The ministry of nature


I am losing precious days… I am learning nothing in this trivial world.
I must break away and get out into the mountains to learn the news.   – John Muir

Every year I observe two holy weeks. One is the Christian Holy Week, the densely liturgical mimesis of Jesus’ last days of mortal life. The other is an annual solo backpack in the mountains of the American West. Both are total immersions into the sacred without which my year would be incomplete.

The sacredness of the American landscape has long been a powerful theme in American thought and feeling. To see the sacred in a Massachusetts pond, a Southwest canyon, or an old growth forest is not a denial of the physical in favor of a spiritual “elsewhere,” but a penetration to creation’s inherent depth. The material is not the opposite of spiritual, but its mediation, its container.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the American landscape painters known as “Luminists” made their canvases glow with a divine transparency, while the literary circle of Transcendentalists translated nature’s otherness into language. Emerson insisted that “the noblest ministry of nature is to stand as an apparition of God … A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole.” And when Thoreau withdrew from contemporary society to his Walden refuge, he found “something true and sublime,” where “the morning wind forever blows, the poem of creation is uninterrupted.” Is not everyone who ventures “outside” seeking a similar epiphany?

I keep my walking stick by the front entrance of our home, a daily reminder that the path to God-knows-where is always just on the other side of the door. Two weeks ago I tossed the stick in my car, along with my backpack, and headed for Montana. After a couple of days hiking into the Beartooth mountains north of Yellowstone, I reached a large alpine lake, set in a rocky bowl above treeline, with splendid views of several 12,000’ peaks. From there I made a joyous ramble into the high country beyond the lake, where cumulus shadows glided slowly across immense sunlit walls. Three bald eagles circled over a stream-watered basin. Lush gardens of paintbrush, bluebells, asters and buttercups occupied the hollows vacated by melting snowfields. I dangled my legs over a precipice for a better view of the world below. I lay back in the fragrant grass to consider the radiant sky. I knew again the plenitude of summer, that timeless contentment where one feels, as Wallace Stevens felt, “complete in an unexplained completion.”

That night around 1 a.m., I got out of my tent to see the stars, but clouds had gathered since sunset, so I secured the rain fly over my tent and crawled back inside. I had just drifted off when a couple of large animals entered my campsite, their heavy footsteps awakening me to full alert. The rain fly only allowed a narrow view directly forward from the tent, so I could not identify my visitors, who were off to the side. I could only listen as they explored the camp. I heard breathing just beyond the tent’s nylon wall, a snorting sound that put an image of a bear in my mind. Was it a black bear or the more dangerous grizzly?

Then one of the creatures jumped past the front of the tent. The moon had not yet risen, so I saw only a shadowy blur. It was the size of a large dog, probably a juvenile. And its coat seemed to reflect light, even in the gloom. Could it be the white of a mountain goat, or the light gray fur of a grizzly cub? I just wasn’t sure, and I decided to remain still and silent within my tent rather than provoke an encounter by sticking my head out for a look, especially since I was now situated between parent and child, never a good thing with wild animals.

Imagination and solitude are a potent combination in the middle of the night. I breathed. I prayed. I tried to remember what I had read years ago in Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance. I thought about St. Francis making peace with the wolf. I had enjoyed the wildness of the place as a spectator in the light of day. But now the wild had come to call on me directly. In the dark of night. What did it want to tell me: You don’t belong here? Your precious subjectivity is meaningless to the appetite of carnivores? What did you expect to find, so far from your human world?

Or: Be not afraid.

After a long hour and a half, the creatures departed. Just before they did so, I saw the silhouetted head of the juvenile, backlit by the rising quarter moon, pop up from behind a rock. It bleated, then vanished. No ursine growl, only a rather playful goodbye. When dawn finally came, I found tufts of fine white wool snagged on the branches of shrubs around my camp. Mountain goats indeed.

I drove out of the mountains through Yellowstone National Park, where wild animals are often visible along the paved roads – bison, bears, deer and elk. At every sighting, people abandon their cars, running toward a vantage point with their cameras and phones to collect a digital simulation of wilderness – something to keep and take back home. This commodification of the wild as consumable experience is a fascinating spectacle that only underlines our everyday alienation from nature. I can’t criticize. I did it too. I got a nice shot of a bull elk when the skittish tourists fled out of frame while I stood my ground.

