In her classic book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,”Annie Dillard shares this observation: “I once saw a mockingbird make a straight vertical descent from the roof gutter of a four-story building. It was an act as careless and spontaneous as the curl of a stem of the kindling of a star. The mockingbird took a single step into the air and dropped. His wings were still folded against his sides as though he were singing from a limb and not falling, accelerating thirty-two feet per second through empty air. Just a breath before he would have been dashed to the ground, he unfurled his wings with exact deliberate care, revealing the broad bands of white, spread his elegant broad-banded tail, and so floated onto the grass. I had just rounded the corner when his insouciant step caught my eye. There was no one else in sight. The fact of his free fall was like the old philosophical conundrum about the tree that falls in the forest. The answer must be, I think, that beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do is try to be there.”
She concludes, “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of a mystery. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it and describe what’s going on here.”
Her words remind me of the oft-quoted poem of Elizabeth Barrett Browning:
Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes.
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.
Ah … to be the one who sees, who takes off one’s shoes. It would seem that in these days of global warming and ever increasing threats to the environment, taking the wider view, appreciating the mystery, is not only the hope of a poet but also a stern necessity. Our very survival depends on it.
We need a more profound identity with the natural world, one that sees humans and other earthly creatures as bound together in a single worldwide community. Thomas Berry made this point several years ago when he wrote, “We have lost our sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants, our sense of gratitude, our willingness to recognize the sacred character of habitat, the numinous quality of every earthly reality. Our addiction to progress — drill baby drill — means we have arrogantly assumed control over other creatures, deluding ourselves with the notion that we know best what is good for the earth and ourselves. Ultimately custody of the earth belongs to the entire earth community.”
It distresses me that over the years, people of faith have often struggled with our relationship to the natural world. Somewhere along the way we created this separation between the spiritual and the material, the sacred and the secular. Much classical Christian theology stressed the spiritual nature of humans over against the physical nature of everything else. The earth and its resources basically given to us to use — or misuse — as we pleased. But in doing so, we cut ourselves off from our own Biblical tradition. Take a look at Psalm 104. When the Psalmist looks out upon creation, he sees the Holy present in the wise and mysterious rhythms of the world, in the intricate wonder of a summer flower, the vastness of a starry night, in the boundless energy of a five-year-old.
What a difference it would make if we could only step back for a moment of wonder-induced gratitude; step back and see that beauty and grace and mystery are all around us, that the earth truly is crammed with heaven. All space sacred space; all ground holy ground to be protected, cherished and nurtured.