Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Outside the fold

The following reflection appears in the 2016 Lenten devotional booklet for First-Plymouth Congregational Church here in Lincoln:

And he withdrew himself into the wilderness, and prayed.
—Luke 5:16

When, at the age of 15 or so, I took my leave of the Catholic Church and Christianity generally, my grandmother called me a heathen. At first, I was hurt that she had misunderstood me; I was not renouncing spiritual life altogether, just claiming a path more authentic to my own experience. But over time, I've come to embrace the term: heathen, one who lives on a heath.

So what is a heath? A heath is an expanse of shrubland habitat, usually with acidic or otherwise relatively infertile soil. Like the closely related landscapes known as moors, heaths have traditionally been considered waste areas. I've been privileged to spend time on both heaths and moors, and I tend toward a quite different view. In my experience they are abundant in both wildlife and edible fruits, including blueberries, cranberries, huckleberries, raspberries, strawberries, and wild plums. They may be "wastelands" to the farmer or the industrialist, but to the hunter of game or the gatherer of wild foods, heaths are places of plenty.

If heaths can feed the body of one who knows them well enough, they are perhaps even better suited to feeding the soul of one who approaches them with the right spirit. Being sparsely settled or uninhabited altogether, they tend to be quiet, peaceful places deeply conducive to reflection. Can it be a coincidence that both John the Baptist and Jesus sought solace and solitude in the wilderness? What better place to seek God?

My grandmother was neither a naturalist nor a philosopher, and while I love her and owe her much, it must be said that my grandfather was ultimately more influential. It was he who taught me to fish; he (and my mother) who gave me an appreciation for birds; he who set me on the path to wandering about on heaths and moors. And while he was as devout a Catholic as his wife was, I do not recall his expressing any concern about my departure from the Roman Church. He knew, I suspect, that I was baptised to what a friend of mine calls the Church of Field and Stream; that like Jesus and his elder cousin, I found God everywhere and not just in the temple. His acceptance, and that of my parents, gave me confidence in my own sense of spirituality, and helped make me who I am today.

So yes, a heathen. A happy eater of locusts and honey. A God-fearing heathen, at peace in the quieter spots in the world.

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