It has been many years now since I was on a silent retreat sponsored by the Institute for Jewish Spirituality at Trinity Retreat Center in Connecticut. The morning schedule included a choice of davening (prayer) practices. For several of the mornings I joined the more traditional offering, as I knew the teacher and felt safer there. But one morning I decided to join folks for a silent walk led by a different teacher, Rabbi Rachel Cowan. At the time I had never met her and knew very little about her. But as my mind was settling and becoming quieter, I found myself able to open to the new and less familiar.
Rachel led us for a while on the road but eventually took us down the bank of the river and motioned for us to sit at its side. I sat with the others, immersed in the quiet and simply watching the scene. Suddenly, I noticed a great blue heron sitting on a log only twenty feet or so from me. It had been there all along, sitting in perfect stillness. I soaked in the regal pose of this magnificent presence and felt its calm settle over my entire being. Thoughts arose: What else is right in front of me that I do not see? How frequently am I not present for moments of beauty and holiness right here beside me? Sitting with that heron became a Jacob moment—God is in this place and I did not know. The sacred is everywhere if only I could see more clearly.
With no words, Rachel taught an immense truth. Her invitation to experience the light of awareness and presence has stayed with me to this day. When my mind is in its usual distracted, preoccupied state, I miss out on so much of the world. It is a type of darkness of the soul. Yet each of us can touch the sacred and the eternal when we pay closer attention. Awareness can illuminate hidden realities—connecting us to all that is. By simply paying more attention, Rachel showed us how to light up the whole world.
Dedicated to Rachel Cowan z”l, who brought so much light into the world