Sunday, August 08, 2010

Nature: Spirit Made Visible

By Rev. Kit Ketcham, August 8, 2010

I’ve been reading through my old journals recently, dating back to the years before I began to study for the ministry. I’ve been keeping journals for decades, ever since I scribbled notes on my Outward Bound experience in a scruffy little notebook in the summer of 1968, a time of my life which cemented my sense of connection with the natural world and got me thinking about my place in it.

Some of those old journal entries are embarrassing, to say the least, and years ago I threw out the worst ones, the journals I never wanted my son to see, whenever I should shuffle off this mortal coil. But even once I got past the place of complaining about family members I was irritated with or the struggles I was having in my work or the latest guy I was dating, I wrote down some remarkably childish things.

It got a lot better once I got into a 12 step program and started being more aware of my feelings, my not-so-sterling qualities, and the steps I needed to take to make my life happier and more honest. I began to take note of the moments in my life when I felt most whole, most open to transformative change, most fulfilled and satisfied.

As I began to write about my deeper experiences, I noticed a pattern. At the time, I owned an old Dodge camping van and used it to travel the Colorado Rockies, to go back and forth between the PNW and Colorado, and to generally find solitude and beauty and lovely freedom and independence in evenings spent alone in a camp chair, in front of a fire I had built myself---with one match!, with my trusty journal on my lap, writing about my day’s activities and thoughts.

I had a few favorite spots I particularly liked to visit: Guanella Pass in the Front Range of the Rockies and only a short distance from Denver in miles but light years away from the clamor of the city; primitive Taylor Park, over two major Rocky Mountain passes near Gunnison CO, but largely undiscovered by anyone but fishermen and cowboys---and me; and the Oregon Coast, particularly Cape Lookout near Tillamook, whose tidepools enticed me in the early mornings.

These were places that felt right to me in ways I couldn’t express clearly. The wide expanse of open space, the mountain peaks nearby, the limitless sense of air, of freedom, of both a great mystery and a great peace. The wildlife---deer, squirrels, chipmunks, birds, coyotes, fish, starfish, sand dollars---all these belonged so perfectly to their surroundings. And, astonishingly, so did I,

I too felt part of these places. The animals were my companions in the woods or on the beach; we lived together as I camped among them. I talked to them, told them how beautiful they were, that they were safe with me, that I appreciated their being with me in the moment.

I think I got some of this sense of connection, as well, from my mother. I’ve told you the story of how my sister and I, as teenagers, would walk the long stretch of Cannon Beach, in Oregon, with our mom in the misty mornings before breakfast, as she declaimed to the gray sky---and to anyone nearby who might hear, including, unfortunately, cute boys---Edna St Vincent Millay’s memorable poem, God’s World”:

O WORLD, I cannot hold thee close enough!

Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!

Thy mists that roll and rise!

Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag

And all but cry with colour!
That gaunt crag

To crush!
To lift the lean of that black bluff!

World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!
Long have I known a glory in it all,

But never knew I this;

Here such a passion is

As stretcheth me apart.
Lord, I do fear

Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year.

My soul is all but out of me,—let fall

No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call.

Millay, of course, was one of the descendants of a remarkable moment in American history in the mid 19th century, when a group of poets and thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and others set the religious and literary world on edge with their vision of Nature as a pathway to the Divine. They were dubbed the Transcendentalists and brought to American culture much more than a connection between God and Nature, but this particular concept was a profound contribution to Unitarian theology .

The Transcendentalists felt that something was missing in classic Unitarianism with its insistence on cool rationality and reason. Solemnity, calmness and emotionless rhetoric failed to satisfy that side of the Transcendentalists which yearned for a more intense spiritual experience. This led Emerson to denounce what he saw as the “corpse-cold” Unitarianism of that time, which was itself a rebellion against the extreme emotionalism of more evangelical Protestant sects.

Emerson, in an essay entitled "Nature," tried to capture the feeling of spiritual conversion as experienced during a sojourn in the woods. In a famous passage that has become a classic…description of the "transcendent moment," he writes:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,—no disgrace, no calamity…, which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,—my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space,—all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.

Emerson’s eloquence was parodied on the one hand and yet deeply understood by his peers. In a letter written in January 1849 to his friend Randolph Ryer, Thomas Starr King, another of our Unitarian ancestors, said this about Emerson:

“Emerson gave us last Monday evening the most brilliant lecture I ever listened to from any mortal. It was on the identity of the laws of the mind with the laws of nature. He proved conclusively that man is only a higher kind of corn, that he is a squirrel gone up into the first class, that he is a liberated oyster fully educated, that he is a spiritualized pumpkin, a thinking squash, a graduated sunflower, and inspired turnip.
Such imagery, such wit, such quaint things said in a tone solemn and sublime! I have the most profound respect henceforth for every melon vine as my ancestor... I look upon every turtle as of kin. Tonight he lectures again. I fear I may lose it.”

