The following reflection was given on Sunday, 7 July 2013 at the East Barnard Church inVermont, as part of a series on God-images. The texts were Psalm 148.7-12 and Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese.”
My friend Lizzie once asked me, out of the blue, what my spiritual practice was. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I immediately said, “I hike into the woods and feed chickadees from my hand.” I should have said, that’s what I do from late fall to mid-spring, since the rest of the year, the chickadees don’t need the seeds I bring. The rest of the year, I simply observe, and wonder.
Lizzie took my response at face value, completely without judgment. But others I’ve talked to about it have been confused, even judgmental. “Finding God in nature” sounds so trite, after all. Besides, prayer is supposed to be words, or silent meditation, or based on scripture. In my tradition, which is the Episcopal tradition, there is often an uncritical assumption that spiritual practice means sitting, three or four times a day, praying the words written in the Book of Common Prayer. That works for some people, at least for a time; it worked for me for a while. But then it didn’t. And I needed to find something else.
I started walking in the woods almost daily after moving to Vermont five and a half years ago, but it wasn’t a conscious spiritual practice at first. In fact, it wasn’t really conscious until Lizzie asked me about my spiritual practice. But that question started me thinking in a more conscious, critical way about nature-based spiritual practices, and how we can connect—and often fail to connect—our beliefs about God as Creator with our experiences of the world.
The first thing we learn in the Vermont woods and hills is God’s muchness, God’s manifold nature. Early on in my walks, I began to question why it is that we so often picture God as human, despite claiming in our theology that all of the natural world reflects the Creator. Why is it such a leap to see God in a white-tailed deer, or in a flock of turkeys? And then I realized: other cultures and religions indeed have pictured God as animal, or part animal: as baboon, cow, snake, falcon. And as river, sea, wind, mountain, thunderclap. And I think, how small we have made God! We have almost ceased to consider God’s connection to any creature but ourselves.
Yet the Bible is full of passages about God’s relationship to nature. Genesis contains one verse that we often think of as summing up God’s reasons for creating the world, and our relationship to it: we are to “have dominion over” nature. Yet over against this verse are many other, much longer passages that give a different perspective.
Take the book of Job, for example: In the midst of Job’s questioning, his frustration about the bad things that have happened to him, and the human-centered theorizing of Job’s friends, God finally speaks out of the whirlwind: “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this. . . . Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass? . . . Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?”
This passage is the biblical equivalent of a pull back shot in film, when a narrow focus is widened and the camera pulls back to show much more of the setting. We transition from a close-up of Job’s suffering, questioning face to a view that encompasses all of creation, from weather systems to raven chicks. God makes us suddenly aware of our status as simple creatures among other creatures. And not only that—God tells us that we are not alone among the creatures God cares for. Even the “land on which no one lives, . . . which is empty of human life” is carefully tended by the Creator.
Similarly, in the book of Joel, which deals with the ecological crisis of a plague of locusts and its aftermath, the prophet speaks God’s words of comfort first, not to the people of Israel, but to the dirt itself, followed by the animals: “Do not fear, O soil; be glad and rejoice, for the Lord has done great things! Do not fear, you animals of the field, for the pastures of the wilderness are green; the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and vine give their full yield.” God cares for the animals. God cares for the web of creation in which animals and plants sustain each other. God has created an interdependent world.
And that world praises the Creator, as we heard in Psalm 148. Not only humans worship God, but so do mountains and weather; so do trees, both wild and domestic; so do animals, both wild and domestic. How do they praise God? I suggest they do so simply by being themselves. They comprise what the medieval Christians called “the book of nature,” which was analogous and complementary to the book of Scripture: each one praises God by representing an aspect of the face of God. And in their totality they depict God’s wholeness. They tell us that we are created to be interdependent. They tell us to take our place in the family of things. And they tell us that God is present with us wherever we find ourselves.
There are responsibilities that stem from taking this biblical worldview seriously. If every species is a facet of the face of God, if every creature is in relationship with its Creator, that means our carelessness toward nature is a sin, and humanity’s callous destruction of creation is an affront on God, a defacing of something holy. It means that we must include not only other humans in our ethical considerations, but also every creature and its habitat. It means we must be mindful of what we take for food and shelter, and respect the lives that give us life, just as our bodies one day will give life to the soil. It means, at base, that we must live as creatures, as human animals, and not as gods.
