By BRUCE YAEGER
Adapted from his sermon, given at Covenant Church, Houston, TX, August 2015
The year was 1867. In Indianapolis, a twenty-nineyear-old man was working at a lathe in a carriage factory. On this particular day, an unforeseen incident would change the course of his life. The file he held in his hand against a lathe slipped, piercing his right eye. That eye went blind and, out of sympathetic nervous shock, the other one as well, leaving him totally blind. For a month, he was forced to lie in a darkened room, waiting, hoping, and asking himself what was most important in his life. After a month, when he had recovered his eyesight, he knew that he had to set out on a new course, following his deepest desire –– to be an explorer of the natural world.
That man was John Muir. No other individual can be given more credit than John Muir for the creation of the system of national parks the U. S. is blessed with today. Muir accomplished that primarily through his career as an eloquent nature-writer. In his day, Muir’s having extensively read the Bible as a child lent him cadences and imagery for his nature-writing because his audience was heavily steeped in the Bible. Today, Muir is frequently quoted in environmental writings and on colorful scenic calendars. One often repeated quotation is his statement: “Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.” Spiritually and theologically, that statement leads us into complexities that are worth exploring: Does the earth heal? And if so, how? For anyone who had recently been reading the Gospel of John, Muir’s phrase about the earth healing might bring to mind John’s story about Jesus healing a blind man. As that narrative goes, Jesus “spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes.” (John 9:6, NRSV). I remember as a child being shocked upon first hearing that part of the narrative. Having grown up in a church-attending family, I was accustomed to hearing stories about Jesus compassionately healing people, but this story was different. Even though Jesus then tells the man to go wash his eyes with water from a pool, I was still shocked. I thought Jesus should be smarter than to put such an unsanitary substance as saliva mixed with dirt in a person’s eyes. Even as a child, I had learned not to touch my eyes when my hands were dirty!
Having now more knowledge about symbols in the culture the Bible comes from, I know that the earth –– the ground –– was associated with the source of existence. This association is most conspicuous in the creation account we call the “Adam and Eve story,” which states: “God formed man from the dust of the ground.” (Gen. 2:7, NRSV.).
There is, therefore, in John’s story of the blind man, the suggestion that Jesus’ healing with a substance from the earth is also a creative act –– giving new life to the blind man! And, indeed, this previously blind man, once healed, does turn out to be quite a lively individual, engaging in debate with skeptics about what actually occurred. But should I be at all surprised by the man’s confidence? Being able to see allows any person to move about more freely, with greater vigor than if that person were blind.
More than Substances from the Earth
The real question at hand is whether there is any way that the earth heals other than through medicines made from the earth’s minerals and any way other than through a mixture of spit and dirt molded by the hand of Jesus. That is because John Muir’s frequently quoted statement was not about physical healing as such, but about other challenges of our earthly life. Muir said that “Earth has no sorrow that earth cannot heal.” His declaration was not merely that the earth can heal but that it can heal our sorrows –– all of them! This is a greater challenge. For after all, even being physically well does not protect us from sorrow. And sometimes sorrow can become a greater burden than physical illness.
When my sister and I were growing up, we had one cousin who was our favorite, the one we most enjoyed being around. Harry was ever congenial. For example, he patiently endured our requests to tell us what time it was so that we could see him open the hinged glass cover of his wristwatch to feel with his finger the watch’s hands and Braille numbers. That was the way he told the time because he had been blind since birth.
Even though I was only of elementary-school age, I was able to discern that our cousin Harry, although blind, was not weighed down by sorrow in the way his mother, our aunt was. She was more anxious than her eternally relaxed son, understandably, because she had more to worry about in taking care of him.
With time, however, I was able to perceive that there was more that burdened my aunt than anxiety about the tasks that needed to be tended to. I came to see how her life was rimmed with a lingering sorrow, the sorrow that Harry had been born blind. Could it have been because of an illness she had when she was pregnant? Was there something she could have done to have prevented that illness, and thus prevented her son from living a life as a sightless person? Although such questions did not appear to have ever entered Harry’s mind, they were never left behind by our aunt. Nothing would entirely wash away the burden of her might-have-beens.
The question at hand, however, is: Can the earth be the thing that lifts such sorrows? And if so, how?
Those are not the questions our newspapers, magazines, and TV most often present to us today. Instead, they continue to ask the opposite question. That is, they ask not whether the Earth can heal us but whether we can heal the Earth. We continue to be presented with summaries of the Earth’s ailments, from pollution to deforestation to global climate change. All those issues do need our continuing attention and involvement. But how can we be expected to heal the sorrows of the Earth –– this vast planet –– when we have so many sorrows of our own? Even without adding such environmental problems to our list of tasks, we have problems when we focus merely on human society: alcoholism, prison overcrowding, political reform, all the way to war. That list of social ills alone seems endless.
So, how can the Earth, so burdened itself, provide anything to relieve our burdens, to relieve our sorrows, so that we might have more strength to help heal it?
