Watching for Divinity

Betsey Perrier

April 23, 2006 – 

I share with many people in this room a powerful difficulty with the word “god.” I grew up Catholic, and despite official lip service to the idea of an all loving and merciful God, the god I knew was one that is familiar to many: white, male, remote, judgmental, punitive, unreliable.

For me, as for many, the death of god came with the holocaust. Not immediately, but the struggle began the day I heard, at nine, from a babysitter who was reading the Diary of Anne Frank, what had happened to her. I didn’t think it all out clearly in the years after, but it came down to a very simple equation: if god is all powerful and all merciful, then he could have prevented that. And if he was all powerful and all merciful and allowed things like that to happen, I wanted no part of him. No argument about the nature of evil, the fall of Satan, the granting of free will, original sin, could break that equation.

Despite the fact that I graduated from both a Catholic high school and college, I stopped being Catholic, and considering myself such, at 16. The liturgy of the church had never made any sense to me. Though I deeply admired, and still do, the social activists I was surrounded by in those days, I simply didn’t believe the doctrines, and so it didn’t seem wrenching at the time. It was a relief. Nevertheless, since I have stayed mad at the church for forty years, it was not as easy as it looked. I can see now that I felt cut off and later, as the hopes that rose with Vatican II faded, betrayed. Not just by doctrine, but by the structure, the rules, the bureaucracy, and, especially, the patriarchy.

I discovered the existentialists in college, and spent years struggling with the question of what made life worth living. I yearned for faith; the struggle to make sense of it all was exhausting and deeply depressing. I remember passing a church in the town where I lived, the year after college, and longing to be able to go in and rest on faith, to find comfort and answers. But I simply couldn’t buy the beliefs.

After that difficult time I accepted that I was an agnostic, but I knew I was still searching. I would go to churches to hear music, and would feel a connection not so much with the church as with centuries of people who had gone before me, all of us, in our different ways, yearning for the soul of the cosmos.

In my twenties, my mother, hopeful of reconnecting me to the church, and knowing how much I had loved CS Lewis’s children’s books, gave me his spiritual biography, which he had called Surprised by Joy, a phrase from a poem by Wordsworth. Crucial to Lewis’ conversion were those times when, without warning and seemingly without reason, we are transported upward and outward, a rising of energy that holds desire, and longing, and celebration. Lewis wrote of his first such experience:

“As I stood beside a flowering … bush on a summer day there suddenly arose in me … as if from a depth not of years but of centuries, the memory of an earlier morning, when my brother had brought his toy garden into the nursery. It is difficult to find words strong enough for the sensation which came over me; Milton’s ‘enormous bliss’ comes somewhere near it. It was a sensation … of desire; but desire for what? Not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past …. and before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased. It had taken only a moment of time; and in a certain sense everything else that had ever happened to me was insignificant in comparison.”

I knew, and still know well, exactly what he was talking about: those moments that seem to come from nowhere: from the sun catching the down on your child’s cheek, or from waking to an autumn dawn full of gold mist, or walking into a room flooded with pale winter light, or catching sight of a wooly bear caterpillar. The starting points are not distinguished by their uniqueness. Nor do I have to be happy, or at peace.

One day this winter I was taking a walk I have taken many, many times. I was very absorbed, and whole chunks of the walk seemed to disappear, and I’d find myself in a place without being aware of passing prior landmarks. Walking back along a kettle hole I’ve seen at least a hundred times, I suddenly noticed a curve of the hill in front of me, a beautiful line, copper colored with beech leaves, going down and then sweeping up again, and I was just as suddenly aware of the strength and energy of all the trees surrounding me, and aware of my being a part of all that I was seeing, of having always been a part of it. I found myself in tears. As Lewis said,

“… it might … equally be called a particular kind of … grief. But then it is a kind we want.”

Lewis took these moments to be windows to the divine, and through them was led to Christianity. They have not led me to Christianity, but I agree with him that they are a connection with divinity. Despite my hard time with the word God, I like the word divine. Not in the sense of referring to a god, but in its calling up of the image of the spiritual or sacred, the apprehension of forces that surround, rush past, support, create, perhaps even impede us. It seems that we, who rely to the point of veneration on a powerful but very limited consciousness, just barely have the perception to apprehend these forces, and so these glimpses are great gifts.

Because vision is my strongest sense, for me it is mostly visual. I am watching for divinity. Lewis said of joy that it is never in our power, and I agree with him. But I know I can make it more likely, simply by going out, as often as I can, into the natural world.

In 1996 David Abrams published a book called The Spell of The Sensuous. Reading it was a turning point in my life, and began to provide a context for feelings I hardly knew I had, and for these strange, wild calls that surprised me with joy.

“…Our senses,” he wrote, “disclose to us a wild-flowering proliferation … in which humans are thoroughly immersed …. We … cast our gaze downward to watch the field mice and the insects that creep along the bending grasses…at the same moment, hawks soaring on great winds gaze down on [us]. Melodious feathered beings flit…among the high branches of the trees, while other animate powers … move within the hidden depths of the forest. In the waters that surge … against the … edge of the land, still stranger powers, multihued and silent, move in crowds among alien forests of coral and stone …. Does the human intellect ,,, really spring us free from our inherence in the depths of this wild proliferation of forms? Or on the contrary, is the human intellect rooted in, and secretly borne by, our forgotten contact with the multiple nonhuman shapes that surround us?”

While unbelievably mysterious, this is all so alive to me; my heart bursts with the beauty of the world I see, and I found this nowhere in religion, where the world that kept calling me was considered other, unimportant, a staging for the journey that was meant to rescue us from just such a world, a resource for our use and despoiling, a world where so much that we touch and taste and hear and smell was deemed pointless if not actually sinful.

But to me, that is where grace is. Grace lies in the utterly sensuous world of holding babies, eating with friends, walking in the woods, swimming on summer days. It comes in the deep, hot days of summer when the cicadas suddenly start their rasping, bringing back the memory of hot, dusty days from as far back as human and other than human memory has existed. These moments open everything up, connect us to everything. When I dealt with religion I felt cut off at the roots, starved of a landscape, as Abrams says, “both sensuous and psychological, the living dream that we share with the soaring hawk, the spider, and the stone silently sprouting lichens on it coarse surface.”

A few years after reading Abrams book I went to a native plant conference. The Saturday evening event was a talk given by a Dominican sister, Miriam McGillis, who spoke for two hours, without notes, to an utterly silent room of 600 people, about something she called the new cosmology. When she was done she was mobbed by people who just wanted to be near her. One young woman next to me said to her, I need to hug you. I told her I’d been waiting to hear her all my life.

The new cosmology Miriam spoke of, which, at 20 plus, is not so new anymore, is based on the work and thinking of Thomas Berry, whose thinking, in turn, owes a significant debt to Teilhard de Chardin. Berry is a Passionist priest, Teilhard a Jesuit, and it is fascinating to me that an approach that opens up a whole universe of numinous meaning should come from people in the tradition that first closed it off to me. Clearly it didn’t close it off to everyone, but it was not a feature of the church I knew.

Berry looked at the emerging knowledge of the beginnings of the cosmos 13.7 billion years ago and realized that that knowledge could lead us in an entirely different direction, toward a new relationship between the human, the world, and the divine.

We, as Miriam said in the reading, are the universe, are the earth. The world around us, and including us, is not an accidental cascade of carbon atoms, but a constantly emerging and evolving expression of enormous creative power. We are not the end result, we are one of many, many manifestations of this creativity, billions of years of creativity.

This is no sentimental view of pastoral nature. This magnificent world could open up and swallow us whole tomorrow. But it’s not about us. It’s about the planet. The plate tectonics that spawn deadly tsunamis are also responsible for producing a lush, habitable world, and therefore us. We are an expression of earth.

