Necessity and Danger

It is well to have specifically holy places, and things, and days, for, without these focal points or reminders, the belief that all is holy and “big with God” will soon dwindle into a mere sentiment.

But if these holy place, things, and days cease to remind us, if they obliterate our awareness that all ground is holy and every bush (could we but perceive it) a burning bush, then the hallows begin to do harm.

Hence both the necessity, and the perennial danger, of “religion.”

C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer

Reading this drew my mind to this, from Wendell Berry’s essay “Christianity and the Survival of Creation:”

A second reason why the holiness of life is so obscured to modern Christians is the idea that the only holy place is the built church. This idea may be more taken for granted than taught; nevertheless, Christians are encouraged from childhood to think of the church building as “God’s house,” and most of them could think of their houses or farms or shops or factories as holy places only with great effort and embarrassment. It is understandably difficult for modern Americans to think of their dwellings and workplaces as holy, because most of these are, in fact, places of desecration, deeply involved in the ruin of Creation….

I don’t think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a hypaethral book, such as Thoreau talked about–a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. That is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary, but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air, and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances, will hardly balk at the fuming of water into wine–which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is fumed into grapes.

What the Bible might mean, or how it could mean anything, in a closed, air-conditioned building, I do not know. I know that holiness cannot be confined. When you think you have captured it, it has already escaped; only its poor, pale ashes are left. It is after this foolish capture and the inevitable escape that you get translations of the Bible that read like a newspaper. Holiness is everywhere in Creation, it is as common as raindrops and leaves and blades of grass, but it does not sound like a newspaper.

It is clearly impossible to assign holiness exclusively to the built church without denying holiness to the rest of Creation, which is then said to be “secular.” The world, that God looked at and found entirely good, we find none too good to pollute entirely and destroy piecemeal. The church, then, becomes a kind of preserve of “holiness,” from which certified lovers of God dash out to assault and plunder the “secular” earth.

And both passages bring to mind the words of Elizabeth Barrett Browing:

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries…