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  • Writer's picturethewrightecotheologian

Trails to the Mountain behind the mountain

Updated: Feb 11, 2023

Today I want to share my experience of hiking on the many mountains scattering the landscape of Boone, NC. My mind wandered to the ground beneath my feet and the many subjects I encountered as I became a sojourner on the trails transecting the elevated spaces of Boone. I hope you enjoy the pictures that I took as I wandered and pondered my relationship with Earth, God, and humanity.

I saw elegant and delicate flowers.

I felt hard stone and gnarled tree branches

I smelled cool decay and musty dirt

I heard cheerful birds and running streams

I tasted salty sweat and sweet water

All are subjects in the great cosmic communion unfolding all around me -- all glorifying God and communicating something to me of the nature and activity of God ... if I am aware.

We must awaken to the Mountain behind the mountain -- this is the source of the ecological conversation Pope Francis calls for in Laudato Si'. Today's blog is my attempt to pay attention to the mountain and that which lays beyond the mountain. Reflect a moment on the reason why Christians must reconnect to God as the mountain behind the mountain (Laudato Si', p.217)

[T]he ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion…Living our vocation to be protectors of God’s handiwork is essential to a life of virtue; it is not an optional or a secondary aspect of our Christian experience. Pope Francis

I remember the first time decades ago that Noel Dermot O'Donoghue's book "the mountain behind the mountain" was introduced to me. He was a scholar of Celtic Christianity and taught that the mountainous landscape of Ireland is a thin place -- somewhere where the veil between the physical/material and the immaterial/divine is so thin and permeable, one can almost touch and experience the face of Mystery. For a taste of the personal and embodied sense of God in Celtic imaginations -- one that engages the senses as well as the intellect -- check out Celtic Women's performance of The Sky and the Dawn and the Sun. The lyrics of this song speaks of the intimacy of the eternally transcendent God with creation and how Earth helps proclaim the truth of her Creator.

High is the moon tonight

Hiding its guiding light


Heaven and earth do sleep

Still in the dark so deep

I will the darkness sweep

I will the moon to flight

I will the heavens bright

I will the earth delight

Open your eyes with me

See paradise with me

Awake and arise with me

I am the dawn, I'm the new day begun

I bring you the morning, I bring you the sun

I hold back the night and I open the skies

I give light to the world, I give sight to your eyes

From the first of all time, until time is undone

Forever and ever and ever and ever

And I am the dawn and the sky and the sun

I am one with the One, and I am the dawn

I am the sky and the dawn and the sun

I am the sky and the new day begun

I am the sky and the dawn and the sun

As a scientist enamored with the physical world and one who experienced moments of this thinness and closeness to God in and through nature -- I was dumbfounded. My traditional 'church' education did not speak of this personal closeness other than in sacramental life (which was far and away the spiritual cornerstone of my faith without me really understanding why).

Now that I have more of a historical consciousness, I know that the intimacy with nature that fed the Celtic Christian imagination was not what fed mine up to that point. I had been nourished by a story of separateness and alienation so that a false claim of separation, human superiority, and entitlement was made. It seemed to make sense because I had been given no other story to compare it to. But etched into the back of my Christian imagination, fed in part by my scientific awe of the gorgeous, dynamic, and intricate world around me, were nagging questions that did not demand to be answered until my PhD adventures:

Did not Genesis proclaim that all of creation was indeed very good?

What about the intimacy with Earth the Psalmists proclaimed?

Then how could creation -- without the ability to turn away from God that humanity possessed -- fall from this original position of goodness and become dead, inert, worthless and distant from God?

The short answer is that the cosmos is alive with the wild, creative, redeeming Spirit of God and we are part of this creation. We are stardust. The scales must fall from our eyes so we can awaken to this truth.

For this will change everything.

The trails that I meandered today spoke of such intimacy with God because I was looking for this sermon. I was open to discovering thin places. I invite you to come join me in this journey.

St Thomas Aquinas wrote his masterpiece Summa Theologica as a guide for the faithful in their path to God. He spoke of our life on Earth as a journey or trail of sorts -- moving from God's loving embrace back to God's loving embrace. So how you live and love can be thought of as your "I love you" in return.

