For our monthly 6pm evening services that we run in Billingsley over Spring and Summer we have a theme of travel and exploration. Last month, Sue Bates our church treasurer, told us of a recent trip she made to Antarctica; next Sunday (9th July), Caroline Johns, assistant editor of one of our local parish magazines will be telling us about three trips that she has made. In a month’s time, I will be talking about my trips to the Hebrides. In all of these, a common theme will be finding something that speaks to us and nourishes us in the natural world, whether or not we consider that we have a religious faith.
In the 19th century, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote a long poem, “Aurora Leigh”; one of its main themes is that division between the natural or physical world and what I would call the spiritual is a false one.
“Without the spiritual, observe,
The natural’s impossible;—no form,
No motion! Without sensuous, spiritual
Is inappreciable;—no beauty or power!”
A few lines later, she picks up a scene from the Book of Exodus, where Moses stumbles on God, “Holy ground”, in a burning bush and is commanded to remove his shoes, for he is standing on ground that is hallowed by God.
“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,
And daub their natural faces unaware
More and more, from the first similitude.”
Our speakers, in their own way, are reflecting on how they find “heaven” (however they understand that) in the common bushes they have observed in their travels. But of course, Browning’s point is that we do not need to go far from our own door to see the same thing, if only we have eyes.