In the Barren Places: Finding Sacred Space for the First Time – James Rempt

This week I am continuing the series on Creating Sacred Space – Do We Need Churches, with contributions from friends and fellow bloggers. Today’s post comes from James Rempt who lives in the Mustard Seed House here in Seattle.


The elation of discovery has often gone hand in hand with the joy creativity for me. In moments of discovery just as with acts of creativity, its often as if some transcendent melody, some deeper truth, strikes a resonant frequency within me.

I’ve never had a moment I can think back on when I successfully created a sacred space. But to be certain, since I was a young boy, I have always been excited by my own discoveries while exploring nature: a frog species never seen by my own eyes, color variations on a common flower, a new tree with branches low enough to climb. As I child I would map the green belt in my neighborhood based on the discovery of such things.

The first time I recall discovering a sacred space I was about 9 years old. It was a whole new kind of discovery.

My father and I were on our first trip to the American southwest. These trips would become a yearly tradition for my dad and I for the next 10 years, and even now, as I am 28 and he is 70, we still make it a goal to continue the tradition when possible.

I was fortunate to be raised by a father who invested in me, focused on me, and lead me into adventure while directing me toward a deeper truth. It’s no coincidence, for me, that on this trip with my earthly father I experienced a sacred space full of the presence of God the Father.

That day, my father and I had spent a long time driving. Our goal was to experience and photograph the wild life in and around Anza Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California’s Colorado Desert. We had stopped at a store earlier that day to get sandwich fixings to prepare us for a late night of driving slowly along the open, relatively quiet roads, stopping to view scorpions, tarantulas, geckos and rattle snakes as they crawled across the solar charged asphalt.

Fonts Point Anza Borrego

We pulled into a large dirt turn out about 20 minutes after sunset. On the opposite side of the road from the turn out, the base foothills of some small mountains gently ascended. With our backs to these mountains, we looked south. My dad told me Mexico was in sight, but it all looked the same to me: an ever-dimming landscape of creosote bushes, tumbleweed, sand and dust.

About an hour previous, my father and I were driving, keeping our eyes pealed for “crepuscular” wildlife. I learned on that trip that crepuscular referred to animal foraging behaviors during dawn or dusk, a common characteristic of many forms of desert wildlife.

As my father walked around the car, he bent down and touched asphalt. “It’s definitely warm enough. Animals will be on the road”, he remarked.

He went around and opened the trunk, removing some rounded dinner roles, lunch meet and condiments from a small ice chest. In the increasing darkness, we quickly cobbled together a couple of small sandwiches while we leaned with our backs against the car, looking south. We ate in contented silence.

As my appetite became sufficiently quenched and the stars began to make their appearance, it was the stillness that suddenly drew me in. Never in my life had I experienced what I was experiencing at that moment: The gentle intermittent whir of the wind through the hearty desert brush was the only sound. I couldn’t see a single man made light. The air temperature was comfortably in the 90s, and within a few minutes there were more stars than I knew could fit in the night sky. It was like some invisible artist poked dozens of new pinholes in the darkening canvas above me each time I blinked.

As I continued to meditate on what was before me, I realized that this was the first time in my life I had ever focused on silence. It was almost like I had discovered silence for the first time; only this silence was mixed with warmth, the smell of desert plants, and 1000s of stars I never new existed. The physical sensations were nothing compared to the feeling deep inside me: something in this desert solitude was certainly the opposite of loneliness: it was alive, it was beautiful, and it was communing with my soul in some incredible way. “Be still, and know that I am God”, my mother used to always say. Here, in this space, I didn’t have to be still. The stillness that I discovered in that moment proclaimed God, and it just was, it wasn’t something I had to be. It surrounded me and drew me into a reassuring presence. It saturated the night. There was something about it that redirected all imagination and experience to God. This was certainly a sacred space that I had discovered.

In the years since, I have returned to the desert many times, and the sacred space is still there. My memory often turns to that first night, though, leaning against the car with my dad. Nothing quite compares to the amazement of that first discovery with my father.


Creating a Sacred Space – Stir the Senses

Several years ago Tom and I had the privilege of visiting St Catherine’s monastery in the Sinai desert. This is one of the oldest working monasteries in existence, and monastic life in the area dates back to the 4th century.

I still remember visiting the Greek orthodox church with its amazing collection of icons, chalices, manuscripts and works of art. Heavy incense filled the room. It was a feast for all my senses and a powerful reminder that for many early Christians places of worship were designed to usher us into the kingdom of heaven.

