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.

Goody aqueduct

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.

 

 

Living Cosmology

This weekend was the “Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe” conference up at Yale Divinity . The event was sponsored by the Forum on Religion and Ecology under the direction of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, both of whose work I’ve come to appreciate a lot since I’ve been teaching the World Religions and the Natural Environment course. The event was very academic, being almost entirely university speakers presenting their papers on a range of cosmology topics from Cosmology, Law, and Erath Jurisprudence to Seeds, Soil, and Food.

The two panels that I enjoyed most were the first and third on Saturday morning. In the first panel, “The Influence of Teilhard de Chardin,” I got a chance to hear Ilia Delio (Georgetown) speak about the contrast between a Christianity that is based on the Adam myth of original sin and a Teilhardian, mystical Christianity that sees Christ as the cosmic person. I was delighted both to have the chance to hear her—I’d tried to sign up for her weeklong workshop on Teilhard last summer at Maryknoll, but I’d been closed out—but also to listen to her take on the relationship between technology and religion.

The other panel that I found very worthwhile was the one on “Views of the Divine.” There several speakers were intriguing. Mark Wallace (Swarthmore) started by speaking about the woodthrush as a “singing monk” (In line with Tibetan monks and singing bowls in its song) and then went on to point out how Christianity needs to get back to claiming to be an animistic religion. (His definition of animism was that all that exists lives and is holy) to respond to the crisis of heart that the world is currently having. Wallace was a strong speaker about whose courses and writing I’d like to learn more. Catherine Keller (Drew) went on to talk about reimaging the divine and spoke from her process panentheistic perspective saying that at the moment her favorite term for God is “the supreme entanglement.”   As in the other writing and teaching of hers that I’ve heard, her 12 minutes was dense (as in loaded with material to think about, not stupid) and gave me a lot to think about.

A lot of the speakers kept going back to the inadequacy of language for moving from a dualistic view of the world in which spirit and nature and separate rather than interwoven to a unified way of seeing creation. It’s an issue I’ve struggled with a lot, both in my teaching and in my leading of worship. I’ve also raised it several times in our Great Company and Green Sangha discussions so when it first came up at the Conference. I’d hoped there would be practical suggestions for ways to bridge the gap from one language to another. Instead what people said or implied was that someone would have to create a new dictionary to help us move into the non-dualistic world but no one wanted to make a start at that work.

Being at he conference made me feel as I often do when I attend workshops that are either connected with academia or with the parish—that I don’t quite fit in either world. As I listened to the academicians, I couldn’t help but wonder how most of what they were saying could ever be connected to the life of the average Christian. What, for example, would someone in the pews make of praying to God as “the divine entanglement?”  I left hoping for more speakers who could connect wood thrushes with spirituality in everyday wording and unify head and heart.

 

Friday Five: Guilty Pleasures

Over at RevGalBlogPals, it’s time to play Friday Five. This week it begins with the paragraph:

guilty-pleasure

“It happened again this week. In a social setting, during a conversation with people that included some I had just met, I made a reference to the church I serve. “Oh!” one of the new acquaintances exclaimed, “I shouldn’t have said hell!” Sigh. This kind of projection can be so tiring, as can the general need to be mindful of how our words and actions are perceived as appropriate (or not). In light of that, I relish moments to myself when I can shed all such perceptions and projections and just be. Occasionally this involves what might be known as a guilty pleasure.

For this week’s Friday Five, share with us five “perception be damned!” pleasures in which you indulge. We promise we won’t judge, or tell. What happens at RevGals stays at RevGals.”

In my ministry, for good or for bad, I try very hard to be “what you see is what you get” rather than “playing minister”. When I used to fill out PIFs (clergy resumes), in response to the question about what I was looking for in a congregation I’d put that one of the things I wanted was a congregation where each member of staff (including myself) can be a total person, not just a role. And when I was in a congregation, I’m pretty sure members of the congregation knew all of me—the rough and the smooth places in my life. I thought that was a good thing, since I hoped it would also give each of them permission to also bring all of themselves to the congregation’s life together.

Having said all that, do I have guilty pleasures? I do, even though they’re not connected with the parish. So here are five:

  1. I love books—academic books, books for ministry, novels, poetry, sci fi, mysteries, books in other languages, old books, new books—and, while I do go to the library for books I’m sure I’ll never read again and do get some books in e-format of one kind or another, I also love owning books. The owning is the guilty pleasure.
  1. Peanut M&Ms. I’ve had to give up most candy, including M&Ms since my soy allergy has become so bad, but peanut M&Ms used to be a guilty pleasure of mine. I loved the combined salt and sugar. I could always find a way to justify eating them since the peanuts were a source of protein.
  1. Instruments and time to play instruments. One of my favorite things in all the world is making music—singing (which makes me feel guilty if anyone else is around because I’m so tone-deaf), playing flute, playing guitar, playing mountain lark, playing uke. I’m not very good at any of these instruments, but I love making music and especially playing with others. In the ideal world I would make music of one kind or another two to three hours a day, seven days a week—and then listen to music for a few hours more. Working three plus jobs, my life really doesn’t allow me much time for music-making and there’s always something that should be done in place of it, so when I play music I usually feel like I’m stealing time from something that has a more legitimate claim on it.
  1. Non-work-related travel. Travel is a guilty pleasure for me because I know that it increases my carbon footprint. I don’t do most of my travel by foot or by bike or by public transportation. I do it by car (or if I’m lucky enough to be going somewhere farther away, by plane). I struggle with how to balance my desire to see something new or participate in something that isn’t in my neighborhood with the environmental cost of my doing so.
  1. Whenever I’ve had an opportunity to step away from noise and connections with the world, I have so loved the silence. By silence I don’t mean the lack of natural noise, I mean having to be connected, to speak, to be “on” and reachable by others. When I was in my twenties, my mother used to give me the gift of watching my (then one) child for a long weekend once a year, so I could go away to a cabin in the woods and soak up the silence, hike the nearby trails, and not have to speak or respond to anyone. I didn’t feel guilty being away from it all. Instead, it was heaven. For a variety of reasons I’m not at a place in my life where these kinds of opportunities for long periods of total silence are possible and I’d probably feel very guilty if given the chance.

 

 

Gratitude

trees

Now that my World Religion and the Natural Environment have finished the weeks of academically exploring what each major religion teaches about our relationship with the world around us, we’re finally at the point that I like best in the course, the point where we begin to explore ways in which the various religious teachings can be applied in our daily lives. We look at visions of the earth whole and at peace and dream about how we might get there. We focus on ways in which religions can help build community and offer and teach compassion to all beings, and we explore ways in which we can show our thankfulness for all that surrounds us and that we experience.

This week we focused on gratitude. Students kept journals of their connections with the natural environment and added photos, poems, phrases, and drawings that captured the things for which they were grateful. They then took what they’d come up with and turned it into liturgy – prayers, invocations, meditations, etc—using a form that would be found in one of the world’s religions of their choice.

Each year, the answers to this assignment take my breath away. Several years ago the assignment was due during the week in which Hurricane Sandy destroyed several of the students’ homes, and yet—despite such destruction, there was still such outpourings of gratitude and such beautiful liturgies. This year, there was nothing as devastating as Sandy.  Among the things my students were grateful for this year were:  apples and pumpkins; family and friends; cats purring; consciousness of breathing; healthcare while dealing with mono; laughing until their stomach hurt; Halloween; views from the top of a mountain; top

hiking, hiking, and more hiking—with friends, with family, in the Delaware Water Gap, in southern Pennsylvania, in Mohonk, and near their homes; yoga; leaves changing; rain and water (from a student whose home is in California, where rain these days is so important); dogs and fish; periods of disconnection from technology; living simply; amazing morning skies and gorgeous sunsets seen from a train car;

sunset

the skyline with the Brooklyn Bridge; the chance to study what one is passionate about; love; their bosses; popcorn and pizza; moments when the world is quiet (or quieter); and the greenest grass on a cloudy day. The liturgies they wrote included guided Buddhist meditations, Native American invocations, and Christian and Buddhist prayers of thanksgiving.

Most of these students don’t practice a religion. All but one has never written a piece of liturgy in their lives and may never do so again. The gratitude, though, shines out from each and every one of their assignments as they work to find ways to give thanks for each of their daily lives.   In the discussion at the end of this week’s class, one student announced that this assignment was her favorite assignment, not only in this class or this semester, but in her three years at Pace. I tend to agree with her- I think it’s my favorite assignment as well.

 

The Forested Landscape

Over the last four or five months, I’ve been reading a mystery series that I really enjoy. When I think, though, about what  my favorite book of the last several years would be, the answer surprises me since it’s not a novel, a book connected with religion, or a collection of poems. Instead, it’s Tom Wessel’s Reading the Forested Landscape, a book that came out more than fifteen years ago.

books

I ran across Wessel’s writing while doing a permaculture course at the New York Botanical Gardens. As I began to think through various permacultural configurations I realized I knew little about types of trees, how to tell which were native to our area, and why they did well in one area but not another. Trying to fill in at least a few gaps, I picked up Reading the Forested Landscape, expecting to leaf through it to find out some basics about trees. Instead, as I read the first chapter, I fell in love with the way Wessels was teaching the reader how to understand the history and current situations of a forested area by looking at various things happening on it. I was fascinated with the reasons why maples may dominate in one spot in a forest while pines take over another area, with the importance that a specific type of bark can have on the survival or decay of a tree, and with the impact of sheep, beavers, and other animals on the trees and plants of an area. When I finished the book, I immediately started reading it again, wanting to absorb as many details as I could.

I’ve read the book two more times in the last three years (something that is unusual for me because I very rarely reread a book even once). It has given me an appreciation  when I’m out walking or hiking of the various ways in which the landscapes that surround me have changed over the last two or three hundred years, for the ways in which individual trees grow, for the interaction of forests and animals, for the ways in which, if left alone for years, one type of landscape morphs into a very different type of landscape, and most importantly, for the beauty and complexity of trees and forests.

 

Our Earth’s Future

This fall I’ve been doing a great online course given by the American Museum of Natural History called “Our Earth’s Future.”   Over the past several weeks and continuing until mid-December, we’re learning about the science of climate change from specialists who work in oceanography, anthropology, earth science, climatology, physics, and more. This past week, for example, we heard from Dr. Michela Biasuitt, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who explained the science around climate change forecasts and the various modeling options that are used. The week before, Dr. Gavin Schmidt from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies focused on how to talk about climate change and the problems and challenges that politics add to such a conversation. Each of us in the class has had a chance to research the climate changes that have occurred over the past one hundred or so years in our neighborhood (which has been very interesting because we have people in the class from as far south as Florida, from the southwest, from the west coast, from Texas and Wisconsin, and from the northeast).   We’ve read studies on climate change in a wide range of other parts of the world, from Greenland o the Sahel grasslands of Africa.

 

The course has been both interesting and challenging for me. While I spend a decent amount of time on environmental issues (for my course on world religions and the environment, for my work with several denominational and religious groups working on climate change issues, and in a lot of my volunteer time), this is really the first chance I’ve had to focus exclusively on the science involved in the issues. It’s giving me (and I suspect my fellow students who work in a wide range of areas as educators, journalists, horticulturalists, documentary producers, and more) a new vocabulary with which to speak and also a lot of information by which to back up my more general non-scientific statements. I’ve enjoyed learning about topics like ice core samples or climate feedbacks and forcings, I’ve been amazed that people still program in Fortran, much less that a major climate modeling system continues to be written using it as a programming language. But what I’ve found most fascinating so far, has been learning about the Eemian period, an interglacial period that was about 125,000 years ago that I’d never heard of before this class. The Eemian period seems to have a climate fairly similar to ours (although their CO2 wasn’t as high as ours is). Because of that it allows us to draw conclusions on how our present climate will be affected by ice melting based on the significant melting that happened in that time period.   While we’ve moved on as a class from the Eemian period into other areas of study, this is a topic I’m hoping to discover more about on my own.