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.

 

 

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.