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Grand Tetons snowcapped mountain range

Nature Is Your Church?

The spirituality the land offers is anything but easy.

Anthony Lusvardi

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  • Lawrence

    Hi, Tony. Yours is a beautiful article that set me thinking. Nature is not perfect and always vitalizing. It is, like us, part of the groaning creation. Like us, it embodies hope. Yet, there is something in it that comforts, and it covers Presence. So, it is special. I wonder if our closeness to nature or even just to the idea of nature is because we respond to it as Beauty. I can't imagine why we find the mountains beautiful or the ocean impressive or the desert and its sky and winds so beautiful. I'm not sure what beauty is though I think it is real. And I can't find a genetic or evolutionary use for beauty. It seems pure and of itself. What I actually think is that Somebody made beauty and our response to it, and that he did that because he wants something -- and that something is us.

Nature is your church? Not so fast, says an Indian reservation priest. If there’s a spirituality of the land, it’s tougher than any religion you might be escaping.

The early morning air around Fort Phil Kearney is pristine and cuttingly cold. It is the first day of my drive west, and Wyoming is spectacular. As in the Dakotas, the prairie rolls by like a pale green blanket tossed over the earth, but here the land is choppier – the blanket after turbulent dreams. A dawn rain has painted a gloss over everything, intensifying the colors; even the asphalt seems blacker. The dirt roads and gullies that gash the hillocks are shockingly red, like fresh cuts of beef against a lettuce background. From the highway I notice pronghorn in the distance with their funny, bouncy run. But at the site of the fort – the buildings were torched by the Cheyenne at the end of Red Cloud’s War, so only markers remain – I notice the wind. 

A depression just out of view is the site of the Fetterman Massacre. In December 1866, Captain William Fetterman, in pursuit of Indian blood and the glory he thought it would bring him, marched his men into an ambush that remains among the US military’s most singular disasters. A few months earlier he had boasted that if given a force of just eighty men he could “ride through the whole Sioux nation.” The detachment he led to their death, against orders, consisted of eighty-one. All but six of Fetterman’s soldiers were killed with bow and arrow; of those who died of gunshot wounds, a few are thought to have been suicides. A hastily composed burial party found bodies mutilated – hands and feet severed, eyeballs, brains, and genitalia scattered over the frozen stones – to impede passage of the soldiers’ souls into the afterlife.

Fort Kearney’s commander ordered its women and children into the magazine, which could be blown up if its gate was breached. I imagine the fort’s isolated and diminished garrison, composed largely of recent immigrants who barely spoke English, shivering behind its palisades, and I feel a dull pity. Then I imagine the Cheyenne, Arapaho, and Lakota as they began to sense the menace in the swell of settlers and machines passing through their homeland. Beneath the cruelty of battle ran a current of desperation on both sides. A year before Fort Kearney was built, on the Tongue River not far to its north, Army howitzers opened fire on an Arapaho village while its men were away on a raid against the Crow, killing sixty-three. Even today one occasionally senses a kind of disorientation when speaking to the descendants of the peoples Fetterman fought, as if the primal injustice their ancestors confronted is still too stupefying to grasp – Job’s indignation without his loquacity.

As I press on across Wyoming I note the names of the infrequent highway exits – Dead Horse Creek, Crazy Woman Canyon, Devil’s Tower. When I pull off at Devil’s Canyon just over the Bighorns later in the day, it strikes me that an unusual number of the West’s geographic features have been named for mankind’s oldest enemy.

 

I am driving west to get away.

How many others could have said the same thing? Some of Fetterman’s soldiers perhaps. Or Chris McCandless, the young Emory grad about whom the 2007 film Into the Wild was made, who plunged into the Alaskan wilderness to escape the hypocrisy of his parents’ world only to die in an abandoned bus from eating poisonous berries. There is something of Job in McCandless too.

My problems do not rise to the level of Job. For two years I have been the administrator of three small Catholic parishes on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and I have not taken a real vacation. I love the work, but it comes with a constant stream of petty frustrations – meetings proceed in endless epicycles, confirmation students are never on time for anything – and more serious tragedies – a parishioner’s husband develops a meth addiction, a pair of teenagers are killed drunk driving. I have to fire an employee who mishandles the rental fees for the parish hall. Another employee lies to me in order – you can’t make this up – to avoid having to make his own photocopies for a Bible study group.

“What a piece of work is man,” marvels Hamlet, and yet by the time he speaks these words in the play, the youthful humanist is already disillusioned by human duplicity and vice. Fetterman, like his more famous counterpart Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was a villain of Miltonian hubris, as careless with the lives of his own men as he was contemptuous of the lives of the Plains Indians; most human faults do not rise to that level, but the niggling is often the most perplexing, and the subtle the most insidious. I suppose I would never have entered a religious order if I had not, like Chris McCandless, sensed something missing in the comforts of the American middle class. McCandless, like Hamlet, was brokenhearted at his parents’ faults. Hamlet contemplates suicide. McCandless heads west.