But wildness can’t be adequately encountered a few feet from your car, or in short stops at viewpoints along an asphalt road. You need to go deeper, further, dwell in its otherness for a time, risk its strangeness, wait patiently until it is ready to deliver the news.


Call of the wild

Tomorrow I take a trail into the Beartooth Mountains, just north of Yellowstone, for a 6 day backpack, so my blog will be silent for a little while. Meanwhile, here is what I know about the high country, in the words of one of my favorite saints:

Oh, these vast, calm, measureless mountain days, inciting at once to work and rest ! Days in whose light every- thing seems equally divine, opening a thousand windows to show us God. Nevermore, however weary, should one faint by the way who gains the blessings of one mountain day ; whatever his fate, long life, short life, stormy or calm, he is rich forever.” – My First Summer in the Sierra”, John Muir (1911)

Experiments in worship

Sleepers Wake

Last month’s 40th anniversary of the first Episcopal ordinations of women to the priesthood evoked a wide sharing of memories and stories about a church breaking from inherited ways to make a significant rewrite of its identity and practice. That break did not happen without resistance and struggle, but the shift was irreversible. A less complete priesthood is now unimaginable.

But there was also another revolution underway in 1974, a campaign for liturgical renewal being carried out on many fronts. Scholars had been making the case for change for decades, leading to such major revisions as Vatican II and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. At the grassroots level, early experiments in “indigenous” youth culture masses laid the foundations for “alt.worship” and “fresh expressions.”

My first year of ordained ministry was at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, a campus ministry known for its coffeehouse concerts (Neil Young and Joni Mitchell played there) and its innovative worship. At the end of the Sixties, our congregation of college youth valued meaning over form, allowing us the freedom to re-imagine the way we worshipped on a Sunday by Sunday basis. Sometimes the results were sublime and indelible, while there were also some abysmal flops. But that was okay. Everyone understood that our liturgical mission was to experiment: it was as important to know what didn’t work as what did.

In the Seventies, I became liturgical artist-in-residence at St. John’s, Los Angeles, a gorgeous cathedral-sized church with a progressive multi-cultural congregation. Under prophetic rectors Larry Carter and then Bill Persell, it had become a well-known site of conscientious witness against war, poverty and injustice (Cesar Chavez and the Berrigans thundered from St. John’s pulpit). Although the traditional Sunday morning liturgy was satisfyingly rich, we instituted a monthly Sunday evening series of alternative eucharists (“The Third Sunday”) to explore a wider range of themes and experiential models.

It wasn’t simply a matter of utilizing contemporary texts or plugging in unexpected kinds of music (although bagpipes and synthesizers each provided amazing sounds). We also explored different ways to structure the entire underlying form of the rite. Sometimes we employed worship templates drawn from mythic literary motifs like the Book of Revelation, the Divine Comedy, or the Harrowing of Hell. On Palm Sunday, two “carpenters” (one of whom is now the dean of the National Cathedral) built a cross near the altar throughout the liturgy, occasionally discussing the morality of capital punishment. During the Words of Institution (“This is my body … This is my blood”), their hammers pounded nails into the cross.

My favorite Third Sunday liturgy was a very early example of installation worship: an Advent journey, in groups of six, through a long enclosed corridor circling behind the chancel. The dark, narrow space was filled with projections and recorded poetry (“Inferno,” “Dover Beach,” “Four Quartets”). There was even a descent into a solipsistic hell (a dismal basement room with only live TV images of your own face). But in the end, you emerged into a candlelit chapel of shimmering gold mosaics and exquisite chant, taking your place with those who had made the journey before you, as if you were being welcomed into heaven.

The year 1974 began with the grandest alternative worship experience of my life, at a national gathering of 400 Episcopal college students, professors, and campus ministers during the first week of January. This was a few months after the Episcopal General Convention had once again rejected women’s ordination, and replaced the progressive Presiding Bishop with a southern conservative. It felt like a double slap in the face for progressives. The collegiate Episcopalians, restless and discontented, were having serious doubts about the institution. Some expressed their anger by questioning the value of the all-night liturgy planned for Epiphany. Wasn’t it being designed by three white males (Bill Teska, Mark Harris, and myself)? Down with elitism and sexism!

