Tuesday, February 9, 2010


I walk at a local nature reserve called Radnor Lake, where I enjoy the subtle changes the seasons bring.  I walk there year ‘round, often with my dearest companion, my Southern Born Woman who, unlike me, can tell one tree from another.  She, whose soul is keenly aware that the voice of God has many shapes, songs and sounds, makes for a perfect companion in this undulating, breathing cathedral.

One spectacular Spring evening, she and I were on the east side of the lake watching the sun set, when some natural phenomenon occurred and a cross appeared inside a circle formed by the sun.  We notice these things, she and I, wondering at creation’s constant declaration of glory.   These moments can make you feel infinitesimally small or startlingly significant.

In early Spring, I like looking down from high on the Ridge, where all manner of green things are sprouting.  The forest has yet to become thick with growth, so one can look far into the woods, as the liveliest hues of green scatter joy across its floor. 

With the approach of Holy Week, the wildflowers spread a majestic purple carpet deep in the woods, and thoughts of the Resurrection drift into my consciousness, reminding me of the Impossible Things my heart believes in.

In May, new fauns are getting used to their spindly legs.  By June, they’re nearly eating out of your hand, which, of course they shouldn’t do; there are all kinds of signs saying “Don’t Touch The Deer”, but in a much more verbose fashion, giving scientific explanations for why you’ll kill them if you touch them.  A bit dramatic, but I suppose it works.

My Southern Born Woman and I enjoy our June walks at Radnor, noting the many turtles sunning themselves on protruding logs, wondering how they climbed to their perches, and chuckling when we hear the splash of one dropping back into the cool water.  The Canada Geese are plentiful, and occasionally we see a heron, moving stoically and deliberately, waiting for an unsuspecting fish.

Early one June evening, as we were coming to the end of our walk, we noticed a silent and still owl sitting on a branch near the edge of the woods, as if to acknowledge two pilgrims at a journey’s end.  I’ve never thought much about owls 'til recently, and it was this dusk sighting which intrigued me, so intent was her stare as we gazed upon her.

Owls move silently and swiftly.  There is no rustling of feathers as they spirit themselves about the nocturnal world.   Their night vision is Sheffield sharp, and nothing is hidden from them.  As she looked at us, I wondered if she was looking into us.

By July, the lake is covered with a thick coat of green algae, and the wildlife has disappeared from view.  A rank stink rises from the lake, and it’s clear that Summer is here to stay.

Eventually, Autumn leaves are falling, and the crisp air returns, and the trees cut stark silhouettes against the November sky.  And thus it remains until Spring breaks her silence and yawns.

And so on.

Sometimes I walk alone.

My hike is  comprised of two essential loops, first the lofty and solitary South Cove Trail, and then the low country Lake Trail.  I always start with the South Cove Trail which brings me to the top of a ridge, and in the process, gets my heart pumping and my brow sweating small beads. 

I eventually descend to the lake trail which is an easy hike, thus more populated. 

Recently, I was walking the Lake Trail, and passed two young teens who were reciting the Rosary, repeating the Hail Mary, and fingering the glass beads to keep count, I suppose.  They seemed fourteen and wholesome, like girls who might aspire to become nuns one day.  The oddness of the moment made me consider the religious nature of my regular Radnor walk.

There are certain landmarks on my trail which I liken to the steps through the liturgy, places which always call to mind those whom I love, and my hope that God cares to draw them into a circle of peace.   One of these places is a hairpin turn in the trail, overlooking the lake as I descend from the Ridge.  This is my Kyrie Place, the bend in the road which turns my heart to my Dearest Companion, and reminds me of the good graces which brought me to her table.  My prayer is silent and steady, until the earth flattens for a moment, and then drops to the road below. 

I inhale “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” and exhale, “Have mercy on me, a sinner”.  

Minutes later, on the Lake Trail, I take a slight detour to the right, where in spring the purple wild flowers are draped like royal robes across a shaded meadow.  There, I find a bench with a name on it, and the dates of the short life that the name belonged to.  Often, there are two or three crosses fashioned from twigs placed on the bench, next to the name.  Sometimes a small wreath of wildflowers withers next to the twigs.  I gather two small sticks and make a cross on a log which lies just beyond the bench. 

My little twig cross is meant to announce “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again” to anyone looking for a little cross sitting on a decaying log.  I gingerly make my way back to the main trail, praying for my children and hers, and anyone else who comes to mind.  I ponder my journey, sometimes retracing my steps with remorse, sometimes planning my next step, and hoping  that little broken crosses availeth much.