Sacred spaces should stir all our senses, and there is no better place to imagine how this could be accomplished than in the garden. The Irish poet and mystic John O’Donohue said that our senses are the gateway to the soul. And its true. A beautiful flower not only delights our eyes but also touches something inside our hearts. The fragrance of a rose transports us to a place of divine encounter. Even weeding becomes a contemplative act that invites us to touch, smell and enjoy.

Beauty - the glory of God

Sight: Gardens are a place to experience the richness of the glory of God. Savouring every nuance of light, colour, texture and sound touches and transforms our souls, not only revealing the visible world but sometimes the invisible as well. Gardens shimmer with the presence of God and in their midst we often feel that the veil between earth and heaven is nonexistent.


Smell: A pleasant fragrance in the air awakens our sense of smell. It also often stirs our memories which isn’t surprising as scent is our strongest connection to memory. So as you plan your sacred space consider the fragrances that awaken your memories of loved ones, special places and significant events. How can you incorporate these in your garden?

Blackberry feast

Taste: Fruit, vegetables, edible flowers, and herbs are a delightful aspect of any garden and should be included in any sacred space. Every flavour-filled bite is a foretaste of the kingdom banquet feast. It is also a reminder of the generosity of a God who fills all of us with lavish abundance. My friend Craig Goodwin, planted his vegetable garden in the shape of a labyrinth, a wonderful way to blend the sacred and the edible

Parrots on camelia

Hearing: Many of us love the silence of sacred spaces within a garden. But silence in a garden is never empty. It is filled with the sounds of wind in the trees, the buzzing of bees, the melodies of songbirds, and the sounds of circardas, frogs, and other garden creatures. Wind chimes, fountains, and waterfalls can all enhance the delight that garden sounds provide for us.

tree bark

Touch: Have you ever run your hands through a bush just to experience the sensual delight of its texture? Lamb’s tongue feels like velvet. Tree bark feels like paper. Cacti draw us to touch their spines and prickles. And often what we reach out to with our hands reflects our inner state of mind. Touching can comfort our distress, make us feel loved or help us express our angst.

So as you plan your garden sacred space take time to reflect on not the ways that your interaction with nature draws you into the presence of God by stirring your senses. Pretend you are entering a cathedral and imagine yourself decorating this space as a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

This post is part of a series on creating sacred space check out the previous posts:

Creating Sacred Spaces – Do We Really Need Churches?

Every Garden Needs A Sacred Space

Reclaiming a Sacred Space – Cheasty Greenspace: A Place of Goodness and Grace by Mary De Jong

Earth Day Meditation.

Earth day is coming. I find myself constantly thinking about the wonder of God’s creation as is reflected in this meditation prayer.

Earth prayer.001

Return to Our Senses: Creating A Sacred Space

Creating A Sacred Space

Creating A Sacred Space


The following post is the third in a series that is excerpted from my upcoming book Return to Our Senses, which will be available in mid November.

One of my favorite events each year is a prayer retreat Mustard Seed Associates holds in August on a beautiful parcel of undeveloped land on Camano Island north of Seattle. There are no buildings. Our sanctuary is a cathedral of trees – cedar and maple and alder that rise above is in a breathtaking green canopy. I particularly love to sit in the early mornings before anyone else is awake, drinking in the beauty of God’s awe inspiring creation. This is a sacred space for me, what is often called a thin space where the veil between heaven and earth seems to be translucent and the glory of God shines through in a special way.

Creation Speaks of God

Special places where we feel almost physically embraced by the love of God are important places of prayer for all of us. Be they a comfortable old armchair we return to day by day, a special place to walk or a garden seat that invites us to stop and smell the roses, they should be nurtured and preserved. We also need places to gather for worship. I particularly enjoy the transcendent wonder of the magnificent gothic cathedrals of Europe. Their splendor beckons us into a special place of communion with God. However we don’t need these places built by human hands to create a sanctuary in which we can meet God.

God’s first act in the newly created world we call Earth was not to construct a building, but to create a garden in which to walk, talk and share a loving relationship with humankind. I am sure that every corner of this sacred space, this living temple, was alive with the presence of God. Every part of it revealed God’s loving care for humankind. I have no doubt that as Adam and Eve looked around them everything they saw, touched, smelled and tasted reminded them of their creator who loved not just them but the very earth from which they were formed.

Early monastic communities created walled gardens as an attempt to re-create this Edenic paradise.These enclosed spaces often centered around an apple tree, representing both the tree of life in Genesis and the Cross of Christ.

