Thomas Traherne (1637-1674)
Thomas Traherne, whom we commemorate today, was a mystic, a childlike mystic. If his own lifetime had overlapped with J. R. R. Tolkien, or C. S. Lewis, or George MacDonald, I think they would have been very good friends. However Traherne lived more than two centuries earlier than these other three, Traherne born in 1637. He was the son of a shoemaker, and he went on to earn three degrees at Oxford. His university days during the 1650s were the best of times and the worst of times. Best was the intellectual stimulation. However this was a time of civil war and of religious conflict, actually less religious conflict and more agnosticism, which was certainly true for Traherne. For him, life was without meaning; he was listless, full of dread, deeply lonely. In his journal, we read about one sad evening, his being alone in a field, when all things were dead quiet. He writes, “a certain want and horror fell upon me, beyond imagination.”
Second Sunday in Season of Creation
Today we continue with the second in a five-part preaching series for the church’s Season of Creation. The theme this week is “Learn.” As many of you will know I spent six-weeks this summer learning from and collaborating with Navajo Episcopalians. I learned so much, and I’d like to begin by sharing one of my experiences.
I was driving a rental pickup truck along the winding, narrow highway that snakes its way through Monument Valley, Arizona, but I returned the gaze of the woman in my passenger seat at every moment I could. It was urgent that I do so, because her eyes shone with the sorrow and righteous anger of generations. She gestured all around us at the sunbeaten landscape of rock and endless horizon that she called home: Dinétah, the Navajo Nation. Though nothing appeared unusual to the naked eye, she told me how this iconic region contains 63 abandoned uranium mines. This is only a fraction of the total number in Navajoland, over 500. Beginning in the 1950’s private, white-owned companies hired primarily Navajo workers to extract this radioactive element for nuclear weapons. Increasing rates of cancer afflicted Navajo people at alarming speed throughout the sixties. Though studied and documented, nothing was done to protect Navajo people. In spite of the founding and intervention of the EPA in 1971, to this day large amounts of radioactive waste remain – in the earth, the air, and in vital aquifers. As she listed the lives of family and friends cut short or diminished by radiated lungs and failed kidneys, my companion’s tears spilled over and her voice trembled as she asked, “Why do they do this to us?”
Season of Creation
This morning we begin a 5-part Sunday morning sermon series on the Season of Creation. This “Creation” focus for our preaching and prayers is going on with other Christians throughout the world, across the denominational spectrum. In the upcoming four Sundays, the preachers here at the monastery will focus on themes related to “Creation”: to Learn, to Act, to Advocate, to Bless, and, beginning this morning, to Pray.
Emery House, our rural monastery in West Newbury, Massachusetts, is bordered by the Merrimack River, and so a story about the Merrimack, told by Henry David Thoreau, is particularly endearing. In the first two weeks of September 1839, Thoreau set off on a homemade wooden boat with his older brother, John, to explore the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[i] Later, while living in his sparse cabin at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote about this river experience, his first book. The writing project took him 10 years, not because of the length of the book, but because of the depth of his grief. After the river trek, Henry’s beloved brother, John, had cut himself while shaving and contracted tetanus, dying in agony the following week. John was 28; Henry, 25. In his grief, Henry was destroyed… almost.
Henry David Thoreau’s healing, his resuscitation, came at Walden Pond as he intently watched the goings on of flowers and trees, of birds and animals. Observing the natural wonders, he slowly realized that death is not the end of life but rather an intrinsic part of life. He learned from observation that the very process of decay, diminishment, and death is a life process. It is the way that God has created all of the earth, from the life of the tiniest bird and flower to humankind. Thoreau wrote in his Journal, “Do not the flowers die every autumn? …Yet death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident. [Death] is as common as life. Every blade in the field, every leaf in the forest, lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.”[ii]
Two realizations had happened in Thoreau: in his mind and in his heart. In his mind, he came to embrace a “disindividualized” view of life. Thoreau writes, “The individual may die, but the materials that make up the individual do not. They are subsumed into new forms and so live on,” true for every living thing that has ever been created.[iii] And emotionally, Thoreau’s grief in his brother’s death never went away; however his grief came to be companioned by gratitude and wonder. Thoreau’s love for his brother, John, his joy in the life together they had shared, and his many memories had not died. They actually took new form and lived on. Thoreau realized that death is not the end of life but, rather an essential part of life, by God’s design, and this is something we share with everything and with everyone and for all time. Thoreau said that, in a certain sense, there is no death; everything is part and parcel of life. Thoreau’s epiphany brought to my mind what we pray at a funeral, that at death, the life of this departed one “is changed, not ended.”[iv]
So we look to the whole of creation as if it were an icon, a window through which to know God on God’s terms:
- the window of creation opening our eyes to the majestic beauty of God;
- the window of creation opening our eyes to the panoply of the diversity which God creates, multiplies, shares, and invites; in the beginning, God’s creation teems with beauty and diversity, and God said, “it is good”;[v]
- the window of creation – what is the most massive and mighty, and what is the most tiny and delicate – with a lifespan the prepares and provides for what is next. This is why we call it “the created order.” We read in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…”[vi]
We have an invitation and an inspiration for our prayer as we learn from God’s creation that surrounds us and fills us.
