moved to deepen my understanding of this life form as a way to get to the bottom of this intense draw, this deepest affinity. What I learned is that lichen exist because of a successful relationship among alga and fungi; in other words they are an alliance of life forms. As a partnership, they exist; separately they cannot survive. They also need a “substrate” to grow on – like a rock or a tree. And here they are in my back yard, one of the oldest organisms on Earth, millions of years old!
My affinity grew into love when I realized lichen are a living example of the truth we hear from every corner during these days of crisis on our planet: ecology tells us that in Earth’s household everything is connected; Thomas Berry says Nothing is itself without everything else; John Muir’s take on it is: When you tug on anything in the universe you find it tied to everything else; and in Jesus’ words, Whatever you do to the least…you do to me.
Resting in communion with the lichen, I saw and felt the wholeness of the living world apart from any need to seek understanding. Isn’t this the spiritual longing you and I experience when we become quiet and sit in silence and solitude? Soon the reciprocity exemplified by lichen revealed a deeper truth: just as I long for communion, the Great Mystery is longing for me to wake up and join the reality of wholeness.