Who would not prefer the majesty of the Grand Tetons to employees filching from the petty cash?

Similar disillusionment is found in scripture, and not only in Job. “More tortuous than all else is the human heart,” Jeremiah marvels, “beyond remedy; who can understand it?” Yet the charge of hypocrisy is precisely why many of those escaping west reject religion. A bumper sticker proclaims, “Nature is my church.” Who would not prefer the majesty of the Grand Tetons to employees filching from the petty cash? What human endeavor is untainted by petty turf wars, passive-aggressive behavior, lies? The Church, too, is a resolutely human institution, more like a crowded Greyhound bus than an alpine overlook; I understand the temptation to abandon the bus at the next rest stop and walk off into the woods. But I believe in forgiveness, too, that divine-human characteristic that makes the Church both necessary and possible. Near the end of Into the Wild an elderly widower, who has befriended McCandless and senses his fundamental hurt, tells him, “When you forgive, you love.”

That, I suppose, is why I get back on the Greyhound bus, and why, as I drive west, I wonder whether “the wild” can ever be anything more than an escape, whether there really is something “spiritual” about the land, as people claim. The Black Hills are said to be sacred to the Lakota, yet when I think of holy ground, I think of the cinderblock walls and poorly ventilated cafeteria of the tribal jail. “I feel closer to God in jail,” a female inmate tells me on one of my visits. “In here I can’t drink. I don’t get into fights. When I’m in here I pray.”

 

After Jesus had been revealed as the Son of God, Mark tells us, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”

 

I crisscross the Bighorn Mountains, which really are purple and majestic. They open suddenly, and I am overlooking western Wyoming, like Moses on Mount Nebo, only the Promised Land is desert, the color of a ranch hand’s sunburnt forearms. The Bighorns divide Wyoming dramatically: to the east, grasslands dusted with wildflowers, soft like the lighting in a classic movie; to the west, dust and gaunt shrubbery. I descend to the Bighorn River – shallow, ugly, slothful. The riverbed is too wide for the muddy slick of water running through it; a few strained fields cling to it for a while before petering out into a desert of spiny bushes that look green only in contrast to the dirt. Yet this is beautiful too, like the weathered faces of the old tribal chiefs – Red Cloud and Spotted Tail and Chief Victor – in black and white photos.

 

Sioux woman and child Sioux woman and child

In Yellowstone Canyon, my favorite place in the West so far, I think about just what it might mean for the land to be spiritual. I find a spot between the Upper and the Lower Falls where I can lean against a rail and enjoy the cold ache of the damp air. I’m away now, no longer thinking of work or mentally planning the parish’s next prize bingo. I wonder at the way the cascades churn and gush, the plumes of water always in motion, always maintaining the same shape. I am early in the season – parts of the park remain closed – so the tourists are a trickle, not a rush, and a deep breath of the sharp air is enough to stave off afternoon sleepiness. A thick mist radiates off the Lower Falls, and I imagine the canyon as the gateway to some noble realm, Gondor or Valhalla. Yet when you look closely, the cliffs are more ruin than palace, a collage of rust and soot and honey-colored stone. Shaggy osprey nests sit atop ziggurats like disheveled wigs; outcroppings jut like misplaced gargoyles from sheer cliff faces, as do shrubs, like hairs from a mole. I wonder where on earth their roots go. Thin coils of steam rise from vents near the water, and when the wind blows just right you can scent a hint of sulfur.

“Excuse me, would you mind moving – just for a moment – so we can take a photo?” The accent is British, impeccably polite, and they really do take only a moment. The reverie is broken, but somehow it seems natural to everyone that the photo of Yellowstone Canyon would take precedence over the actual experience of Yellowstone Canyon. Afterwards, I think how strange this is, how strange also that so many are posting these pictures instantly or texting them to friends. True, not everyone travels to get away, but if there is anything spiritual about the land, surely discovering it will require some renunciation.

And then I notice selfie-sticks. Like wearing headphones to Mass.

