One of my favorite places I have ever camped or backpacked is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Once you make your way through the strip malls and tourist traps and theme parks of Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg the most beautiful unspoiled land is all around you.
To be honest, there are still a lot of cars around you at that point, too. But if you get out and lace up your hiking boots and take a walk in the woods it is exquisite. Over the years I have had a lot of backcountry adventures in the Smokies with my hiking pals. There were the bear-like noises in the dark, the wild boar, the torrential downpour that sent us wilted and wet to a nearby motel, the snowstorm that kept us huddled in the tent eating M&Ms all night “to keep warm”…
One of the best nights out in the backcountry was not particularly notable in most ways. Now, I don’t even remember who else was on the trip. What I remember was the creek. About 4 or 5 miles in we stopped for the night at a creek-side backcountry site and all night long I listened to the comforting babble of the water gurgling over rocks and past the banks a few yards from my tent.
Some time after that I ran across a quote by the Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton. Something about it reminded me of that night by the creek and also of many other nights spent listening in the woods or days spent in the falling snow among the trees or napping while it rains – especially under a tin roof.
Here’s what Merton wrote (“Rain and the Rhinoceros,” in Raids on the Unspeakable):
What a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, unintelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges, and the talk of the watercourses everywhere in the hollows! Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.
…I transcribed Merton’s quote into my hiking journal, the one I keep in my backpack so I can write a few thoughts when I’m out camping or hiking. When I’m up early in the morning with camp coffee or snuggled in my sleeping bag at night with the flashlight, I pull out the journal to give thanks for where I am and what I’ve seen and who I’m with. Every time I open it I see this Merton quote and, together with the experience of being back out in the wider creation again, I gain a little perspective. I am reminded of how small I really am and of what a good thing that is. I am reminded that I have a place in the vastness of God’s created order and that I’m – we’re – not the only ones talking about it and praising God for it.
The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims [God’s] handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world (Psalm 19: 1-4a).
There is a reason many of us feel a special closeness with God when we are “communing with nature.” God who redeems each of us (v. 14) is the same God who created and continues to create, the One who provides the warmth and energy of the sun (vv. 4-6) and who gives us Torah (vv.7-13) and lives with us in Christ. God is the potter with hands covered in wet clay. God is creating every day, as each day pours forth speech. Like the psalmist, we may not recognize words or speech, but, if we commit ourselves to the practice of listening, we might, like Thomas Merton, feel cherished by what we hear.
In Hebrew Adam/adam means “human” and adama means “earth” or “ground” (The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. IV, p. 753). A visual and auditory signal that we – all of God’s blessed creation – are family (NIB Commentary, p. 753). We are made of the same stuff, as we remind ourselves on Ash Wednesday each year: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. People, animals, trees, earth, sky, all that rain and all those days pouring forth speech. Created, related, all speaking and singing songs of God. The psalmist reminds us that the rest of creation praises God, too. The rest of creation has its own speech and relation to God.
Today happens to be World Communion Sunday, begun in 1940 with the express purpose of gathering all Christian churches to celebrate Communion together on the same day. At that time many Protestant churches celebrated Communion only a few times a year so this special Sunday was one set-aside time for everyone to have at least one Sunday Meal together, to celebrate our ecumenical connections.
But what if today, this year, we were to get really ecumenical about it? What if we took another look – or listen – and celebrated World Communion as our communion with all of creation? What would that celebration look and sound like — harmonizing not just with other peoples but with other creatures and with all of creation? The gospel of John proclaims that the reason for the incarnation of Christ is that “God so loved the world” (John 3: 16, emphasis mine).
We are called to love as God loves and to love what and who God loves. It is a difficult call but it is ours. How do we act like family with species we haven’t seen? How do we listen for the pouring-forth speech of all of creation? How do we understand our role as stewards and caretakers? How do we act like family to a polar bear or a buttercup or a glacier or an oak tree or a rain drop?
I don’t want you to think I’m only talking about “the environment” here, because Psalm 19 challenges even that language. The term “environment” simply denotes the place where we find ourselves and what surrounds us in that place. Is that an adequate description of our kinfolk, the heavens and firmament continually praising God (v.1)?
Our country and our world seem to be encountering so-called environmental problems we don’t know how to solve. At the very least, we are grappling with problems whose solutions will call for sacrifice of one sort or another. Since our allegiance is not to the Republicans or Democrats, but to Christ, perhaps changing our language is a start. How would our hearts and minds and public policies change if we were to adopt St. Francis of Assisi’s language – “brother sun and sister moon”? How might we conceive of the problems differently if we were to remind ourselves of where we stand, this holy ground proclaiming God’s glory?
The thing about the way creation sings is that, if you listen, you can hear more than rain and trees. The voices are many and infusing it all is God’s Holy Spirit. And God is singing along. Listen…
The poet Jane Kenyon may have been hearing a song like this when she wrote the poem “Briefly it Enters, and Briefly Speaks” (Jane Kenyon, Collected Poems).
Hear both praise of God found in and from everyday details and the voice of God in those same details. Listen:
I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years… .
I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper… .
When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me… .
I am food on the prisoner’s plate… .
I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills… .
I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden… .
I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge… .
I am the heart contracted by joy… .
the longest hair, white
before the rest… .
I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow… .
I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit… .
I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name… .
Thanks be to God!
© 2008, 2011 Deborah E. Lewis
2 October 2011
Rappahannock Charge and Wesley Foundation at UVA