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  • Writer's pictureThe Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples

A Single Essence | April 11, 2021 Message from Dr. Benton

Man cannot long separate himself from nature

without withering as a cut rose in a vase.

One of the deceptive aspects of mind in man is to give him

the illusion of being distinct from and over against

but not a part of nature.

It is but a single leap thus to regard nature as being

so completely other than himself that he may

exploit it, plunder it, and rape it with impunity.

The opening quote from Dr. Howard Thurman was written in 1971, 50 years ago. Thurman sensed the impending crisis...and the root of that crisis. At that time, I was just coming of age and sensed it as well. Yet, the so-called environmental movement participated in that separation that Thurman spoke of. Instead of being a movement of all the people…instead of being a movement to acknowledge our relatedness to all life…it ended up being largely a movement dominated by the white elite. This has contributed to the delay in awareness…the delay in dealing with this fundamental crisis.

The acknowledgement by Thurman of the human mind playing tricks on us has been key to our blindness and neglect of the crisis. The following poem by Deena Metzger, a poet, novelist, essayist, storyteller, teacher, healer and medicine woman, is an adaptation of the well-known message from Martin Niemöller that we heard recently at a Zoom gathering of our Fellowship.

First the animals began dying, going extinct, and we did not stop what we were doing because we are not animals.

Then the glaciers started melting and we did not stop what we were doing because we thought we could do without them.

Then the forests were disappearing and we did not stop cutting down the trees because we could not imagine being unable to breathe.

Then the virus came and there was no one to stop us but ourselves.

There is indeed no one to stop us but ourselves. It has been 50 years…50 YEARS!!! That is a good portion of my lifetime…and all because we did not truly understand our place in creation…our common evolution. And how is this possible? Let us meditate on that question for a moment while we watch our relatives, the flowers blooming in time-lapsed photography. Notice what feelings arise in you as you experience, again and again, the opening of the blossom…the unveiling of the stigma and stamen, the carpel and the ovary…enrobed in the beautiful petals of the flower.

The emotions that we sense as we see the opening of the flower are evidence of our relatedness…our sharing of the essence of life…the joy of living we experienced with Chopin. This essence is deep within our souls…and within the soul of the flower. That is what we are feeling when we witness nature and its processes…the experience of life…of the joy of life...of our children and grandchildren…of a baby bird in a nest and its first attempts at flight…of the beautiful courtship dance of the birds of paradise…

Seeing these clips, we experience a sense of humility at being part of this process called life…a sense of awe and wonder that such spectacles even exist and that we are related to these creatures…we may also be capable of such beauty. It is this humility that we seem to be lacking in our understanding of nature. Instead we have seen ourselves as over and above nature…as perhaps the keepers or more often tamers of nature. But it is exactly this humility that is at the core of understanding our relatedness…our participation in life. Thurman reminds us that we can learn this humility from earth itself. He writes:

The humble spirit and the contrite heart

Thou givest to him who seekest with true devotion.

The humble spirit. I learn the meaning of the humble spirit from the earth.

The earth takes into itself the rain, the heat of the sun,

and it works with these gifts of life to bring the magic out of itself

to be used for growth and sustenance of all living things.

The earth is good because it takes what life gives, and within itself

it uses its gifts to make life abound.

It waits for fruition and gathers its fruits unto itself.

For more life and more growing.

I shall learn of the earth the meaning of the humble spirit.

Now I was a student a long time ago in a program called: Ecology and Environmental Technology. There I not only acquired book and laboratory knowledge of life’s processes but also endured an internal transformation in my awareness of my ‘place’ in the universe. The school was located in the Adirondack Park in New York State, encompassing hundreds of acres of wild land. My ‘classroom’ was, to a large extent outside. It was here that I learned of the processes that Thurman writes of…of the earth taking in what life gives and using those gifts for the growth and the sustenance of all living things. I witnessed this in the running of the stream…the development of the insect…from larvae to adult…in the blooming of the wild flower after the long stillness of winter. In the process of this ‘witnessing’, I became devoted not only to understanding the processes, but of a more spiritual ‘devotion’ to life. It is this “true devotion” that we have forgotten…devotion to our creator…the one who created the flower and the tree, the caterpillar and the bird, the deer and the bear, the human and the firefly. This is a devotion to life and to learning life’s processes…it is a devotion that opens us up to all life’s treasures…

Devotion is what is needed today...devotion to life…devotion to healing and transformation of the human species, that we may form within us a new heart…a heart capable of the entire universe and of the smallest particle…a heart with room enough for all of earth’s creatures…plant and animal. And when we cultivate a greater capacity for humility…for devotion…for love…for reverence…for compassion, we will find that single essence we have been searching for…the connecting thread to all life. May we live our way into this single essence of life. Toward that goal we find the strength…the nurturance…the inspiration from Dr. Howard Thurman in his following prayer put to music by Carol Browning.

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