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

Lighting the Way | October 23, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton

I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars, 
And the pismire is equally perfect, 
and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren, 
And the tree-toad is a chef-d'oeuvre for the highest, 
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven, 
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery, 
And the cow crunching with depress'd head surpasses any statue, 
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels.

The opening words are from the poet Walt Whitman. Whitman was well-acquainted, it seems, with grass… it is in his words, “no less than the journey-work of the stars”! I thought about this the other day when my grandson Freddy brought me a piece of grass from the lawn. He was full of so much wonder, as if he had found a treasure worthy of the greatest admiration. But Whitman also says that “a mouse is miracle enough…”. Small, seemingly insignificant living things like grass, ants, tree-toads, blackberry vines, cows and mice are related to human beings and even to the vast heavens…the universe…the realm of the stars. This is not something that can intellectually be debated, since our bodies are made up of the same “stuff”, mostly of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, as all life forms! What Whitman seemed to also know was that this “stuff”…the building blocks of life, came from stardust…the product of exploding stars. Now, Whitman wrote this poem in the 19th century but the discovery of the link between the elements of life and exploding stars did not become evident until the 1950s!

My investigation of the “Leaves of Grass” presented to me by Freddy led me to a deeper investigation of our relatedness in a world overcome with violence and hate…with the seeming victory of evil over good…the seeming triumph of “dark money”…of corporate greed…of individual wealth over community well-being. This led me to a documentary film made in 2014 about the home of the endangered mountain gorillas in the Congo. It is a powerful film that I suspect many of you have seen, but if you have not, you can still do so. Here is the trailer.

This is a battle that is still going on. The latest news I could find about the park is that in August there was an artillery attack on the park’s hydro-electric power plant that is being constructed. The Congolese Institute for Nature Conservation (ICCN) is charged with protecting this World Heritage Site. One of the most important connections the film makes is between the stripping of natural resources by multi-national corporations and the endangerment of wildlife and flora of the park. Of course, the violence needed to carry out this process profoundly endangers the human population as well. And we cannot miss our own complicity with this process. This very message today was typed on a computer that needs the minerals that fuel many of these horrific mining expeditions in some of the most vulnerable areas on Earth. We would do well to heed the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock…

We are all connected. What we do affects others and what others do affects us. And we are “hard-wired”, at least to some extent, to care about these connections. Research on the human brain has revealed the presence of mirror neurons…that is, nerve cells that are capable of feeling another person’s pain…even the pain of an animal from another species. Peter Wohlleben, a nature author, says that scientists are now in the process of determining how many other species possess these same cells. It has been established that apes possess these cells, but research continues to find out if other animals have them as well.

A very famous nature advocate, David Attenborough states that:

No one will protect what they don’t care about;

and no one will care about what they have never experienced.

This is presumably why he, even into old age continues to document the disappearance of our relatives in wild places. He says that he has experienced the questions from his grandchildren about what we have done to stop this disappearance. If it weren’t for his commitment to documenting this natural world, many of us may not have ever seen many of the plants and animals he brought to the screen.

Now many of you may say, “this is not as important as so many other issues” and “what can I do about it?” This is understandable, yet as we know, all these issues are related… “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” (John Muir). The destruction of the Amazon forest, as well as, the habitat of the mountain gorillas is intimately tied to human greed and disconnection from the source. It appears to be a battle of good vs. evil…and perhaps that is what it is. It would be pretty difficult to see human greed at the expense of the well-being of living things…plants, animals, as well as, babies and children, adults and elders of our own species as anything but evil. Yet when we make a dichotomy between these realities, we fail again to see the connections…the whole.

A verse from the Tao Te Ching states:

What rises up appears bright

What settles down appears dark

Yet there is neither darkness nor light

just an unbroken dance of shadows

This dance of shadows is going on all around us, though we are often only able to see the darkness. I meet many people on a daily basis who experience this reality…depression, anxiety, grief and suffering…many even wishing to hurt themselves, or others. This is a natural reality that human beings have always experienced. And this is why we have integrated rituals around light into the year…often during the darkest times of the year. Tomorrow is the Hindu celebration of Diwali…the symbolic triumph of light over darkness…of hope over despair. I have attended a Diwali celebration that was held at a temple in the Bay Area. We pulled up and there was a huge pile of wood in the parking lot that would soon be ignited, signifying this victory of hope…of light with hundreds of people in attendance. Inside, there was a small version of the same being prayed over by the priest. As each of us passed by the fire, a prayer was said and an herb was thrown into the flames, symbolically representing the “burning away” of evil, while lighting the way toward love and light. The following prayer (source unknown) states this well:

As you go along light another’s lamp with your own 
Let the river of love flow as you go 
If you meet anyone with sorrow along your way 
Embrace him as you go

It is important, I think, that we remember to renew our spirits in this way, in order become more balanced…more whole. Especially in a time when the bad news doesn’t seem to stop…when the problems of the world crash in, on a personal, as well as, collective scale. And we know that this light is internal…we have it, each and every one of us!

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