Friday, January 29, 2016

Get back to where you once belonged

No, sorry, not a post on the Beatles.

Rather, the woods.  In a post last year, an Orthodox priest explores the spirituality and space that are the northern forests of Russia (reviewing Jane Costlow's Heart-Pine Forest: Walking and Writing the Nineteenth Century (Cornell University Press, 2014).  Christ spent forty days in the wilderness, the prophet Elijah survived the desert thanks to crows, sailors look to get back on the water, and Russians, when they need respite, rescue, or spiritual refreshment, look to the dense, inexhaustiable expanse of woodlands.

Historical site of protection from invaders but also from state authority, by the nineteenth century Russia’s forests became the focus of both scientific scrutiny and poetic imaginations. The forest was imagined as alternately endless and eternal or alarmingly vulnerable in a rapidly modernizing Russia. For some the forest constituted an imaginary geography of religious homeland; for others it was the locus of peasant culture and local knowledge; for all Russians it was the provider of both material and symbolic resources. In “Heart-Pine Russia”, Jane T. Costlow explores the central place the forest came to hold in a century of intense seeking for articulations of national and spiritual identity.
Costlow focuses on writers, painters, and scientists who went to Russia’s European forests to observe, to listen, and to create; increasingly aware of the extent to which woodlands were threatened, much of their work was imbued with a sense of impending loss. Costlow’s sweep includes canonic literary figures and blockbuster writers whose romances of epic woodlands nourished fin-de-siècle opera and painting.
Considering the work of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Korolenko in the company of scientific foresters and visual artists from Shishkin and Repin to Nesterov, Costlow uncovers a rich and nuanced cultural landscape in which the forest is a natural and national resource, both material and spiritual.

Read it all here.

Personal note:  having taken the train twice across western Russia--so not even Siberia or eastern Russia!--in 2004, I can attest to this blog's (and Costlow's) insights.  To see the Russian forest gives insight into a land still strange and foreign to so many of us (American or not!).  I've also experienced a bit of the Russian winter in Moscow.  All those World War II history books I read during my younger days suddenly gained a new perspective. That cold--just like the forest--is real, an enormity far surpassing our human capabilities.

There are all sorts of sources for examining further Christianity's relationship with the natural world, but few better than Belden Lane, an American Studies and Theology emeritus professor at Saint Louis University.  In the last three decades Lane has published four books on this subject:

one on sacred space and geography (a fun romp through rural America, with sly influences--I alwys thought--from William Least Heat Moon's Blue Highways)

one on the spirituality of the Desert Fathers

one on a Calvinist appreciation of natural beauty (anticipating, perhaps, Pope Francis' Laudato Si')

and a spiritual guide to backpacking (something Lane does frequently in the Missouri Ozarks).

Lane, an ordained Presbyterian (PCUSA) minister, at times tends, as perhaps we might expected, to scriptural images and the hagiographies of the earliest church (e.g., St. Antony of the Desert more so than Blessed Charles de Foucauld).  On the other hand, readers of this blog will appreciate Lane's ability to read other Catholic and even Orthodox spirituality sources more authentically and empathetically than we would expect.  Lane knows and treasures his material, including even the Russian Orthodox spirituality of the forest discussed above.  Being a Calvinist, but one who loves St. Francis of Assisi, Lane sees the sovereignty of God in all things, natural and man-made.  Thus the call back to the wild--desert, plains, ocean, or forest--is thus one of ways in which God calls us back to Himself. The particularity of Christ's trial and temptations in the desert thus make all wild places, in their own particularities, a revelatory location. So in getting back to the woods, we get back to God.  No, this isn't pantheism or panentheism.  It's an ecumenical Christian approach to stewardship, one which Pope Francis, as we know from last year, holds dear.

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