On Holy Ground*
Robert L. Doty
Exodus 3: 1-5; Psalm 8; Isaiah 6:5-7
In the passage we heard from Exodus, Moses encounters a moment in which the glory of God breaks through into the earth. It is easy enough for us to accept the idea that certain places are holy, where God seems close. That place may be Mt Sinai, or Mt Zion, or Mt Olympus or Mt Parnassas or Mt Athol. It might be Santiago de Compostela or Whitby, Machu Pichu or Bryce Canyon or Niagara. People have long approached these places with a sense of awe and wonder, with a hope that the mundane problems as well as the hardships of life may be set aside in the presence of the Other. Some come to pray, some to meditate, some to sacrifice, and some to seek counsel or wisdom.
God spoke to Moses and said, "do not come nigh hither; put off thy shoes from off they feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exod 3:5). There Moses heard God reveal his awareness of the troubles and sorrows of the people, and there Moses gets his call to lead the people. From the rugged mountain's height God promises to give the people rest in a pleasant and fruitful land.
Immediately we are introduced to a way of seeing the whole of the promised land as holy and special. Not just the mountain, but all of the land upon which God's people will dwell is being viewed as infused with a special measure of God's presence and favor.
The biblical texts proclaim God's blessing in the whole of creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament sheweth his handiwork” (Ps 19:1). From the first declaration in Genesis of goodness of the creation to Jesus' illustration of trust by reference to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, we have a joyful affirmation of God's glory being
*This paper was delivered at the “Earth Stewardship” Conference, April 17, 2003, at Campbellsville University.
reflected in his work of creation. Rebellion and disorder are manifestations of a contradiction of God's purpose caused by sin.
Listen to the words of Alan Paton, a South African Christian who wrote a prophetic book about both land and people in that troubled land in the 1948 novel, Cry, The Beloved Country:
There is a lovely road that runs from Ixopo into the hills. These hills are grass-covered and rolling, and they are lovely beyond any singing of it. The road climbs seven miles into them, to Carisbrooke; and from there, if there is not mist, you look down on one of the fairest valleys of Africa. About you there is grass and bracken and you may hear the forlorn crying of the titihoya, one of the birds of the veld. Below you is the valley of the Umzimkulu, on its journey from the Drakensburg to the sea; and beyond and behind the river, great hill after great hill; and beyond and behind them, the mountains of Ingeli and East Grigualand.
The grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. It holds the rain and the mist, and they seep into the ground, feeding the streams in every kloof. It is well-tended, and not too many cattle feed upon it; not too many fires burn it, laying bare the soil. Stand unshod upon it, for the ground is holy, being even as it came from the Creator. Keep it, guard it, care for it, for it keeps men, guards men, cares for men. Destroy it and man is destroyed.
Where you stand the grass is rich and matted, you cannot see the soil. But the rich green hills break down. They fall to the valley below, and falling, change their nature. For they grow red and bare; they cannot hold the rain and mist, and the streams are dry in the kloofs. Too many cattle feed upon the grass, and too many fires have burned it. Stand shod upon it, for it is coarse and sharp, and the stones cut under the feet. It is not kept, or guarded, or cared for, it no longer keeps men, guards men, cares for men. The titihoya does not cry here any more (3).
In this poetic opening to the novel, Paton is commenting on the process of destruction when the white man took the best land and forced native black people onto less fertile and more crowded space. The results have been devastating to the land and the people.
We all know the hymn that says, "This is my Father's world I rest me in the thought of rocks and trees, of skies and seas, His hands the wonders wrought" (Baptist Hymnal, 59). We are talking about discovering God. There is a sense in which all of us would seek to know the presence of God as we are told in the Scriptures. But the problem with discovering the presence of God is that it can be very unnerving for the person whose pretenses are stripped away by the awareness that God is Holy and Other. The most striking example can be seen in Isaiah's stunned awareness of his unclean condition as well as that of his people and of his agony in God's presence. But God breaks down the barrier by the fire from the altar of heaven applied to his tongue, not a very comfortable sanctification we may be sure (Isaiah 6:5-7). Similarly St Paul saw himself as the chief of sinners, and I doubt that he had in mind his own persecution of the saints at this point. His encounter with the risen Christ cost him place, preferment, his eyesight and his vision of God's will for him and the world. So Saul, now named Paul, has to start all over learning the basics, temporarily as a blind man dependent upon the faith and faithfulness of the followers of Jesus (Acts 9:3-9).
Throughout most of our history Christians would think of the world as a static place existing, apart from sin and evil, in just the way God created it. Devout poets liked Alexander Pope in the eighteenth century thought that the disappearance of one element in the vertical chain of creation would be a catastrophe to the whole order of nature. But since early in the nineteenth century and the beginning of the industrial revolution, and with a series of breakthroughs in new learning, we live with a different mental picture of the world.
While many people still have a strong sense of the holiness or of the divine presence in the universe and our need to see our own lives as part of a wonderful and fragile life system in this world, most people in our time hardly think of spiritual ideas at all. We have developed the power to change the world in ways that could not have been imagined two hundred years ago. The ability to manipulate nature has been accompanied by a reduction in the respect paid to nature.
Gerard Manley Hopkins speaks with a crystal clear voice about the sacramental universe. Hopkins was a British poet and Jesuit priest in the nineteenth century, born in 1844 and died in 1889. His use of language and spiritual ideas were so different from the work of his peers that his literary executors held his poetry from publication until twenty-nine years after his death, publishing it finally in 1918. Hopkins developed a way of thinking about the internal spiritual qualities of all creatures, which he called INSCAPE, and the recognition of that spiritual quality in others he called INSTRESS (Hopkins, xx).