But we are destroying the force that brought us to life, and Berry’s is a stern call for very difficult actions, a radical rethinking of our relationship to the planet. He is criticized for being hopelessly unrealistic; to ask, in our overwhelmingly urban and technological society, that we relearn to live in harmony with the natural world.

His spiritual insight is of course not new with him. Haydn’s crashing opening pulses in our prelude are as amazing a reflection of the big bang as they are of the story he knew. Hildegard of Bingen, who wrote our first hymn, lived in the twelfth century. Chet Raymo, who wrote the wooly bear caterpillar piece, credits the ancient nature mysticism of the Catholic church he knew with helping to inspire him to become a science writer. Mystics of all traditions have urged us to see our profound connectedness to all things, and Berry calls attention especially to the wisdom of indigenous cultures, modern and ancient.

Indigenous peoples the world over are intimately familiar with this way of being in the world. And we were all once indigenous peoples. And our cells remember. The very elements that make us up, the iron in our blood, were there. The loss of this knowledge, this intimate connection, is a great spiritual crisis. And because this disconnection is bringing such immense damage to our planet, it is a crisis homo sapiens may not survive.

Though I remember it well, I’ve never really understood the thunderbolt that Miriam represented for me. I love the ideas – that the molecules in the water I just drank have been here for billions of years. The DNA in the plants outside the window is only fractionally different from mine. The idea that there might be a parallel universe lying over me like super flexible saran wrap. I love having my mind boggled, and find it amazingly liberating.

I feel freer when I realize that I am, in fact, less free than my culture upholds. That I exist in deep connection, inherence, with a whole universe, and don’t have the right to destroy my part of it for my own profit. I have never been comfortable with the elevation of humanity over the rest of existence, with the result, as Berry says, that “we are alienating ourselves from the only context in which human life has any satisfying meaning….The human is less a being on the earth or in the universe than a dimension of the earth and indeed of the universe itself.”

Yet it doesn’t seem like I should have been so bowled over. By the time I heard Miriam I had been both an environmental activist and a landscape designer for years. The earth’s beauty had long been a great passion. Nevertheless, her words brought me home to a relationship I hardly knew I was missing, like those times when you don’t know how hungry you are until you are offered something to eat. She was speaking a language I finally understood.

Abrams feels language, and the alphabet in particular, was the beginning of our separation from the other than human matrix we are embedded in, but as a person of language, I can be reconnected by it as well. Eastern practices, like yoga and meditation, are designed to open us to the divine and the universal, and they’ve meant a great deal to me, but they are not the language at my core. For better or worse I come out of my culture, and what Berry calls the Yoga of the West, the prolonged meditation on our world that science represents, is very important to me. But the Cartesian dualism of the past few hundred years had its effect. I couldn’t escape it by longing. I needed to be led.

But language can certainly get in our way, or limit what we can think about, or know. Miriam said once, “If you believe in god, then the earth is a temple.” If so, is the corollary also true? If you believe the earth is a temple, do you then believe in god? Can we reclaim that word? Should we bother? Words definitely matter. Modern mystic Meinrad Craighead speaks of God the Mother, a most ancient concept, and one that could have rewritten history.

So, now, should we try to find a substitute, a less freighted word for the sacred forces and divine energies that surprise us with joy? Could one word cover this ever expanding concept? Or does giving such a name create the very separation between us, and the earth, and the divine that we are trying to heal?

I would like to end with a paragraph from Thomas Berry. He is urging us, at the end of the 65 million year old Cenozoic Age, the years of the great flowering of the planet, to bring about the Ecozoic Age, to preserve and foster that great flowering, and our place in it.

“The ecological age fosters the deep awareness of the sacred presence within each reality of the universe. There is an awe and reverence due to the stars in the heavens, the sun, and all heavenly bodies; to the seas and the continents; to all living forms of trees and flowers; to the myriad expressions of life in the sea; to the animals of the forest and the birds of the air. To wantonly destroy a living species is to silence forever a divine voice…. What we need, what we are groping toward, is the sensitivity required to understand and respond to the psychic energies deep in the very structure of reality itself.”

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