 

I am still skeptical about talk of the land’s spirituality. That the land is sacred to the Lakota is a commonplace, but on the reservation where I work beer cans sprout from the prairie with the frequency of wildflowers. And while I can see the attraction of a creedless Nature and the claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” in the end such paths strike me as something like a friends-with-benefits relationship with the Almighty. The ancients turned to nature for clues, little hints that would give them an edge in life, like a tip at the horse races or insider trading in the stock market, and the same attitude is very much operative in the popular spirituality of the reservation. I am often asked about dreams and spirits, noises heard in the night. The Lakota winter counts – tribal histories painted onto buffalo hides, a pictogram commemorating each year of the count – record astronomical events and the appearance of unusual animals. Without written records, it is difficult to know how such augurs were interpreted. Ancient Near Eastern religions, however, left volumes on the subject of augury. The Greeks read the entrails of birds – the shape of the liver was key. Babylonian temple archives contain tablets discussing the cosmic meaning attached to movements of snakes and birds, patterns of body hair growth, the shape of food on one’s plate, and, of course, the movement of the stars. An exception in the ancient world, a people whose religious writings do not contain volumes on divination, was Israel. The one God of the Israelites, it turned out, was not coy, like the forces of nature, but persistently demanding. I suspect a good deal of the appeal of “nature is my church” spirituality stems from the desire to escape from Israel’s intrusive Deity.

Mother Nature is in no position to make ethical demands.

Mother Nature is in no position to make ethical demands. In South Dakota, tens of thousands of cattle died in October 2013 when an early blizzard dropped four feet of snow on the Black Hills. Blind in the whiteout, the beasts crowded into gullies or against fences and were asphyxiated as the suddenly falling temperatures froze the fog of their breath over their mouths and nostrils. In Idaho, on the rim of an empty crater, I gaze out over a sea of obsidian shards so sharp they will shred the soles of your hiking boots if you venture off the trail, the remnants of a massive eruption from around the time of Christ. I think of Yellowstone resting atop a cauldron of simmering magma, the subterranean heat and pressure erupting in geysers or mud oozing from chambers of acid so caustic it melts stone. In his notes on Shakespeare’s Othello, Coleridge describes Iago as acting out of “motiveless malignity,” a judgment that might be leveled against Nature too.

Yet it is in Devil’s Canyon of all places that I am most moved to pray, before the great emptiness in the earth, a silence that seems to exert a force, a solitude so awesome any response to it must be described as religious. The river far below doesn’t show a ripple, its color mirroring the tawny canyon walls, chalky as the medicine one might take to quell a rebellious stomach. I think about how long the river has been at work carving this gorge, which could easily fit the pyramids inside. I try to imagine the inexorable process: muddy rivulets forming first the gully, and after millennia, this canyon. I try to picture the gorge’s growing shape at million year intervals and then the microscopic process of water and grit chiseling stone, a process still going on unseen. Forces are at work in the world that can be conceived of only vaguely, and here, in the desert’s massive emptiness, with one’s only company a hawk circling on the air currents overhead, one faces these immensities.

 

At the end of the Book of Job, God responds to the plight of the long-suffering protagonist with what might seem indifference. Job’s suffering has led him to demand answers from God for the seeming injustice of it all, and God at last appears in a whirlwind and responds: Who are you to question me? The images the Deity invokes are hail and thunder, wild animals, the sea’s dark power – all forces beyond Job’s comprehension. Yet next to God such forces are nothing but smoke and mist; even the fiercest of sea monsters, Leviathan, is a mere minnow. In the Mission Mountains an explanatory display describes how the plains below were formed: millions of years ago a glacial dam between two ranges burst, emptying an inland sea with more destructive force than all the world’s rivers combined.

A cigarette lighter in a forest fire, the Book of Job would say.

One of the strangest things about this strange book is that God ignores the question the main character has been agonizing over since the first chapter – why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? – and yet Job is entirely satisfied with his response. Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar had been saying similar things all along – you can’t understand God’s ways – only stoking Job’s indignation. Yet, after his speech to Job, God dresses down this trio too. I suspect that God recognizes a yearning in Job deeper than his desire to have his questions answered. Even when he demands to cross-examine God, Job admits he will not win such a disputation. “Why do you hide your face?” he asks plaintively, yearning for God’s presence. The explanations given by Job’s comforters may not be that different from God’s speech from the whirlwind in their content, but explanations do not amount to an experience of God. “I had heard of you by hearing,” says the penitent Job, “but now my eye sees you.” It is presence he wants, not answers.

The presence Job gets, however, is hardly comforting – not a shepherd caring for his sheep, not a child at rest in his mother’s arms, but simply raw, transcendent, incomprehensible power. I suspect the awe one feels in Devil’s Canyon contains some inkling of what Job felt before the whirlwind. The power one senses at work shaping the landscape may not be omnipotence, but it hints in that direction. Contemplating the vast stretches of time the canyon’s many layers represent may not be precisely the same as contemplating eternity, but doing so stretches the mind in a way that opens it to the infinite. The psalms and proverbs insist that “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and in the untamed majesty of Devil’s Canyon or Yellowstone Falls or the Grand Tetons, we step closer to that wisdom beyond words, to the only presence that can satisfy our infinite yearning.

