by Shirley O’Shea
“I feel like a Christian monk in a monastery,” my then-seven-year-old son, Jeremy, said as we walked, on an afternoon shortly before the autumnal equinox, into a pavilion into which light poured, filtered first through the boughs and leaves of maples and oaks. On the other side of the pavilion stood about two dozen eastern white pines. To our left, through the deciduous trees that were showing small streaks of the red and copper of autumn, was a small ravine through which runs the Oneonta Creek. The creek flows into the Susquehanna River about 20 miles southwest from its headwaters in Otsego Lake, Cooperstown, N.Y. The river eventually empties into the Chesapeake Bay. We – my son, his friend, who receives no religious upbringing and was mystified by my son’s comment, and I – walked over to the ravine’s edge to watch the waning sunlight on its waters.
My second-grader knew without a word from me that God was here, breathing His Spirit through the trees and over the waters and illuminating the world through which he, Jeremy, and his friend, and I, and were living and moving and having our being.
Among the opening sentences of liturgy of Evening Prayer are those from Psalm 74: “Thine is the day, O God, thine also the night; thou hast established the moon and the sun. Thou hast fixed all the boundaries of the earth; thou hast made both summer and winter.” These are my favorite opening sentences, because they bring together for me the two places in which I encounter and worship God in ways I find most refreshing and renewing – in the church, where the liturgy finds its home, and in the Creation, especially in the realm of the Northeastern woods, where God reveals God’s mind and heart in the natural world.
“You have two churches,” a friend said to me. “Nature, and the Episcopals.” Yes, a gathering of Episcopals, to borrow my friend’s rather charming term, will always be my spiritual home. But I go to the woods for an unmediated encounter with the Great Creator, to borrow, again, another name, that used by some Native Americans, for the One Who Is.
In the woods, God’s tenderness is displayed in the small, unfurling pale leaves of wild shrubs and trees after winter departs, in the black tadpoles of vernal pools, and in the shattered light-blue robins’ eggs on the woods’ floor. I see God’s strange intensity in the cardinal-red crest and piercing eye of the pileated woodpecker as attacks with arrhythmic pounding a rotted-out tree, in search of grubs. I marvel at the asymmetry of God’s sense of time and mine when I pick up a 300 million year rock embedded with bivalve fossils, remnant of the warm shallow sea that covered this region in the Devonian Age. And I consider God’s unsentimental work of renewal when encountering death and decay which is always found where living things are.
More than twenty years ago, I went for a nighttime walk in a blizzard in my hometown in northwestern New Jersey, a region covered with woods and lakes. I reached the top of a hill that overlooked the low Hamburg Mountains, part of the Appalachians. The wind howled around my head and the snow almost blinded me. It was one of my most exhilarating experiences, and the power of these elements unleashed opened me to the Spirit of God filled me to the point where I cried out, “Hallelujah!” although my praise was drowned out by the blasts of snow and freezing air that kept coming relentlessly.
We cannot receive the blessings of the overwhelming beauty and power of God’s creation without the gifts of air and light. Air moves, and we have the wind which sometimes blows gently against our bodies, and others moans through the cracks in our homes like a miserable ghost. Usually, I listen to the wind and consider that a friend has come to visit me. “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) When I hike trails that run through the woods right outside my door in Oneonta, I walk along a section lined by eastern white pine that tower thirty or forty feet overhead. When the wind blows even with moderate strength, it makes the supple trunks of the pines move to and fro, crowns brushing the sky and boughs creaking as they rub against each other, an atonal symphony of praise. I laud and thank our Creator with them. (Trees and humans share a considerable amount of DNA!) If only the walls of cathedrals would sway and sing as those old eastern pines do.
Christ is the true light that lightens everyone who comes into the world (John 1:9), and in His Light we see light (Psalm 36:9). When I attempted to study drawing, I mentioned to my instructor that it had occurred to me that it was essential to see fully how the light fell on an object – a Victorian chair, or a red maple leaf – and affected how we see it and depict it. “Understanding the light,” she said, “is the most important part of drawing.”
All of nature and life cannot exist or be appreciated without light, and we cannot praise the Creator of him who made the Pleiades and Orion (Amos 5:8) without the inner illumination of the Spirit of God. But, I believe, these external realities of the good Creation can and should lead us deeper into the heart of God, if we make the effort to avail ourselves of them.
Last one afternoon a week or two ago, I stole away from household duties to walk in the woods just before sunset. But in November, the fall falls quickly. The leaves were lingering on the trees longer than in previous autumns – red, yellow, copper. As the reddish sunlight shone through the foliage, which was, after all, dying, I stopped and looked, breathless and aware. I could think of nothing to say, no words of sufficient praise…I felt as though I were surrounded by divine fire. That was enough.
Once I took a hike deep into the woods, where I’d never been before, and became very lost. I began to panic. It was late summer, very hot and muggy, and I had an appointment to make. I hiked up a grueling steep hill, looking over the still flowering shrubs and the patches of wildflowers for some indication of where I was. None. I began to shout out, “Help!” No one was around. I hiked on, and eventually found my way out, with just a few moments to spare before leaving for my appointment. Thereafter, I came to the realization – you really get to know the woods when you get lost in them.
Worship, in a way, is becoming lost in the Spirit of God, but without fear. This lost-ness is rooted in utter trust that God is our God, our Creator and utter Knower of our being, the One who leads us through light and darkness, and encourages to pay attention to the glowing spider webs, the wild orchids, the moss, the dry stream beds, the lightning-blasted trees, in short, all aspects of God’s glory, along the way. God loves this world. As Wendell Berry wrote,
The god I have always expected
to appear at the woods’ edge, beckoning,
I have always expected to be a great relisher of this world, its
good grown immortal in his mind
Shirley O’Shea lives in upstate New York. She is married to Geoff, a psychology professor, and they have one wonderful son, Jeremy. Shirley is a freelance writer, parish interim director of communications and operator for a “Warm Line,” a call-in service for persons in need of emotional support and referral services, which is provided by a human services agency.