1851, 2018? Still the Quest   Leave a comment

The Summer 1973 issue of “Vermont History, Proceedings of the Vermont Historical Society”, preserves a letter from a young Vermont woman who went to Clinton, MA to labor as mill-worker. She was determined to enter Oberlin College, and mill-work was one path she could take to advance towards that goal.

Dated June 29, 1851, the letter from Lucy Ann (no family name known) to her cousin Charlotte derives from a period where people wrote each other frequently, and this surviving letter clearly stems from a history of lively exchanges between the cousins.

Cousin Charlotte–,

Your letter was joyfully received last Thursday evening, and this morning I take my pen with a right good will to answer you. This is Sabbath morning, and can I spend it better than writing to you?

After some light social gossip about her roommates in the mill-town, she continues:

Perhaps I am offending you to write such things on the Sabbath, so I will change the subject. — You say, “I am afraid you do not love the house of God”. The house of God, what do you mean? Our churches? And can you call such a place of desecration a house of God? If you can ’tis a place I cannot worship. I can only listen to truths or untruths, as the case may be, and ponder on their importance or unimportance, but to worship there, there is no feeling of devotion–no it would seem mockery to worship there amidst that crowd of well dressed idle gazers. Once perhaps the house of God was a place of worship, but it has degenerated into a place of vain idle show …

When Hemingway was asked if there was one thing essential to being a good writer (and, I would add, a free human being), he remarked, “Yes, a built-in, shock-proof crap detector”. Lacking that, we get scammed, conned, taken, had, bamboozled, misled, tricked, fleeced, robbed, used. And we give it up voluntarily, because as another writer — this one Roman — said, Mundus vult decipi — “the world wants to be deceived”. Yet our inner integrity will not relinquish our best interests so easily. It does not surrender the innermost citadel of the self, and our personalities will feel the unavoidable conflict till we resolve it — however long that takes. The longer we resist, the more the inner disharmony flails about to express itself in bad temper, illness, dysfunction, hypocrisy, projection on others, etc.

Lucy Ann perseveres:

There are places where even I feel devotional. Wherever this feeling steals over us there is our church. Mine is in the wild-woods. I never walk alone amidst nature’s solitudes without that same indescribable sensation of awe & devotion, & how inexpressably holy, calm and happy are such feelings. Then our thoughts are raised to something higher & nobler than the days dull routine, then do we feel that we have a Soul-immortal, & shall I say only then?

And so we see the Forest Church movement, one among its many more positive contemporary forms, arising from the middle of the Christian neglect of and even paranoid suspicion toward (see “Resisting the Green Dragon” and one useful counter-view from the UK’s Guardian) the physical world and ecological awareness. The sweetly saccharine song “I know a green cathedral” (lyrics by Gordon Johnstone, music by Carl Hahn).

Having forsaken so many keys, paths, practices and perspectives that for long helped keep humans in harmony with their planet, many seek to rediscover them anywhere and everywhere but where they have long existed — in earth-religion and earth-centered spirituality.

The Druid and Pagan sensibility doesn’t go away merely because the dominant culture disapproves of it, punishes it, mocks its deep hunger for true devotion and its proper place, or misunderstands it and offers in its stead a mad grab for a host of poor substitutes that con us into thinking they’ll answer our need, and which only enrich the pockets and egos of others.

How very many have felt this but struggled to ignore it? “There are places where even I feel devotional. Wherever this feeling steals over us there is our church. Mine is in the wild-woods”.

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