Grace & The River of God

From June 4-10, pilgrims embarked on the second leg of the journey down the Connecticut River: “Water, Grace, & The River of God.”

“All God asks of us is to come – dams, stagnation, obstacles, all of it. Bring it to the constant, ever-flowing wonderful stream. God will wash it all away, revealing the beautiful, good, loving creature formed and loved by the divine.”

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It was a week of both joys and tears, rejoicing in the beauty of the water and grieving the damage and pain we as humans have wrought upon it. It was a week of remembering where in our own hearts and spirits God’s love flows through us, strongly and ceaselessly, and where in us there are blockages and dams, places where we feel stuck or stagnant.

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We portaged around the Gilman Dam on Saturday, June 10th. Dams like this one were added along the Connecticut River to control annual flooding and to protect riverside towns. Despite the human benefit, damming rivers does not come without great consequences for the river, for its inhabitants, and for its neighbors. The Moore and Comerford Reservoirs cover what was 15-mile falls, the longest consecutive stretch of falls on the east coast, and a sacred site to the Abenaki. As we paddled near the shore, we could see traces of what the sunlight once touched – huge rocks, built stone walls – all of which are now submerged beneath these still waters which no longer tumble and froth.

May we remember to temper our appetite for control, efficiency, and power, especially when such drives permit us to forget that the earth is alive and thriving, not an inanimate object for our desired use and purpose.

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“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

And do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

And succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” — Isaiah 55:1-13

Pilgrims have now begun the next stage: “Baptism and Immersion in God.”

May they receive many blessings on their journey!

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Sugaring and the Spiritual Journey

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Early Christian authors often referred to the natural world as ‘the Book of Creation’, and understood that nature could be ‘read’ as a second (or, more accurately, as the original) book of divine revelation alongside the Bible. This meant that they looked for signs and symbols in the natural world as a means for understanding spiritual truths – and would use nature as a doorway into the mind and heart of God in the same way they would use scripture as an entry point for interior prayer.

This way of seeing has opened my own eyes to an endlessly fascinating array of insights, both personal and general, streaming from engaging with the natural world around me. There are signs, teachings and gifts everywhere I look – and paying attention to the workings of the natural world becomes an act of prayer.

To my knowledge, none of the ancient church fathers ever tapped sugar maples, but if they did, I’m convinced they would have seen a symbol of the process of interior transformation in the traditional process of making maple syrup. For me, ‘sugaring’ is a reminder of the work of offering my whole being over to the transforming power of God.

I do a very modest amount of sugaring each year (no more than 5 trees) – mostly just to participate in this mysterious process. The day I put in my first maple tap, in my mind, is the day winter ends. While there’s a foot of snow pack on the ground and temperatures are into the teens at night, the land is again giving forth its bounty of food.

To make maple syrup, a sugar-maker needs to first identify the right species of tree (sugar maples give the sweetest syrup, but any maple species will do), then literally tap in to its flow of life. Once a hole is drilled and the sap starts dripping forth (on days when the temperature is below freezing at night), I put in a tap, hang a bucket, and then wait. There’s no rushing the process – it only works when I tap in, and then wait patiently for the sweet nectar to flow. Once there’s a critical mass of sap, I collect from my buckets and begin the process of boiling down the sap into sugar. Maple sap is lovely on its own – and all the sugar in syrup is already present on the raw sap. However, the raw sap is mostly water, and I’ll need to boil-off roughly 40 gallons of water before obtaining a gallon of finished syrup.

This second part of sugaring, in my primitive set-up, involves sitting by a fire in a makeshift fireplace made of cinder blocks and a metal grill. I pour as much sap as I can fit into a few suspended pans, and feed a small fire with finely split wood to maintain a very hot fire. As the steam evaporates most of the water, I’ll add more sap, continuously refilling my pans so the concentration of sugar increases over the course of an afternoon’s boiling. I often fall into a semi-meditative state, as I repeat the simple tasks over and over again – split a few pieces of wood, feed the fire, check the boiling, add more sap, sit and stare at the frothing boil, split some wood, feed the fire, and on and on…. I get lost in the process – and yet at the end of the day, by the application of hours of heat and attention, a marvelous alchemy has taken place. What was once slightly sweet water has been concentrated into this ‘liquid gold’ of maple syrup, one of the most delicious substances on the planet.

I was totally incapable of making the syrup ‘ex nihilo’, out of nothing. But what I could do was to tap into the flow of sap freely given by the bounty of the earth, collect it and hold it in a container over heat. With heat, time and attention, the raw material of the sap, already good, became something even more beautiful and nourishing. It was, quite literally, transformed!

As I sit by the fire, taking in the smells of wood smoke and maple steam, I can’t help but reflect on how this parallels the interior life of one who takes up the path of prayer. We do not create our own goodness, we only tap into the goodness of Divine Life that is already present within and among us. Having tapped into that goodness, when we take up the discipline of prayer, the fire of Divine Love slowly but steadily works on that life, heating it up, and gradually evaporating out all that is not the pure gold of the Spirit within. Our job is merely to keep exposing our selves to the fire. Interior change happens, and the alchemy occurs when we remain in contact with the fire of Divine Love. We create neither the fire nor the sweetness, yet the transformation only occurs with our effort and intention to bring our inner world into continual contact with the Presence of God.

 

Mark Kutolowski 


The Paradox of Words, Part I

“I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is…It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better.”

– Wendell Berry Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (p. 103)


There is no way to tell you about not using words, except with words.

