Into the Wild
Out here, on the other side of church land, I can see the extent to which Christianity has become an indoor religion.
One Sunday a year my Calgary congregation used to move outside for our Stampede breakfast and worship service. We'd set up chairs in rows on the lawn, just like we did indoors. We'd place a table at the front, levelling its legs on the uneven ground. We'd amplify the spoken parts of the service with a sound system, running cables in through the windows to power outlets down in the basement. It was outdoors, but we had all our lifelines in place so it could be as close as possible to being indoors.
Still, it was an enormous success. Being outside the church walls, we were suddenly accessible to the neighbourhood. Strangers would line up around the block for our flapjacks and sausages. Many would hang around for the worship service, led by a loud country band. And all under the bright sun of a July morning. People loved it.
But whenever I was asked by a couple to marry them out-of-doors--at a local park, say, or in a meadow in the mountains--I was required to obtain the permission of my bishop. The sacraments were intended for sacred places, indoor places, church buildings set aside for holy purposes. The great outdoors were not considered "consecrated" in that way, so special dispensation was needed.
Yet, the weddings I took outdoors are memorable in ways the indoor ceremonies could never be, which all tend to blend into one amorphous blur in my mind, each service ticking along a familiar track established by generations of experience--the groomsmen gathering at the front, the bridal party processing in from the back, the staged exchange of vows and rings, even the ubiquitous photographers, like sharks, circling closer and closer. The deed was done. There were pictures to prove it. But Nature, in all its unpredictable beauty and variety, had not been invited.
Outdoor weddings had to be more flexible, cutting to the chase as the wind picked up, wrapping everyone in shawls and blankets as the sudden snow swirled, the congregation gathering closer in as our voices were carried away. The weather became part of the ceremony, as did the mountain vista and the sun in our eyes. With or without photographs, each outdoor wedding is emblazoned in my memory.
Some would remind us that Christianity hasn't always been an indoor religion. Jesus exercised his entire ministry out-of-doors--on riverbanks, across hillsides, along the road, in town squares. Things went badly when he was forced indoors, to stand before Pilate. The apostles, too, preached in outdoor locations, at markets and religious shrines, wherever people gathered. The church moved indoors only as it became dangerous to gather where spies and turncoats could see them. And then they went deep indoors, to caves and catacombs.
With the spectacular European cathedrals of the High Middle Ages, the church replicated the great outdoors with masonic mastery and artistic imagination, but indoors: the high vaulted ceilings like the heavens above; the mottled light moving through the space as through the leaves of a thousand trees; the floors like great rock slabs, firm and immovable. You could control things from in there. and people wouldn't wander off quite so easily.
But how much of our God-given, natural-born spirituality was left outdoors, as we stamped the mud from our shoes, hung our coats by the door, and trudged to our pews? Without the wind in our faces, how were we to comprehend the breath of the Holy Spirit; without a roaring fire, its flames upon the heads of believers? Without the elk rising from the tall grass or the column of ants detouring around our toes, how to appreciate all creatures, great and small? The sun, moon, and stars, painted on the ceiling overhead were mere intimations of their celestial greatness.
In this week's episode of The Mystic Cave, I track my return to the wilds, where my spiritual path is leading me these days. As I open myself anew to the God we left outdoors, when we turned in, I am confronted with a challenge but also inspired by a delight. The challenge is my ageing body that has grown fearful of the indifference of the natural world and of its power to hurt me. The delight is all the memories flooding my mind of times when I was not afraid of nature, but sought it out as a playmate and as a teacher.
God in Nature is calling me back to find my wonder, not in things made by human hands, but in the mysteries of a natural world that remains alive and enlivening, despite all the harm human hands have done to it. My guess is that I am not alone in this new part of my journey. In fact, I know I'm not. I’m meeting so many others heading this way that it feels like a movement.
The natural world might be calling to you as well, however invested we are in our indoor comforts and electronic distractions. Because, after indoor church, we are sent back out into the world, where we belong.
This week's episode of The Mystic Cave is called "Into the Wild: Ageing, Nature, and a Horse Named Jackson." To listen, just press the Play button below ...