I was raised Catholic and eventually shifted to a combination of atheism, buddhism, and hindu beliefs. Nowadays, if someone asks me whether or not I believe in God, I ask them what they mean by God. Often, this frustrates people. They say things like, “You know GOD.” But the truth is I don’t know. It depends on their definition of God.
For many years, I didn’t pray. My religion was poetry, music, and On Being. When I lived with Catholic sisters, one of them asked me if I prayed. I answered honestly and said not really. I explained that I got too caught up in my head, trying to make sense of who or what I’m praying to. Then, she asked me if I talked to trees. Their property had countless trees, mostly giant Pines with a mix of Apple and Crabapple Blossoms. I laughed. I could already hear one of my Uncles saying, What kind of hippie bullshit is that?
“I mean it. Just try it,” Sr. Joan said.
I talked to trees as a child. It felt so natural, like talking to an old friend. At 23, talking to trees felt uncomfortable and foolish. The conversations began with me saying how silly I felt. What kind of an adult talks to trees? I’d ask them. And of course, they never answered.
Eventually, the strangeness faded. Trees provided a firm, rooted presence capable of absorbing heavy thoughts and feelings. I felt lighter after talking to them. It became a daily practice. If weather prevented me from going outside, I felt disappointed and disconnected from the world.
After a few years of talking to actual, physical, and tangible trees, I realized I could talk to trees even when I wasn’t around them. I’d picture a familiar tree and whisper to it when I felt distressed or grateful. It took months for me to understand this is prayer. Sr. Joan knew what she was doing when she suggested I talk to trees. Instead of telling me, she let me learn for myself: it’s not about who or what you’re praying to. Prayer is about the process, the act of surrender, the acknowledgement of greater mystery.
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”