All this took place a century before the merging of the Unitarian and the Universalist strands of religious thought, in 1961. But Transcendentalist appreciation for Nature as Spirit made Visible has influenced Unitarian Universalist theology and experience for all of us who revere Nature and its spiritual influences.

American Transcendentalism was primarily a reassertion of the mystical basis of all religion, a reaction against the rationalism of Unitarianism and the pessimism of Calvinism. It emphasized heart over mind.

Transcendentalism might have been the fore-runner of the many folks who now think of themselves as “spiritual, not religious” and also those who are religious in ancient earth-centered ways, such as neo-paganism.

But this sense of spiritual connection to nature is within each of us---we just need to nurture it. My friend David Vergin, pastor at Langley United Methodist, recently wrote in his monthly newsletter column:

“The sense of the spiritual dimension of life is so powerful in the forest at dusk that it can almost make me jump out of my skin. After a winter indoors I am stunned each year by the infinite and mysterious expanse of a starlit sky, the enormity and power of the ocean, the endless flow and ever-changing surface of a river, the awesome majesty and mystery of a forest, especially at dawn or dusk…What strikes me when I take time with the natural world is the strength of our tendency to spiritual thoughts and feelings. Gazing at an expanse of water or a starlit sky, some dormant facility in me awakens.”

How does Nature inspire OUR spiritual life and growth? Let’s take a moment and consider this thought. What are your experiences with Nature and Spirit? How does Nature inspire you in a spiritual way? Take a moment to think and then I’ll ask some of you to share. (cong.resp)

Unitarian Universalists have been on a journey over the past century of leaving doctrine and dogma behind and, instead, looking to the lessons of personal experience and reason, as we discover our spiritual and religious paths. We have come to see our religious and spiritual duties more as a matter of relationship to ourselves, each other, and to the natural world.

Our seven principles outline this journey, beginning with our founding principle of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” and concluding with our seventh principle, which states that we affirm and promote “respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” If you would like to review our Principles, you will find them on the back of your order of service.

And in moving away from doctrines and supernatural beliefs, many, if not most of us, find comfort and heartsease in our natural surroundings. It’s why many of us live here, why we built our home here in this spot, why we garden, why we have pets and domestic animals. We see ourselves as part of this universe, not just users of it.

But even here on Whidbey, it is easy to get shut up in our cars and houses and lose contact with the natural world we love.

Edna St. Vincent Millay, in her longer work “Renascence” notes this:
The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.

We as human beings are born into an intimate relationship with Nature. It is our first level of experience, to feel the cool air on our face and the warmth of fire, the smell of our surroundings, the rough texture of tree bark and stones, the sound of birds and insects, the sight of flowers and animals.

But as we grow, we often lose that sense of wonder at the natural world. Acquisitiveness may subdue our inquisitiveness and encourage us to disregard the needs and gifts of the natural world in favor of our own desires.

We need always to attend to our inner self, the self that can so easily forget our connection with the natural world and can be the root cause of pollution. Our ancestors developed traditional practices of honoring and conserving nature, practices which respected and sanctified the natural world rather than simply using it.

Our natural world is balanced: the elements of water, fire, air, and earth work together even though they both enhance and destroy one another, as water drowns fire and fire eats air. The millions of life species are in balance as well, with predators and prey opposing each other, yet serving the larger good.

We need to learn from nature how to balance the elements of human life, tempering all with the human attributes of compassion and altruism which flow from human consciousness.

As Frank and I were talking about this service last week, he shared with me some of his experiences with Nature, particularly moments spent at places like Ebey’s Landing, where cloud and fog and rain and sun shed special shadows and shape the light in wondrous ways. His feeling part of it all, experiencing its wonder at every level, from microscopic to cosmic, has shaped his own life. And he remarked to me that artists say that our eyes are never on vacation, that there is beauty in some part of everything.

That’s how I see it too. And I was reminded of my mother’s admonition, when we kids would complain that we were bored: “Go out in the yard and see what you find in the grass.” There was infinite life in that grass, we discovered, and no reason to be bored.

And the last line of one of the stanzas of “Renascence” seems apt here:
God, I can push the grass apart
And lay my finger on Thy heart!

Let’s pause for a time of silent reflection and prayer.

BENEDICTION: Our worship service, our time of shaping worth together, is ended, but our service to the world begins again as we leave this place. Let us go in peace, remembering our beginnings in the natural world, honoring and revering the elements of nature that inspire and comfort us, and taking care of those elements. May we give our children, our grandchildren, and all the children of the world the gift of a planet made sacred by our actions. Amen, Shalom, Salaam, and Blessed Be.

No comments: