Raking the Forest Path: A Christian Spirituality in Brief

Every late fall, I rake the forest path. It usually takes me a couple of days. I began to carve out that path at the edges of the rugged, wooded hill behind our old farm house in rural, southwestern Maine some forty years ago.

I love to saunter up and down and around that path whenever I can, to let my mind wander, to contemplate the larger things of life, and to encounter surprises along the way, a huge, fallen branch from a hundred-year old white pine, a pristine rhododendron blossom, the telltale knocking of an unseen woodpecker, the mysterious footprints of a moose. For me, this walk is a way of loving nature.

But I couldn’t do the walking without the raking. In the fall that path totally disappears underneath a thick layer of oak and beach leaves. When that happens, even I sometimes have trouble following the path. Still more of a problem, if the path isn’t raked, it can be hazardous. Left to itself, that layer of leaves is like a sheet of ice. The leaves cover over fallen branches, too, on which you can get tripped up. So you can easily go careening down the path and smash into a tree or even fall over a ledge. Hence my regular raking.

I have only recently realized, after the publication of what will undoubtedly be my last book, Before Nature, that that raking and that walking tell the evolving story of my own spirituality of loving nature that I narrate in that book. My understanding of God was challenged and it changed. My approach to spiritual practices changed as well.

I want to tell that story here, in brief, because spirituality is all the rage these days, especially the spirituality of nature, and some who are so engaged seem to have lost their way. Be that as it may, I hope that at least a few who are seeking to love nature more fervently will benefit from hearing the personal story I am about to tell. I also hope that this brief story here will whet the reader’s appetite for the full story which I narrate in Before Nature.

I.

I was baptized almost eighty years ago, “in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.” Years later, beginning in the late nineteen-sixties, when I served as the Chaplain of a women’s school, Wellesley College, I found myself questioning the spirituality I had inherited with my Baptism.

In those days, I invited feminist theologians to preach in the college chapel where I presided, people like Mary Daly and Rosemarie Radford Ruether. No way could I escape wrestling with the charge they made that Christianity, with its accent on “God, the Father almighty,” was spiritually destructive, precisely because it preached, or was alleged to preach, the rule of a dominating, exploitative male God. They also said that Christianity has been destructive of nature, that the vision of a domineering heavenly Father led in practice to the exploitation of the earth.

Those feminist theologians were not the only ones in those years who objected to historic Christianity on the grounds of its allegedly destructive approach to nature. Many other critics said the same, often on the basis of historical analysis of the role the Christian faith had played in fomenting modern industrial society’s exploitation of nature. Christians, said many of these critics, care only about God and humanity, not about nature.

And I thought of myself as a lover of nature!? Not for nothing did I carve out and care for and walk along that ascending and descending forest path in southwestern Maine. But what kind of spiritual path was I really following?

II.

Early on, I decided that the critics, overall, had their point. As a lover of nature, I would therefore have to rake away a lot of dead ideas, if I were to uncover the viable spirituality of nature that I instinctively knew was there underneath it all. My understanding of God would have to change, to begin with. Fortunately, others had begun to respond to the same kind of challenge, in their own settings.

First, I learned from the Reformed theologian Juergen Moltmann how God the Father can helpfully be engaged as God “the motherly Father.” Thus understood, we also can envision the Father as suffering with the Son on the Cross.

In a word, God the Father is not some dominating heavenly patriarch, far removed from our suffering or the suffering of other creatures. God the Father, rather, is the eternal Giver, “in, with, and under” (Luther) the whole creation. God the Father loves the whole world, as John 3:16, my Confirmation text, says, not just humans. And God the Father will therefore, one day, bring all things to fulfilment and joy in the bosom of the Father, not just humans.

Second, I learned that God the Father alone is not the Creator, even though our creeds, understood just by themselves, tend to leave us with that impression. The whole Trinity is the Creator.

