Stalking the Sacred

By Terry A. Davis

This text is from a sermon given to Mountain Light UUC on 2008 June 28 and was kindly provided by the speaker.

When I decided to select Annie Dillard's reading about muskrats for a worship service reflection, it was hard for me not to think about a cheesy tune that was a hit in the early 70s … and whose popularity then defies logic now. Some of you may remember it… "Muskrat Love" by… the Captain & Tennille? Does anybody besides me remember that one?

It was also in the 70s when Annie Dillard wrote her Pulitzer Prize-winning book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, from which I excerpted the reading on pursuing muskrats. However, this time in Dillard's life was not nearly as lighthearted or superficial as the 1972 pop tune. Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as part of her own wellness journey, following a near-fatal attack of pneumonia in 1971. In the following months that marked her recovery, Dillard penned what many consider to be a theological reflection similar in design and genre to Henry David Thoreau's Life in the Woods, more popularly known as Walden. Like Thoreau, who found spiritual sustenance and meaning deep in the woods of Massachusetts, Dillard found mystery, truth and meaning living in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. It was there that verdant green fields, cold running water, crisp night air… and sleek and elusive muskrats revealed their secrets about life, death and the holy.

Reading and appreciating Annie Dillard has been for me what one might call an acquired taste. My first encounter with Tinker Creek was not the romantic romp through flora and fauna I anticipated. Dillard's inquisitive mind leads her to overturn any and all mossy rocks in her path – both literally and figuratively. She obsessively examines the damp, dark side of her subjects – Nature's underworld, if you will. For example, Dillard describes with blood-curdling detail a female praying mantis devouring a hapless male during the mating act. Gruesome stuff! And yet… Dillard can also take the warm and fuzzy… and shoot it to the stars. For example, there is a passage where Dillard describes arriving at a gas station in Nowhere, Virginia, where she encounters a beagle puppy. Her description of patting the puppy's small, hot belly as she watches the reddening sun set behind the mountains is at once a tiny bit of sweetness and a magnificent glimpse of the Infinite.

When I started reading Dillard's Tinker Creek, I wasn't yet ready to gaze piercingly at the madness of existence or the mystery of my own mortality. Holy stalking… what a contradiction in terms! And yet, this notion of capturing and containing mystery for further examination – like Dillard seeking to capture another muskrat encounter – is one of the reasons I sit, mesmerized, watching the tops of the tall pines in my backyard sway in the afternoon wind. It's why I stare at the small ragged hole in our wooden fence long after the striped chipmunk has scurried through it. Like Dillard, I want my moment with the sacred and I want it to stay.

Nineteenth-century Unitarian and Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that those sacred truths we long to hear in a good sermon, read about in a good book or encounter in a good conversation already exist within each person's soul. In his collection of essays entitled Nature, Emerson contends that Nature awakens one's soul not only to a youthful zest for living and to a sense of the Divine, but also to the knowledge that the Divine lives in each us and around us. He wrote:

"In the woods, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life is always a child. In the woods is perpetual youth… In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel nothing can befall me in life – no disgrace, no calamity, which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground – my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God."

Both Dillard and Emerson believed in the ability to connect through Nature to the Infinite. And yet Dillard, in her description of stalking muskrats, is not satisfied with chance encounters. She hungers for more connection, with an insatiable curiosity that seems to border on greed. Dillard seems to recognize that it's not possible to demand that mystery present itself whenever and wherever she wants… she admits that she may have had her "once-in-a-lifetime moment" when she saw the first kit floating on its back. And, yet, she hopes… she hopes and longs for another such encounter.

When I read this passage again recently, I had to ask myself, "Is my hunger for connection with the sacred truly a deep hunger – or is it a desire for immediate gratification? Aren't chance encounters with mystery mysterious partly because of just that… that they're "chance?"

The question I invite us to consider this morning is this: What are your muskrat experiences? When have you found yourself in pursuit of a sacred encounter? Or when has mystery unexpectedly and profoundly "shown up" in your life simply because you were in its vicinity?

