“You save animals and humans alike, O YHWH.” (Psalm 36:6)

Cross with animals and shrubs.
Handmade Christianity Wood Cross, ‘El Salvador Animals’, by Woodworkers of Jesus

People around the globe, both Christians and non-Christians, recognize the historical figure of Jesus Christ as the teacher, healer, and preacher whose actions and words led to the formation of a world religion. Centuries of reading and praying over scripture have informed Christians’ understanding of their faith in Christ as the Son of God, but cultural and intellectual expressions of that understanding have changed over time. See, for example, the excellent survey by Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, which explores how that understanding as found in images of Jesus varied through a succession of historical periods.

Despite the tendency of many religious folk to regard their beliefs as eternal, unchanging truths, any history of Christian doctrine will show that there has never been a single unified theology but rather a variety of schools of thought often at odds with each other. For example, the basic question “why did God become a human being” has received various theological explanations. What did Christ’s life, death, and resurrection accomplish? In Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril, Elizabeth Johnson argues that historically the most influential explanation was articulated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE). In Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became a Human), he argued that Christ died on a cross in order to reconcile God and sinful humanity. The breach between human and divine realms was so deep and profound that only Christ’s crucifixion could erase it. Here is Johnson’s take on how dominant Anselm’s view, sometimes called the satisfaction theory of atonement, has been:

I sometimes think that Anselm may well be the most successful theologian of all time, for what other theory has dominated theology, preaching, and liturgical practice for almost a thousand years? Joseph Ratzinger, a critic of this treatise, comments on its influence in words that are beyond dispute: it “put a decisive stamp on the second millennium of western Christendom, which takes it for granted that Christ had to die on the cross in order to make good the infinite offence that had been committed and in this way to restore the order that had been violated.” (CC, Introduction)

But Anselm’s focus on the need for reconciliation between humankind and God invites the kind of criticism summarized in a previous post. According to Lynn White, the human species should not consider itself as exceptional but part of “a democracy of all God’s creatures.” Does a focus on the human in the Christ story mean that God is unconcerned about the rest of his creatures? Au contraire, according to Johnson. All you need to do is to read scripture, this time with contemporary environmental concerns in mind, to see a more expansive view of God’s purpose in Christ. Johnson invites her readers to consider a scripture-based theological approach more appropriate for our times.

I invite you to explore an alternative to Anselm’s influential theology. Drawn from a wide range of biblical sources, this alternative envisions the living God actively accompanying the world in its evolutionary and historical breakthroughs, its human sinfulness, and its universal suffering and death, with overflowing mercy that endures forever. Such a theology of accompaniment is but one way to understand redemption that will support planetary solidarity and work for ecojustice. (CC, Introduction).

While it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to survey the many excellent points made in Creation and the Cross, perhaps a few excerpts can suggest its value for spiritual reflection in a time of climate change.

Among the prophets Second Isaiah makes the most extensive use of God as Creator; citing one or another verse from this poetic scroll would hardly do justice to its interweaving of YHWH’s creating and redeeming work. The key motive is identifying Israel’s Redeemer with “the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28) in the effort to encourage trust. The Holy One of Israel who is coming to free them is the very same God who created the heavens and the earth and all that dwells therein. (CC, 2.5)

The link forged between the creating and redeeming activities of God opens the door to bringing the natural world into the text in an organic way. It amazes me how many creatures are mentioned: the rising sun; all forms of water such as roaring waves, rivers, streams, and fresh springs; mountains and hills; deserts, rocks, and fertile earth; fish and all kinds of wild animals; jackals and ostriches; and a gorgeous array of trees; cedar, acacia, myrtle, and olive, plane, and pine together. All are party to the glad tidings of salvation. (CC, 2.5)

Jesus’ whole ministry was centered on the coming of the reign of God. Given that this God is the Creator who loves the whole world, this means nothing less than the flourishing of all creation. Since the reign of God is especially attentive to the needy and the outcast, Jesus showed a partisanship for suffering people that we can today interpret as extending to encompass the earth and its myriads of distressed species and ecosystems. His ministry reveals a wideness in God’s mercy that includes all creation. (CC, 3.4)

It is enormously helpful to see the way early Christians connected resurrection with creation. The logic of the connection allows this impossible hope to make more sense. Paul forges this link in a quick line: God “gives life to the dead and brings into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). There it is. Just like that, you can see that if the living God can create the world to begin with, then God can create anew in death. (CC, 3.9)