- Be still enough, focused enough, close enough to notice, expectant enough to notice the majesty and terminality of creation. You might ask, “Notice what?” To which I would only smile.
- The autumn season is upon us. The colors and fragrances of plants, and flowers, and trees are changing, preparing the way for the next season. Outside in front of the monastery, the sycamores, these elephantine trees soaring into the sky, have decided this is a year to divest their bark, their old bark. Behold, a fresh skin of bark is awaiting. Very soon these great soaring trees will also surrender their leaves… which leave space for new life to emerge in the spring. In our Rule of Life, we write how the autumn of life prepares the way: “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death.”[vii] Is death an end in itself? Not at all. Death is part of life; death is the portal to the new life that Jesus promises us.[viii]
- See how the creation that surrounds us does not clutch at its life, but rather lives and gives its life. Letting go is an important life practice. I love an ancient word in the church’s vocabulary: oblation, from the Latin meaning an offering, a gift. We live the gift of our lives as an oblation, offering our lives back to God the custody God has temporarily entrusted to us.
We notice, we acquiesce, we participate most fully in life when we live with the terms by which God has created all of life, which is terminal. All of creation is a teacher for our prayer.
We also have an invitation to pray for the creation that surrounds us. So much of creation does not advocate well for itself when faced with human intrusion. One word captures how I, personally, pray for plants and animals, for birds and fish, mountains and meadows. My own prayer word is “channeling.” I pray that I can channel light; I pray that I can channel fresh water; I pray that I can channel the needed nourishment; I pray that I can channel a fresh breeze. I sometimes pray I can channel CO2 to some poor plant. I am placing myself with one hand pointing to the heavens, and the other hand channeling some life I sense this creature, this created thing, needs. I pray, co-operating with the Creator. I pray I can be a conduit of God’s life to this creature in need. If you were to ask me, “So does your channeling prayer do any good?” I would say, “Absolutely!” “Yes, I am quite sure.”
So this is free-form prayer, what captures my heart’s attention in the moment. And yet there are some specific creatures – by creatures I mean plants and animals, trees and meadows, mountains and waterways – some specific creatures that have a particular, ongoing claim on my heart’s attention. Maybe you, also? To what in creation are you drawn to give attention in your prayer? How do you pray to be a channel of God’s light, and life, and love to this creature? How are you drawn to pray? You might not be ready to publish, but I imagine you do have some prayer practice for creation. What is it?
For almost 20 years I have been fascinated with the work of Johannes Fritz, an Austrian biologist, who has devoted his life to saving an endangered bird species, the northern bald ibis. The ibis is a goose-sized black bird with a bald head and an enormous beak. Perhaps you’ve read about Dr. Fritz who feeds and cuddles the baby ibises and then, using his ultralight aircraft, he leads them in flight to a new safer winter migration path that bypasses the Alps. Global warming figures into the urgency of his work. Dr. Fritz has rewilded more about 300 of these ibises. It’s his life’s work. I mention this particular legacy as an amazing example of passion and advocacy. His passion is what I am talking about when I speak of praying for whatever in creation has captured your heart’s attention. Pray as an intermediary. Be like a third point in a triangle, whose two other points are God and the creature that has caught your heart’s attention. Pray your intercession, and then channel the power or provision for what God gives you for this fellow creature. Pray. Do pray.
In our lesson from the Letter to the Romans, we hear Saint Paul say, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…”[ix] Creation is waiting for us to do our own part in the company of fellow creatures.
“i thank You God for most this amazing day, the words of E. E. Cummings:
“i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes….”[x]
[i] Henry David Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849.
[ii] From October 1837 to November 1861, Thoreau kept a handwritten Journal. Thoreau’s Walden was first published in 1854.
[iii] Three Roads Back; How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives, by Robert D. Richardson (Princeton Univ. Press, 2023), pp. 53-54.
[iv] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 382.
[v] Genesis 1 – 2:3.
[vi] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.
