Hearing the Bird

I spent some time this week up at the Garrison Institute as part of my continuing education work with GreenFaith. The program has given me a chance to begin to get to know about two dozen other GreenFaith Fellows who are working in a whole slew of different ways on issues connected with faith and the environment. It’s taken us on field trips of various kinds—to training programs and nature preserves and other types of settings connected with the environment.   There have also been summaries of what various world religions say about our relationship with the environment, tools to work with congregations on climate related issues and more.

Most of the GreenFaith Fellows already have a very deep love of nature before they begin the program. Mine developed, I think, because of my grandmother. She, my mother, and I lived in an apartment when I was young. Along with the apartment came an optional small garden patch that was near woods where we could walk and hike. My mother would go off to work to support us, leaving my grandmother to watch me. Many late mornings, no matter what the season, my grandmother would often make the two of us sandwiches. We’d tie them in a kerchief, stick the kerchief on a stick, and she, our dog, and I would head out for an afternoon in the woods.

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We’d walk for a while and then stop near something that interested one or the other of us. We’d stand or stoop and spend time looking at the way in which the nearby brook was wearing away a rock or the insects were eating through a dead log. We’d listen to their calls to discover what birds were in an area or pay careful attention to the wild flowers growing in a field through which we were passing. Most of these noticings and discoveries were done in silence. Partway through each day’s walk, we’d find a place to sit down and untie our kerchief. As we shared our lunch and our recent observations, my grandmother would find ways to tie what we’d seen to her belief that each and every one of the beings we were seeing was part of God’s creation and so deserved to be treated well.   Though I was unaware of it at the time, I think that those days gave me the gift of finding and loving the Spirit so strongly present in all beings.

Each time I’m at a GreenFaith-type gathering, an image and a quotation run through my mind. I always recall the image of my grandmother, often in her black hiking shorts and sleeveless blouse, bent over a plant or insect, her face filled with pure joy. And I also think of a quote from Nikos Kazantzakis’s Report to Greco, in which “One divine spring day the windows (of the classroom) were open. A tangerine tree was in bloom across the street, and its perfume entered the classroom. Each of our minds had turned into a blossoming tangerine tree; we could not bear to hear anything more about acute and circumflex accents. A bird came just then, perched on the plane tree in the schoolyard and began to sing. At that point a pale redheaded student who had arrived that year from his village, Nikolios by name, was unable to control himself. He raised his finger. “Be quiet, sir,” he cried. “Be quiet, and let us hear the bird.” First and foremost, before we talk about the ways in which the divine and the earthly are connected in sacred texts or tools for getting congregations to be concerned about greenhouse emissions or better environmental choices, we need to go outside, where all the preaching and lecturing and strategizing stops and we can sit, stand, or stoop in silence to hear the bird sing, and through such singing, come to know the divine reflected in the world around us and in each of our lives.

 

 

A Broader Understanding of Saints and Souls

I love this Sunday.  It is a day to celebrate all in our lives that has reflected God and to make peace with all that has moved away in the direction of brokenness and incompleteness.

Technically yesterday (November 1st) was All Saints Day—usually celebrated as the Christian version of Memorial Day, a day for remembering those who have gone before us in faith and we traditionally hold up and honor those who led exemplary lives. In the Reformation, while Protestants got rid of individual saints days, All Saints Day remained because of the role of the grace of Christ in the lives of saints.  (“Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might” echoes in my head as I write.) And All Saints Day is part of the dominical calendar, which means that if the day doesn’t land on a Sunday in any given year, it can be transferred to the following Sunday (in this case, today, November 2nd).

But people began to grumble that such a holy day left out many people, including those who had no chance to emulate previous saints and those who, like me, had such a chance but had at least a few major shortcomings.  So the Odilo, the great peacemaker who had already brought about a Truce of God between southern France and Italy, again became a peacemaker and moved in the direction of a more inclusive church by creating All Souls Day on November 2nd.

So today, liturgically, we celebrate both heroes and nobodies—all the people, bringing home the fat that every one of us—saints and souls together- are part of God’s inclusive welcoming creation.

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I suppose that was the basic point of the film St Vincent that I saw yesterday, a film that was predictable and sentimental, but because of the wonderful acting, was still a pleasure to watch.  You knew as soon as Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) announced that Oliver’s class was going to study and do reports on the saints, that Oliver was going to choose Vincent (Bill Murray) as his model for a saint because, despite his gambling, drinking, and hanging out in strip clubs, Vincent was a deeply caring man- the perfect all saint’s/all soul’s day model.  The film reminds us that we too often divide the world into heroes and nobodies when, with God’s grace we can yet make this a place in which all God’s children are seen as souls, in which each of us is seen as a saint in the making.

  Holding onto that reminder I wish there was a modern Odilo of Cluny, because as much as I love this All Saints/ All Souls Day, I don’t think it goes far enough.  All God’s children are to be seen as souls, as saints in the making, and all God’s children include so many more than just human children. Often I have learned more of what it means to be saintly from God’s other non-human children rather than from others of my species so a celebration that leaves them out seems to fall very short.

If God made all creation good and all beings fall at least a little short of what God means for us each to be, isn’t All Saints/All Souls Day about all of us? How do we rework our theology to make that clear? How can we expand a liturgical day like today to count in God’s non-human two-footed children, God’s four-footed children, God’s crawlers and swimmers, and God’s rooted children who dance today as the Spirit shakes their branches?   How might we imagine a church that would count all saints and souls, not just human ones, in on a regular basis?  How would our mission and outreach change if we lived into that kind of broader understanding of saints and souls? What would such a church then look like?   These are questions that I struggle toward answering these days because it’s that broader, more welcoming, more inclusive church in which I believe and want to bring into being.