A MAN in a high visibility jacket picks up litter in a London park. It’s early morning, foggy, late summer, and boxes of pizza and cans of lager from last night are clustered under the trees. There are not many people. But the wild birds are there, gathered in groups by the Serpentine.
Among them are the colorful, often noisy Egyptian geese. A group of ten or twelve of them are lying on the grass under one of the tallest plane trees in London. And as the man in the high visibility approaches, they don’t move away – and so he starts talking to them. I wonder what he’s saying. He speaks to them in his native Bulgarian and the conversation seems quite friendly. He smiles at them. His garbage collector continues to prick pieces of paper, plastic wrappers, packets of crisps.
And, by collecting waste, it helps save their lives. While he talks to them, maybe they save his own. The conversation continued for a while, until all the plastic was removed from their neighborhood and he waved goodbye to them.
Man is, on behalf of urban humans, cleaning up the environment in which ducks live, removing human trash, saving them from the trash of the city they are surrounded by. And he speaks to them in his mother tongue; he is far from home, in a low paid job. I have no idea of his situation, but I am struck by his humor and kindness when he jokes with geese.
There is a kind of mutual economy going on here. But a kind of love also in this small and fleeting personal encounter between humans and creatures in the middle of the city in the early morning.
THOMAS TRAHERNE, the 17th century priest and poet, writing with so much exuberance and joy about the natural world, invites us human beings to notice, to remain attentive, even in the middle of our working day in the midst of a city, like that man picking up trash early in the morning in London. Loving the gifts we are always surrounded by and participating in nothing less than the fundamental change in attitude that is so urgent.
One aspect of Traherne’s spirituality that I recognize is that he always seems to be looking for something. Not just waiting for it, but yearning, stretching, almost striving for a deeper oneness, a deeper union with the divine, and therefore greater and more satisfying happiness, which was one of his concerns. Traherne teaches us a habitual attitude towards creation that is not fundamentally human-centered.
Although one of his goals seems to be individual happiness – which might seem too selfish – he defines this happiness as union with the divine, bound by the cords of love, embodied by Christ on the cross. And so, in the end, it’s more of a gift of oneself than a realization of oneself.
“This cross is a tree ablaze with an invisible flame, which illuminates the whole world. The flame is Love, the Love within it that died on it. In the light of which we see how to possess all the things of Heaven and Earth after its similarity.
Despite Traherne’s aspiration and emphasis on the happiness of an individual person, there is, for me, in his focus on the central presence of the cross at the heart of creation, a decentring of the human experience. that underlies all his quests for joy. And, fundamentally, a shift in human experience is what is needed in our attitude to the current ecological crisis.
The uneven and unfair impacts felt by different populations across the world are a shame for those of us in developed countries, who have exported our carbon emissions progress to poorer nations who now, not without reason. , challenge us. Politics is not easy. But, fundamentally, don’t we need a revolution to decenter the human from our gaze on the planet, which is a divine vision of creation?
It is our usual position to regard the ecosystems of the planet as constituting “resources” from which we can benefit. We have, since industrialization in particular, viewed natural minerals, water, animals and plants as resources – sometimes resources that we have worked to make sustainable, but resources nonetheless.
On the regular climate change marches in Piccadilly, chants and banners often say “Leave it in the ground”. That is, stop thinking of the earth as a natural version of a supermarket shelf, full of choices and goodies to eat and use. Perhaps Traherne’s spirituality can help us here in two ways.
FIRST, for Traherne, the relationship between humanity and the natural world is characterized by the gaze of a lover towards the beloved. And, secondly, it helps us to find a doxological posture towards nature. Love and praise.
Just as a lover looks at his beloved, caught between the desire to possess and the desire to freely adore, Traherne offers us the language and the energy simply to love the environment in which we are. Love him. And, loving him, weep for him too.
“You never enjoy the world properly until the sea itself flows through your veins. . . until each morning you wake up in Heaven: see yourself in your Father’s Palace: and look at the Heavens, the Earth and the Air as heavenly joys.
It is because we love God, who loves us, that we are no longer the center of our own universe. It is Christ who is the active center of all creation and, as Denise Inge comments, the created world is therefore mysteriously “the body of God”.
Traherne insists that it is in the cross that we “enter the heart of the universe”. For Traherne, God is revealed in creation, and we must be enjoyers of this creation, therefore enjoyers and participants in the life of God.
Leaving aside our androcentric language can make us playful again, in Traherne’s language, more childish (another of his main themes). Playing with the scene I described in the park means that we again realize that the bird doesn’t know its name is a bird. He does not know that he is called an Egyptian goose. He doesn’t even know there is an Egypt.
He is gloriously and unaffected himself. His very being is part of God’s love letter written in creation, more eloquent than any word.
The second useful approach of Traherne is that of praise. Not only do creatures and plants continue to live without reference to our name or definition, but they themselves constantly praise their Creator. And our whole liturgy, celebrated as it is at the crossroads between time and eternity, is offered, not as something we have created or assembled, but as a moment in time when we simply join in. the eternal praise offered by the created order. visible and invisible.
LIKE listening to the angels and archangels in the book of Revelation, every time we come together to pray we “lift the lid” on what is a constant cacophony of praise and prayer and being exultant – our prayers just join in this praise, which always happens, a few short hours a week.
On Easter Day of this year I experienced it which, for me, was an embodiment of the vision of Revelation and the song of praise and the declaration of holiness contained in the Sanctus that we sing each day. Eucharist. It was 5 am I was getting ready for the dawn service during which I was going to sing the Exultet.
One of the oldest songs of the Church, the Exultet announces the astonishing news of the resurrection of Christ. It’s sung over an old plainsong, so I was outside our church in central London at 5 a.m. on Easter morning. The clubs had disgorged most of their revelers, and the deafening noise of thousands of glass bottles dumped in garbage trucks punctuated the early morning.
There were a number of people who slept in the church at night to watch, and I went to the church garden so as not to disturb them. It was still technically dark, although, due to light pollution, it was never really dark. I began to sing, “Rejoice heavenly powers! Sing choirs of angels! While singing, I realized that I was not singing alone. A few feet from me, a blackbird was singing at the top of its lungs – much, much more beautifully than any human voice. Just because he could. Just because he was a blackbird.
I struggled to continue my practice when I realized that my voice of praise was simply joining in with what was already happening each morning, making each Easter morning a day of resurrection and exulting joy to be in. life. My weak attempt at praise was enveloped, held, cherished, even, in the love letter God was writing even then – to me and all of us with ears to hear.
Hildegarde de Bingen, writer and Christian mystic, wrote in the 12th century as an accompanying text to a large part of her plainsong music: “Under all the texts, all the psalms and sacred hymns, these aquatic varieties of sounds and silences, terrifying, mysterious, swirling and at times gestant and soft must somehow be felt in the pulse, ebb and flow of the music singing in me. My new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.
For Christians of the 12th or 17th century, and for Christians of the 21st century today, at the center of the universe is the resurrection energy of the Risen Christ: the deadly powers of nihilism, human pride. , pollution of motives, abuse of power, all themes of Christ’s death, are dissolved by the miracle of resurrected life after such destruction. That is why we will want to act not only decisively but joyfully, with a playful spirit as part of the living world that God created and is still remaking today.
This is an edited excerpt from Read the Bible with your feet published by Canterbury Press on September 30. The reverend Lucy Winkett, in conversation with China McDonald, participates in the next online Church hours Faith and Literature Festival on September 25, tickets available now via faithhandliterature.hymnsam.co.uk.