God was very reluctant to allow the Israelites to build a temple as a place of worship. I often wonder if a temple made from bricks and mortar was ever God’s intention at all. I think God knew that temples and churches would limit our understanding of sacred space and confine even further our expectations of places in which we meet and commune with God. Perhaps God was even more grieved that these people, touched in a special way by the divine presence, felt they needed a structure built with their own hands and not God’s hands in which to worship. Now don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we do away with our churches. All I want to suggest here is that we learn to take our experiences of God’s abiding presence, and the awe inspiring revelations of church meetings out into the world.

In the New Testament it is not the stone temple that is seen as the place where God dwells, it is the body of Christ. Together we are his house, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. And the cornerstone is Jesus Christ himself. We are carefully joined together in him, becoming a holy temple for the Lord. Through him you Gentles are also being made part of this dwelling where God lives by his Spirit. (Ephesians 2:20-22).

In the revelation of the new heaven and the new earth we are returned to a temple free culture. God’s light revealed in Jesus Christ, illumines everything. We are no longer blind and deaf and dumb. We see God’s living, vibrant, loving presence everywhere. We hear God’s voice in every moment and we shout God’s praise in every action. Finally in this new heaven and new earth we walk and talk and communion with YWHW, the breath of life, the lover of our souls, no matter where we are and what we are doing. (Revelation 21: 22-24)

If we expect to meet with the One we love wherever we walk, listen, look and learn, all of God’s creation becomes a sacred space where we can interact with God, experience the love of God and see the story of God unfold. As C.S. Lewis expresses it in Letters to Malcolm: “Any patch of sunlight in a wood will show you something about the sun which you could never get from reading books on astronomy. These pure and spontaneous pleasures are ‘patches of Godlight’ in the woods of our experience.”

This post is excepted from my new book Return to Our Senses which is now available through Mustard Seed Associates at a pre-publication discounted price of $15.

Spirituality of Gardening Seminar is Almost Here

Its almost time for the spirituality of Gardening Seminar May 5th at the Mustard Seed House and with the beautiful weather we have had in Seattle the garden is thriving – Register Now

This year’s Spirituality of Gardening seminar at the Mustard Seed House will be held May 5th. This year we have special discounts for students and alumni wanting to gain new spiritual insights and share gardening advice. It would be a great opportunity to check out the Mustard Seed garden, interact with our growing garden community and hear about the developments at the Mustard Seed Village.

Join in discussions about connections between community, spirituality and gardening. Explore the wonderful ways that God and God’s story are revealed through the rhythms of planting, growing and harvesting. Spiritual insights, practical advice for organic backyard gardeners and time for reflection will all enrich and deepen our faith. Come prepared to get your hands dirty as we will spend some time in the garden or in the greenhouse if the weather is inclement.

Register HERE today before all the spots are filled!

A Good Day with Brother David Steindl-Rast

This beautiful video on gratefulness makes a wonderful meditative reflection for the day. Thanks Greg Abell for making me aware of it.

Weathering the Winter Storms – Lessons for the Soul.

tree icicles

tree icicles

Last week we had snow and then ice storms in Seattle. The city ground to a halt and anyone who could hibernated for a couple of days. Outside the trees were festooned with snow and icicles formed along their branches. How do they survive I wondered? Some of my time last week was spent researching this very question. And the answers are astounding with powerful implications for my faith.

…trees are large, tall, and immovable. They have no choice but to face everything winter can throw at them.  And yet, as you travel north throughout the world one thing is ubiquitous: forests… (read the entire article)

A tree begins to prepare for winter far in advance of the icy blasts. In August as the days begin to shorten, chemical reactions occur in the tree signalling the need to slow down, stop growing and get ready. It is this that produces the vibrant colours of autumn. At the same time, deciduous trees set buds that contain next year’s leaves and flowers and then go into a dormancy, at least above ground. In some species the roots continue to grow, strengthening the tree as they search out water that has not frozen.
That is not enough however to cope with the destructive force of freezing water that can send sharp penetrating icicles through cell membranes anywhere. That too a winter hardy tree knows how to cope with. As the weather cools, the concentration of sugar in each cell increases dramatically and the plasma membrane becomes more flexible. It’s as though it produces its own sugary antifreeze that embraces the precious cell contents and keeps it safe until spring. The sap of the sugar maple, which is tapped for maple syrup, is a particularly good example of this.
As I read this last week I was overawed at the creativity and adaptability of God’s creation and I thought – how do I prepare for the times of winter that inevitably come to my life? Do I know how to recognize the first signs that winter is approaching so that I too can hunker down and allow my spirit to rest without feeling that I need to keep growing and producing? Or even more challenging am I willing to form buds that need to wait until next year to grow and produce?
If those buds that were set in August start growing prematurely they will be destroyed by the next icy winter’s blast. The tree will produce no leaves or fruit next year. It has no chlorophyll for photosynthesis and is likely to starve and die. This description has resonated in my soul this week as I feel I am in a time of winter. It is as though God has set buds for next year’s growth and I desperately want to see them spring into life. But God is saying, not yet, wait for the lengthening of days and the warming of the air. In the mean time enjoy the sweet sugary embrace of my protective presence. Allow your roots to grow down to the deep water you will need for the coming summer and enjoy the peace of a world at rest.

