A Sacred Assembly of Pines, Plants, and People Too

Stephen Blackmer ’12 M.A.R., ’83 M.F.

For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. (Isaiah 55:12)

Out the window, to my left, a magnificent sugar maple, its gnarled branches reaching wide to capture photons, claps leafy hands as it shouts for joy. Aged and tough, roots deep in the earth, it pulls living water up into woody bones.

To the right, a glossy white pine stretches fivefingered needles toward the heavens, arms raised in praise. Smooth-skinned and vital, its greenness breaths youthful energy and new life into the world.

Here indoors, all around me, people are singing, listening to the Word, attending to the preacher, taking fruits of the earth into their own bodies, going forth in service.

The scene remains clear in my mind’s eye, each body a revelation and manifestation of divine energy. One God, one world, many bodies praying. One creation. Yet separated by species, kept apart by walls that divide indoors from out.

A Church Seedling

I had arrived at Yale Divinity School following a call to become a priest. Never mind that I hadn’t ever attended church, read the Bible, or been part of a Christian (or any other religious) community. “My church is in the mountains, the forests, the river,” I said.

I was a church neophyte, a seedling. But God works in mysterious ways, calling who God calls, so there I was at YDS, sitting in Marquand Chapel, following along in the service, gazing out the windows, befriending the trees, brother Maple and sister Pine. “In the beginning … It was good … It was good … It was very good.”

During worship that day, I wanted to be outside with the trees, rejoicing together in the beauty and wonder of the whole earth. But that, I was already realizing, is something a divinity school doesn’t know how to do.

Christian practice and teaching have lost the art of connecting with God’s first self-revelation, outside our buildings, rituals, ’ologies, and texts. The creation as original temple.

Is it any wonder that, often unwitting, humans are tearing it down?

The sixth mass extinction now underway – the only one with humans on board, witnessing it, accelerating it. Climate change, toxic blooms, artificial everything, screen time, fire and drought, blazing heat and freezing cold, oceans rising, forests dying, nature deficit disorder. The ecological world is filled with heartbreak, battles to fight, righteous anger to express, activism to live. The creation has become an “issue,” a set of problems to be addressed through policy, economics, technology, action.

If we are paying attention, anxiety, fear, and grief are our constant companions.

How do we learn again to love the messy, muddy, not-so-human but eternally beautiful earthy reality that we are part of?

What if we don’t learn? What if we continue to turn our backs?

Can we love what we do not know? Can we grieve what we do not see? Can we heal what we never touch? Can we be healed without being touched?

Can we, again, engage with the land and her creatures as a revelation and encounter with God? As a way to healing?

The Fleshy Earth Around Us

When I was called into the church, my work changed from that of activist to that of priest. Now, I am charged with lifting up the sacred presence so that all may see and partake. To invite people into the joy, wonder, awe, delight, humility, peace of the created world. To reveal the fleshy earth around us as a bearer of the sacred.

Barred owl, pileated woodpecker, short-tailed ermine.
Bracken fern, sphagnum moss, princess pine.
White pine, black birch, red maple, beech.
Blueberry, winterberry, blackberry.
Dragonfly, ant, mosquito, mayfly.
Vernal pool and trickling stream.
British soldier moss.
Quartz and gneiss.

I can see or touch all of these within a few feet of where I am sitting. They’re all on the congregational roll call. Full members. The sun is shining, the air is cool and dry, the trees are leafing out, the birds are singing. We are all rejoicing in this day that God has made. All in all, it’s a gorgeous day to be … in church?

Well, actually, yes.

There’s no printed text, no procession, no altar, no prayer book. Just miracles in every direction. And me, the lone human being this morning, as witness and reporter, liturgist and priest.

Prayer, Presence, Attention

I am here to pray. And be present. And pay attention. These are all the same things, of course – prayer, being present, and paying attention.

I find that true prayer is an act more of listening than speaking, of being present to what is rather than clamoring for what I want. And of course, of giving thanks for the blessed fact that everything around me is – and that I am. Which, of course, is the name of God.

The earliest spirituality must have been something like this. Simply marveling at the existence of the world around us. Just being in the company of the extraordinary, rich, diverse, shifting pattern of nature, of the world, of the stars, of the entire universe. Feeling at one with all that is around and within. Simply resting in God.

With our scientific knowledge, we can know that we are privileged to live – so far as we know – in the only place ever, anywhere, where life exists. How amazing is that?! God from whom all blessings flow, indeed.

On a lovely spring morning, I experience God as beneficent provider. I smell the fertile soil, listen to the birds calling their morning song, watch the saplings reach toward the sun.

If I were here on a January night or during a September hurricane, I might feel differently.

Is our God a tame God or a wild God? Does the world need me, or need people at all? What do we add to this beautiful, sacred creation?

I know well what we destroy – we destroy much of this very abundance and beauty. I see signs of this, too, around me. A pile of discarded metal from a logging truck. Empty plastic bottles that held lubricating oil for chainsaws. Piles of dead trees, heaped up and pushed to the margins. Dry bones. I want them to live again.

Moose and Mea Culpa

I am surrounded by the immediacy of life and of death, in every moment and every square centimeter of ground.

Where does a moose go when it dies? I haven’t seen any fresh sign of moose this spring – I wonder if he (I know it was a he because I picked up a discarded antler) succumbed to the warming temperatures and last year’s abundance of ticks. Happily for me, there are fewer ticks this year. But, so far, no moose. A victim of global warming?

With this thought, I come face to face with the question of sin. What does it mean that people are the cause of one of the six great extinctions of species in the history of life? Mea culpa. Forgive me, for I have sinned.

What does forgiveness look and feel like in the face of destroying entire forms of life? What can possibly atone for this sin? I don’t know. And yet, sitting here this morning, I know there is nothing that can keep me from the love of God. The sun rises every day and the moon at night.

In return, what do we do?

We care for others, for all those who need love and help. We pray. We make music and art and ritual. We speak the names of all those things that are created – and those that are being destroyed.

We remember our rightful place in the order of things. In the woods, it is easier to remember that we are not the center of all things – that we are but keepers and servers of a creativity vastly greater than our own. That our great calling is to enhance, to elaborate, to create little riffs on great themes written long before time. To make more, not less, of what God has given us. To leave the world a better place.

Above all, we celebrate! We give thanks, we rejoice, we bring to full consciousness – or as close as we can get – the gift of simply being.

The Rev. Stephen Blackmer is pastor of Church of the Woods in Canterbury, NH, and executive director of Kairos Earth, a non-profit organization that renews understanding of the natural world as a bearer of the sacred and spreads practices for living accordingly. Before his ordination as an Episcopal priest in 2013, he worked for 25 years to conserve forests, mountains, and rivers in northern New England and New York. He graduated from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies with a Master of Forestry degree in 1983 and from YDS with a Master of Arts in Religion and Ecology degree in 2012.