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Transformed by these Woods

Sisters of Providence Foundress Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and the iconic “Avenue” at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.

Sisters of Providence Foundress Saint Mother Theodore Guerin and the iconic “Avenue” at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, Indiana.

“I knew it as soon as I came through the gate.”

“I needed to come home . . . my soul needed to be here.”

“If you don’t ‘get’ the Woods on your first visit, you’ll probably never get it.”

“I don’t know what it is — there’s just something about the Woods.”

These are familiar sentiments for people who have lived or worked at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. People who have studied at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College or interned at White Violet Center for Eco-Justice. People who have visited friends or family on these grounds or who have deepened their relationship with the Congregation as Providence Associates.

Most of us have heard these things. And most of us have said them ourselves.

“At each step we can admire the grandeur, the power, the goodness of God. … I love our woods and solitude very much.”
– Saint Mother Theodore Guerin
Converting a saint

Certainly, Saint Mother Theodore Guerin recognized these woods as what Celtic spirituality would name “a thin place.” A place where the boundary between Heaven and Earth is particularly thin and easily crossed. A place where one can more readily sense the divine. Despite her early shock and consternation at finding herself and her companions deep in the wilderness of Indiana, Mother Theodore grew to love the land to which Providence had drawn her.

An early indication that Mother Theodore’s heart had been transformed by this thin place is found in her journal of 1844. After a fundraising trip to Europe, she notes: “The farther north we went, the lower became the temperature and the bleaker the landscape…. The severe change was sweet for me, for it meant I was nearing home. Finally, on the fifth day, I saw once more my Indiana. This land was no longer for me the land of exile; it was for me the portion of my inheritance, and I hope to dwell in it all the days of my life.”

Elsewhere in her journals, we find her reflection on sensing the divine in the beauty and bounty of creation: “In each excursion,” she writes in 1850, “we discover something marvelous, beautiful, and useful in the magnificent forests of Indiana. At each step we can admire the grandeur, the power, the goodness of God. How bountifully He provides for all our wants — I would even say for our pleasures! I love our woods and solitude very much.”

Like Mother Theodore, many have been moved by the beauty of this place and have found themselves more in touch with the Holy and with their own deepest, truest selves on these grounds. The richness of each season, the stillness of mornings and breadth of night skies, the luxuriant woods and abundant wildlife all speak of a Creator who relishes beauty and variety. All invite us to set aside the superficial and nonessential in order to encounter ourselves and Holy Mystery on a deeper level.

Perhaps that’s the “something” in “there’s just something about the Woods.” Or perhaps there’s more.

Spirit of the place

Spiritual writer Judy Cannato holds that living systems are surrounded by non-material “morphogenic fields,” that carry information or memory from one generation to the next and act as regions of influence for subsequent generations. Each morphogenic field is distinct in customs, beliefs and values. And the influence of each intensifies as more individuals participate in it and contribute to it.

If one accepts such thinking, then the morphogenic field that is Saint Mary-of-the-Woods holds the cumulative energy, memory, fidelity and trust of all who have come before. In the same way, future generations will be influenced by the cumulative energy, memory, fidelity and trust of those who today experience the “something” about the Woods.

In the words of Mother Theodore, “Ours is a preparation for the generation that will succeed us …. You may not live to see it, but you will have sown the seed and others will come to reap what will have been sown.”

It is as though she knew the transforming power of this place all along.

(Originally published in the Winter 2016 issue of HOPE magazine.)

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Sister Lisa Stallings

Sister Lisa Stallings

Sister Lisa serves as vicar of the Sisters of Providence leadership team. After teaching junior high and high school, she spent twenty years ministering in music and worship in parishes in Chicago, Kentucky and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods.

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  1. Avatar Steven Butler Sr on February 1, 2016 at 10:53 am

    YES! I have enjoyed and felt the holiness and faith every time I have entered the woods from the time I was a very little boy when my sister,Sister Donna Butler first came to St. Mary’s of the woods. I was fortunate enough to be an alter boy during one of her ceremonies. I will never forget 1500 beautiful singing voices.

    Many years latter I have been blessed to also see some of the Sister’s who taught me and made me the man I am today. God bless each and every one of you!

    When I come to your home I feel a peace and calmness that I only feel one other place and that is the Catholic Cemetery in Fort Wayne where I actually grew up and now sets a chapel dedicated to St. Mother Theodore Guerin right where our home used to set since my father was the caretaker of the cemetery.

    I have met so many wonderful people there and such hospitality with every visit. I so wished I lived close by so I could volunteer or work there. Just to know I was able to walk in the same place as St. Mother Theodore Guerin once lived is unbelievable to say the least.

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