I grew up on a Midwestern farm, the old-fashioned kind that had pigs, chickens, milk cows, feral cats in the hay loft and coyotes howling in the night.
My mother butchered chickens in the yard. The meaning of the expression “like a chicken with its head cut off” has never been lost on me.
Because of this, I’ve always appreciated the agrarian images of Scripture. The sower, the good seed, the seed lost at the side of the road — these were good images. And God as a mother hen guarding her young? Perfect.
But not everyone grows up on a farm, especially today in our increasingly urbanized culture.
Does that mean the Gospel can’t speak as evocatively to those who catch the metro every morning or live in a huge apartment building surrounded by concrete?
Not at all. However, according to the poet and essayist Wendell Berry, we’d all benefit from taking Scripture, or Gospel images, outside, whether to the backyard, the beach, a nearby park or especially a ramble through a wilderness trail.
“I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is,” said Berry, in his book “The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays.”
Scripture, he says, “is best read outdoors … and the farther outdoors, the better.”
Many people who do not describe themselves as religious say they find God in nature, and those of us who are believers often find a heightened sense of the transcendent there. This is where we find our “thin place” — the place where we feel the boundaries that separate us from God slipping away. We need to encourage this.
“Outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders,” Berry writes.
Consider the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, Jesus told us, when he was trying to allay our constant worrying. And how many times do the Gospels bring us to the seaside, where Jesus knew when to put the net out for a good catch?
Most memorable images of Jesus take place outside, actually. The ones indoors can sometimes seem stifling. When the house is so crowded that men have to remove tiles to lower their friend for Jesus’ help, you want to scream at everyone to move outside.
One summer, I spent many early mornings on my patio with coffee and a copy of Jesuit Father James Martin’s book, “Jesus: A Pilgrimage.” I am a speedy reader, but I tried to read this book slowly and savor it.
Father Martin walks the reader through Scripture readings as he relays his own contemporary travel through those same spots in the Holy Land, making you feel you are actually there.
I could imagine myself at the Lake of Gennesaret, looking for the caves from which the Gerasene demoniac emerged to taunt Jesus.
The solitude of my patio, the busy chattering of birds all around me, the rabbit who came so close to me, in my stillness, that I could almost reach out and touch him — all of these heightened my sense that I was in a “thin space” — a place where I was not far from the same Jesus who cured the demoniac.
Nature makes us realize the majesty of creation and deepens our connection to its Creator. In his essay, Berry terms “a very small miracle” the turning of water into wine.
“We forget,” he says, “the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.”
A greater appreciation of life’s extraordinary miracles awaits us this summer when we head outdoors.
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