They had a point. We were just three friends with particular skills who had volunteered to design something memorable. We hadn’t really thought through inclusivity issues. All our attention was on the product, not the process, and we got called on it. There was talk of staging a protest to bring the liturgy to a halt, but artful negotiation transformed the proposed rupture into small group discussions that would be an official part of the liturgy.

The gathering was in Florida, where the temperature would remain comfortable through the hours of darkness. The “Great Liturgy” of Epiphany began at midnight beneath the full moon, with the congregation singing and processing three times around the worship space – a circus tent with its sides rolled up, in the middle of an empty field. When we finally entered the tent, people broke into small groups to share their hopes and fears for the church. Once these conversations were reported to the whole assembly, the liturgy began in earnest.

A simple Compline was followed by a cosmo-political Penitential Rite: a ninety-minute trip through Creation, History and Apocalypse, using 12 projectors, sampled sounds from the news, pop music, poetry, movie dialogue and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Then the Seven Seals in the Book of Revelation were opened by means of participatory theater games, climaxing with a ritual “dying” (falling to the ground) by the people, and then a rising up again, led by three Magi (one of them female). “We have come looking for the Holy One,” the Magi declared. And one by one we rose to our feet, crying “He is here!” and “She is here!” and “We are here!”

It was now about 3 am, time for a half hour pause of silent meditation, ending with a grand entrance procession of the eucharistic ministers preceded by six thurifers, filling the tent with incense. A jazz matins enlivened the Service of the Word, then a ninety-minute Offertory presented the gifts of the community before the altar – heartfelt testimonies, dance, a Navajo healing chant, a gospel quintet. By now the full moon, overhead when we began, was setting into the trees beyond the tent.

During the eucharistic prayer, a revolving mirror sphere painted the interior with kinetic light, and pulsing strobes flashed upon the bread and wine during the Words of Institution, making an almost hallucinatory intensification of the elements (definitely more Baroque than Cistercian!). After communion, we all processed out of the tent into the light of the rising sun, singing an Appalachian spiritual:

Bright morning stars are rising,
Day is a-breaking in my soul.”

Seven and a half hours from beginning to end,
moonlight to sunrise,
a Christian dreamtime.

It is the nature of liturgy – and language – to consist of mediating symbols. We aren’t allowed to see God face to face. As Isaiah realized in his Temple vision, such an encounter would obliterate us, swallow up our particularity, which is only made possible through the degree of separation we are given from the All. We don’t get to grasp “total presence” in this life, but only the words, images and sacraments that connect us with that (absent) presence. And yet there are times when the divine leaps across the gap, the bush burns bright before our eyes, and we hear the Voice calling our name. That Epiphany in a circus tent was one of those times.

So when I think of the church of 1974, I not only remember how we began to embrace a more inclusive priesthood, but also how free we were to explore both the means and the meaning of our deepest rituals. May it be so again.










“Have you heard the news?”

Bellini praying hands sm

Giovanni Bellini, Madonna and Child with Saints Catherine and Magdalene (detail), c. 1500, Accademia, Venice

“Have you heard the news?” That’s the first thing the driver said when a friend and I hitched a ride out of Yosemite’s Tuolumne Meadows after hiking 150 miles from Lake Tahoe. We’d been in the wilderness for 20 days, so pretty much anything would be news to us. We shook our heads. What had we missed? “Nixon’s going to resign tonight!” he said, clearly savoring the pleasure of bearing glad tidings to fresh ears. That was August 8, 1974 (the President made the announcement that night on national television; his official resignation took place the next morning).

The sealing of Nixon’s fate wasn’t the only news I had missed in the Sierra wilderness forty years ago. Ten days earlier, when I was about halfway to Yosemite, three Episcopal bishops sped up the grinding wheels of ecclesiastical change by ordaining eleven women to the priesthood in a Philadelphia church. The ordination of women had failed to secure majority approval when the Episcopal General Convention gathered in 1973, and the next vote wouldn’t be taken again until the next convention in1976. The Spirit and the institution were clearly on different timetables. So the Philadelphia Eleven, and the bishops who ordained them, did what prophets do: they imagined an alternative future, which would remain contested and uncertain until the whole church could embrace its implications.

