What need of churches when there of fields of orange poppies, and foothills framed by cumulus scudding across the sky? This isn’t a throwback to some druid-like philosophy, though the druids understood something that we moderns have forgotten.
Even Pope Francis has said, “It is not necessary to go to church and give money—for many, nature can be a church. Some of the best people in history did not believe in God, while some of the worst deeds were done in His name.”
That’s a surprising statement from Rome’s head honcho. Perhaps the man is genuinely ecumenical after all.
I had an aunt who was a nun. She was at once devout and worldly. Once, when I was a young man, she happened to be visiting the home state at same time I was. She asked where I was one Sunday morning as the family was preparing to go to Mass.
Told I was out along the river, she made some pious remark about my not going to church, which at that time was still mandated by the stricture of mortal sin. To his credit, my father said, “Nature is his church.” My aunt scoffed.
After I left behind the false certainties and empty rituals of the Catholic Church while still in my teens, I could not understand why people built the great cathedrals. They were obviously beautiful, and took tremendous resources and many years to complete.
Then I had the chance to visit one, St. Isaac’s in what was still called Leningrad at the time It was about two years before the Soviet Union collapsed economically and politically, and America collapsed spiritually and socially.
The city’s cultural elites (the same city where Putin began his political career a few months after I was there) took me into the empty cathedral, stripped even of its pews. We were talking as we entered the immense space, its walls ladened with gold and bejeweled inlays across the vaults and arches in the Russian style. I stopped speaking and walked over to the center of the cathedral and looked up.
Having backpacked a fair amount in the High Sierras, I had the same feeling, to a lesser extent, you get on a high ridge or mountaintop—awe and smallness of self. I understood viscerally why people built such places: they recreate the religious feeling one gets in the mountains!
I rejoined the group of Russian cultural leaders. “What should we do with it?” they asked. I laughed at the irony of atheistically raised communists asking a religiously raised capitalist (I was ostensibly there on business) what to do with a cathedral.
Keenly aware of the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union, I made a toast that evening in which I said the city would be St. Petersburg again within the year. In November the original name was reestablished.
I suggested that they make the cathedral an ecumenical religious place, and not give it back to the church. They did just that however, and now the world has the unholy alliance between Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church.
Around the world, people have lost or are losing one of the most important things in life—the sense of mystery, awe and humility that comes with awareness of beauty in nature. Humans have tried, with varying degrees of success, to recreate these feelings in their places of worship.
No cathedral, mosque or temple can compare, however, to the sight of a great hawk, the sun refracting for a fleeting fraction of a second through its variegated brown wings as it alights a tree over a neighbor’s roof. A single moment of perceiving such beauty with all one’s being wipes away years of familiarity, which the encrusted traditions held in supposedly holy spaces can only reinforce.
The atmosphere held in even the oldest and most reverential cathedrals pales next to the stream of holiness flowing through an illumined human being. Has the sacred within and beyond nature waited, beyond time, holding itself in abeyance until evolution produced a brain capable of perceiving and receiving it?
Holiness is not generated by the mind of man. On the other hand, it can only come through the completely quiet brain and fully open heart of an awakened human being.