One of my own muskrat sacred encounters occurred when I was a child. I didn't understand all of its layered meaning then and perhaps I am just beginning to do so even now. Where I grew up in the Washington, DC area, we lived in a neighborhood of rowhouses a few blocks away from a public golf course. My father, a young and aspiring IBM computer programmer, would golf there every chance he got… including at 6:00 AM when the course opened and he was just getting off the night shift. My dad was not exactly what I'd call a "nature guy." He liked to golf, he grew a vegetable garden in our backyard, but we never did the camping or hiking thing as a family. The closest we got to roughing it was the summer we stayed in a trailer with the Scheidel family on Assateague Island, a national ocean park on the Maryland coast. For a week, we were assaulted by stifling heat, evening mosquitoes and the discomfort of sleeping on a mattress the width of a Saltine cracker. By the end of our stay, we were bit, sunburned and sweaty… and ready for our window-unit air conditioner back home. I have to admit that the fruit didn't fall far from the tree when it comes to me communing with Nature… as long as I can get a hot shower and box springs at the end of it all, I'm fine.

Anyway, this golf course near my childhood neighborhood had a creek running through it. And, it was to this creek that my father took my sister Toni and me one evening to catch tadpoles for my 3rd grade science class. Have you ever tried catching tadpoles? They are as elusive as Annie Dillard's nighttime muskrats – and a whole lot smaller! They resembled the tiniest black darts in the water and stayed close to the creek's edges where they could feed on jellied algae and other plant life. My father was armed with clean mayonnaise jar and a makeshift net created from a wire hangar and a cut-up pair of pantyhose. Being timid around things small and slippery, I was only too glad to let him do the stalking. As the evening light faded and the sky began to go purple, my father swished his net about in the green water and scooped up the zippy juvenile amphibians. We triumphantly carried our tadpoles home for their first meal of Quaker Oat flakes sprinkled lightly into the glass container.

My sense that I had connected with something larger than myself in that evening did not dawn on me in a moment of sophisticated theological reflection… after all, I was only nine years old. However, the memory of that experience has been recalled and turned over in my mind over and over again like well-worn pages in a favorite book. The sound of the crickets as the evening fell, my father's child-like intensity at finding the tadpoles, the cold water on my ankles– these all came together for me at Oxen Run Golf Course on the banks of the creek that ran there.

I recognize now that it was a sacred moment for me – Annie Dillard's "once-in-a-lifetime thing" made possible by little black tadpoles. Stalking tadpoles with my dad that night in 1970 was my gateway into a connection with much something larger than us. As a child, I experienced it as a rare moment where I felt connected to and at ease with my father. As an adult, I reflect back on that night as holding something even more profound: my father and I were joined by Nature in mutual simplicity and exhilaration. We stood ankle-deep in running water and, as Emerson so eloquently put it, there was no disgrace or calamity between us in that moment that Nature could not repair. Gone was the anger, the fear, the uncertainty. In its place was the heartbeat of our very existence – small, metamorphic living things over whose mystery we marveled, as well as the unspoken possibility of our own metamorphosis. In that moment of intimacy made possible in the creek, we were filled with what Dillard described as a rush of pure energy – or what I believe was the holy Spirit of Life. That night, the currents of the Universal Being circulated through us and around us.

These are feelings that, like Annie Dillard, I hunger to recapture… feelings that lead me today to walk along the nature preserve near my home. I stalk the sacred as I scan the tall trees over and over again for the Barred Owl I've seen only twice, but have heard repeatedly call out in the night. I recall with clarity and longing the drive through central Florida last summer, when the sun was setting low in the sky, herons were flying over the marshes and my little dog Lucy was curled up warm in my lap.

I want more moments like these where, as Emerson says, I am nothing and I see all. Perhaps one does have to be intentional about them as Annie Dillard was in her search of muskrats. I can intentionally and persistently seek out mystery and meaning in Nature, while also appreciating the great fact that mystery will forever hold its own against human scrutiny and will.

I do believe that, despite my sometimes stumbling intentions, the sacred will always turn up. And, I pray that I'll be there in body, mind and spirit to catch my breath.