[vii] Quoted from SSJE’s The Rule of Life (Cowley, 1997), chapter 48: “Holy Death.”
[viii] John 14:3-10.
[ix] Romans 8:19.
[x] E. E. Cummings (1894-1962):
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Are you ready?
The wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable are ready when the bridegroom comes. They have foresight and plan appropriately, and so can follow the bridegroom into the banquet hall. They are ready.
Or were they? Or, rather, is this readiness?
In his retreat address on “Readiness,” our founder, Fr. Benson, sounds a seemingly odd note. Readiness is doing your best under the circumstances that face you—which may mean that you fail. It may mean you fail most of the time. But, Fr. Benson continues, “it may be that [your] failure is the way in which most is to be done. It may be that [you] will effect more than another person who might have brought some natural gift to the work and have succeeded in it.”
Readiness, then, is not the preparation and training for success, but rather the presentness of our attention and the immediacy of our response to God’s call. This kind of readiness would have seen wisdom not in bringing extra lamp oil, but in waiting on the bridegroom—waiting and trusting that what he sought was not a lit lamp but a listening heart.
Saint Francis of Assisi
There are so many endearing stories told about Saint Francis of Assisi. One legend remembers Francis speaking to the birds:
“My bird sisters,” he says, “you are much beloved by God your Master, and always, in every place, you ought to praise [God], because [God] has given you liberty to fly everywhere; and [God] has given you also clothing double and triple. You are loved also by the air which [God] has given to you; and moreover, you neither sow nor reap, and God feeds you, and gives you the rivers and the fountains from which to drink. [God] gives you the mountains and the valleys for your refuge, and the tall trees for your nests, and, although you do not know how to spin or sew, God clothes you and your children. God loves you so much…”[i]
Isn’t that enchanting? On and on go the legends about Francis with birds of every feather; of animals large and small; of creatures in the sea; of flowers, grasses and grains; of trees big and small; of stars and galaxies.
Learning from Saint Francis does not encourage anthropomorphism – that is, attributing human characteristics to birds, and animals, and sea creatures. Francis inspires me in the opposite direction, what is called zoomorphism: figurative language that characterizes people with the attributes of animals and other living beings.[ii] Actually one of my Brothers here in the monastery asked me recently what kind of dog I am? “Dog I am…?” That was a first. I responded quite spontaneously that I hoped to be a Labrador! Wag wag. And you? You may or may not find zoomorphism intriguing; however my point – I would say Saint Francis’ point – is about our sharing an intimate relationship with all sentient beings and beyond, and not just other people. Every living being, every element of creation, is a “creature” of God, all of us given a share of God’s magnificent panoply of life. One of the astronomers for the newly-launched James Webb telescope said that there is so much shining in the galaxies, it’s as if it all wants to be discovered. Quite so. Some of you may remember back into the 1970s, various groups of people who particularly loved trees began seeing themselves “tree huggers.” I rolled my eyes. I don’t any more. I hug trees and a lot more. Try it!
Our opening lesson today from the Book of Job asks a rhetorical question: “Where were you, [Job]” God asks,when all else that surrounded Job was being created?[iii] The Book of Job puts us in our place, a place of recognition that we – and everything else in all creation – emanate from God and have a place in God’s heart. Our lesson from the Letter to the Galatians speaks of Christ’s heralding “a new creation.”[iv] Our invitation is to co-operate with Christ’s intention to make new, that is, to renew not only what goes on in human souls, but also what goes on in the whole of creation with which we share life. We are all interconnected.
An inspiration we can take from the life and legacy of Saint Francis of Assisi is to be in a reverenced relationship with God’s gift of life both within us and around us. None of us has a global outreach; however all of us are within arm’s reach of some practice of restoration or renewal, some act of justice-making on behalf of other creatures that can suffer somuch discrimination from us through things we have done, and things we have left undone. Where can we give voice and muscle on behalf of some constituent part of creation that suffers injustice, discrimination, abuse, or neglect? To what people and for what other members of creation can you and I take a stand? When I hear Jesus say on behalf of the poor, suffering, and neglected, “as you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done to me,” I am thinking about people… but more than people as we serve the creation which has come into being through Christ.[v] Saint Francis is an inspired, inspiring mentor for us to embrace the whole of life as God does.
But Saint Francis’ legacy is not just rosy. As an adult, in his early days Francis attracted a huge audience, and there was such unanimity between Francis, his own burgeoning group of friars, and the church at large. But things changed. The church hierarchy was as smitten as it was suspicious of Francis. Was Francis building up the church, or was he sabotaging it? By the time of Francis’ death, there were even strident factions within the Franciscan brotherhood. Some groups of friars thought Francis had become too rigorous; some groups of friars thought he had become too laxed. Every faction thought it was right. Though we want to remember Francis as such an inspiring emissary of love and mutuality for everyone and everything, even within his own lifetime Francis also faced and engendered controversy.