Here is a simple story about Jesus from this Sunday’s readings:

In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)

I am entranced by this and other verses that portray Jesus as going “out to a deserted place,” or up the mountain, or into the wilderness, to pray. There are many such passages and they are the primary evidence we have of Jesus’ prayer life. He prayed alone, often at night or very early morning, away from the people.

That the gospel writers bother to tell us this suggests that it was important and distinctive. Not once does the Bible say, “Jesus joined the crowd for the temple ritual.” Or even, “He went to the temple to pray.”

To pray – to be in communication with the divine presence – he goes to the wild places, alone.

What he did there is not a matter of record. But I have a guess. I’d bet that he walked “up the mountain” with thoughts, questions, ideas, and concerns roiling around in his mind and heart. At some point, I’ll bet, he became quiet in both body and mind. He entered into a deep stillness in which his communication with God – “Abba” – passed beyond words. Where he listened. Where his prayer transcended speech.

I find myself increasingly leery of church services in which we (the people – clergy and congregation) talk all the time. That is, in which we aren’t quiet and don’t listen.

Which is why our services at Church of the Woods include a lot of silence and solitude. And why the Kairos Earth education programs (coming soon – stay tuned!) will teach ways of being still and quiet, alone with nature.

When we teach, of course, we will use words, as I am doing now. Words – language – are among the great gifts of being human. They can open our minds, show us new ways, teach us things. Words allow us to record insights, accumulate knowledge, and pass along wisdom.

But words can also trap us in our own minds, as has happened with much religious belief and practice. I love and rely on the Book of Common Prayer that shapes the Anglican and Episcopal tradition, but too often, I think, our own words become the focus of our prayer. Which is a grave mistake.

I invite you to pray like Jesus prayed – to just listen, outdoors if you can. Leave words and other human constructs behind. Just be in God’s presence.

This is important. I think I’ll write about it.

 — Rev. Steve Blackmer


Who are you?

Can you imagine growing up as a duck who didn’t know that there was such a thing as a pond? Not knowing about swimming, diving, and splashing? Not knowing who you most truly are? Actually, a lot of us grow up not really knowing who we are, where we belong, what we are on this earth for. Because of the complexity of human life, it sometimes takes a long time – even a full lifetime – to find these answers. This is one of the greatest tasks of spiritual development – to discover our truest selves.

The path to doing this is a path to God. Psalm 139 expresses the joy of someone who realizes that God already knows each of us, in our own particularity and peculiarity, and loves us as we are. (It also expresses the anger we feel when others use the name of God for evil rather than for good!) These ducks experience sheer joy when they realize they were made to swim and splash in a pond.

For humans, the pond we swim in is God. We can experience that kind of joy when we find our way to God. What do you already know about who you most truly are?


Silence – God’s first language

It was still pitch black outside when I woke up the morning after Hurricane Sandy had swept over us. The electricity had gone out the evening before. We remained in full darkness. I had woken once in the middle of the night to hear…nothing. The howling, tearing, threatening wind had gone. Away.

Silence

When I sat on my cushion for morning prayers,  I couldn’t see anything. I listened intently, but I couldn’t hear. Anything. The world had gone silent. The wind was gone. The rustling leaves were gone. The usual gurgle and hum of the refrigerator behind me was gone. All was still.

It isn’t easy to find silence in our hyper world. It is even harder to be silence. If there is one thing I urge you to do in your quest for God, it is to seek silence. Simply to listen.

Silence is God’s first language

Pause, listen to the silence, listen to God.

 

Originally posted at Sunshine Faith

 


God’s delight

The November issue of The Atlantic contains a wonderful piece written by John Muir, excerpted from a longer article published in 1897:

“The forests of America, however slighted by man, must have been a great delight to God; for they were the best he ever planted. The whole continent was a garden, and from the beginning it seemed to be favored above all the other wild parks and gardens of the globe…These forests were composed of about five hundred species of trees, all of them useful to man, ranging in size from twenty-five feet in height and less than one foot in diameter at the ground to four hundred feet in height and more than twenty feet in diameter – lordly monarchs proclaiming the gospel of beauty like apostles…

Any fool can destroy trees. They cannot run away; and if they could, they would still be destroyed – chased and hunted down as long as fun or a dollar could be got out of their bark hides, branching horns, or magnificent bole backbones…It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these western woods – trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ’s time – and long before that – God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools…”   John Muir, “The American Forests,” The Atlantic, August 1897

There is a much to hear in this paean to the great forests of America – and too much that has not changed. Many of the forests Muir loved have been felled and we struggle still with fools and foolishness regarding trees, forests, and Earth.

I would particularly like to point out, though, Muir’s unabashed use of Christian language and imagery to make his case. Muir is using what was, and for most Americans still is, accepted and understood language of sacredness to express his love of these great forests. Unabashed, he speaks of God and of Christ to communicate his own anger and frustration and to evoke in his readers a sense that to destroy these forests is to desecrate a sacred place.

Muir’s use of religious language – and his deep personal belief that sacred places are created by God – was instrumental in his ability to communicate with a wide cross-section of Americans and to create the 20th century conservation movement. In the intervening hundred years, America’s environmental advocates have largely lost our comfort and fluency with such language and belief. As we have forgotten how to speak, we have lost the ability to speak to a large part of America in ways they can hear.

How can we regain this lost language on behalf of Earth? How can we learn to speak to those who don’t hear or understand technocratic enviro-speak? How can we re-create within ourselves an understanding and practice of Earth as holy? How can we re-learn that way of Christ that so moved John Muir?