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Awe and worship among the trees

02 August 2013

Holidays, and the sabbath, give us space to refocus, says Bill Countryman

IT MAY seem self-indulgent, given all the current woes of the world, to write about one of its pleasures - the summer holiday. But holidays have something to give the world at large, as well as the individual. They are a form of sabbath, and, therefore, for those who recognise their grace, point towards a more humane existence. And sometimes they include a kind of pilgrimage, too.

We will soon be heading up into the Sierra Nevada range, to a pair of national parks known for their giant sequoia trees - among the largest and oldest living things in the world. They are worth visiting in themselves, but, for us, they also have an odd connection with the church.

Many decades ago, before these trees were all protected in parks, a parishioner from our church in Berkeley, California, brought back a knot from one of these trees, sprouted it, and planted it in the churchyard. It is now a large multi-trunked tree in its own right, although still small compared with its mountain cousins.

The connection the tree creates between the parks and the church makes sense. The national parks are also holy places - ones where visitors experience awe without having to specify how or why they feel so deeply impressed. In a nation of increasing cultural and religious diversity, it may be a good thing to share an experience of reverence without having to label it.

What is more, the awe that we experience there reminds us that much of who and what we are is a gift. We Americans like to compliment ourselves on our accomplishments. But the great thing in these parks is not what we have done, but what was already there before any human being set foot on this continent. Many of these places were - and, typically, still are - sacred to Native Americans. The immigrant-derived majority tags along, as it were, in their footsteps. And the great thing we encounter is the sheer givenness of these wonders.

The national park system has been critical to the preservation of these places, but it did not create them. Admirable as its work is, it is, at heart, not so much a national accomplishment as a public confession of awe, of worship.

As an Anglican, I inevitably visit these places with a reverence shaped by the Benedicite and Psalm 104. They provide us with a moment of creation unveiled. You can still see, as it were, the hand of God hovering over such a place.

Of course, it hovers everywhere, but it is easy to take it for granted in the day-to-day world.

Sabbaths and holidays serve to refocus time, to rescue it from a merely utilitarian busyness, and allow us to see it again as a gift. A visit to places such as the Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks does something of the same for space. And it may be a useful reminder for the theologically educated, including me, that worship, the human response to awe, comes before doctrine.

The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.

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