And so when Francis prays, “Make us instruments of your peace,” he is speaking autobiographically. He was witnessing enormous conflict and dissension, both within his own community of friars and within the church at large. When Francis prays, “Where there is hatred” (because there was hatred), “let us sow love.” When he prays, “Where there is discord” (because there was searing discord surrounding him), “let there be union.” When he prays, “Where there is doubt” (because there was grave doubt that Francis had it right), “let there be faith.” When he prays, “Where there is despair” (because there was despair about Francis succeeding… and about Francis not succeeding), “let there be hope.” “Where there is darkness” (because there was darkness on the path ahead), “let there be light. “Where there is sadness” (because there was so much grief), “let there be joy.” And the phrase on his lips which I find most revealing, “Where there is injury, pardon.” Francis prays, “Where there is injury, pardon,” because he knew how easy it would be to retaliate. The prayer of Saint Francis, “Make us instruments of your peace…” is not a nice prayer; this is an urgent prayer, and this prayer certainly pertains to our own lives today.
The witness of Saint Francis’ gives us both an inspiration and a warning as we live today in this frightening time both of warring political factions near and far, and amidst the ecological collapse and climate emergency that surrounds us. In the spirit of Saint Francis, here are some practices to consider:
- A fascinating experience is to bestow the title “teacher” on some bird or animal, fish or flower, star or galaxy. And then become the student. Learn everything you can from your “teacher.” There are an infinite number of these “teachers” out there. It’s magnificent how complex, choreographed, and correlated the life of each of God’s creatures, one with another.
- Saint Francis was not anthropocentric. “Creation” includes all that God has created. It’s not all about us human types. You might consider including in your intercessory prayer some other constituents of creation – a certain breed of bird or animal or fish, a type of tree or flower, something as vast as the Amazon rain forest or as sequined as a coral reef. Whatever attracts your heart’s attention. Ask this fellow creature the question, “How is it for you?” and then intercede on behalf of this other member of creation with which, with whom, we share life. Give voice on behalf of the voiceless. We all have been given a share of life to share. Saint Francis is such a troubadour heralding how interconnected we are with everything in the magnificent, interdependent constellation of creation.
- Just as in Saint Francis’ day, so today we witness such “moral individualism” with the presumption that I – or “thems like me” – have it right, and the others have it wrong.[vi] Dead wrong. The Jewish poet Yehuda Amichai writes, “From the place where we are right, flowers will never grow in the Spring. The place where we are right is hard and trampled. Like a yard. But doubts and loves dig up the world.”[vii] Many of Saint Francis’ followers “hardened” and would not listen to one another. In actuality, they all shared many of the same core values, but addressed them differently. For those with whom we differ, we will learn so much more, we will find arable ground in our souls if we prioritize a curious “why” about our differences, not just the “what.” “So you value such-and-such. Why?” Searching for, finding, and claiming our common ground converts the equation from “what we are working against” to “what we are working towards.” It’s what eco-philosopher Joanna Macy calls “intersectionality.”[viii] If we are only listening to ourselves we become deaf because we don’t hear what we are missing outside our own silo. We need one another.
- When you pray, how do you use your body? My default when I pray has been to close my eyes and be very still and silent. But my prayer has greatly enlarged as I open my senses and let the world that surrounds me be an icon. You may know the wondrous prayer of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”:
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil…”[ix]
When you pray, rather than closing your eyes you might also want to pray with your eyes wide open. Look outward or look downward to quite literally “ground” your prayer. When you pray, rather than folding your hands, you may also want to use your hands to touch or caress some other creature of God, another creature whose existence is as magnificent and as mysterious as our own God-given creation. There’s the old warning about “being so heavenly minded that we are of no earthly good.” We need to embody our prayer.
Francis of Assisi is a saint for us today. God loves what God created. All of it. All of us. By God’s design, we belong to one another. We need one another.
[i] God’s Troubadour; The Story of St. Francis of Assisi, by Sophie Jewett (1910), p. 93.
[ii] The figurative language of zoomorphism derives from the Greek zōon, meaning “animal,” and morphē, meaning “shape” or “form.” Zoomorphism is the opposite of anthropomorphism, attributing human characteristics or behavior to an animal or object.
[iii] Job 39:1–18.
[iv] Galatians 6:14-18.
[v] Matthew 25:31-46; Colossians 1:16.