In the tangle of our lives, graced fragments of personal, social, and ecological flourishing give foretastes of this blessed life, the fullness of which is still to come. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil employs a wealth of symbols to point to this joyful truth: new fire struck from darkness, the paschal candle lit, the flame spreading throughout the community, an exulting song, ringing bells, green branches and flowers, water of baptism, oil of confirming, bread and wine of Eucharist. God raised Jesus from the dead, and the gift to this one historical person gives assurance of what lies ahead for all creation. (CC, 3.11)

God covenants with all creatures of flesh, as we saw in the Noah story with its covenant sign of the rainbow. Made of flesh, animals are vulnerable to pain and death, in need of God’s redeeming care. One psalm makes this explicit in startling language: “You save humans and animals alike, O YHWH” (Ps 36:6) (CC, 6.5)

Given that one of the sources of inspiration for this blog has been Teilhard de Chardin’s thought, it’s interesting to note that he found little in the Jesus narratives of the New Testament that was relevant to his thought and therefore didn’t pursue the kind of scripture-based scholarship modeled by Johnson. In his words,

. . . the face of the historical Jesus, embroiled in all the historical improbabilities and moral inadequacies of the Gospel, becomes less clear and distinct for me. My basic disposition? What is past and dead no longer interests me. (Quoted in CM, 125)

But I think Johnson’s “theology of accompaniment” is in some ways close kin to Teilhard’s mystical vision of Christ deeply present within an evolving world. Moreover, I consider Creation and the Cross to be a contribution to the New Story project that Thomas Berry called for in his seminal essay cited in an earlier blog post. It can be seen as part of a worldwide endeavor by religious scholars mining their traditions with renewed energy to uncover spiritual resources for dealing with the environmental crises facing us all. See, for example, Overview of World Religions and Ecology by two former students of Berry’s, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology.

But scriptural scholarship and theology can only takes us so far. According to Johnson,

As with any theology, the path laid down here will prove its worth if the faith convictions it generate motivate individuals and communities to passionate, ethical, practical commitments to the natural world in tandem with all the earth’s poor and marginalized people. (CC, 6.7)

FYI: Elizabeth Johnson spoke on similar themes at Boston College earlier this year. A video recording of her talk is available.

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A Diminuendo of Birdsong

Wood Thrush (Photo Source) – Song

The increasing numbers of species that have become extinct or threatened with extinction was the main message delivered by the recent report from the  Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Here are some of its findings specifically about birds:

–3.5% domesticated breed of birds extinct by 2016
–23% of threatened birds whose distributions may have been negatively impacted by climate change already

Source

An earlier report gave additional data:

A 2009 report on the state of birds in the United States found that 251 (31 percent) of the 800 species in the country are of conservation concern [8]. Globally, BirdLife International estimates that 12 percent of known 9,865 bird species are now considered threatened, with 192 species, or 2 percent, facing an “extremely high risk” of extinction in the wild — two more species than in 2008. Habitat loss and degradation have caused most of the bird declines, but the impacts of invasive species and capture by collectors play a big role, too.

Source

The wood thrush (pictured above), a bird species with a declining population, has been celebrated for the beauty of its song, as for example in this observation by Henry David Thoreau:

As I come over the hill, I hear the wood-thrush singing his evening lay. This is the only bird whose note affects me like music, affects the flow and tenor of my thought, my fancy, and imagination. It lifts and exhilarates me.

Henry David Thoreau, Journal 22, June 1853

Can we imagine a world with fewer and fewer birds singing and calling to each other (and to us)? There have been many efforts to alert the public about the mounting threats to a number of avian species. Some, like the following short video, do a beautiful job making the case for supporting action to forestall their decline.

I recently experienced a work of sound art at Mass. Audubon’s Boston Nature Center lamenting the loss of certain birdsongs. Created by musician and former software engineer Steve Norton, it consisted of audio recordings of ten birds and two frogs which became extinct during the past 100 years. The recordings were made available to Norton by The Macaulay Library of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and The Amphibian Foundation in Atlanta.

