I recently returned from a fantastic vacation, full of encounters with nature that I found quite spiritual — not in a pagan sense, but an authentically Christian one.
As a priest, I get two Sundays off (and the weeks that go with them) each year. And this year, my wife and I decided to explore a national park. Since she’s Canadian, we picked one in her home and native land: Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
What did we expect to see? Trees. Big ones. Lots of them. And we did.
No magazine or website could’ve prepared us for the experience of walking through old growth, coastal red cedars, some of which range from 800 to 2,000 years old.
This is the land of Ents, or perhaps even long-lost Ent Wives. And like Tolkein, I recognized in such magnificent beauty the incredible handiwork of God; the beauty and grandeur of creation as an icon of the Creator’s loving kindness.
Some forms of contemporary Christianity (particularly liberal ones) are starting to affirm this awareness, too, though as a novelty. Ecological concerns have become trendy, with the sad result that some conservative Christian elements may respond with reactionary rejection.
For too long, (Western) Christianity misapplied the creation account and its gift of dominion — the command to fill the earth and subdue it — as a license to exploit, conquer and destroy. This is one of several excesses that have led so many to reject the Christianity they think they know.
But it’s also one thing that led me, as a functionally -animist or -panentheist youth with little exposure to Christianity growing up, to embrace the ancient, apostolic, Eastern Church.
In its annual, outdoor blessing of waters, for example, I found a call to stewardship of God’s world — and an appreciation of its sacramental nature — that goes back to church fathers of previous millennia, rather than being the agenda of some latter-day seminary faculty looking for something new to rave about.
So, yes, I’m an Orthodox priest who hugs trees — and feels the trees return that feeling.
On this trip, we also saw a humpback whale and more bald eagles than I could count.
But the highlight (aside from trees) was almost running into a mother black bear and her cub. While leading my family down a trail, I looked up and saw her 30 feet away. Then I saw the cub skittering up a tree for safety.
Was I scared? You bet! Saint Seraphim of Sarov and Herman of Alaska both had bears as friends, but I’m not them. As my heart raced (especially over my children’s safety), I prayed that bear wouldn’t extract a price for our encounter.
We looked at her. She looked at us. And after a few minutes, mother and cub continued on their way.
Dear readers, go out and see for yourself: O Lord, how manifold are Thy works! In wisdom hast Thou made them all.