On your trail to God, are you on the first step, out of breath, legs heavy with the weariness of the world? Or are you bounding towards God with a lightness that comes from your connection with a true source of sustenance? Or are you off in the underbrush, unable to even see the path to God? And who do you picture as fellow travelers worthy of engagement?

Look at the small details in the picture above. Notice the slight buttressing of this tree's root in response to the winds of change and the depth of soil. The stronger the winds against the trunk and branches of the tree and the shallower the soil, the more buttressing a tree has to do in order to stay upright. How can this agility, dynamism and natural resiliency help you understand the nature of God's strength and power? How does the millennia of harmony pictured in this web of life narrate a different vision of life than the one that possesses our imaginations now -- namely a story of human separation from and power over creation and people who look and sound different than us? Sit with this trail and reflect on paragraph 11 of Laudato Si'

If we approach nature and the environment without…openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.

Now notice the incredibly slow journey of the unfurling grey roots as they stretch their fingers further into unfamiliar places looking for stability and nourishment. Notice that in return, these roots gratefully hold firm and maintaining the home of tens of thousands of scuttling bugs and friends against the corrosive fury of life's storms. What are they telling us about time, urgency, and the reciprocal nature of work? When we ignore the revelation offered through our wonder and awe of these Earthy trails, we become ignorant of a dimension of our triune God who holds us fast and we are blind to the needs and gifts of our human neighbors. In what ways does the tendrils of your life grace others with space and opportunity to live and love abundantly? Sit with this trail and reflect on paragraph 217 of Laudato Si'

The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast”. For this reason, the ecological crisis is also a summons to profound interior conversion. It must be said that some committed and prayerful Christians, with the excuse of realism and pragmatism, tend to ridicule expressions of concern for the environment. Others are passive; they choose not to change their habits and thus become inconsistent. So what they all need is an “ecological conversion”, whereby the effects of their encounter with Jesus Christ become evident in their relationship with the world around them.

Notice this fern as it is stretching its hungry, joyful arms and leaves towards the light -- its roots deep inside the smallest crack in the solid exterior of this rock. I can almost hear her lighthearted laughter for she is doing what she is called to do in DNA yet it is nearly an impossible task -- growing in the midst of metamorphosed volcanic formations with creativity and grace. And in return, her roots chip off bits of silica, iron, calcium, and carbon creating soil for future generations of neighbors to make their home. Your own roots are grounding you in this unique moment in cosmic history? Where do they lie? Are they exposed? Do they grow tenaciously in the crevice of a rock face, beating all the odds and creating fertile substrate for those who follow? Or are they shriveling on bare ground because you are afraid to become what is written within your core essence? What is this fern preaching about God's creative power, grace, and love? In this thin place, what does she teach us about our call to interdependence, service and sacrifice? Sit with this fern a while and then reflect on paragraph 220 of Laudato Si'.

This conversion calls for a number of attitudes which together foster a spirit of generous care, full of tenderness. First, it entails gratitude and gratuitousness, a recognition that the world is God’s loving gift, and that we are called quietly to imitate his generosity in self-sacrifice and good works:... It also entails a loving awareness that we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion. As believers, we do not look at the world from without but from within, conscious of the bonds with which the Father has linked us to all beings. By developing our individual, God-given capacities, an ecological conversion can inspire us to greater creativity and enthusiasm in resolving the world’s problems and in offering ourselves to God “as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable" (Rom 12:1).

We are bonded to all beings and to the Creator of all -- what a gift of belonging that is sorely needed in our technologically driven and lonely world! Our misguided desire to be separate from Earth and our search for our own "specialness" in the eyes of God that denied the worth of others, has caused us to disconnect with the true source of physical and spiritual life. Awakening to the wonder and awe of Earth's communion of subjects that is continuously testifying to the sacred source of our cosmic interconnection will feed our ecological change of heart. This is not a new revelation for the writers of the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 6:25-29) proclaim this too:

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life ... Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these."

Awaken to the deep, intertwining roots of creation -- and everything will change.

Praise Be!

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