In 2016, Norton left his day job to pursue an MFA at the University of Maine. Having developed an interest in recording the sounds of his surroundings near his home in Medford, MA, with the equipment he had used to record his saxophone performances, he became more and more interested in recording the sounds of nature. He eventually created Requiem, the sound installation of twelve extinct species I heard at the Boston Nature Center. It’s currently available in SoundCloud. Because the twelve recordings, which have been programmed to play in a continuous loop, are of unequal length, the combinations of songs and calls will always be different. According to Norton:

It’s entirely unpredictable. . . . Sometimes it gets very dense and then also falls silent. . . .There have been occasions where people have said, ‘Is it over?’ It’s theoretically never over. It could run until the power goes out.

Norton’s purpose behind the piece is clear, stating that he hopes visitors will remember that “all of these species went extinct because of things that we [humans] did.” Source

But there was a bit of good news from the IPBES report:

–29%: average reduction in the extinction risk for mammals and birds in 109 countries thanks to conservation investments from 1996 to 2008; the extinction risk of birds, mammals and amphibians would have been at least 20% greater without conservation action in recent decade

I’m grateful that conservation efforts are making some difference. Birds provide a wonderful stream of calls and songs throughout my day. They show us that hey, it’s OK – sing your heart out if you want to, like Rumi: “I want to sing like the birds sing, not worrying about who hears or what they think.” And they can inspire us to hope despite a bleak outlook, as one bird did for Thomas Hardy.

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

—————————————————————————–
October 30, 2019 Update
A recent report published in Science states that 29% of North America’s bird population has been lost in the past 48 years, a drop of nearly three million birds.

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Our Nation’s Changing Views of Nature: An Exhibition

We love art because we enjoy the beauty of what artists create, but art can also be appreciated as a record of human cultural values and beliefs. An excellent example of this approach is Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum available through May 5th, which uses art to show the evolving attitudes of Americans of European heritage toward nature and how different they were from those of Native Americans. Rachel Allen, a member of the Nez Perce tribe and one of the exhibition’s Curatorial Fellows, writes:

When you explore this exhibition, I hope you think about your walks, your sphere. What are the artists communicating about our environment? How do these works challenge your ideas about nature? How do you influence the world around you? Can we do better?

Rachel Allen, “Not Separate from Nature,” Peabody Essex Museum, accessed April 18, 2019, https://www.pem.org/blog/not-separate-from-nature

In one of the exhibition’s first display cases, the museum goer can see a traditional Christian depiction of the universe.


The Great Chain of Being from the Rhetorica christiana by Fray Diego de Valades (1579) (Source)

This pictorial version of the universe as a Great Chain of Being was based on “a theory . . . which dominated cosmology from the Middle Ages to the dawn of modernity.”1 In this hierarchical order, spiritual and human realms exist above the creatures of air, sea and land. Below all is the underworld with Satan reigning over the damned. The greater the proximity of a being to the Creator and Ruler of the Universe, the greater its inherent goodness and value. This metaphysical distinction between human and natural worlds in Western thought has deeply influenced much of the Western religious and cultural imagination which sees the natural world as something that can be manipulated and controlled for humanity’s benefit.

In art, examples of early American painting on display in the exhibit include portraiture typical of the period where nature appears in the distance behind the portrait’s human subject as an ornamental background. But by the mid-19th century, painters of the Hudson River School like Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), inspired by the magnificent vistas they encountered, had introduced a more expansive and romanticized vision of the American landscape. Cole’s Home in the Woods (1847) shows an idealized image of family life available to those eager to move westward into new territories following the 19th-century Manifest Destiny doctrine justifying the nation’s expansion across the American continent.

Home in the Woods, Thomas Cole
Source

Such idyllic scenes, while representing a deep feeling for the land the settlers may have had, were also leaving out quite a bit of the westward expansion story. Near the Cole painting are the following pair of artworks:

My photo

The painting on the left, Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite by Albert Bierstadt (about 1871-1873) is paired with a 2007 artwork, Fallen Bierstadt by Valerie Hegarty. According to the accompanying gallery text,

Paintings like this one [Bridal Veil Falls] legitimized U.S. land theft and violence against Indigenous people. Hegarty’s Fallen Bierstadt questions the way such traditional landscape painting idealizes nature as an untouched retreat or a tourist spectacle that ignores complex histories and fragile ecosystems.

But throughout the exhibit one encounters examples of a very different artistic imagination like this 19th century robe by a Tinglit artist.

