Homily – Commemorating St. Patrick of Ireland, March 17, 2013

(click ‘play’ to listen to homily as you read along)

(continuation of the Lenten preaching series based on Dr. Nancy Reeves’ book, I’d Say Yes, God, If I Knew What You Wanted)

I remember the holy moment that happened when I was eight or nine and wandering alone in the woods near my uncle’s farm. I came into a bit of a clearing in the forest in which a flock of magpies was sitting there in absolute silence. It was as if I had stumbled into a church service – or a monastery. I looked at them, and, quite eerily, they looked at me. I felt I had never seen anything more beautiful. Perhaps even then somewhat conscious of the sacredness of what I had interrupted, I backed out quietly, after sharing a minute or so of the absolute silence that prevailed.

That willingness to find significance in such moments is characteristic of Celtic spirituality – a spirituality which suggests that God is near and can be perceived through nature. First of all the Celtic vision is a sacramental vision – a willingness to see the inward, invisible grace in the outward, visible object or event – a willingness to recognize the hand of God in the most ordinary things. The Celtic element of the Church always portrayed the idea that there is a thin boundary between the ordinary and the divine. And they displayed a deep affinity with nature as a means through which the divine reveals itself.

St Patrick, missionary to the Irish, sang:

“I bind unto myself today

The virtues of the star lit heaven,
The glorious sun’s life giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind’s tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea
Around the old eternal rocks.”

The Irish were “green” long before it was politically correct or merely a matter of self-preservation. Our spiritual ancestors drew heavily from nature to give shape and meaning to their spirituality – everything from the cycles of the seasons to themes of beauty, birth and death, and the characteristics of animals and plants, were integrated into Christian patterns of worship and prayer and theology.

Jesus himself suggested the need to pay attention to flowers and birds and fig trees and seasons to get a sense of God’s nature, direction and purpose. Two of his greatest moments of discernment and decision happened in a desert and in a garden. In between he is portrayed as having had characteristic moments of solitude and contemplation, when he withdrew from the demands of others and into the silent beauty of nature.

The Gospels clearly point to this as an element in the spiritual life they were trying to cultivate in those who were beginning to follow the way of Jesus. To have said, “The Spirit drove him into the library” wouldn’t have had quite the same impact as “The Spirit drove him into the wilderness!”

The prophet Hosea (2:14) speaks of God luring the people into the wilderness and promising to speak to them there. Jesus apparently headed for open space when he needed to reconnect – when his spiritual energies had been drained. When our minds have reached a dead end, when our theories and formulas and efforts to manage have led us nowhere, then we may need to be reminded of our spiritual relationship with nature.

As the poet Wendell Berry said:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Celtic spirituality was quite open and diverse, and much less focused on precision of belief than on instilling and celebrating a sense of God incarnate – God present – and on how the living word speaks in many voices, from many sources. In The Book of Job (12: 7—10) an exasperated Job tells his zealous but uncomprehending friends: “ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth,* and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.”

“Ask the animals . . . ask the plants.” What does it mean when we see a whale in our dreams? Or an elk? Or a tiger? Or a tree? Have you ever heard the phrase “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear”? Often people have found great meaning in what these have symbolized. Ask them. Question your experience. Why are they there? What do they symbolize for you? Whether they speak to us in a dream, or via a National Geographic special, I like to think they have much wisdom with which we need to connect and we need to pay attention. For centuries, we have not been listening.

The scripture says “our sin took us far from you . . .” and nowhere is this more true than in terms of our relationship with creation. In the process of industrial development Western society began to see nature less as companion and more as commodity. Religiously, we felt we had grown out of a rather juvenile animism that might once have seen God poking around behind the sunrise or grinning up at us from a riverbed. Western society de-spiritualized nature and it became a thing to be owned, used and exploited.

The Celts, like our Native people, always treated nature as a living entity, and had a kind of reverential and even apologetic approach regarding their own needs. Western civilization is largely anthropo-centric. In author Daniel Quinn’s terms, we are takers rather than leavers. But it is a serious misreading of Genesis to think that it teaches us that human beings are entitled to monopolize life on this planet, to cause such harm to the environment, and to destroy so many kinds of creatures. And it is a serious misreading of Genesis to believe that the creation is not directly linked with the goodness of God.

