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Invitation to Fearless Compassion from Birch

-By: Justin Ferko, Wild Spirit Paths, LLC

In Eastern Christian Byzantine and Orthodox tradition, there are many icons whose lore recounts how they were found in the roots or branches of trees. These trees were held to be sacred trees in those lands in indigenous practice predating Christianity. These icons are often of God-Bearing Mother Mary and continue to be vehicles for healing and blessing in the world. One example is the Kursk Root Icon found among the roots of a tree that healed a young Russian boy named Prokhor. He later became known as St. Seraphim of Sarov, a forest-desert hermit and spiritual elder to many. So, I placed this icon in the embrace of Birch who taught me about shedding, vulnerability and compassion.

On Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday, I guided a Forest Bathing Walk on Zoom with folks from around the U.S. The invitation: Spend time with a being who needs care and respond as you are led. As I walked on the snow-covered grass, a bit of Birch bark (in the image to the right of the candle) rolled over the snow toward me as a gift from wind and Birch. I looked up and saw the Birch, her silver lichen-covered outer bark peeling exposing deep cinnamon underbark on this bright cold day after a snowstorm. 

I asked Birch - “What does this mean?” 

With my inner perception, I heard, “Release that which is no longer needed to protect you. Release your fear. Let naked compassion, bodhicitta, like my cinnamon heart bark shine.”

In my mind’s eye, I saw this icon of Christ the Bridegroom- mocked before execution, the purple cloak peeling off his shoulders, his body exposed and gaunt, cords around his hands like a blue mala of prayer beads. 

When I returned home, I took the icon out of the closet where it had been stored because it was so hard for me to look at. The dazzling gold leaf of Divinity, Oneness, the Unified Field, and the bloody shadow of human-caused violence are both there. Even the Greek letters look etched from blood.

And so in this season of Lent, I offer this prayer. 

Ὁ νυμφίος [ha nymphios]

The bridegroom

Betula nigra 

Pioneer Species planted to reclaim land from strip mines

Be planted in my heart.

Reclaim this outer and inner land 

For Compassion, Suffering With,

Brokenheartedness, Joy

And the complexity of Love.

Healing red tea medicine steeped from your bark,

Heal my Fear.

Perfume my speech with blessings.

Let Naked Compassion be my raiment.

And so it is.

Invitation: I invite you to spend time with a being who needs care and respond as you are led. Perhaps this is a being in nature you encounter on a walk or a person or people in the world who need care whose names and faces you encounter on social media or the news.

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