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

Viriditas | October 30, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Kathryn Benton

Big Basin Reopens

The opening video clip shows the re-emergence of the forest at my favorite park, Big Basin in the Santa Cruz Mountains. I spent a day there this past week in a sort of pilgrimage…in honor of the great redwood trees that have been a source of peace and renewal to me throughout the years. When I first heard about the devastating fire two years ago, I thought that I would never return to this sacred place. I had forgotten the tremendous greening power of nature…in Hildegard’s words, viriditas…meaning vigor and greening. This is especially true of redwoods who have thick bark that protects the “living” layers below from the ever-present threat of fire. With little interference from the human world, this forest will thrive again.

The lesson from this forest was powerful for me. I learned that I first of all had to face what had happened. I had to stop pretending that it did not happen…for whether I accept it or not, it did happen and it did affect me…for I am a part of this same world. Then I had to remember the power of the natural world…the power of life, of death and of renewal…the lesson so well stated by Thich Nhat Hanh in his poem, Please Call Me By My True Names:

Don’t say that I will depart tomorrow — even today I am still arriving.

Look deeply: every second I am arriving to be a bud on a Spring branch, to be a tiny bird, with still-fragile wings, learning to sing in my new nest, to be a caterpillar in the heart of a flower, to be a jewel hiding itself in a stone.

I still arrive, in order to laugh and to cry, to fear and to hope.

The rhythm of my heart is the birth and death of all that is alive.

I am the mayfly metamorphosing on the surface of the river. And I am the bird that swoops down to swallow the mayfly.

I am the frog swimming happily in the clear water of a pond. And I am the grass-snake that silently feeds itself on the frog.

This is the truth about nature that I had forgotten. The rhythm of birth and death is ongoing…we need for the bird to swoop down and eat the mayfly in order for the bird to exist…and we need for the snake to feed on the frog in order for the snake to exist. We often see this as a reality in the natural world but we are under the delusion that this reality does not exist in the human world. Many have stopped this poem right here, and for good reason, I think. The poet continues…

I am the child in Uganda, all skin and bones, my legs as thin as bamboo sticks. And I am the arms merchant, selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve-year-old girl, refugee on a small boat, who throws herself into the ocean after being raped by a sea pirate. And I am the pirate, my heart not yet capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo, with plenty of power in my hands. And I am the man who has to pay his “debt of blood” to my people dying slowly in a forced-labor camp.

My joy is like Spring, so warm it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth. My pain is like a river of tears, so vast it fills the four oceans.

Please call me by my true names, so I can hear all my cries and my laughter at once, so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names, so I can wake up, and so the door of my heart can be left open, the door of compassion.

This is the difficult part of the poem. The poet is describing the reality of violence and destruction…of injustice in our human world. Is Thich Nhat Hanh asking us to excuse the rapist and the arms merchant? Is he normalizing the experience of the 12-year-old girl and the starving child in Uganda? I don’t think any of us could excuse those acts or normalize the suffering, yet both do exist in our world. We are asked to call me by my true names…to “wake up” to the truth…the reality of life and death…of so-called good and evil in the world. We are asked to look upon the contradictions of life and realize that they are, in Thurman’s words, neither final nor ultimate. This seeming contradiction is, in a sense, a mystery…the stuff of philosophy and religion. This was my undergraduate major at San Francisco State. My advisor there, Jacob Needleman, writes of this mystery…

For there is nothing to guarantee that we will be able to remain long enough or deeply enough in front of the unknown, a psychological state which the traditional paths have always recognized as sacred.

In that fleeting state between dreams, which is called “despair”

in some Western teachings and “self-questioning” in Eastern traditions,

a [person] is said to be able to receive the truth,

both about nature and [their] own possible role in the universal order.

Are we able to remain long enough and deeply enough in front of the “unknown”…the mystery of life? Is this our sacred responsibility? It seems that Thich Nhat Hanh is saying, yes! We are called to enter into the so-called dark night of the soul in order to receive the truth…about nature and our own possible role in this universal order. It is about facing the world as it is and acting to stop this arms merchant and the rapist…to ease the suffering of the victims…to ascertain our role in the universal order…in the ongoing dance of existence.

We stand today on the threshold of the Celtic/Pagan celebration of Samhain (pronounced sow-in)…better known to us as Halloween and All Saint’s Day…or perhaps the Day of the Dead. A teacher of mine, Starhawk, describes this celebration this way:

In Northern Europe, Samhain (the Celtic term for Halloween, pronounced sow-in as in ‘sour’) was the time when the cattle were moved from the summer pastures to winter shelter. It was the end of the growing season, the end of harvest, a time of thanksgiving, when the ancestors and the spirits of the beloved dead would return home to share in the feast. Death did not sever one’s connections with the community. People would leave offerings of food and drink for their loved ones, and set out candles to light their way home. Those traditions gave us many of our present day customs. Now we set out jack-o-lanterns and give offerings of candy to children—who are, after all, the ancestors returning in new forms.

Starhawk’s description of Samhain reveals another aspect of our consideration of viriditas. Instead of a conclusive death, even of an individual, the viriditas or life-giving force returns, and when it does, we must be prepared…prepared with the hospitality afforded friends and family in this world…at a time of the thinly-veiled boundary between life and death. And if we truly believe that our children are our ancestors returning in new forms, then we celebrate them as well.

I’d like to leave us today with this chant that I first heard with my teacher Starhawk. It speaks to our responsibility to right the wrongs of humanity through compassionate action. It also speaks to our intimate connection to Earth…as our mother…the one who provides for us…the one of which we are a part. May this chant give you comfort and inspiration in the days ahead; comfort that we are all related and in deep relationship to our mother, and inspiration that we have the life-force…the greening power of viriditas to stand in front of the unknown…the mystery and determine our own role in our mother’s and each other’s healing.

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