Chilkat Robe by Tinglit artist.
(My photo)

According to an accompanying gallery text, the robe “embodies deeply help beliefs about humans and other beings in a shared environment, and asserts . . . values encompassing the natural world and the wider universe.” In Western art like the Cole painting above, the settlers established themselves and their farms within a pristine wilderness functioning like a theater stage for their activity. In the Tinglit robe, its design of a closely linked pattern of killer whales and human artifacts “vividly expresses Tinglit ideals of community and environmental reciprocity.”

The contemporary non-Native art selected for the exhibition doesn’t provide a new vision of a deeper relatedness between human and natural realms. Rather, it offers a sharp critique of our misuse of the environment like this piece:

Midway: Message from the Gyre (2009) by Chris Jordan.
My photo

The work captures the tragedy of seabirds who feed on the plastic material which forms the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. According to the artist, “Like the albatross, we first world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and to our spirits.” (From the accompanying gallery text.)

The painting below provides a Native American response to disruptions of their natural environment by non-Native activity:

In and Around These Mountains by Mateo Romero (1999).
My photo

According to the gallery text, Romero (Cochiti Pueblo, b. 1966) has painted a “declaration on the authority of the Pueblo world, achieved through intricate networks of relationships that keep the universe in balance through dance and ceremony.” In the Pueblo belief system, this balance is sustained by their spiritual practices despite being surrounded by a radically different culture. The two worlds of Pueblo ceremonial dancers and the F-15 Eagle fighter seem to be in completely different spatial zones with nothing to bridge the distance between them.

The exhibition’s final section is devoted to an installation marking a particular action which occurred during the 2016 protests on the Standing Rock Reservation, North Dakota. The protests were against the construction of an oil pipeline across water and land sacred to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The face-off between the Water Protectors (Native Americans and their supporters) and the police led the artist Cannupa Hanska Luger (b. 1979, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Lakota, Austrian, and Norwegian) to create the following installation of video and photos of the Mirror Shield Project.


Photos of drone video. Mirror shields, from Mirror Shield Project, 2016. Drone Concept by Cannupa Hanska Luger. Made by anonymous community members. Masonite, Mylar adhesive paper, and rope. My photos.

According to Luger, the project was inspired by protesters in the Ukraine in 2014 who used mirrors to show the police what they looked like in their full riot gear. It was an appeal to their humanity that had been swallowed by all their armor. Luger adapted the Ukrainian’s approach:

I liked the idea of bringing these mirrored shields to the front line to create a barrier that actually unites rather than separates and remind the riot police that we’re trying to protect water for them and their children as well. So this was a way conceptually to put them on our front line as well and reflect that conversation back.

Karen Kramer. “On Creating Solidarity: Cannupa Hanska Luger.” Peabody Essex Museum, accessed April 18, 2019,
https://www.pem.org/blog/on-creating-solidarity-cannupa-hanska-luger

In the installation area, visitors can view a drone video of protesters holding the mirror shields while walking in a procession which eventually coils into a circle they called a Water Serpent. The purpose of the video was to record the mirror holders practicing making the Water Serpent for the times when police airplanes and helicopters made their daily fly-over. (The video is available for streaming,)

In the weeks since viewing Nature’s Nation, I’ve been thinking about what this exhibition is saying to us, the Americans of European heritage. Given the evidence of climate change and global warming, the exhibition’s claim that we have distanced ourselves from our natural environment is on target. Of course that’s not the case for everyone, but so much of our collective life is governed by decisions made by corporations and industries with negative environmental consequences. If the dominant position of our leaders is that the economy and its metrics like GDP and stock market indices are what determine our society’s well being, then an important factor has been left out of the equation. “The economy and the environment are both two sides of the coin. If we cannot sustain the environment, we cannot sustain ourselves,” said Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

Our notions of what makes our society healthy and vital must be radically revised. Perhaps indigenous mythologies and cosmologies can inspire us to rethink the ones we have inherited. Thomas Berry has argued that we are require a New Story (see related post). It’s clear from this exhibition of more than 100 pieces art on view in Nation’s Nature that we need new visions of how we are an integral part of the natural world we inhabit.

_________________________________________
1 Maxim Khomiakov. “Hierarchy and Order.” New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, edited by Maryanne Cline Horowitz, vol. 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005, p. 990.

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And how are the children?

Forms of greeting vary around the world. In India, you would say “namaste” and bow. In Ukraine, it’s the triple kiss, left-right-left, etc. Masai warriors in Kenya, even those without children, greet each other with “Kasserian ingera” which translates as “And how are the children?” The usual reply is “All the children are well,” in other words all are safe and peace prevails in my village.

