It is two o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon, the spring semester of 1971. I am sitting in the back row of a basement classroom. The room is hot and airless; my black beans and rice squat heavily in my stomach; it’s the drowsing hour. We are beginning part two of a three hour senior level seminar whose focus is Thomas Aquinas. I am trying to appreciate Thomas Aquinas despite what is for me, the near incomprehensibility of his written word. Aquinas writes in questions, though, quite a lot of them, in fact, and then proceeds to answer them. I like that. It’s good pedagogy, I am thinking, but not good enough, apparently, to keep me awake; I’ve got the slam nods.
It’s the conversation about angels (how many of them?) dancing on the head of a pin which lifts me from my post-prandial stupor, and for the few frantic moments required to reorient myself, I am playing catch-up. As I learn that of the one hundred eighty nine questions Aquinas raises, angels dancing on the head of a pin isn’t one of them, I am inexplicably relieved. That question comes several centuries later, and lives among the satirical writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth century philosophers who are taking pot shots at Aquinas’ verbosity.
I close my eyes, rest my elbow on the desk, my chin on my elbow, and nod off once again.
Now that I have formally retired from congregational life, I can be found celebrating the ten o’clock hour in my kayak at the north end of Enfield, New Hampshire’s Grafton Pond. Today I am remembering the early morning adventures my late mother and I shared. My mom had a sixth sense about keyhole openings which, if you hadn’t eaten that second piece of toast for breakfast, you could slink through, clearing the sunken and rotted trees by mere centimeters. But on the other side of these obscure openings lay the marshlands, nearly primeval in appearance. Marsh reeds woven in arbitrary patterns over the water’s surface, stumps emerging from the shallow waters, wild iris in clumps welcoming the swallowtails. Today dragon and damsel flies alight on my hands, my arms, my knees, and stay to visit. The hum of bees is evident, and from time to time I swat at a mosquito which dares to infiltrate the magic. (Try as I might, I’ve not been able to include the mosquitoes in the mystery and magic of this place!) All of this unfolds against the backdrop of the songs of the shy thrushes, hidden deep in the woods which border the marshes. A parent loon is teaching her babies to dive in the shallow waters, and I am waiting with confidence (a failed confidence, as it turns out) for the cow moose to appear. I know she is there, because my friend Candis met her right here just a few days ago.
The frogs have formed an orchestra along the banks, and from time to time one and then another leap into the water. The lily pads have sent up their flowers, yellow and white buds on vertical stalks. Most of them have yet to open, and as I glide through their midst, I happen to glance down, my face only inches from the buds. Some miniscule movement catches my attention, and I stop my lazy drift with the end of my paddle against a rock. I count more than two dozen tiny creatures of all different sorts, jockeying for a tenuous hold. This single bud is teeming with life, and once again, I am stunned and enchanted by how little I know about so many things.
Of my many mentors (most of them don’t know they serve in that capacity) Edward O. Wilson, whom I’ve never met and can’t imagine that I will, has taught me that in a pinch of garden soil, about a gram in weight, live millions of bacteria, representing several thousand species. In fact, that gram of garden soil might contain around a million fungi alone. Add the nematodes, the roundworms, algae, and protozoa, life forms not visible to the naked eye, not to mention the visible – earthworms, insects, small vertebrates, and plants.
As I drift slowly out of the marshlands and rejoin the waters of the pond itself, I am hearing familiar voices in my head. They are the voices of the people of churches, who, in their arrogance and righteousness, perhaps even in their vague and nameless fear that they are missing out on something, are proclaiming ever so loudly and with indefatigable authority – to those of us who dare suggest that the ponds and the woods and the meadows offer sacred encounters we’ve never experienced in churches – “You’re not in church. The woods and the lakes aren’t church. Church requires community.”
I am thinking about more than a couple dozen insects (and these are just the visible ones) on a single lily bud, thinking about the trees, the frogs, the parent loon with her babies, the moose who’s the no-show today, the fish under my kayak, the dragon and damsel flies, the grasses and rocks and irises. I am thinking about all of these and am asking a Thomas Aquinas-like question: if this isn’t community, then what is?
I am not of the place in which I was born. I am of a different place. It’s a place that’s getting bigger, meaning I am more at home wherever I go. Not altogether at home, but more today than yesterday. It gives me hope. It gives me peace. It allows me to release a little more of my anxiety about my own sense of place. This is important. The greater my sense of belonging, the greater my connectedness to the biotic community. And the greater my connectedness to the biotic community, the better I understand my role as servant.