I recently bought Barbara Brown Taylor's newest book, An Altar in the World, a Geography of Faith. She speaks of her relationship with nature and how, when she was young, she knew that "the whole world was God's house." Not just a church. Not just a temple. Not something built by mankind with glorious windows, hard seats, kneelers--perhaps--and a sacred space at the front where people supposedly knowledgeable about the sacred stood.
What she says confirms my experience as a child. I did not know the word "God," and would probably have found it rather confounding and confusing. But I did know this with every particle of breath and piece of bone that was in me: when I walked out to the huge white pine behind our house and climbed the trunk, scrooging out to the feathery end of a large branch, I could lie down, face pressed into the silken, scented needles. The wind would move the branch and me up and down, up and down, and all thought dropped away. I did not think. That is the crucial part. I simply experienced the life of the tree, the wind, and my warm limbs draped over the bark. No judgments. No comparisons. Just--being.
I think that this is the world inhabited by animals, plants, and trees. The "isness" of things, if you will--the spirit that runs beneath all things and through all things. I would call it love. My younger brother, a practicing Buddhist, might simply call it--being. Or presence. My friend Paula D'Arcy would probably name this an encounter with spirit. She quotes the poet, Basho, as saying such moments give us "a glimpse of the underglimmer."
And once you have felt that "underglimmer", that river flowing through you, you are never the same, and you will search out experiences which bring you into contact with spirit again and again and again. The ironic thing is that kids live in this, they dabble their feet in it countless moments of the day. I remember sliding down the slates on our barn roof (our property used to be a chicken farm in its earlier days) with my brothers, feeling the wind in my face, hurtling towards the edge of the roof and feeling--no fear. Not an ounce. Just exhilaration at the speed, the race, the trees looming up. I remember jumping off the roof of a lower barn into the piled snow beneath, plunging into the depth of the white cold as if I were diving into the center of the world. And I was. I just didn't know it. And I certainly did not think about it.
Remember in Mary Poppins the birth of the twins, and how they saved pieces of arrowroot biscuits to feed to the starling who came to visit them, perching on the windowsill of their nursery? They talk to the bird, who clearly speaks back to them. Then--one day--the twins' sounds become babbling, pre-words, and they no longer can understand what the starling is saying. Who weeps, hiding his tears from the sarcastic Mary Poppins.
I expect that is true for all of us. We have just forgotten. And we spend our lives searching for those moments when we can talk to birds again, hear the wind inside, and feel ourselves floating on the wind of the world. If we're lucky, we might wind up like St. Francis, preaching to the birds, because he knew that each bird was just as valuable as each human being. But perhaps "luck" is not the word one would apply to such a dedicated saint.
So, what is this all about? I just want to suggest, as Taylor does, that the divine is not confined to churches, temples, tents, or tabernacles. Spirit is here every single moment of each day, surrounding us like breath. If we are lucky, we break through the barriers we have erected to feel ourselves immersed in this breath--all thought gone, all desire abandoned. Simply one with the One. And when these moments occur--and they will certainly do so if we open our hearts and our eyes--we remember. It is something we have felt before, like remembering to ride a bicycle after years without practice. The practice of the presence of the divine comes back to us, and we balance without fear, free in the embrace of the world.