by Pastor Doug Kings

One of the things I have most looked forward to in returning to New Mexico is experiencing again its often stunning and awesome natural beauty. Every place has its beauty, of course, but from my first visit here New Mexico’s landscape is one that touched me deeply.

In our three-day trip here, we have gone from sea level to 7,000 feet and mountains 10,000 feet and more are on the horizon. We missed fall’s peak color but some of the cotton woods and chamisa bushes still maintain their golden glow, made even more stunning by the brilliant blue sky. But otherwise tans and browns are common as the natural world prepares for winter’s approach.

It’s easy with modern conveniences to forget that New Mexico is not an easy place to live. Evidence of recurring droughts goes back thousands of years and moisture is rarely abundant. Winters are cold (though not long). Native plants, animals and people have all had to learn to live in harmony with this high desert climate. Weather and geography set the terms for existence here.

Not surprisingly, appreciation for and relationship with the natural world plays a large part in the spirituality of the Native peoples who live here. Nothing about the natural environment is taken for granted—all is seen as gift. This is perhaps the most important aspect of Native spirituality from which we can learn. Indians today live in the modern world as we all do. That they have nonetheless maintained their acute awareness of and reverence for nature is even more remarkable.

In a recent daily meditation, Richard Rohr talked about his work before becoming a priest at Acoma Pueblo, about 65 miles west of Albuquerque. He shows his early openness to alternative religious traditions and readiness to learn from them.

In 1969 when I was a young deacon in Acoma Pueblo, one of my jobs was to take the census. Because it was summer and hot, I would start early in the morning, driving my little orange truck to each residence. Invariably at sunrise, I would see a mother outside the door of her home, with her children standing beside her. She and the children would be reaching out with both hands uplifted to “scoop” up the new day and then “pour” it over their heads and bodies in blessing. I would sit in my truck until they were finished, thinking how silly it was of us Franciscans to think we brought religion to New Mexico four hundred years ago!

Such a practice is not entirely foreign to Christianity. The monastic prayer services, such as Matins and Vespers, all acknowledge the blessings of the day. But a closer parallel are the devotional practices of Celtic Christianity, a tradition that developed independent of Roman Christianity and flourished most notably in Ireland and Scotland. When they came in contact, Celtic practices were usually suppressed by the dominant Roman authorities, in part because of they emphasized too much the experience of God in nature.

In a daily meditation commemorating the start of autumn, Matthew Fox quotes the English author D.H. Lawrence (who also fell in love with New Mexico and is buried here) lamenting our disconnection from nature.

What a catastrophe, what a maiming of life when it was made a personal, merely personal feeling, taken away from the rising and setting of the sun, and cut off from the magic connection of the solstice and equinox…! 

This is what is the matter with us, we are bleeding at the roots because we are cut off from the earth and sun and stars, and love is a grinning mockery, because poor blossom, we plucked it from its stem on the tree of life, and expected it to keep on blossoming in our civilized vase on the table.

Matthew Fox then comments:

What happens when cosmology is replaced by psychology?  When cosmic connections are displaced by shopping malls and commercials?  The heart shrivels.  Men’s souls shrink.  And untold violence goes through their heads.

Writing two millennia ago but seemingly speaking to us today, Paul says in Romans that the whole creation groans as if in labor, awaiting the “revealing” of the children of God. That revealing is in fact a revelation to us of our true identity as the presence of God on earth. Jesus’ message was that we find God not in exotic places or experiences but all around us and by looking in a mirror.

Rohr ends his mediation with a fall poem by retired Episcopal bishop and Choctaw elder, Steven Charleston.

For all the great thoughts I have read
For all the deep books I have studied
None has brought me nearer to Spirit
Than a walk beneath shimmering leaves

Golden red with the fire of autumn
When the air is crisp
And the sun a pale eye, watching.

I am a scholar of the senses
A theologian of the tangible.

Spirit touches me and I touch Spirit
Each time I lift a leaf from my path
A thin flake of fire golden red
Still warm from the breath that made it.

I look forward in the coming months and years to reconnecting with this natural world and thereby rediscovering my own identity as a part of it. New Mexico’s appt motto is “Land of Enchantment” for it is a place to become enchanted, not with human creations of technical wizardry, but with the First Creation of which we are all a part, gifted to us by God, as Genesis tells us, and whose care is our responsibility.

Blessings in your life and ministry.