This Morning Again It Was in the Dusty Pines — to divinize nature and naturalize the divine

Dusty pines in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden
PROLOGUE

The opening paragraph Emerson’s essay “Nature”:

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

This Morning Again It Was in the Dusty Pines by Mary Oliver

Not in shyness but in disgust 
the owl
turns its face from me and pours itself 
into the air, hurrying

until it is out of sight—
and, after all,
even if we came by some miracle
upon a language which we both knew,

what is it I might say
there in the orange light of early morning,
in the owl’s resting time,
that would have any pluck and worth in it?—

not admonition, or blame,
and not recrimination,
and not, I say, unholy weeping,
and not, for god’s sake, any bending of the knees

in the cold and rough grass
under its gold and glassy eyes
which, in such a conversation, you must imagine
turned upon you.

So I cannot improve upon the scene
as it happens:
my opportunity
and my stony silence

as death
rises up—
god’s bark-colored thumb—
and opens the sheath of its wings

and turns its hungry, hooked head
upon me, and away,
and softly,
lamp-eyed,

becomes the perfect, billowing instrument
as it glides
through the wind
like a knife.

—o0o—

ADDRESS

The central thinker of the seventeenth-century Radical Enlightenment was Benedict Spinoza (1632-1677) and, as Frederick C. Beiser says:

Spinoza’s famous phrase “deus sive natura” made it possible to both divinize nature and naturalize the divine. Following that dictum, a scientist, who professed the most radical naturalism, could still be religious; and a pastor, who confessed the deepest personal faith in God, could still be a naturalist ("After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900", Princeton University Press, pp. 4-7).

Not surprisingly for a religious tradition that eventually came to be given the names ‘Unitarian’ and ‘Universalist’, Spinoza’s thought also had a profound influence upon us.

As most of you will know the English of the phrase ‘deus sive nature — ‘God or Nature’ — has been used at the beginning of our Sunday morning service since 2008. This morning I presented this to you in a slightly different way to make something very important clearer — namely our tradition's growing concern to show and speak of the divinity of nature and and naturalness the divine.

Let us begin by resting together quietly for a few moments in the presence of 
Deus sive Natura, God or Nature;  divine-nature, nature-divine.

The phrase 'God or Nature' needs some such gentle clarification because, over the years it has become increasingly clear to me that, for a casual visitor, the English alone makes it look like I/we can’t quite make up my/our mind whether it’s God or Nature I/we are coming consciously into the presence of. It could be one but, perhaps, it’s the other: “Who knows — so let’s equivocate!” But those of you with a little Latin will be aware that ‘sive’ is the ‘or’ of equivalence and Spinoza was most certainly not being equivocal; he wanted to say that ‘God’ is ‘Nature’ and ‘Nature’ is ‘God’.

It was, and remains a powerful insight (one that is more and more relevant as we begin to understand the interwovenness of ourselves and the world) but it has proven notorious hard to find adequate ways to express this consistently in our European religious languages. Not least of all this is because of our Judaeo-Christian culture’s tendency to want to speak about God or the Divine in absolute and permanent ways. So, to turn to an example in our own English Protestant history, in The Westminster Shorter Catechism, published in 1647 the authors write: ”God is a spirit, whose being, wisdom power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth are infinite, eternal, and unchangeable.” They took, of course, their lead from the Bible. (So, for example, in Malachi (3:6) we read, “For I am the Lord, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed”; in the Epistle to James (1:17) we read, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning”; and, in Hebrews we read, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” — remember Jesus Christ is understood, by Christian orthodoxy anyway, as being God himself.)

But once Spinoza’s insight has been grasped, that nature is divine and the divine is natural, we quickly discover that we cannot find such immutability and permanence in what we are now calling God — i.e. in Nature. In his talk of 1841, “The Method of Nature”, the lyrical philosopher, New England Transcendentalist and former Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), wrote powerfully about what we do, in fact, find. He said:

We can never surprise nature in a corner; never find the end of a thread; never tell where to set the first stone. The bird hastens to lay her egg: the egg hastens to be a bird. The wholeness we admire in the order of the world, is the result of infinite distribution. Its smoothness is the smoothness of the pitch of the cataract. Its permanence is a perpetual inchoation. Every natural fact is an emanation, and that from which it emanates is an emanation also, and from every emanation is a new emanation. If anything could stand still, it would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted, and if it were a mind, would be crazed; as insane persons are those who hold fast to one thought, and do not flow with the course of nature.

But it seems to me that most religion — at least the kind of religion we generally practice in Europe and North America — always has dangerous tendencies towards becoming more than a little crazed and insane because it has continually sought to create minds (or, if you prefer, souls) that stand still — minds that have an unchanging view and position about an unchanging, immutable God. (In his famous essay, "Self-Reliance" Emerson notes that "This one fact the world hates: that the soul becomes.")

Not surprisingly the language our religion has so often used mirrors this belief in an immutable God by speaking in terms of fixed concepts, definitions and creeds.

