Early Christian authors often referred to the natural world as ‘the Book of Creation’, and understood that nature could be ‘read’ as a second (or, more accurately, as the original) book of divine revelation alongside the Bible. This meant that they looked for signs and symbols in the natural world as a means for understanding spiritual truths – and would use nature as a doorway into the mind and heart of God in the same way they would use scripture as an entry point for interior prayer.
This way of seeing has opened my own eyes to an endlessly fascinating array of insights, both personal and general, streaming from engaging with the natural world around me. There are signs, teachings and gifts everywhere I look – and paying attention to the workings of the natural world becomes an act of prayer.
To my knowledge, none of the ancient church fathers ever tapped sugar maples, but if they did, I’m convinced they would have seen a symbol of the process of interior transformation in the traditional process of making maple syrup. For me, ‘sugaring’ is a reminder of the work of offering my whole being over to the transforming power of God.
I do a very modest amount of sugaring each year (no more than 5 trees) – mostly just to participate in this mysterious process. The day I put in my first maple tap, in my mind, is the day winter ends. While there’s a foot of snow pack on the ground and temperatures are into the teens at night, the land is again giving forth its bounty of food.
To make maple syrup, a sugar-maker needs to first identify the right species of tree (sugar maples give the sweetest syrup, but any maple species will do), then literally tap in to its flow of life. Once a hole is drilled and the sap starts dripping forth (on days when the temperature is below freezing at night), I put in a tap, hang a bucket, and then wait. There’s no rushing the process – it only works when I tap in, and then wait patiently for the sweet nectar to flow. Once there’s a critical mass of sap, I collect from my buckets and begin the process of boiling down the sap into sugar. Maple sap is lovely on its own – and all the sugar in syrup is already present on the raw sap. However, the raw sap is mostly water, and I’ll need to boil-off roughly 40 gallons of water before obtaining a gallon of finished syrup.
This second part of sugaring, in my primitive set-up, involves sitting by a fire in a makeshift fireplace made of cinder blocks and a metal grill. I pour as much sap as I can fit into a few suspended pans, and feed a small fire with finely split wood to maintain a very hot fire. As the steam evaporates most of the water, I’ll add more sap, continuously refilling my pans so the concentration of sugar increases over the course of an afternoon’s boiling. I often fall into a semi-meditative state, as I repeat the simple tasks over and over again – split a few pieces of wood, feed the fire, check the boiling, add more sap, sit and stare at the frothing boil, split some wood, feed the fire, and on and on…. I get lost in the process – and yet at the end of the day, by the application of hours of heat and attention, a marvelous alchemy has taken place. What was once slightly sweet water has been concentrated into this ‘liquid gold’ of maple syrup, one of the most delicious substances on the planet.
I was totally incapable of making the syrup ‘ex nihilo’, out of nothing. But what I could do was to tap into the flow of sap freely given by the bounty of the earth, collect it and hold it in a container over heat. With heat, time and attention, the raw material of the sap, already good, became something even more beautiful and nourishing. It was, quite literally, transformed!
As I sit by the fire, taking in the smells of wood smoke and maple steam, I can’t help but reflect on how this parallels the interior life of one who takes up the path of prayer. We do not create our own goodness, we only tap into the goodness of Divine Life that is already present within and among us. Having tapped into that goodness, when we take up the discipline of prayer, the fire of Divine Love slowly but steadily works on that life, heating it up, and gradually evaporating out all that is not the pure gold of the Spirit within. Our job is merely to keep exposing our selves to the fire. Interior change happens, and the alchemy occurs when we remain in contact with the fire of Divine Love. We create neither the fire nor the sweetness, yet the transformation only occurs with our effort and intention to bring our inner world into continual contact with the Presence of God.