When the General Convention convened in Minneapolis in the summer of 1976, the ordination of women, along with a radical revision of the Prayer Book, topped the agenda. On the day the deciding vote was taken in the House of Deputies, ten thousand observers packed the hall. I was among them, and as the session unfolded I was struck by its overriding liturgical quality. This was not just another meeting with the usual amount of tedious verbosity and soul-sucking detail, but a solemn performance of a drama reimagining our collective identity. As in every liturgy, larger realities had to be contained within the imperfect significations of human language and ritual. And somehow – miracle of miracles! – a church convention became a place of theophany. I saw the Holy Spirit at work, not in spite of parliamentary procedure, but within and through that procedure.

The crucial session seemed to follow the shape of the eucharist. Once the assembly had gathered, the stories that brought us together were told. This “reading of the lessons” consisted of a long succession of speakers who had two minutes each to make the case for or against women’s ordination. This 90-minute “debate” was itself a kind of ritual, summarizing the now familiar arguments which had led to this moment. No new insights were expected – certainly no conversions – but it seemed important, before the vote, to tell the story of who we were – including our conflictedness – and the nature of the larger story we belonged to. Some told that story in terms of dwelling (tradition), while others described it as pilgrimage (innovation). But there was a sense that the story itself always exceeded our understanding of it. Many viewpoints, but still one church.

In the eucharist, the lessons are followed by the Prayers of the People, and so it was here. The resolutions committee, which had earlier reported its recommendation in favor of the motion that “no one shall be denied access” to ordination on the basis of gender, had reserved the right to present the final portion of its report just before the vote was cast. And that portion, we discovered, consisted of five minutes of silent prayer – fifteen thousand people filling the hall with a profound stillness. A large convention was the last place I would expect to experience prayer so fervent or so intense, but there it was.

Next in the eucharistic rite is the Offertory, where the gifts of the people are brought forward to the altar along with bread and wine. In this case, the gifts were the ballots filled out by the deputies. While their votes were being collected and counted, there was a Passing of the Peace. The presiding chair of the House of Deputies, the Rev. John Coburn, thanked the voting members for the courtesy with which they had treated each other in this potentially divisive process. The throng of observers rose to applaud them. Then Coburn thanked the observers for their courteous demeanor. We had refrained from any partisan displays of cheering or booing. The deputies rose to give us a standing ovation. Finally, everyone gave a standing ovation to the chair, who had so graciously guided the assembly through uncharted waters. In that moment, at least, we loved one another more than we loved our causes.

Something of that spirit remained when the results were finally announced. There was no outburst of applause or cheering. There were some quiet hugs, heads bowed in thanks, eyes moist with emotion. But as the multitude began to make its way out of the hall, most of the faces I saw appeared thoughtful, solemn, even stunned, like communicants returning from the altar, or Moses descending the mountain, glowing like fire.

For my part, when I first heard the tally and realized the motion had carried, I felt an inward elation, for this was a great and necessary moment. But mixed inextricably with my joy was a deep sense of the burden assumed by the losers in this long struggle. I couldn’t just exult in victory. I had to make room in my heart for the pain and disappointment of the defeated as well. This was surprising to me, for I have been too much a man of principle in my life, finding it hard sometimes to sympathize with incompatible perspectives and practices. That is one reason I am convinced that the Holy Spirit was blowing where she will that day. I couldn’t have come up with such sympathetic breadth on my own. Many of those I talked to later reported a similar experience.

Sympathy. Dora Greenwell, a single Anglican woman in Victorian times, wondered whether women have more capacity for sympathy than men. She had perhaps seen too many male clergy not in touch with their feminine side. She wrote about sympathy as an essential form of knowledge, without which any ministry is incapacitated.

… it is this ability to feel with others, as well as for them, that takes all hardness or ostentation from instruction and counsel – all implied superiority from pity and consolation. The woman, or man, of true feeling does not come down upon the sinner or sufferer, from another region, but is always, for the time being, on a level with those that are addressed – even able to see things as they see them.

Whether in sympathy or anything else, the Episcopal Church has been made incomparably richer by the gifts of its women clergy. I might add that I am privileged to witness this richness firsthand as the husband of a parish priest, whose singular gifts teach me about priesthood – and discipleship – every day.