It may seem strange to find “good news”—gospel—in all this, in the fact that humans are not the center of God’s world. But I find it tremendously reassuring. It takes such a weight off our collective shoulders! These depictions of a world in which humans are not the apex of creation, not the subduers and rulers, they take the pressure off the human race to be lonely, heroic types. Yes, we must be responsible, we must be mindful, we must have respect—but on the other hand, we don’t have to go it alone. We don’t have to keep up this disdain we’ve cultivated for the comfort of other species, this disparagement of the beauty of the natural world, this distance from all that is life-giving. These stories and visions of interdependence, these depictions of the natural world praising its Creator, remind us, in fact, that we are creatures, too. We are animals among other animals. And we can praise God as other animals do, simply by being who God created us to be.
As Mary Oliver tells us, we are not, in fact, called to great acts of asceticism or humiliation—humiliation and humility being two very different things. Instead we are called to “let the soft animals of our bodies love what they love.” To relax into a role that doesn’t require superhuman strength or godlike powers. To be. To enjoy the good earth. To take seriously that the Bible calls Creation “good.” Judaism has historically been better at this than Christianity; one sage even taught that, on judgment day, all people would have to explain every instance in which they could have enjoyed something good, and didn’t. It’s a serious business to reject or ignore what God has called good.
Just think—God has a connection to these hills, these hemlock woods, that marsh, those crayfish; even the rain that falls on them and the sun that shines—to really feel this at gut level and not just as an intellectual exercise, is to explode the human-centered figure of God we mostly take for granted. It is to come up against a vast immanence, an immanence that devastates our worldview, the worldview that takes these things for granted as “resources” or as “landscape.” It is an immanence that is almost indistinguishable from transcendence.
It is lucky that we don’t believe that we must remove our shoes on holy ground, because the truth is, all ground is holy. I consider this often, since these once-deforested, once-overgrazed hills are covered in blackberry brambles, not to mention nettles, thistles, and poison ivy. Yet all ground, even the most abused, is holy, every fresh water stream is a reflection of the stream Ezekiel saw flowing from the temple and bringing fecundity to the earth, and every creature is a fellow participant in a holy liturgy. Every meal is a Eucharist, a thanksgiving; even a grateful snack of blackberries or wild apples on a hot autumn day.
I invite you to close your eyes and imagine your encounter with the creatures and phenomena I describe next, to imagine yourself in your backyard, or a state park, or a neighbor’s field. What we hear in the woods are the voices the church walls shut out: the tiny sound of snow on dry beech leaves, the impossible beauty of the hermit thrush’s song in a cathedral of treetops, the yipping howl of coyotes, the buzz of happy bumblebees. The crashing of a panicked porcupine through the underbrush, the quork and knock from raven throats, the “peent” of a woodcock to his mate. The heart-stopping explosion of grouse wings and the rustle of a vole in dry leaves.
The creak of old boughs. The suck and gurgle of spring water under ice. Summer breeze in a leafy canopy.
The columns of this cathedral are ash boles; the vaults are canopies of maple and beech. In place of tiles and stonework, the floor boasts other treasures: violets and spring beauty, wood sorrel and wild columbine. In place of incense, a faint and delicious perfume wafts from milkweed flowers or apple blossom. For communion there are tiny, sweet wild strawberries, morels and wild leeks, and the aptly named serviceberries. The stained-glass windows are, in summer, a thousand spider-webs; in winter they are the designs of ice crystals on a streambank. The holy texts are tracks in mud and snow of those who came this way before us.
I follow Wendell Berry in advocating for a shift in how we view our membership in the holy, “from that of the church to that of the whole Creation”: We must become “forest Christians.” Berry writes: “I feel more and more strongly that when St. Paul said that ‘we are members of one another,’ he was using a far more inclusive ‘we’ than Christian institutions have generally thought. For me, this is the meaning of ecology. Whether we know it or not, whether we want to be or not, we are members of one another: humans (ourselves and our enemies), earthworms, whales, snakes, squirrels, trees, topsoil, flowers, weeds, germs, hills, rivers, swifts, and stones—all of ‘us.’ The work of the imagination, I feel, is to understand this. I don’t think it can be understood by any other faculty. And to live here very long or very well, humans now have to understand it.”
May God the Creator kindle in our imaginations a new vision: a vision of our membership in the Creation, of our interdependence and interrelationship with all that exists. May God make us seeds of new life in a community that stretches beyond church walls and encompasses forests, mountains, oceans, and air. May we as a species choose the way of life, that our time may be long on this earth. Amen.