[vi] Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis, and Radical Ethics, by Donna M. Orange (2017), p. 13.
[vii] Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) was a much-revered German-born Jewish writer and poet.
[viii] A Wild Love for the World and the Work of Our Time, by Joanna Macy (2020).
[ix] “God’s Grandeur,” by the Jesuit priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1844-1889):
The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs–
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Amos 8: 4-7
Luke 16: 13
Today is the third week in this Season of Creation. During this week two pieces of Scripture have ‘grabbed’ me. They are by two very different prophets, and I’ve been praying with both passages. The first is our reading today from the prophet Amos. It’s harsh and fiery. He pronounces God’s judgment on the wealthy who, full of greed, oppress the poor, and who see the fruits of the earth simply as sources of illegal profit. “We will offer wheat for sale and practice deceit, with false balances.” As I prayed with it I had in my mind those terrible images of the violent rape of the Amazon rain forest, the wholesale destruction of the earth’s ‘lungs’, for profit.
But the other passage I have been praying with could not be more different. They are words from Amos’s fellow 8th century prophet, Micah. It is one of the most beautiful words of prophecy in all scripture. It is a vision of hope and healing. “In days to come, nation shall not lift sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. But they shall all sit under their own vines, and under their own fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” I love that image of complete contentment. As I prayed with these words I remembered that unforgettable day during the Fall, some five years ago when I was on retreat at Emery House. I was sitting in a simple wooden chair on the deck of the Zen hut, watching with utter joy and wonder, as the leaves of the trees gently fell, hour after hour. I knew something of Micah’s vision of peace and contentment.
Hildegard Von Bingen
Omnis caelestis harmonia speculum divinitatis est,
et homo speculum omnium miraculorum est Dei.
All celestial harmony is a mirror of divinity,
and the human being is a mirror of all the miracles of God.
—Saint Hildegard, Causes and Cures
I recently overheard a very energetic conversation between two young technology enthusiasts while sitting by the Charles River on a sunny Sabbath afternoon. They were clearly very excited by the ideas they discussed, evidenced by the liveliness of their tone. “And, well, just imagine!” said one, “soon we’ll be able to leave behind all the mistakes of previous generations—we’re so close! With enough investment and research, humanity will probably leave this earth and start a new life on some other planet.” “I think you’re right,” replied the other, “we’ve turned a corner here, you know, with the climate and all. We’ll probably have no other option than to start over somewhere else.”
On September 1, we entered the Season of Creation. This Season is a time to renew our relationship with our Creator and all creation through celebration, conversion, and commitment together. During the Season of Creation, we join our ecumenical family in prayer and action for our common home. Learn more about Creation Season, our practices for keeping the Season at the Monastery, and how you might pray this Season at home >
In my early twenties I had the opportunity to visit the Benedictine abbey and shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, situated in the jagged mountains above Barcelona. I was not then a Christian, but was driven by curiosity to see this local holy place with its distinctive, black image of the Virgin and Child. I watched as an elderly man lifted a little boy, presumably his grandson, to kiss the wooden ball held in the tiny hand of the boy Jesus. I surrendered to a yearning felt in my body – to connect with the divine not just anywhere, but somewhere, in this physical place to which I had traveled many miles from home. Without needing to understand why, I too kissed that image of the earth held in the hands of a divine child, held in the lap of a human mother, on the top of a mountain in Spain.
As we begin this Season of Creation[i], we join the Church worldwide to pray and act in caring for all of creation. The 80th General Convention of the Episcopal Church recognized climate change as “an all-encompassing social crisis and moral emergency that impacts and interconnects every aspect of pastoral concern including health, poverty, employment, racism, social justice, and family life and that can only be addressed by a Great Work involving every sector of society, including the Church.”[ii]
The earth is groaning, heating, burning, flooding, and dying. You have and read the stories. This week Pakistan cries out, one-third of the country underwater from flooding. The cost is great for the earth. To be a disciple costs everything, Jesus says. Give up all your possessions. Hate father and mother, wife and children, even life itself. Following Jesus reorients all our relationships, all that we have. It is not easy or ordinary. It is to carry a cross, to suffer with the One who suffered for us.
Everything is a gift. We tend to possess, to cling, to hold, horde or grasp, claiming as our own. As humans we tend toward entitlement, and God invites us into blessing. Despite all the good we receive and give in family, we tend to distance, exclude or oppress others. To follow Jesus means relating differently. Respect the dignity of every human being as a child of God. Keep changing and learning to live that out such that all may live, all may eat, all may have shelter, all may have water unlike as in Mississippi where Jackson does not have running water while surrounding cities do.