This homily was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 11/26/17 for our Thanksgiving Contemplative Service. It looks at the dual nature of peace and risk in the natural world through the comic foibles of one Unitarian Universalist minister.
“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way, clear, in the ancient faith: what we need is here. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. What we need is here.” – Wendell Berry
This culminating line to the poem about the Wild Geese by Wendell Berry is the quintessential description of spirituality. Poetry is possibly the best medium for the definition to such an elusive word: Spirituality is a word that’s better encountered, than defined. It’s a word that we can know what it is, without knowing what it means; and poetry sometimes helps us know what it means, even if we can’t readily articulate it in words.
The peace of wild things is one of those phrases that evokes a range of reactions in people. Some of us, made quite sure we’d be here today, because that phrase is the bedrock of how you do “church”, even more than Sunday morning worship. And others, maybe, have an “allergic reaction,” so to speak, to that sense of spirit – the natural world is anything but peaceful.
Both sides speak to me – in the love of the natural world, and what emanates from the transcendent made imminent – as well as the frantic New Yorker hyped up on anti-histamines, fearful of the welts mosquitoes leave, and who subsequently loves spiritual Winter hiking. The swatting of my hands to stave off the bugs, makes warm-weather hiking with me anything but peaceful.
I remember one trip that brought out both extremes for me. It was the morning of my 31st birthday. I had spent the summer working on my Spanish in Guatemala, mostly through a language school in the city of Antigua. I was ending my trip by traveling across the country, and closing it out by hiking through the jungles of Tikal. There were enclosures at various spots, so don’t think I was camping out on the ground, that would have been suicidal really – there were enough threats for anyone in the daytime waking hours.
When I got to Tikal, it was probably around 85 degrees, and I think the humidity was somewhere around 120%. This didn’t stop me in the slightest from dressing up for the occasion in the fashion that suited a person who was allergic to everything – and who upon being bitten by a mosquito will usually have welts the size of quarters. I put on jeans, and boots, t-shirt, covered by a long sleeve shirt, covered by a hoodie (which of course was up the whole time I was in the jungle.) Guatemala also, thankfully, has more lax laws on how much deet that can go into bug spray. I was covered in it – on my skin, on my hoodie, on my belt and my boots. The peace of wild things is all good, as long as they aren’t crawling on me.
I recall seeing all sorts of insects I’ve never seen before or since, from giants ants with tiger striping on them, to the lovingly placed spider webs at head height with spiders the size of your fists in them. I only walked into three or four of those nests. Probably the most disturbing, was a moment with my small group, where I was a few feet ahead and the air in front of me started to waver – it took on a fuzzy appearance – much like the old static on black and white TVs for those that remember them. It was maybe five feet in front of me. I asked the local tour guide, what was I looking at? I honestly couldn’t interpret what I was seeing – it was so absolutely new to me. He casually said – “oh, those are army ants on the march. You should probably take a step back now.” (You should probably take a step back…)
Maybe this is the Unitarian Universalist in me – and our fervent anti-creedalism – but any theology centering the peace of wild things – needs to also make room for army ants five feet in front of you. It’s nice to say, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you, but that’s not vaguely true. Sometimes you’re just very lucky.
Spirituality that pretends we have more control than we do, may be comforting, but it’s not deeply rooted. You probably haven’t been so close to actual army ants on the march, but most of us have faced far worse in our personal lives up close, and lived to see the other side of it. Or maybe you’re facing such a travail right now. If you can, maybe you should take a step back. Some things aren’t meant to be faced head on….We’re not always, or even usually, in control of the big things of life….
“Abandon, as in love or sleep, holds them to their way…”. The peace of wild things is about abandon, and faith. It’s the very opposite of control. What is essential is all around us, but we don’t achieve it by our strivings, we come to it with abandon, as in love or sleep.
On that fateful morning of my 31st birthday, in what in hindsight appears to have been an attempt to activate every one of my primal fears and terrors, right before sunrise, we climbed up on one of the step pyramids in Tikal. It would be later in the day, when I found myself clinging 50 feet up to a ladder that was needed to access a tier where the steps had eroded – paralyzed for a solid five minutes – where another guide would again casually comment later, “oh yes, we added that in a few years ago when some German tourist fell to their death.” But I didn’t know that fact yet. Hanging from that ladder was the very moment in my life when I learned the deep truth that you don’t always have to prove you can do something.
In the first pyramid we climbed though, much of the hillside had been left intact from a dig, and you could gradually climb to the top like you would any other hiking trip in hill country. Scary for some of us, but still doable. In my undergraduate years, in addition to religion, I dual majored in anthropology and archaeology and focused on ancient Mesoamerica. I was not going to miss this chance to see the world from that ancient angle – not because of a hill.
So as I was sitting up top, as the sun was rising, about 50 feet above the tree line of the jungle – you could look out and see for miles and miles – with other step pyramids peeking out from the tree-line. When, with what seemed to be spontaneous generation, dragonflies began appearing all around. They were waking up to feed in the early morning light – but I could not see where they were coming from. Just more and more were in front in the blink of an eye. Easily 30 or 40 dragonflies whipping about within fifteen feet of where I was sitting. It was one of the most magical moments in my life. And we pray, not for new earth or heaven, but to be quiet in heart, and in eye clear. I did not know where they came from, or notice where they went, but for a time, they were all that I could see.
May we attend carefully to the moments that come swiftly, unbidden, in new and unexpected ways. Those new moments to our clear eye, and our quieted heart, are the ancient faith, found in abandon; abandon of our worries, and our thoughts, our accomplishments, and our fears. Letting go, to let a little more of life in, much like as in love or sleep.
Amen and Blessed Be. And I’m glad to say this was the first, and only hiking excursion I’ve gone on in the warm weather months, where nothing succeeded in biting me.