(Following a Learning Together Time describing the New United Church crest – see http://www.united-church.ca/history/crest)
“When Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order, left his desk in sixteenth-century Rome after a hard day’s work, it is said that he would often retire to the roof of his headquarters and gaze, rapt in contemplation, at the stars. [When was the last time you looked at the stars? One thing I miss about living out in the country was the nights when walking to my car after a meeting or a concert, I’d look up, and see the heavens flooded with light. Once, driving home on Christmas Eve, I even thought I heard the stars singing! ] For Ignatius, as for any Renaissance citizen before the age of Galileo, star-gazing could be a spiritual exercise. In fact, Jesuit lore has it that on such occasions Ignatius was simply rehearsing the climax of his Spiritual Exercises – the ‘contemplation for obtaining the love of God.’ In this famous meditation, which comes after approximately thirty days of meditations on the life and passion of Jesus, ‘the Word made flesh,’ the exercitant [participant] is bid to taste and touch the deeds of the Creator – signs of love-in-action – in all created things, stars included. ‘Love,’ says the text, ‘manifests itself in deeds rather than in words.’ And above all, God’s deeds of love are to be found in the works of creation. ‘Consider how God dwells in creatures; in the elements, giving them being; in the plants, giving them growth; in the animals, giving them sensation. … Consider how God works and labors on my behalf in all created things … in the heavens, elements, plants, fruits, flocks, etc. …”’
The frame of this meditation is, of course, the first chapter of Genesis and the prologue of John’s Gospel: the aboriginal Beginner [God’s Spirit] hovers over the void, pouring out, emptying, informing, quickening, breathing into chaos, bringing light to darkness. Or,
In the beginning was the Word:
the Word was with God
and the Word was God …
Through him all things came to be,
not one thing had its being but through him.
All that came to be had life in him. …
Thus God is to be found in all things, all processes of nature.” [From “Praying in a Post-Einsteinian Universe”, David S. Toolan, associate editor of America and author of Facing West from California’s Shores (Crossroad, 1987). His essay on new age spirituality appeared in Cross Currents, Fall 1996. ]
The first thing I always think of when I read the prayer of Jesus from John’s Gospel is our United Church motto “That all may be one”. The great dream of the period when the United Church was formed was that there would be one nation-wide Canadian Christian denomination, and that other nations would follow our example in bringing together Christians of all denominations in common worship and service. (I don’t think they had Catholics or the Orthodox in mind at the time, since they were thought of almost as different faiths, not just different denominations. Unity had its limits, in our founders’ minds!) It was understood that unity meant unity between believers – that Jesus wanted us to set aside our differences and come together. We didn’t get there, but it was felt that the joining of the Methodists, most of the Presbyterians, and the Evangelical United Brethren was a good start. Along the way a few others joined us. It wasn’t until the 1940s that we developed our United Church crest, and inscribed the words of Jesus’ prayer upon it. Now, 70 years later, we’ve added new words. “All my relations” is written there in Mohawk, the language of first contact between Christian missionaries and the aboriginal peoples of Canada.
Jesus’ prayer is a prayer for unity – that we will be so united to him and one another that our relationship mirrors the one between Jesus and the Father; that we are inseparably linked, or, as a little song used to say, “you can’t have one without the other”. This is the same sentiment we find in “All my relations”, but the aboriginal phrase broadens that unity or union by including all that is: trees, rocks, animals, plants, and even the stars. If God is to be found in nature, as even the church of hundreds of years ago taught, then union with God in Christ means we cannot consider ourselves or our lives apart from nature. We are one.
“Each blade of grass, every wing that soars, the waves that sweep across a distant shore, make full the circle of God. Each laughing child, ev’ry gentle eye, a forest lit beneath a moon-bright sky, make full the circle of God.” These are the words of a hymn by Keri Wehlander (More Voices #37), and they blend with the words of Jesus in John’s Gospel, the story of Ignatius, the values of our United Church of Canada, the teachings of aboriginal peoples, and even the acknowledged theories of science. Science teaches that all life as we know it is formed of the dust of stars – so we are, indeed, kin to those lights we see afar off on those perfect, clear nights. We have the same source, and eventually, at the end of our lives, our own matter will go forth to nourish new life. We are bound to those past, those present, and to the future, and most of all, to life as it exists now.
So what, we might say? So what, if Jesus prays for our unity? So what, if that unity is greater than we first realized? So what if, indeed, we are related to all of life?
So what? First of all, these teachings call us to gratitude. Everything we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe, everything that fills our lives, is a gift from our relatives, and deeper still, a gift from God, the Source of all life. To say thank-you is the most basic acknowledgement of how we are tied together and dependent on one another.
Second, these teachings call us to treat all of life as family. How would our behaviour change, if we thought of Sister Moon and Brother Sun, Sister Deer and Brother Bear, the spider my wise cousin and the tree my respected elder? How much more careful would we be of their lives if we believe that they are related, and that we are so closely tied that we actually share one life?
One way of thinking of this is the metaphor of marriage. In marriage we do not cease to be separate people, but we do share one life. We bump up against each other all kinds of ways, and what one does or does not do cannot fail to affect the other. This is the kind of unity and the kind of relationship we’re talking about. How would this change things? The realization of this kind of relationship compels many to become vegetarians or vegans, because they do not wish to take the life of a relative. Some people will not swat a fly or smash a mosquito because its life is sacred. I’m afraid I’m not quite ready to go that far; I still prefer leather shoes to vinyl, and I still eat meat, though less than I used to do.
In many aboriginal traditions, hunters were only to take what they needed, use all parts of the animal, and thank the animal for its life. Even plants were thanked as they were harvested. Perhaps one simple habit we could all begin again is to resume the practice of saying “grace” at all meals – saying thank-you to God for the life that will feed us, and to the plants and creatures whose lives nourish ours. From there, we might go on to think about what other actions we might take to honour “All my relations”.
This probably sounds kind of new-Age-y and hokey to some of you, and that’s OK. But it’s not new spirituality, in fact; it’s a recovering of traditions that go way back in Christianity, to a recognition of the blessedness of all creation, and of the Spirit permeating all that is and drawing all life together. These teachings are both something old, and something new. It’s just that some of us lost it along the way, and needed other spiritualities and less dominant Christian traditions to remind us.
Native congregations have been part of the United Church since Church Union in 1925. As the pressure to conform to mainstream Christianity has lessened, a truly authentic aboriginal Christianity has emerged. Its wisdom can be a gift to us all: something old, become something new for us. “That all may be One”; “All my Relations”; it’s a wonderful vision, isn’t it, for today, and for the future? Amen.