Perhaps we can feel some of the dynamics of these ideas in two of his poems which look at the perception of God in the universe:
Glory be to God for dappled things--
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls, finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change;
Praise him (69).
In this poem Hopkins is shifting the ideas of the beautiful and the holy, redefining aesthetics. He is forcing the reader to step outside the ordinary notions that some of God's work is worthy and beautiful, while some other parts are unworthy and ugly. Blake treated this same issue in his great poem, "The Tyger," nearly a century earlier.
Let us look at another of Hopkins' poems, one of the greatest religious poems in the nineteenth century. Here once more is a poem on the holiness of God's work.
The World is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, or can foot feel, being shod.
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs--
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings (66).
Once more Hopkins has distorted the expectations of aesthetic rules. In the first stanza from the middle of the third line through line nine the poet builds a stark contrast between the works of God and those of humankind. He moves to a discordant raw string of monosyllables to reveal the ways man has misused God's creation. But the triumphant second stanza reveals God's gentle working to heal and nurture, with obvious echoes of the words of Jesus on the city of Jerusalem.
Let us look at some of the modern examples of Hopkins' thesis. When the Europeans and their descendants came to America, the native Americans at first tried to welcome them to the land. But they could not understand the white's need to dominate and subdue them, after all it was a great and abundant land. They were even more confused with the concept of land ownership. They believed all the land belonged to the Great Spirit. So their treaties took from them rights they did not know they were conceding.
We ought to be warned that in the most extreme application of the concept of personal ownership of land instead of seeing ourselves at best as life stewards of it may lead to horrendous abuses and exploitation. Our abuses of the environment are widespread, and cover a wide range of social, economic, and national circumstances. First of all, it is not unusual in America to label any serious environmental activist as a dangerous radical out to destroy American business. Secondly, the destruction of high quality land to make room for urban sprawl is a problem in many developed nations.
Thirdly, the practice of denuding the forests of the world has raised many alarm bells. These may include rain forests of The Philippines or Borneo to produce high quality wood for industry and home furnishings. This process has come to the point that the old man of the forest, the orangutan, has almost become extinct. And in South America forests that are full of exotic vegetation and animals, but which are not suitable for farming, are being stripped, leaving a completely collapsed micro ecological system which may also echo in the whole world's climate. Furthermore we may be destroying plant species with enormous potential for medical or other applications.
Fourthly, we seem to be unwilling to respond with aid to help prevent the damage done to the ecology by the desperately poor who glean the last vegetation for basic survival and for cooking fuel, a practice which is causing the deserts in Africa to grow at a rate of from one half to one mile per year.
Fifthly, we engage in irresponsible use of technology, namely by industrial waste management and disposal, poor water management, acid rain improper disposal of heavy metals, nuclear waste management and disposal, damage caused in oil and mineral extraction and transportation.
Let me read another poem by the remarkably insightful and prophetic Hopkins that locates him as one of the most powerful voices in defense of nature as God's holy work.
"Binsey Poplars" (felled 1879)
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow what swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering
O if we knew what we do
When we delve or hew
Hack and rack the growing green!
Since country is so tender
To touch, her being so slender,
That, like this sleek and seeing ball
But a prick will make no eye at all,
Where we, even where we mean
To mend her we end her,
When we hew or delve:
After-comers cannot guess the beauty been.
Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve
Strokes of havoc unselve
The sweet especial scene,
Rural scene, a rural scene,
Sweet especial rural scene (78).
Here Hopkins catches with painful beauty the destruction we cause by our ignorant abuse of nature.
But what shall we think of people who attack nature's gifts as part of the weaponry of human armed conflict? What about people who cut down 400 year old olive trees to spite their enemies or fire oil wells when then can no longer control them. And what would we say to those who would detonate any nuclear weapon on our beautiful green earth?
Let me ask one key question that may help us to discover why this issue is so important to the Christian community as well as individual Christians, and indeed every living person on earth. One of the most off putting ideas in our culture is the notion of kissing a frog, since by tradition the frog is an ugly and disgusting creature, witness the fairy tale. But I put it to you that if we don't notice that the frogs are disappearing and being subject to infertility and odd mutations all over the world, we may soon not be able to find any frogs at all in the wetlands and marshes of the world, and if that occurs, it may not be long before we don't have babies to kiss any more either. We are dumping an undefined and dangerous soup in our wetlands and rivers, and then into the oceans.
It is all holy ground. As we share together in our discussions of earth stewardship, some of us will have a strange and awesome sense of the spiritual dimension of our actions and thoughts. All of us ought to remember that we are exercising a call to ourselves and others to a renewed commitment to live and behave on earth as creatures of short time whose actions have the potential either to nurture the actions of nature or to cripple the gentle and often slow process of rebuilding. Too many steps in the desert or in the fragile tundra may destroy an ecosystem we hardly notice. Let us not forget the Thoreaus, the Muirs, the Leopolds, the Meads, the Goodalls, the Patons, the Hopkins, the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus. Remember the lilies of the field.
The Bible (KJV).
Maltbie D. Babcock. “This is My Father’s World” c. 1901. in The Baptist Hymnal. Walter Hines Sims, editor. Nashville: Convention Press, 1956.
Gerald Manley Hopkins. The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, fourth edition. W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie, editors. Oxford University Press, 1967.
Alan Paton. Cry, The Beloved Country. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1948.