Often on the Ridge, the least traveled part of my regime, my inner dialogue is loud enough to wonder if my lips are actually moving, like those little Catholic girls who pray to Mary.  Nearly like a dream, where the people you recognize might not look like themselves, my dialogue isn’t articulate or poetic, but perhaps more like the call of a wild goose or a lone owl, symbols of Spirit winging through my mind like glossalalia, haphazardly acknowledging broken promises and lost relationships, unresolved conflicts and unsolved mysteries, the sad scars of what is and of what never will be; love, peace, joy, life and death, and the certainty of resurrection.  They are both a feather on the wind and the wafer on my tongue. 

Recently, I was having a conversation with my friend Dave Perkins about Radnor Lake.  Dave is a bona fide rock’n’roll guitarist, one of Nashville’s musical treasures, yet he’s also on his way to getting his doctorate while studying religion and culture at Vanderbilt.  As if that’s not enough, he is also a cancer survivor.   Dave is my kind of saint, a man who can rip your jugular vein with a slashing blues riff, or talk about the peaty taste of his favorite single malt, and eventually get around to discussions of God and philosophy.  Together, we have shared stages, bottles, and ideas for many years.

Like me, Dave grew up in a pointedly religious home, and has never been able to shake Jesus, but has certainly shaken many of the notions that Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism had foisted upon him in his formative years.  His inability to “shake Jesus” comes across in his music, and in his living, and in the very essence of conversation with him.  While he doesn’t wear it on his sleeve, sooner or later, the Word appears, as if carried on the unheard wings of an owl in the darkness. 

We talked about Radnor on this recent occasion, and I told him of the liturgical path that unrolls before me every time I begin my ascent up the South Cove Trail.  I spoke of the Catholic girls reciting their Hail Marys, and of the crosses left anonymously on a memorial bench, of my Kyrie and my dreamlike prayers, randomly uttered, much like the pebbles rolling off my soles, or the beads of sweat serpentinely running down my brow. 

Dave says it’s the same for him, coming to Radnor to commune with God.  I like how he puts it, “It’s all over the place, man.  A lot of people go there to get their work done.”  I think he’s right about that, although the thought never occurred to me until I passed the future nuns, passionlessly (so it seemed) reciting their prayers in an eerie monotone.   The energy level must be something with all these pilgrims stirring the same mystical cauldron with petitions, prayers and praise, brokeness, fullness, joy, sorrow, emptiness, hoping, hopeless, despairing, longing, exulting and expectant.  How divinely human.

And what of that owl at the edge of the forest, at our journey’s end?  A good omen?   A rare sight?  Perhaps she’s a faithful watcher of souls, gathering up a thousand prayers from the forest floor, and bringing them to the arms of Mercy at the day’s end.

Forest painting by Phil Madeira.   Owl illustration by Merrill Farnsworth.


  1. This is beautiful, Phil, and very personal to me as I grew up just over the hill from Radnor. You could actually leave the beaten path up on Ganier Ridge and go down the other side of the hill and end up in my parents' back yard. The purple flowers you are referring to are Flox - they are one of my favorite wild flowers - along with the Spring Beauties - the little pink ones that are closer to the ground. Thanks for sharing these experiences.

  2. Beautiful response, my friend. And nice to know what those purple flowers are called!
    See you on the trail.

  3. Man, it is so great to see you painting again! Both of your paintings are stunning. I want one!

  4. Thanks Dave. Of course, you're biased. The owl illustration is by Merrill. I'll make sure you get an invite to her show coming up this Spring.

  5. Phil, having read you post again and pondering why you don't have a bazillion comments, I think I have a clue. Your beautiful gift of word weaving makes the rest of us feel dyslexic and woefully word challenged. Oh my gosh, you are a master of recorded thoughts on paper. I feel totally inadequate to comment on your beautiful writings. I loved walking with you through Radnor tonight as I read your reflections. Thanks for the post.

  6. This is a beautiful piece, Phil, and reminds me of my walks at Radnor Lake so long (it seems) ago. Thanks for taking me back there.

  7. Thanks so much, Paul- lovely to hear from the wonderful priest who guided me into the Episcopal Church. You impacted my life in ways you will never know. pax


Your comments are welcome, and I will try answer any questions, if possible. Thanks for reading! pkm