What Are Your Favourite Seed Catalogues?

Garden catalogues everywhere

Garden catalogues everywhere

It is that time of the year again – at least here in Seattle. The mail is flooded with seed catalogues and my email is alive with news on spring planting. There are so many options to choose from that it is hard to know where to begin. So how do we make the decisions?

If you can’t get outside yet here are a couple of websites that you might like to check out to at least give you the feel of being outside.  They are great planning tools.

BBC’s Virtual Garden – it has a fun 3D function on the site and is free

Kitchen Garden Planner – part of the Gardener’s Supply website which is one of my favourite places to look for seed starter supplies and self watering pots.  This is also free. I use it each year to help plan the vegetable garden, though it is a little limited on vegetable varieties to chose from. They also have some excellent garden how to information.

And if your looking for more information on how to go organic my Texas based friends love The Dirt Doctor – Howard Garrett This website has some great hints for gardening on it.  The garden design function costs $20/year

Of course this is also a great time to drool over all those wonderful photos in the seed catalogues that in your saner moments you know won’t grow in your climate zone but which you just can’t resist when it is too cold to grow anything anyway.

I always like to buy from those companies that specialize in heritage and organic seed like:

Seeds of Change

Seed Savers Exchange

Bountiful Gardens

Peaceful Valley Organic Seeds & Supplies

and a couple of new ones I heard about this year:

Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

High Mowing Organic Seeds

For my Canadian friends

Richter’s seeds

West Coast Seeds

or those that are based in the local Pacific NW area

Territorial Seeds

Raintree Nursery

Nichol’s Garden Nursery – going virtual this year with only an online catalogue

Irish Eyes Garden Seeds in Ellensburg WA

Uprising Organic Seeds in Bellingham WA

Unfortunately I also cannot resist a couple of big company catalogues like the English classic  Thompson and Morgan and Park Seeds which have products I can’t seem to find anywhere else. And my favourite for lettuce and other salad greens The Cook’s Garden. I particularly love their Zen oriental green – it is mild in flavour and delicious in salads or cooked.

Back From Mayne Island B.C.

Tom and I are just back from 5 wonderful days on Mayne Island, one of the Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Colombia.  This has become a yearly ritual for us, a few days away that refresh both our spirits and our bodies while enjoying a good time with friends.  The weather could not have been better.  It was glorious time of fun food and fellowship and I thought that some of you might enjoy getting a glimpse of our time away.  For more photos check out the album on facebook

The Sine family enjoying Mayne Island

The Sine family enjoying Mayne Island

Photo shot at the japanese gardens

Photo shot at the japanese gardens

View from the cottage

View from the cottage

even in the darkest days of winter, nature is still trying to tell us its secrets!

 icy blast unveils God's tree design

icy blast unveils God's tree design

The Pacific NW has experienced the coldest summer on record and the governor has asked that the whole state be determined a farm disaster area.  On the home front we are wondering what on earth we will do with green tomatoes this year as it looks as though we will have plenty.

To be honest I am looking towards winter with a great deal of trepidation.  However I realized as I read this article that even in the depths of winter we need to keep our eyes and ears open for what God may be saying to us. Perhaps in the midst of this cold season there are things we can learn about God and God’s world… and maybe they can lead to new inventions like this possibility  for new solar panel designs that can benefit not just us but our entire world.

People see winter as a cold and gloomy time in nature. The days are short. Snow blankets the ground. Lakes and ponds freeze, and animals scurry to burrows to wait for spring. The rainbow of red, yellow and orange autumn leaves has been blown away by the wind turning trees into black skeletons that stretch bony fingers of branches into the sky. It seems like nature has disappeared.


But when I went on a winter hiking trip in the Catskill Mountains in New York, I noticed something strange about the shape of the tree branches. I thought trees were a mess of tangled branches, but I saw a pattern in the way the tree branches grew. I took photos of the branches on different types of trees, and the pattern became clearer.  Read the entire article