Could we say our children are well? Our initial reaction might be that on the whole, the kids are safe, especially if we compare our situation to countries like Syria, South Sudan, or Yemen where “children are being targeted and exposed to attacks and brutal violence in their homes, schools and playgrounds” (UNICEF press release). But if we reflect on the question more deeply, can we say unequivocally that our kids are doing well?

Studies show that many of our children feel anxious and depressed, although the reasons may not necessarily be related to physical violence. Causes might be parents’ stress and unmet medical needs, but social media and classroom pressures have also been identified as serious sources of anxiety. And unfortunately there are children who live in violent neighborhoods where death is a frequent reality in their daily lives.

Can a larger issue like the worldwide concern about environment degradation be a source of anxiety for children? There’s no lack of opportunity for them to pick up on the tension pervading public conversation about the topic. If they don’t hear about it at home, they will from the media. The news has been filled with headline-making reports like the one published last August by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that said crucial policies to reduce global warming must be in place by 2030 to avoid the worst. An intelligent 16 year old can easily understand that at 28, she very well may be facing a global catastrophe.

When I try to imagine what some children might be feeling, I remember having a scary dream as a child about an atomic bomb explosion. It was a time when the possibility of a global catastrophe in the form of a nuclear war hung heavy in the air. At school, teachers periodically would call out “take cover” and we would have to hide under our desks. Novels and films like Fail Safe and On the Beach succeeded in rousing our dread about a worldwide devastation. Might climate change be having a similar effect on children today?

According to one study, based on interviews with fifty children ages 10 to 12:

Findings revealed 82% of children expressed fear, sadness, and anger when discussing their feelings about environmental problems. A majority of children also shared apocalyptic and pessimistic feelings about the future state of the planet. These results suggest that many children are “ecophobic” (i.e., fearful of environmental problems), which scholars argue may have serious implications for children’s participation in environmental stewardship and conservation efforts more broadly. 

Other research studies corroborate these findings, for example this one.

For those of us who might be concerned that the younger generation is disengaged because they feel there’s little they can do, it’s heartening to see that some are taking action. Students around the world have begun skipping school on Fridays as an act of protest. A 16 year old, Greta Thunberg, has become a remarkable spokesperson for her generation, as this TED talk shows. After gaining her nation’s attention by starting the first school strike in Sweden last August, she was invited to address the United Nations Climate Change Conference and later to give a talk to the World Economic Forum at Davos. In Oregon, protest has taken the form of a series of legal suits against the Trump administration. A legal team led by Julia Olson has argued on behalf of 21 young people ages 11 to 22, saying ”We will keep shining light on our fundamental constitutional rights [to life, liberty and property ] until we obtain justice for our children and put an end to U.S.-sanctioned climate change” (source).

If some children are increasingly fearful of the natural world because of global warming’s effects on the environment, we (their elders who have contributed much to the problem) owe it to them and their future to make sure their relationship with the earth is positive and full of love for its wonders. A leader of RiverLink, an organization promoting the environmental vitality of a particular river area in North Carolina “as a place to work, live, and play,” writes:

We are so lucky to live in a place with such beautiful natural resources. It makes sense that we want to do everything we can to protect places like this, and that often includes sharing the environmental burden with our children. However, if we want our kids to thoughtfully and genuinely engage in conservation we absolutely have to give them the space to develop an appreciation for nature first. After that, it’s up to them whether or not they deem it to be something worth fighting for. (Source)

In the same vein, Thomas Berry wrote:

A truly human intimacy with earth and with the entire natural world is needed. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live, to the birds and the insects and the various animals that roam over the land, to the entire range of natural phenomena. . . . (TB, 34)

Tomorrow, March 15, 2019, students around the world will engage in a Climate Strike. May we listen closely to their demands, share with them our love of our beloved planet earth, and pledge to work with them to transform the ways in which we live in relation to the natural world.

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She walked in the world to love it . . .