 

On the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana, I step into a little church and feel like I am in northern Italy. The paintings are pure baroque – cherubs and ecstatic saints, billows of clouds, ribbons of piercing light – a touch too stiff to make the art history books but remarkable in this rough country. An Italian Jesuit brother who also served as the Flathead mission’s cook, Joseph Carignano, painted the church, and there are elements of his vision – forgiveness, the triumph over death – that I cannot find in the land.

There are banners in the chapel too, polyester and a little frayed, which seem more dated than the 1890s paintings. A newer altar, just off center, jutting into the pews, is slightly incongruous. It’s meant to be on the same level as the congregation but reminds me of the discount tables Young’s Western Wear sets up on the sidewalk in front of their store in Valentine, Nebraska.

The South Dakota writer Kathleen Norris compares the Great Plains to an icon. “What seems stern and almost empty is merely open, a door into some simple and holy state.” The “odd twists and buttes” of the land, she goes on, are like Gregorian chant, unreasonable but somehow perfect. What Norris says perhaps explains what it is for the land to be spiritual; it is like an icon – not God himself, but a door through which we might glance, as Moses did, the backside of the Creator. Something about the land hints at a dimension of existence beyond what we can fathom – its scale certainly, but perhaps more importantly, its unpredictability. The land is more like the baroque, with its glut of random cherubs, than the modern, with its functionalism.

I take full advantage of this functionalism, of course. I stop for supplies several times at Walmart, confident that even if I have never been in this particular store before I know exactly where things are. If the giants of mythology were to return to earth and decide to carve up the blocks of strip malls and frontage roads from any of the Midwestern cities in which I’ve lived – Minneapolis, South Bend, St. Cloud, Chicago – and lift the slices into the air with an Olympian spatula, substituting one piece of the suburban pie for another, no one would notice the difference. There is logic to the organization; the landscapes in which we live are designed to maximize convenience. They reflect the architecture of the human mind at its most basic, predictable level; in them we see the lowest common denominator reflection of ourselves. In contrast, the West’s unpredictability is massively inconvenient. A few yards away from Devil’s Canyon, there’s little warning that one is on the verge of a thousand-foot precipice; imagine a thirsty traveler crossing the scrub and gravel, then coming upon this barrier, and the canyon’s name makes sense. But the untamed quality of the land is precisely what makes it an icon of the divine.

Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Yellowstone Falls

Take the Grand Tetons, a mountain range at first glance so perfect that it seems to have been designed as the backdrop for a beer commercial. A few moments of contemplation, however, reveal peaks perfect only in their asymmetry – some mounded, some serrated, some spired, some breaking off in a single sheer stroke, as if a frustrated sculptor had attacked his masterpiece with a chisel. Green brushstrokes have been interrupted arbitrarily by fire, lightning strikes, mudslides, and floods, leaving piles of rubble in the middle of velvet forests and mountain streams that glisten like diamond necklaces. I think of Ravenna’s mosaics: a world away from Big Sky Country, stylized night skies in small, dark mausoleums. But I feel the same awe in both places. No two tiles of a mosaic are exactly the same; microscopic variations in curvature, the angles at which they are set in the cement, the way they catch the light – especially candlelight – make a mosaic ceiling dance like something living, a vision never quite graspable.

The spirituality the land offers is anything but easy.

I am still skeptical about the reasons some seek spirituality in the land, for the spirituality the land offers is anything but easy. It is the spirituality of a God who would, with lightening and earthquakes, sneeze away the bland moralism preached in many pulpits, a wildly free, undomesticated divinity, the same God who demands of Moses from a burning bush, “Remove your shoes, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” When God appears to Job, the comforting sentiments we might expect to feel are absent because such sentiments are at most God’s trappings, not the infinite himself. The God who speaks to Job from the whirlwind reminds him that, comforting or terrifying, he alone is God.  To be satisfied with anything less would be the spiritual catastrophe the Old Testament calls idolatry.

Some of our idols shatter in the West’s rugged vastness, others remain. Perhaps God leaves exposed the land’s brokenness – the scars of forest fires, the fossils of extinct biospheres, rifts showing ancient continents now scattered like puzzle pieces – to remind us that he is greater than the icon, too. The heavens and earth will wear out like a garment, the Psalmist says, like clothes that are changed. “But You neither change, nor have an end.”

 

The morning air is brisk but still, and I am no longer heading west. For the Lakota, just as for ancient Christians, east was the traditional direction of prayer, the rising sun an icon, and there is something appropriate to ending a journey that way. The road is empty and glistens with dew. I still have miles of Montana all to myself.


Anthony R. Lusvardi, SJ, served two years in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan before entering the Jesuits and recently spent several years working on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He is currently pursuing graduate studies in Rome.

Grand Tetons snowcapped mountain range The Grand Tetons, Wyoming
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