Many of us have looked at a sunrise or watched the rain coming down and allowed our moods to be touched. Intuitively, we know that a walk in the woods can ground us and discovering a wild flower can lift our spirits. Nancy Reeves talks about facing a difficult moment of discernment and how her decision became clear as she rode a horse along the ocean shore. “My thoughts and ideas became cleaner,” she said. That moment decided her move to Canada from Ireland.

Many people now will say that some of their most sacred moments happen in nature – a glimpse of the Northern Lights, the small wild flower growing up at the side of the path; a fir tree growing out of a rocky cliff; the vista and perspective from a mountaintop; the thrill of paddling a canoe or kayak through white water; the profound peace of deep, still water.

So it is understandable and right that people come to see the protection of places like the Skeena river valley and the migration pathways of whales in sacred terms – it is a way of honouring the God who created the majestic beauty of things and also of reminding people that we may not treat creation as just another product to be consumed.

Out on a winter walk, Terry Tempest Williams wrote: “I find myself being mentored by the land once again, as two great blue herons fly over me.” Terry Tempest Williams in Meditations From the Wilderness ed. Charles A.E. Brandt p. 29)

To be true to the Celtic spiritual tradition, it seems to me it’s part of the role of the Church to be able to help people make the connection between that kind of experience and the Creator whom we worship and serve through Jesus Christ.

I would tend to go even further, because I think that in a real way we need to begin to allow nature to become our Spiritual Director, to seek in nature a means by which the Holy Spirit can communicate with us and guide us. This is a much more mystical approach than most Anglicans would be used to. Awe and reverence and profound gratitude are key aspects of any genuine spirituality, but to really connect it requires openness and humility and above all, practice.

Reeves quotes St Augustine, who said: “I asked the earth, the sea and the deeps, heaven, the sun, the moon and the stars … My questioning of them was my contemplation and their answer was their beauty . . . Beauty appears to all in the same way, but is silent to one and speaks to another. The ones who understand it are the ones who compare the voice received on the outside with the truth that lies within” (Reeves p. 163).

I happen to think nature is much more sensitive to us than we are aware, suggesting that sometimes things show up because they intuitively know we need something and they are drawn to us.

Nancy Reeves offers the example of a young woman distraught about the death of a friend. Walking on the beach before the funeral, where they had many times walked together, anxious about singing at her friend’s funeral, she was approaching panic, and the windy weather was adding to the stress when she suddenly “looked up and saw an eagle” (p. 109). The eagle was struggling with the wind, and the woman identified with the eagle in its struggle; but moments later it caught an updraft and began to soar. The woman said, “Still in communion with [the eagle], my spirits rose as well. Anxiety was transformed into calm. I felt euphoric. Every cell of my body felt larger. I knew God had answered my call. I knew [my friend] was safe at home, healed and whole and that I would be more than able to sing at her service [which turned out to be] … a deeply spiritual experience for many people.”

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth.” In Revelation 21, John shares the vision of a new earth – a renewed creation – a new way of seeing the glory of what God has done and its ultimate destiny, and of understanding God as among us, with us, not remote and removed from the system.

That is the kind of vision that allows someone like St Patrick to pick up a clover plant and see a reminder of God the Holy Trinity. It is a theology of life, incarnational in that it sees God present in life and celebrates that presence, instead of thinking of God as totally beyond or other, and yet without ever losing the sense of God’s transcendence.

I happen to believe that we are capable of a much deeper relationship with nature, a communion if you will, and that biblical images like the Garden of Eden and of wolf and lamb co-existing are meant in a real and not merely metaphorical way. I believe they are meant to express a possibility, one that depends on how we humans choose to relate to the world.

The Rev. Grant Rodgers+

Genesis 1: 20—27 And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’21So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good.22God blessed them, saying, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.’23And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day. And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.’ And it was so.25God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind* in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth,* and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’
So God created humankind* in his image, in the image of God he created them;*
male and female he created them.

Revelation 1: 21—27 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home* of God is among mortals.
He will dwell* with them;
they will be his peoples,*
and God himself will be with them;*
4 he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’6Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.7Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.

Luke 4: 40—43 As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them.41Demons also came out of many, shouting, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah.* At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them.43But he said to them, ‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’44So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.*


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