Landscape near Provincetown, October 2013, © Gerhard Huber (CC BY-NC)

Soon after her death on January 17th of this year, the loving eulogies and appreciations began appearing in the media universe. Whatever critics might think about the plainness of her style (which she consciously aimed for), many readers of Mary Oliver’s works grew to “own” her poems. In her interview with Krista Tippett, Oliver compared poetry to prose: “People are more apt to remember a poem and therefore feel they own it and can speak it to themselves as you might a prayer.” At another point during that interview, Oliver showed how writing a particular poem (one of her more famous) was an exercise in the craft of poetry:

MS. TIPPETT: “Wild Geese” is in Dream Work, and I’ve heard people talk about that, “Wild Geese,” as a poem that has saved lives. And I wonder if when you write something like that — I mean, when you wrote that poem or when you published this book, would you have known that that was the poem that would speak so deeply to people?
MS. OLIVER: This is the magic of it. That poem was written as an exercise in end-stopped lines.
MS. TIPPETT: As an exercise in what?
MS. OLIVER: End-stopped lines. Period at the end of the line. I was working with a poet. I had her in a class.
MS. TIPPETT: So it was an exercise in technique. [laughs]

Oliver, who lived and wrote for five decades in Provincetown, Massachusetts on Cape Cod, was often aptly described as a nature poet because of the many wonderfully detailed natural images that appear in her poems like the following lines from “The Summer Day:”

Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

Close observation of and listening to the natural world was her preferred way of life.

The Old Poets of China

Wherever I am, the world comes after me.
It offers me its busyness. It does not believe
that I do not want it. Now I understand
why the old poets of China went so far and high
into the mountains, then crept into the pale mist.

Wandering the Provincetown landscape was Oliver’s version of slipping into the mountain mist.

It’s interesting to note that Oliver’s poems are deeply appreciated by believers across religious traditions. Here are Christian, Buddhist, and Jewish examples. But she is also beloved by people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious (see for example the eighth commandment on this page). Given that her poetic vision is rooted in her love of the natural world, her poems are being read like a prayer book of an earth-centered spirituality.

United Church of Christ minister and seminary professor Thomas W. Mann believes that Oliver’s poetry is to be read as “the Other Book of God,” the Book of Nature that a number of Christian spiritual teachers since the early church have regarded as a second scripture alongside the Bible. Mann quotes St. Anthony the Great (251-356 bce): “My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, they are at my hand” (GD, xiii). And for Mann, her poetry is an essential resource for our times:

Before any attempt to address the problems of environmental degradation, however, we must undergo a change of consciousness. We must come to a new sense of the sacredness of the earth under our feet and the sky over our heads. We must come to the humble awareness that we humans are only one part of “the family of things.” We must experience a new vision of the beauty of the world. That is why we so desperately need the artists among us.

“I am a performing artist,” Oliver says. “I perform admiration. / Come with me, I want my poems to say. And do the same.” That is exactly what we intend to do. (GD, xv)

Tippett’s 2015 interview with Mary Oliver is available as a podcast and transcript. I highly recommend it. May you come to “own” some of her poems if you haven’t already.


Note: The post’s title was inspired by Mary Oliver’s statement in one of her essays: “I walk in the world to love it” (LL, 40).

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Moments of Grace

Christmas Revels, Washington DC
Source

Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere have recently experienced the longest night of the year. A few nights later, many of us celebrated the birth of Jesus, Son of the Creator, whose coming was signaled by an astronomical sign. It was a time for recognizing the wonderful mystery of our human existence within the larger reality of the cosmos. Observances of the winter solstice around the world include song, dance, and festive meals. During Christmas Eve church services, Christians sing their beloved Christmas hymns, but then some church goers may also join others in an ostensibly more secular setting to enjoy the singing, dancing, and story-telling of a Christmas Revels performance or a magical production Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet.

The near concurrence of the two events suggests a historical relationship. Many citizens of the Roman Empire celebrated winter solstice, calling it dies solis invicti nati (“day of the birth of the unconquered sun”). Some historians argue this to be the reason Christians selected a similar date. However, this theory is not universally accepted and other explanations have been proposed. Whatever the historical reason for selecting December 25th as Christ’s birthday, many people today celebrate both events. Could it be because there’s a basic human desire to praise the mystery of existence in both its human and cosmic manifestations?

Thomas Berry thinks that the human connection to the natural world was more intimate in the past, that we have become more removed from the rhythms of the earth and sky.

All human occupations and professions must themselves be expressions of the universe and its mode of functioning. This is especially true of what came to be known as religion, . . . Earlier peoples seem to have understood this. They lived in a pattern of human activities that were validated by their relation with the cosmological sequence. . . .

