Over the course of this past year, the great blue heron has become something of a companion to me as I’ve journeyed with EcoFaith. I’ve always admired the bird from afar, but sometime around last June I began to have the feeling I was being stalked as she seemed to keep showing up in my life in curious ways. It felt like every time I turned around, I would see Heron — on a little body of water down the street, a painting on a mural, a fridge magnet, a plush toy in a kid’s hand, a passing billboard. It was a strange but welcome kind of shadowing, as I’ve discovered that these sorts of patterns usually foretell a threshold-crossing.

One of the great joys in my watershed is getting to see the great blue heron stand calmly in a remote pond or in the Mill Creek as it surveys the still water for a fish. Unlike other predators in my watershed that actively stalk by wing or paw, great blue herons take a different, more meditative approach that involves a quiet patience and attentiveness as they wait for the subtle stirring of potential prey. Then, in one graceful fell swoop, the bird tears down into the water and emerges with its beak full of a rosefin shiner or carpsucker to take up into a nearby tree for private dining. The whole ordeal is quite serene. I’ve watched it many times over the last year as I too have sat patiently on the Mill Creek’s banks, conscious of the long lineage of industrial abuse this body of water has withstood, and of the irresponsible plume hunting and millenary trade practices that drove our native blue heron to severe endangerment in the 1800s. It’s a gift to see them here now in such great numbers and hold in my mind the possibilities of ecological recovery. As I’ve gone about hosting conversations around the intersection of faith and ecojustice in some of Cincinnati’s faith communities this past year, I’ve always taken with me some of Heron’s feathers that I harvested from a recently deceased bird I found a few years back as a symbol of this earthen recovery and resilience. I’m reminded now too that I brought one to Portland last June as my contribution to our intern alter together as we had our retreat and introduction to the Ecofaith Practices.

Last month on a sunny May afternoon my mom was diagnosed with colon cancer. None of us saw it coming, especially as she is generally healthy and there has never been any history of cancer in her side of the family. It was all such a jolt, but underneath the initial waves of heaviness that swept over me, I found myself settle into a peace-by-proximity that emanated from my mom, who from the start met the news with a profound amount of gracefulness and good faith. That afternoon I was able to leave work a bit early to process this unexpected news, and my first instinct was to go down to a pond in my favorite swath of woods in Cincinnati to pray on my way to visit with my parents up north that evening. I sat for a while there, looking out over the still water and letting it all sink in, trying to keep my mind from wandering to possible worst-case scenarios. As I let these harsh thoughts pass through me and in time quieted my mind to pray, I closed my eyes and after a few moments began to hear a subtle stirring in the water near me. I squinted my eyes open, trying to maintain some inner quiet while assuaging my curiosity, and sure enough, there was Heron, standing just a few feet in the water in front of me with her eyes fixed right on me. With the day already feeling a bit surreal, I thought at first I was imagining it – I’ve never seen these characteristically solitary birds in the wild willingly get this close to a person, but here she was, perched completely still on the shallow bank and staring right into me. I kept my eyes open and stayed still too, and we shared what felt like a knowing gaze while I finished my prayer over the next ten minutes. I said an amen in my mind, and immediately she flew off. I hadn’t yet put together how I’d been thinking of Heron as a symbol of recovery and the situation with my mom, and I just treated this curious and beautiful meeting as a generosity from God, whose gaze often feels most present in eyes of others. And in Heron’s of all people! I had to laugh at the contrast between this moment of still interspecies communion and her subsequent venture of stealing a fish from two extremely angry geese on the other side of the pond. As I left the woods to continue driving towards my parents’, a church sign across the entrance read, “Fear not; fear diminishes our capacity for Love.” I felt clearly that this was Heron’s gift and word to me. This will be a journey, yes, and fear is not a good traveling companion. Find a stillness in the Love that is always given.

Beyond the significant connections to be drawn between the pervasiveness of cancer and the toxicity of our built environments in the late industrial era, I’ve been thinking a lot this year about the role of prayer in the struggle for ecological justice and healing (harkening back to my last blog post about eucharistic spirituality in the anthropocene). Despite some widespread sentiments about prayer as an excuse for nonaction and deferral of responsibility (think the ubiquitous “thoughts and prayers” and the “I’ve got faith, you’ve got works” attitudes criticized in James chapter 2), I can’t get away from the conviction that prayer is the only way forward to right action in these precarious times. I think Earth herself knows this, and in her own way bows before us as we consciously align our spirits and minds our Creator. I think Earth’s creatures, whose very lives are prayers, know and are attracted to this spirit and have their own way of honoring us when we show up to this work — we who have taken so much already in our mis-alignments with God and creation. Whatever else it does, prayer brings us back to the Center, and smooths our inner waters so that we can like Heron discern the movements just below the surface of the obvious. Prayer habituates us to the discipline of still-hearted love in the midst of a system that is predicated on fear. And it’s prayer alone that gives a person the tenacity to face something as frightening as an aggressive cancer, or ecological breakdown and say, “God is good. We will keep moving.” In the belly of the beast, we evoke shalom in just the very act of prayer.