The Son is the “cosmic Christ.” That conviction is attested throughout the New Testament, but especially in the Letter to the Colossians, as the Lutheran theologian Joseph Sittler taught me. According to Colossians, Christ is “before all things, and in him all thing hold together.” (Col. 1:17)

The Spirit, likewise, is the “Lifegiver” of all things, a thought highlighted most instructively by the Catholic theologian, Elizabeth Johnson. This image is especially vivid in Genesis 1:2, where we see the Spirit hovering creatively over the primeval waters of the world coming into being.

Third, I learned from a number of scholars who had studied ancient Christianity in the context of the Roman Empire that the earliest expressions of the Christian faith in God, the Father of Jesus, were totally opposed to the domination or the exploitation of anything.

The God whom Jesus proclaimed, according to the Gospel of Luke, is the God who liberates the poor, who lets the oppressed go free.(see Luke 4:16-21) The God whom Paul announced is a God who hears the groaning of the whole creation and who works to liberate the whole creation. As Paul says in Romans 8, “the whole creation has been groaning in travail” (v. 22) and will itself “be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God.” (v. 21)

For Paul, more particularly, this God is revealed in the lordship of Jesus Christ. And that lordship is nonviolent and compassionate. For this reason Paul stood opposed to the violent and self-exalting lordship of Caesar, including Caesar’s destructive policies toward the world of nature in his own day. Scholars have shown that members of the churches in Rome, to whom Paul wrote, would have well understood “the groaning of creation” as referring, in part, to Roman desecration of the natural world, in order to bolster the Empire’s own wealth and power.

III.

With my spiritual path thus cleared of old ideas, having uncovered those new understandings of God, I also realized that I would have to “walk the walk” of prayer in a new way. I concluded that my regular regimen of Sunday liturgy and daily prayers over meals and at bedtime was not enough. Somehow I would need to develop a deeper awareness of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in the whole creation every moment of my life. Could I learn to “pray without ceasing,” as the Scriptures admonished us to do? (I Thess. 5:17)

Providentially, I came upon a Christian tradition that practiced precisely that approach to prayer. A number of Eastern Orthodox writers had championed what they thought of as “the Jesus Prayer,” in order explore what it might mean to pray without ceasing. I adopted that prayer and then took it further, as I developed my own spiritual practices anew.

The prayer I eventually learned to say regularly begins like that Eastern Orthodox prayer, by calling to Jesus and asking for his mercy. In my view, that’s the best way for all of us sinners to begin our prayers. But I needed to be more explicit about other equally familiar themes of our faith.

Hence the prayer I began to use regularly goes beyond a plea to Jesus for mercy. It centers on the mystery of the Trinity, the name in which I was baptized and the God whom I know in, with, and under the whole creation, as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. My prayer then concludes by calling on the Spirit to sanctify all things, to realize all the promises of God for the whole creation and to do so without delay.

I call this “the Trinity Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit, come and reign.” All these are ancient Christian themes, obviously. That’s why, as a matter of fact, they speak to me so powerfully.

I have found that repeating the Trinity Prayer as often as possible during the day – weaving in the new understandings of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that have been given to me since my days at Wellesley College — can work to keep me on a very good spiritual path as far as nature is concerned. Because the God whom I thus constantly address is the God of the whole creation.

IV.

I hope that all will understand that, for me, my raking and walking this way in “the cathedral of the great outdoors,” on any given day in southwestern Maine, presupposes my walking into and worshiping within “the cathedral of the great indoors” every Sunday, in inner-city Boston, Massachusetts. I continue to be a devout church-goer and also an ardent advocate of urban ministry. In Boston, too, I do everything I can, both publicly and privately, to help those who are struggling to address life-threatening climate-change challenges. But those are stories for another time.

This is my Christian spirituality of nature today, toward the end of my life, a regular raking and a frequent walking along that forest path that I hope I can continue as long as I enjoy the breath of life, praying the Trinity Prayer as often as possible: thus constantly being aware of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as the God of nature, as well as humankind. This I recommend as a tested Christian way to love nature, as God does.

 

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