Saturday at 8 a.m., I worshipped at my “other” church – the Church of Austin Gardens.
I know, I know, those of you who worship in more traditional churches and temples are skeptical of anyone who claims, “Nature is my church,” but you should have been there. It was like walking into the Garden of Eden.
Cool but not chilly, sunlit, the grass as green as it will get all year, and wildflowers nearing their ephemeral peak.
I wasn’t alone, but I seemed to be the only one attending. Everyone else was there on other business: walking the dog, jogging, giving the kids a place to run around. We are a purpose-driven people, goal-oriented, schedule-controlled, ground down by the grindstone.
Joggers in particular seem inwardly focused, wired up and earphoned, concentrating on their pulse rate, respiration, burned calories and overall cardio-vascularity. They look as if they’re tucked inside some temple – the temple of their bodies.
But what warrants worship here is entirely external: the buffeting of breezes, the subtlety of scents, the lighter shades of new growth at the tips of every evergreen branch, the older trees towering overhead, as magnificent as any cathedral ceiling. It is tempting to commit idolatry, surrounded by so many “saints.”
If you pay attention, you can find, amidst the groundcover, mayapples, bellwort, spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches, wild geraniums, wild leeks, garlic mustard (alas), red trillium and white trillium, and the current belle of this ball, Virginia bluebells.
There is more here than you might think and less in church than one might desire. Sunlight, for instance. Not much sunlight finds its way into churches – except for what suffuses the stained glass.
Here the rising sun streams in with such purity, it would be easy to mistake it for whatever it is we call God.
I have never fully understood why religions remove themselves from the natural world to pay their respects to whatever it is we call God. We enter the dark, man-made cave of the temple, an other-worldly “sacred” space, in order to experience the “Great Other.” We sit in one place and wait and listen and pray and it often drives us deeper into ourselves.
Here in Austin Gardens, you can stop by a few of the memorial tree plaques and wonder about other lives. Or sit on a bench and steep in the peace of the place, then walk the paved and gravel paths – ambling really. A lot happens when you’re not in a hurry. You notice things. You pay attention. You start to come out of yourself.
You feel the presence of a great otherness. The sensation is a mild form of “ecstasy” – a word we have degraded, attaching it to illegal drugs or sexual pleasure, but which literally means “to stand outside yourself.” Ecstasy, in other words, is a spiritual experience.
But is it “worship”? Is it enough to nourish and sustain us in place of “church”?
Are you so sure it wouldn’t?
Fortunately, it’s not an either/or proposition. Many feel more comfortable in the confines of the temple while others prefer the expansiveness of the outdoors. Some worship at both.
Both spaces are sacred. Here the homily is delivered by the sun, nourishing with its steady warmth. A sweet cacophony of winged soloists, not to be confused with their angelic counterparts, comprise the choir.
As David Foster Wallace said in his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, everybody worships. It’s what we worship that tells the tale. If we worship money, body and possessions, he said, they will “eat you alive.”
The benefit of worshipping here is experiencing creation at a higher level of awareness, which brings the created closer to the Creator – or whatever it is we call God.
The weather may not always cooperate, but last Saturday … that was something. You should have been there.