It’s been almost two months since my mom’s diagnosis and I’ve been continually amazed at her strength and inner calm as she’s waded through these new waters. The most difficult part for her so far, I think, has been having to console other people’s frenetic, goose-like anxiety about it the situation. She’s just so steady — I tell her that a disproportionate amount of the world’s hard stuff gets thrown at her because she is such a witness to God’s peace through whatever the situation brings, no matter how trying. She stands calmly, and with apparent ease assures the people around her – God has held us through so much and that will not change now. The love of God permeates every part of our living and dying, and our duty is not control but reception and reciprocity. In talking to her, you couldn’t help but have the sense that she’d already beaten the thing in her mind and spirit — she wasn’t going to let this news shake her inner calm and sense of God’s providential love. I’m extremely grateful to report that she’s now in recovery from a successful surgery and that we just got news last week that the cancer was in first stage and had not spread yet though any of the lymph nodes they tested. It was a potentially aggressive type, but they caught it at just the right time and the doctors are hopeful that they got it all out of her body. We are beyond thankful for some good news after a month and a half in that limbo space of uncertainty about the shape of the future. Along the way, Heron has been a steady companion and has become a sort of icon for my mom’s recovery and healing — multiple friends sent along paintings or screen prints or little Heron memorabilia pieces while we were waiting for the news.

Healing. Recovery. Heron calls me back to these possibilities in a time when it feels like catastrophe is inevitable – whether ecological, social, geopolitical, or a sour cocktail of them all. I still don’t think there’s any reason to be optimistic about the future outside of the precondition of repentance (any more than a doctor would lend to a drug addict who insists on continuing to use), but I have to hold onto these hopes, and live as if they’re going to happen. Come what may, hell or high water – all things are being made new. We will need to find ways to harness this vision beyond the scope of flimsy optimism or resigning despair for the journey ahead of us. We must learn again how to harmonize with God’s song in all creation. It’s an old song that Heron is familiar with, and we need her help, just as we need the help of Goose, White-Tailed Deer, Pickeral, Tulip Poplar, Coyote, Mayapple, Paw Paw, Buckeye, and Green-Winged Teal. I really believe prayer is not only the primary means of our re-learning to sing alongside our wild siblings as well as a profound expression of humans in right relationship, but it’s the very location of our recovery and re-membering. Prayer is the song itself, and the singing; the very cadence of our movement towards wholeness. It’s how we heal and are moved to become agents of healing in a world still desperate for it.

———

As my time with Ecofaith comes to a close, I’m grateful to reflect on God’s generosity to me over the past year — these earthen teachers, these strange patterns of meeting, this intern community, this time to discern my vocation in the church, these homecomings to prayer. While my original intention for creating a “catechism of place” for my watershed has been halted for a season, I’ve relished the time spent focusing instead on working with a cohort of people in my church/garden community through texts and practices exploring the intersections between theology, faith practice, and ecological justice and literacy. It’s been a fruitful journey. The catechism is a project I intend to continue working on later this year, and I feel it’s been the right thing to focus more on building these relationships. It’s been a brilliant time to develop some facilitation skills and continue learning to articulate the significance of these issues, and it’s opened up some incredible opportunities to work with people from other faith communities that are working on similar projects in their respective contexts. In March, I was invited to speak at a local mosque on a panel with Muslim scholars on the “spiritual crisis of the environment,” and later work with some of their teens in a new community garden project on the connections between faith and watershed literacy. It’s so exciting to hear how our neighbors in other faith traditions are approaching the work of earth healing from their vantage points. Lastly, my year with Ecofaith has given me time to discern what next steps are for me to forge a life at these intersections, and I’m excited to report that I’ll be starting seminary at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio this Fall to pursue their MAPT degree with an orientation towards ecology and justice. MTSO is a school that’s deeply entrenched in this work of building an ecologically-oriented Christianity for the 21st century, and I feel confident that it’s the next stepping stone for me in making this the work of my life. I hope to go there remembering alongside the early church that good theology flows not out of the right books or ideas or credentials, but out of the wellspring of prayer. As Evagrius said in the fourth century: “if you are a theologian you truly pray. If you truly pray, you are a theologian.”

As befits a conclusion, here’s a beloved poem from our grandfather Wendell Berry’s Sabbath collections:

All that passes descends,

and ascends again unseen

into the light; the river

coming down from sky

to hills, from hills to sea,

and carving as it moves

to rise invisible,

gathered to light, to return

again. “The river’s injury

is it’s shape.” I’ve learned no more.

We are what we are given

and what is taken away;

Blessed be the name

of the giver and taker.

For everything that comes

is a gift, the meaning always

carried out of sight

to renew our whereabouts,

always a starting place.

And every gift is perfect

in its beginning, for it

is “from above, and cometh down

from the Father of Lights.”

Gravity is grace.

All that has come to us has come

as the river comes,

given in passing away.

And if our wickedness destroys

the watershed, dissolves the

beautiful field,

then I must grieve,

and learn.

Amen.

A Winged Theology of Renewal by Intern Jacob Taylor

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Never Miss an Update from EcoFaith Recovery
Get the latest content first.
We respect your privacy.