This week’s guest blog is by Kent’s friend Don Witten. Here’s a link to his blog. We invite you to read and comment.
When Kent Harrop asked me to consider guest writing for his blog The Heretic and The Holy Man,
I felt a bit stumped as to a possible subject. He suggested that most of his writings considered the spiritual, natural, or environmental world. At the time of his asking, we were busy putting in our summer garden here in rural Oregon, and one sunny Sunday morning while working on the drip irrigation, I found my subject literally in the warm soil at my fingertips: The spiritual sanctuary of this garden.
My wife Jody and I both have our varied backgrounds in our religious upbringing, and both, in their own ways, have remained. Jody was raised in the Catholic tradition, and it remains an important stability in her life today. I, on the other hand, attended a small, non-denominational church outside of Roseburg, Oregon, and I look back on my Sundays there with a certain uneasieness. To be fair, any activity at that age that took me away from shooting a basketball, or throwing a football or baseball had no real attraction for me. Pastor Leonard, who led the Green Missionary Church, had a practice of letting an elder in the church orate the final prayer. As the elder prayed for us all, the pastor would whisper, very weepy and mournful, “Yes, Jesus!” I heard nothing of the prayer; I tuned in for Pastor Leonard’s doleful addition, and when it came, frankly, it scared hell out of me.
So the church was never a sanctuary of comfort for me, but I now remember the one place then that was. Beyond our back yard, past Green Elementary School, lay an expanse of grass field with a dirt trail running through its core. At the time, it seemed a vast prairie, but in reality only stretched a half mile or so until it ran into its northern border of small, ranch style homes on Austin Road. In the summer, I hopped on my three-speed Schwinn, and pedaled out through the field on a warm evening. Many times halfway across the field, I stopped, let my Converse Chuck Taylors touch the ground, straddled my bike…and simply listened. At times a rooster pheasant broke the silence, or a car trailed away in the distance. But mostly it was just me, my bike, the gold-brown summer grass, and the warm evening breeze. It’s hard to put in words exactly what I felt in those moments – a calm, a stirring at my core, a peace? – but there was something. It didn’t feel like a religious experience, and at the time I wouldn’t have considered it anything spiritual, but it gave me a connection to the earth, to the natural world around me. And while I didn’t think of comparing it then, it rang true to me far greater than any of Pastor Leonard’s sermons.
Today, I have a similar location, and this time I know its spiritual value. On many Sunday mornings when Jody heads off to mass at St. Philips, I make my way to our back yard garden. It is quiet, and I “worship” there by season: In the winter, I retreat to the potting shed, and listen to the rhythm of cold, slant rain; by spring, sun breaks and blue skies warm the soil, tulips and daffodils wave their color flags in the breeze; in the summer, the songs of wrens, robins, and darting hummingbirds make up the morning choir; and by fall, streaming V’s of Canada geese honk boisterously overhead, while maples turn slowly into coats yellow and orange.
For me, worship and spirituality has always been a private matter, and I hear louder the voice of God, or the Great Spirit, or a connection to something beyond me, when it is quiet nature speaking. I don’t hold what works for me above the healing center of a church, mosque, temple, or other sanctuary that works for others. And I get the idea of fellowship within a practice, I understand that, the importance of communing with others. My fellowship needs are met with the prayer flags fluttering overhead, the zinnias and tomatoes pushing up through the soil, and today, the rare monarch butterfly just passing through. At moments such as these, I feel the same peaceful tug at my core that I felt in that tall grass field over 50 years ago.
Perhaps psychologist Carl Jung had it right when he carved this Latin phrase over the door of his house:
VOCATUS ATQUE NON VOCATUS DEUS ADERIT – Called or not called, God will be there.
I hope this is the meaning that Pastor Leonard, and the tall grass in the field, meant for me.