Sunday, August 17, 2014
"Meadow Across the Creek"
I am six years old. I skip along a dirt road on the edge of the Ghanaian fishing village where we live, feeling the heat of the sunset against my face as it turns the world a deep reddish gold. Palm trees sway, and hibiscus flowers tremble and begin to close in the early evening breeze. My brothers race ahead and my little sister walks behind hand in hand with my parents, their voices drowned by the sound of the ocean. The smell of sea salt mixes with the smoke of cooking fires. Soon the sun will set behind the distant mountain but for one last moment it gives me everything – beauty, glory, happiness. It is my first explicit memory of utter mind-blowing joy.
This memory is my personal ‘Meadow across the Creek’, to echo Thomas Berry in The Great Work. It is my first awareness of my place in the world, and the absolute greatness of that world. It is a sacred memory, one that informs my life both in terms of recognizing the glory of our planet, and the interconnectedness of that recognition with a sense of love for family and place. Later, I will want my children to feel what I felt, and as a teacher I will want my students to feel it too. Berry notes, “if we observe our children closely in their early years we see how they are instinctively attracted to profound experiences of the natural world.” The world awakens the aesthetic instinct which yearns to be fed and then to feed the world in return.
As a chaplain at a Catholic high school, it is one of my tasks to offer students and staff experiences of the sacred, and to walk with them in their challenges and their joys. This is a cooperative venture, and together we rely on our shared talents to offer the widest variety of experiences possible. My husband Brian, an Outdoor Education and Special Education teacher at the same school, helps in designing activities that offer experiences of nature to students at all levels of achievement. The sense of the sacredness of the universe is open to all, regardless of abilities or talents. As Thomas Berry states, “This we need to know; how to participate creatively in the wildness of the world about us. For it is out of the wild depths of the universe and of our own being that the greater visions must come.”
The role of experience is critical here. We cannot talk ourselves or others into experiences of the sacred. We can only live these experiences. Sure, we need to talk in order to better understand and share our experience, and build relationships of compassion and love. But the primary sense of sacredness comes from the experience of love itself, an intimate relationship with the world since all that is loved and everyone who is loved come from the Earth. The Word that transcends all words is in the World itself, in fact, the whole cosmos.
Too often in schools, as in homes and churches, we attempt to draw students into contemplative prayer without helping them first experience the greater sense of the sacred in the world. That sense can come through any subject matter, and any revelatory experience, but an initial lasting connection must be made to the primary fact of God’s presence in the world. We must begin with the world.