Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Experiencing the Divine

Rev. Matt Tittle, at Keep the Faith, is blogging about sources of wisdom, using as his guide the "six sources recognized in Unitarian Universalism." He starts off with a post about experiencing God, "that transcending mystery and wonder which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life." He asks at the end of his post, "When do you experience God?"

My dh's aunt once remarked, while looking at a beautiful landscape in a set of vacation slides, "how can one look at that and say there is no god?" I'm in awe of the beauty of nature too, but... what about those experiences that don't immediately make one think of a renewal of the spirit? Sometimes getting to the life-affirming part takes a little more effort. Here's my experience (adapted from a sermon of mine):

Way back in May of 1980 Mt. St. Helens in Washington State erupted - or exploded. Half the mountain fell into Spirit Lake, trees were toppled like pick up sticks, ash was thrown up into the atmosphere, falling over a huge radius out from the mountain. Total devastation, right?

Yes... and no. My brother, who lived in Yakima at the time, sent us jars of volcanic ash. I couldn't keep it - it made me shudder. Thinking of the destruction wrought by the eruption and looking at the ash made me think of crematories and death.

Seven years later, the dh and I visited Mt. St. Helens with our 16-month old son. Along with the others willing to venture out in the soggy mists, we observed the trees still lying on the ground like tossed and broken Tinker toys, the bare ground that had been scoured clean by ash, pumice and lava flow. In photos of the area before the eruption, the mountain had been postcard perfect, a symmetrical cone with snow surrounding the crater at the top, lush trees growing up the sides – just what one would imagine a scenic volcano to look like.

Now the north side appeared jaggedly broken open as if someone had taken a gigantic hammer to it. The mountain appeared lumpy and barren -- no trees, little snow, mostly bare grey ground. The formerly pristine Spirit Lake, a favorite destination of day-trippers for swimming and boating, now a swamp filled with the skeletons of rotting trees and other debris. The scene was desolate, stark and depressing. It seemed nothing was alive, that nothing could live, in this bleak environment.

The paths where visitors could walk were clearly posted. In addition to walking the self-guided paths, we opted to take advantage of a guided walk. The staff was still working out of makeshift quarters, and the visitor’s center was little more than a trailer surrounded by a gravel parking lot topping mud and ash. Our guide took us along a path that was cordoned off from the general public. After describing the eruption, she pointed out some of the obvious changes in the landscape. She then asked us if we saw any signs of life – most in the group answered negatively. She leaned over to move a few dead branches aside, exposing small green shoots with purple buds.

“Fireweed,” she said, “it’s one of the first things to come back when there’s been such heat and destruction. There are patches up and down the mountainside, the loose soil is ideal for these plants. These weeds will prepare the ground for more plants, and, eventually, trees. This is why we have to stay strictly on the paths. We don’t want to destroy the tender new plants.”

Another seven years passed, and we were able to return to Mt. St. Helens, now 14 years after the eruption. This time we approached the Volcanic Monument as a very different family. We now had three children. And, they were so excited to be in a place so different from the relatively flat Midwest.

They and their father ran ahead on the path surrounding the visitor center, while I took a minute to sit and catch my breath. I looked out on a new lake, scooped out by the previous destruction, where people were kayaking and playing. I looked up at the clear sky – blue with some wispy clouds high above me. I contemplated the ruined mountain, its jagged top and still-barren slopes. This time I noticed new growth creeping up the side of the mountain. A few trees, struggling to grow upright. Newly built visitor centers, with people inside learning about the awesome power of nature to create and destroy. Humanity taking what nature had re-shaped, continuing the work of re-forming the landscape – trying to be more intentional about working with, instead of against, nature.

This planet is not just a slab of inert matter, provided for us to shape as we will. We are not its masters, we are part of it. The forces of nature, the elements that our forebears saw as basic to life, move and change and shape the planet… and us. But we are not totally passive, either. We mold and change and shape in turn, though not always wisely. That's interdependence in action.

It was one of those moments of clarity, when my theology met reality and hummed in harmony. I like to focus on the sweet, abundant, fertile and fruitful “mother nature” image of this planet – and it’s a valid image. But, it’s only part of the story. In order to know the planet - In order to know the holy - one has to understand the whole life cycle. Death and destruction are as necessary a part of the natural cycle as the beautiful sunsets and butterflies. What results is sometimes a terrible beauty, but beauty nonetheless.

It is oh, so tempting to want to have a story of life that is always clean and beautiful. But, life is - the divine is - clean and messy, beautiful and terrible, serene and tempestuous.

Blessings on your journey.


ms. kitty said...

Lovely, EB. Good old fireweed proves the point once again----sometimes things have to be destroyed in order to let life happen.

stephen said...

Beatiful post. Thanks.

uuMomma said...

Thanks for sharing your Mt. St. Helen's story. It's beautiful and I really like how you wrap it up. Clean AND messy. Sums up my life! Best,