This short sermon was offered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick on Sunday, April 23rd.
When I’m in emotional pain, I seek the outdoors. I grew up here in Frederick, which means that throughout the region I have special places I go to find solace – certain boulders at Cunningham Falls, the far edge of Wolf Rock, one of the sycamore trees in Baker Park. Quiet places where I can cry, or think. I always feel better after sitting in those spaces for a while.
This practice of sitting with a non-human began when I was a child. We had an ornamental cherry tree in our front yard where I grew up, and it was just large enough that I could climb it. There was a perfect branch for sitting about halfway up the tree where I could lean my head on another large branch. When the human world got to be too much, and it did so pretty frequently, I would climb my tree and pour out my heart to it.
And I would feel better.
I’m not sure if what I experience is anthropomorphizing, or an externalization of a part of the self, or a chemical reaction due to the smell of growing things…or the very real presence of beings that are not human, but are quite sentient in their own way. I’m a mystic, which means I seek out transcendental experiences and interactions that fall outside the world of petri dishes and double blind studies. My own truth is that there’s so much more to this world than what we can see with a microscope.
When you experience the world as sentient – as a collection of beings who have thoughts, needs, and opinions of their own, it changes how you behave. As a gardener, I lean toward permaculture because that approach to growing food, flowers, and herbs seeks to heal and improve the entire ecosystem. Just as my body is the outward expression of the spirit inside it, the trees, stones, flowing streams, and rolling hills of this region are the outward expression of the spirits within them.
We try to be kind to the bodies of our friends. We remember their food allergies and sensitivities. We know which friends we can invite to go on a long hike and which friends would do better with a game night invitation. When we gift items, we try to choose things our loved ones would enjoy, even if it’s stuff we’re not into. I really dislike the color yellow, but my stepdaughter loves it. So I make and purchase things in that color for her.
The land around us is no different than our human companions when it comes to preferences and needs. They don’t get expressed using human language, but preferences definitely are communicated. This is why when you plant a flower that really ought to grow beautifully in your yard, it sometimes fails. It’s the wrong gift for that spot. Maybe the land spirits don’t like yellow. Or, maybe there’s a need in the soil that hasn’t been addressed – something like a vitamin deficiency in our own bodies.
It is so easy to mentally and emotionally separate ourselves from the Earth, as though it’s some sort of movie we’re watching that doesn’t include us at all. But we are part of this tapestry. Just one kind of many, many beings who live together and try to build their futures here. When you look at a tree, you’re looking at the body of a being that is not so different from you: a being that talks to its neighbors, prefers some beings over others, tries to meet its needs and the needs of its children and family, and is trying, just as you are, to make a life here on earth.
The word “animism” means a perspective that spirit is in everything. My own experience is that this concept is quite real. It’s why I can sit at the base of a tree, relax my thoughts, and find that I have a wonderful companion with me whose own perspectives help me untangle my feelings. It’s why I can cry my heart out while sitting on a boulder in the forest and find myself held by more than just stone. There is a world of profound connection happening all around us.
As we celebrate Earth Day, I invite you to remember the being-ness of the life you see around you. I invite you to remember that you’re looking at the body of a spirit: a body that is shaped differently than yours, but contains no less of a mystery of sentience and will than your own. We are spirits here together. We are bodies here together. And it is together, as one co-creative interdependent web of life, that we must build the world to come.
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