John Muir did often experience how his own spirit could be healed when he immersed himself in Nature. One of those occasions occurred during an unsettled time in his life, when he had been traveling on foot for months across part of Canada, meeting very few people. One day, after wading for hours through a swamp, exhausted and discouraged, he suddenly came upon, as he described it, “the rarest and most beautiful of the flowering plants... a Calypso borealis.” The beauty of that purple orchid broke in upon him so unexpectedly that he sat down beside it and wept, relieving a greater burden than just that one day’s exhaustion.
Nature can thus have curative powers for our spirits. Today, there are many people who have also experienced how turning their attention to something in Nature can be restorative, even healing. And it doesn‚‘t require wandering for days in the wilderness or finding a beautiful flower standing out strikingly from its wilderness background. Sometimes it comes in more ordinary settings.
An Earthly Spirituality
In the Gospel of John, Jesus is a vehicle for the power of God. Therefore, we might expand the question at hand and ask: If God is seen as the ultimate source of relief, does God heal our sorrows through our turning our attention to the earth? And if so, how?
Introducing the word “God” forces us to engage with the question on a deeper level. With the word “God” inserted, we are forced to ask if there is more to moments such as Muir’s Calypso-orchid moment than just the relief of seeing something pretty. The witty nineteenth-century British writer Oscar Wilde once remarked, “At twilight, nature is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets.” Today in the U.S., we do not as frequently read books or magazines containing poetry, but we still might recognize such an employment of nature in a style of postcards that are appealing mostly because they are pretty. It thus seems that our question has become whether there can be healing-moments in Nature that come from something deeper than just a “pretty postcard” effect.
As intricate as our question has become, there is a Biblical precedent for it that leads us to a type of answer. It occurs in the climactic scene of the book of Job. The man Job has endured more causes of sorrow than any human being should ever have to endure: his farm destroyed, his children killed, and his health gone. As if to make matters worse, even though he is in no way the cause of his sufferings, his insensitive friends assume he is, and they tell him incessantly that bad things do not happen to good people. Job protests his innocence in a continuous lament until God appears. God, however, does not provide any explanation for Job’s sufferings. Instead –– of all things –– God has Job contemplate different animals in the world about him. And even more puzzling, these animals are hardly warm and fuzzy, nor are they living “pretty-postcard” lives. Yet, a quietness comes upon Job, a kind of inner peace that we have never seen in him before.
Once when I was teaching a class that drew upon that part of the Job story, I raised the question of why Job should now be calmed. I will never forget the answer one woman gave amid the silence of the rest of the class; she said, “Sometimes it is comforting not to be at the center of things.” And indeed, up to that point, Job had been heavily concentrated upon himself (understandably, given the immensity of his sufferings). But an inner shift occurred as he was able to let that burden go –– at the same moment in which he felt himself more a part of this all-surrounding Earth.
To borrow a phrase from the poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus #4, it seems as if Job has returned his heaviness to the Earth. Rilke wrote:
Don’t be afraid to suffer; return that heaviness to the earth’s own weight.
Rilke’s poem closes with a contrasting image –– a reference to “the winds.” The lightness of those winds suggests the breeze that seems to blow through Job, cooling his anger, as he sets down his burdened heart. Indeed, in the Bible, the restoring arrival of God’s Spirit is sometimes depicted as being like the refreshing breeze that arrives on a hot day.
What the Earth Knows
In the first few centuries of Christianity, the Church struggled with the question of who this person Jesus was. The Church fought off one idea after another that maintained that Jesus was not a real human being. It is for this reason that the Apostles’ Creed emphasized aspects of Jesus’ life that reveal his physical humanness, for example, that he “was conceived... born... crucified, dead, and buried.” The commanding basis for emphasizing that Jesus was really human was Christians’ experiencing how deeply Jesus spoke to and touched their earthly struggles and sorrows. In the fourth-century Nicene Creed, in expressing its belief that God’s fullness was present in Jesus, the Church even resorted to a paradox rather than abandon its conviction that Jesus was really a human.
In those early centuries, the Church also fought off the idea (mostly from forms of Gnosticism) that this earthly world was so imperfect that it could not be a manifestation of the same Divine Power that was present in Jesus. It was for that reason that the Church insisted on keeping as part of its scriptures the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), with its creation account in which God declares this world “very good.” (Gen. 1:31, NRSV). More than that, as Martin Luther wrote:
If I believe in God’s Son and bear in mind that He became man, all creatures will appear a hundred times more beautiful to me than before. Then I will properly appreciate the sun, the moon, the stars, trees, apples, pears, as I reflect that he is Lord over and the center of all things. It is on this earthly ground, as we expand our awareness beyond our human sphere, that we see animals that, like ourselves, are finding their own paths for their lives and we find that we are not alone in struggle and sorrow; we also find that we can share and celebrate our discoveries and our joys.It is on this Earth, as we experience the cycles of seasons and discover the life-cycles of other species, that we develop a sense of belonging for our own lives as they grow and fade. And in the color, contrasts, shapes, sounds, and textures of Nature, we find the inspiration for our own creativity. And it is on this earthly ground that we find Jesus, kneeling down to scoop up a handful of dirt, ready to shape something new, ready to pour new life into one of God’s earthly creatures.