However, if we are minded to follow Spinoza and Emerson here, we need consciously to start creating minds (souls) that are able to flow with the course of nature and which are able to speak a kind of religious language that mirrors this flow — or, much better, are able to speak a language which clearly expresses the flow itself; a language which is always divinising the natural and naturalising the divine. It is, to return to the theme of my last two addresses (here and here), to come to have a direction but ’no-position.’

For me, the writer who most consistently and accessibly speaks this new language is Mary Oliver and it is not insignificant that extracts from her poems are, again and again, finding their way into Unitarian liturgies, meditations, prayers, invocations and addresses across the English speaking world.

Because it seems so apropos to what I am trying, so clumsily, to say to you today, let’s now turn specifically to her poem, “This Morning Again It Was in the Dusty Pines”.

One very early morning Mary Oliver is out walking amongst the dusty pines when she suddenly comes upon a resting owl who, “Not in shyness but in disgust” turns its face towards her and then takes off, pouring itself into the air. She watches it until it is out of sight.

As it disappears Oliver begins to wonder, if only they could somehow speak the same language, what would she have said to this owl? What kind of thing could she say that had “any pluck and worth in it?”. I mean, were such a miracle to occur, you wouldn’t want to waste it by engaging in small talk about the weather, would you?

In her reverie she imagines what it would be like to have this bird of prey’s “gold and glassy eye” turn upon her which, were such a conversation to begin, she knows she must imagine happening.

At this point it’s important to remember that the eyes turned upon her are not friendly and inviting ones, they are those of a “raptor” — a word derived from the Latin rapere which means to to seize or take by force — they are eyes always on the look out for prey. Oliver is very aware that this includes her.

But she refuses to feel offended or to take umbrage at this and she knows she what a waste it would be to speak to the owl words of admonition, blame or recrimination. She knows, too, that there is no reason to begin an unholy weeping in the face of these rapacious eyes nor to fall to her knees in the cold and rough grass and pray to be spared. There is here, I’m sure, an unspoken pun on the words ‘prey’ and ‘pray’.

Oliver then tells us, on reflection as she writes her this poem, that she finds she “cannot improve upon the scene as it happens” — her opportunity, that is to say catching sight of this magnificent creature in the dusty pines and her stony silence in the bird’s presence, this was her ‘conversation’ with this owl.

With this realisation, suddenly, she brings us back to the moment when the bird, god’s bark-coloured thumb, as “death” rises up, opens the sheath of its wings, turns its hungry, hooked head upon her and flies softly and lamp-eyed away into the night becoming the perfect, billowing instrument as it glides through the wind like a knife.

In the bird’s departure — now seen by us, the readers, for a second time — Oliver shows us that deus sive natura — nature divine and divine nature — will not, as Emerson saw, be surprised into a corner, hemmed in and fixed with her human words and categories. Oliver knows that Nature is always going to thumb her nose at such folly.  But Oliver, it seems to me, always avoids this folly.

Through her graceful writing, we begin to see that the owl and Oliver, the pines and the sky, god and nature, you and me reading this poem and entering together into Oliver’s reverie, are all always-already conversing with each other, and the natural is seen and felt as wholly divine, and the divine is seen and felt as wholly natural. There are no corners to be surprised into in this complete circle/cycle of life. As Emerson said, in his essay "The American Scholar": "There is never a beginning, there is never and end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning to itself."

As deus sive natura’s poet laureate, Mary Oliver is able to write in a way that mirrors the flow of nature. Oliver brilliantly uses words that, in the hands of a lesser poet would have stopped this flow, the words of admonition, blame, recrimination. But by using them to remind us not to use them in the presence of the owl she propels us back into the actual flow of nature and she shows us why we can never improve upon the scene as it happens. She keeps us fully in the presence of this bird and, simultaneously, she also offers us an opportunity to learn what it is for us to be fully present as ourselves before this bird.

For me, her poem is nothing less than an example of a liturgy written in the new religious language, one that can help restore us to full life and sanity, one that restores us to the world and to each other, and restores divinity to nature and the natural to the divine.

Emerson wrote in Nature, as your heard at the beginning of this address, "Let us demand our own works and laws and worship." It seems to me that Mary Oliver is someone who has heard this call and who has begun to give us extraordinary new works and to open us up to new laws and ways of worship.

We are so, so lucky to have her amongst us. (CLICK HERE to hear an interview with Mary Oliver).

Not in shyness but in disgust 
the owl
turns its face from me and pours itself 
into the air, hurrying

until it is out of sight—
and, after all,
even if we came by some miracle
upon a language which we both knew,

what is it I might say
there in the orange light of early morning,
in the owl’s resting time,
that would have any pluck and worth in it?—

not admonition, or blame,
and not recrimination,
and not, I say, unholy weeping,
and not, for god’s sake, any bending of the knees

in the cold and rough grass
under its gold and glassy eyes
which, in such a conversation, you must imagine
turned upon you.

So I cannot improve upon the scene
as it happens:
my opportunity
and my stony silence

as death
rises up—
god’s bark-colored thumb—
and opens the sheath of its wings

and turns its hungry, hooked head
upon me, and away,
and softly,
lamp-eyed,

becomes the perfect, billowing instrument
as it glides
through the wind
like a knife.

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