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

The Realm of the Mysterious: The Roots of Action | April 3, 2022 Dr. Kathryn Benton

What is it that calls someone to serve, to make that commitment beyond oneself that can transform the lives of those around one and bring about change that had seemed impossible? …sometimes we are called into action on behalf of a cause because of what might be called the god within us, the Source – the voice that we feel speaks to us, and us only, and says that a situation is wrong, an injustice has been committed, and we must do something to reverse it. Here, we are in the realm of the mysterious, and in trying to suggest what causes us to act, it would be prudent to exercise a little humility, especially since so many of the challenges that confront us as a species are due to our arrogant belief that we know enough not to worry about the consequences of our actions. - Wangari Maathai

The opening words are from Wangari Maathai, African activist and environmentalist. She knew of the commitment made “beyond oneself”. She knew what it means to be “in the realm of the mysterious” and to be aligned with the Source. She also understood community organizing…how to inspire and motivate others to act on behalf of all life. But I think the most important lesson she gives us is a lesson in humility. Like the tree that Maathai worked so hard to restore that gives everything it has to life and then offers its leaves to the Earth from which it came…to restore the balance for itself and for generations yet to come…

If only we humans had the internal organization of the tree…the organization that leads it to live in balance with its surroundings and even to provide for the future. Recent scholarship has found evidence that the tree not only provides for its own life, but also for its offspring. Not only that…it seems to live and work in cooperation with other species and with the mycorrhizal fungi and other species in the soil.

Some of this research was done by a Canadian scientist named Suzanne Simard. She began her career as a forester…cutting down trees for the profit of paper companies and became a leading scientist in the field of plant communication and intelligence. Simard not only came to understand the “thinking” of trees, but was able to connect it to the thinking of native peoples. In her book, Finding the Mother Tree, she wrote:

I don’t presume to grasp Aboriginal knowledge fully. It comes from a way of knowing the earth—an epistemology—different from that of my own culture. It speaks of being attuned to the blooming of the bitterroot, the running of the salmon, the cycles of the moon. Of knowing that we are tied to the land—the trees and animals and soil and water—and to one another, and that we have a responsibility to care for these connections and resources, ensuring the sustainability of these ecosystems for future generations and to honor those who came before. Of treading lightly, taking only what gifts we need, and giving back. Of showing humility toward and tolerance for all we are connected to in this circle of life.

Although Simard says she doesn’t “presume to grasp” native wisdom, she is able to summarize this wisdom well, I think. She realizes that indigenous thought is also about a humility they have in common with Maathai and with the tree itself. It is about a realization that we are connected in a meaningful way with each other and with all life…that we are indeed one.

This wisdom has been mirrored in the experience of astronauts and cosmonauts who have been able to have a very different view of our Earth. Astronaut James Irwin, who walked on the moon on the Apollo mission spoke about looking back at earth…

That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.

Boris Volynov, a Russian cosmonaut spoke of what seeing our planet from space revealed…

During a space flight, the psyche of each astronaut is reshaped. Having seen the sun, the stars, and our planet, you become more full of life, softer. You begin to look at all living things with great trepidation and you begin to be more kind and patient with the people around you. At any rate, that is what happened to me.

Astronaut Mike Massimino described his experience like this…

My first reaction was, this is too beautiful for people to look at and we’re not meant to see this – it’s like a secret. And I actually turned my head…

In his Daily Meditations, Matthew Fox points out that the same sentiment was voiced by Julian of Norwich in her vision of seeing a small ball in her hand, which she was told was all creation. She commented on how it seemed so fragile that it could fall apart. The answer she received was this: “It is kept together by love.”

So, if our world is kept together by love, we are failing miserably on so many levels. So many years ago, our own Howard Thurman spoke of this reality and our failure as a species to internalize this knowledge…

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.

Thurman was also acquainted with Maathai’s “realm of the mysterious”. He experienced this on a daily basis in his backyard tree…in the stars overhead…in the power of the mighty ocean. But he also recognized our delusion that we are separate and distinct from nature and that this has indeed caused us to exploit nature and “rape it with impunity”.

Simard knew this exploitation on a personal level. She was a forester before she became a scientist committed to conveying the truths she has discovered from her research. She continues her summary of Native wisdom…

But what my years in the forestry profession have also shown me is that too many decision-makers dismiss this way of viewing nature and rely only on select parts of science. The impact has become too devastating to ignore. We can compare the condition of the land where it has been torn apart, each resource treated in isolation from the rest, to where it has been cared for according to the Secwepemc principal of k̓wseltktnews (translated as “we are all related”) or the Salish concept of nə́c̓aʔmat ct (“we are one”). We must heed the answers we’re being given.

Simard, Thurman, and Maathai all recognized our responsibility to care for our fellow beings, as well as the natural world of which we are a part. It is an understanding based on the hope of a tree…the hope that was spoken of so profoundly by Pauli Murray…

Hope is a crushed stalk Between clenched fingers. Hope is a bird's wing Broken by a stone. Hope is a word in a tuneless ditty— A word whispered with the wind, A dream of forty acres and a mule, A cabin of one's own and a moment to rest, A name and place for one's children And children's children at last. Hope is a song in a weary throat.

But Murray would agree that hope does not come cheap…it takes a lifetime of work to nurture…to grow.

I will leave you today with the words of poet, Mary Oliver who shared with us what she had learned so far…

Meditation is old and honorable, so why should I

not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside,

looking into the shining world? Because, properly

attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.

Can one be passionate about the just, the

ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit

to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so…


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