With regard to time and seasons, rituals were established to create a consciousness of the moments of cosmological change: the dawn and dusk of the daily sequence of sunlight and darkness, the increase and decline in the phases of the moon, the winter solstice especially as the danger moment of the universe, the period of dark descent; then came the rise into the world of warmth and light and the blossoming of the plants and the birth and the birth moment of the mammalian world. . . . Such moments were moments of grace, moments when the sacred world communicated itself to the world of the human. (TB, 52-53)

Thankfully, we can sometimes encounter such moments in poems or songs like Wintergrace by Jean Ritchie . . . 

 . . . or when a community decides to have a celebration like the one that happened near me in Roslindale, Massachusetts:

. . . or when the Christmas Revels performers come down off the stage while singing Lord of the Dance to start a large circle of audience members dancing:

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Teilhard in the Trenches

A few weeks ago, people around the world observed the 100th anniversary of the end of hostilities in World War I, one of humanity’s most devastating conflicts with 8.5 million deaths, 21.2 million wounded, and 7.6 million missing. When the war began in August 1914, Teilhard de Chardin had been studying, teaching, and conducting research for over ten years. (See An Ocean of Matter, Cynthia Bourgeault on Teilhard, and It’s All about Seeing for my earlier posts introducing Teilhard’s thought.) His decision to serve in the military as a stretcher bearer instead of an officer and chaplain brought him into close daily contact with his fellow soldiers who were enlisted Zouaves and Moroccans. Teilhard’s courageous service earned three medals for his valor, but he also made a deep spiritual impression on his regimental comrades who called him Sidi Marabout, a religious teacher or holy man.

Teilhard, on the right, at Verdun. (Source)

While his involvement in the war must have been incredibly demanding on his inner life and physical energy, Teilhard continued to develop his understanding of evolution, in particular his idea of the Noosphere, a third layer of thought emerging from the preceding biological layer of life (Biosphere) and life’s underlying stratum of the the earth’s crust and core (Geosphere). Immersed in dealing with the tragic consequences of large numbers of human beings engaged in deadly combat, he nevertheless was moved by the intensity of what he saw: “’The ‘Human-Million,’ with its psychic temperature and its internal energy, became for me a magnitude as evolutively, and therefore as biologically, real as a giant molecule of protein.” If life as the Biosphere formed a “living membrane” over the earth’s surface, then

. . . around this sentient protoplasmic layer, an ultimate envelope was beginning to become apparent to me, taking on its own individuality and gradually detaching itself like a luminous aura. This envelope was not only conscious but thinking, and from the time when I first became aware of it, it was always there that I found concentrated, in an ever more dazzling and consistent form, the essence or rather the very Soul of the Earth. (HM, 31-32)

Calling this sentient layer the Noosphere, Teilhard began to discern the details of the process by which this “ultimate envelope” had emerged. The metaphors of heat and fire helped Teilhard describe the emergence of life and thought out of matter as if through a chemical reaction. The reaction takes place within the “planetary crucible,” another metaphor involving fire that appears elsewhere in his writings. The chief ingredient of the reaction is the crucible itself, i.e., Matter, and the product is Spirit: “Matter is the matrix of Spirit. Spirit is the higher state of Matter.”

Having realized that a Noosphere (or Soul of the World) exists, and that it emerges from Matter, Teilhard concluded that this layer, like the physical layers before it, followed an evolutionary course which he called Noogenesis. The earth’s evolution has advanced to the level of “a rapidly rising collective Reflection,” a development so obvious “that we cannot but recognize the objective, experiential reality of a directionally controlled transformation of the Noosphere as a whole.”

This transformation is following an irresistible process of convergence toward a “final critical point.” The goal of Noogenesis is the Omega: “The ‘piece of iron’ of my first days has long been forgotten. In its place it is the Consistence of the Universe, in the form of the Omega Point that I now hold, concentrated (whether above me or, rather, in the depths of my being, I cannot say) into one single indestructible center, which I can love (HM, 39).” And this center can be loved because it is a personal reality: the Christ “in [whom] all things hold together”(Col. 1:17).

Surrounded by the horror of war, Teilhard nevertheless arrived at an extraordinarily hopeful vision of humanity’s future. But I struggle to understand how he could come up with such a positive view despite being immersed in the suffering he encountered every day carrying out his duties. His spirituality must have been an incredible source of strength.

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