IF I WERE TO MAKE UP MY OWN RELIGION
Once, long ago, in a confrontation about how people in my Unitarian Universalist congregation celebrate Easter, someone sneered, “So, if you all don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, what do you have, just pretty yellow flower day?” That has stuck with me. My first response, in my head, was “your mama’s a pretty yellow flower.” I felt shamed by what they’d said at first, as if being inspired by flower, a symbol of resurrection and new life, was weaker and less grounded than believing in the literal historical resurrection of a person’s body. There are lots of stories around the world and throughout history of dying and rising gods. Those stories are a way of talking about the absolute miracle of the dying and rising of the wheat, the corn, the pretty yellow flowers. They speak of how the food we count on falls into the ground and seems to die, then grows again and produces what keeps the planet alive. Dying and rising is one of the most basic motions of life on our planet.
Living things are full of the life force, which urges: “Make more life! Spread your seed! Survive! Flowers do that by attracting animals and humans through their beauty, their usefulness, their ability to help with pain, changing consciousness, or forgetting. In early hunting and gathering days, flowers appearing in a place would signal to the gatherers that soon there would appear in that place tubers or fruits, something to eat, and that they should return to that place soon.
Other plants attract attention by being good medicine. They produce chemicals that help us, so they get eaten when an animal or a human has a stomach ache, or they are taken to someone to soothe a rash, and they are cared for and valued for their medicinal properties. The cannabis plant is being tended by the best gardeners of our time, who spend energy and money giving the plants everything they need, transporting them, cultivating them, making them stronger, moving them inside when the outside is inhospitable. What more could a plant want, if its drive is to propagate itself and increase its security?
I could do worse in my life than to emulate the pretty yellow flower. I would like to have a beauty in my spirit that attracts others with the promise of nourishment. I would like to be good medicine and good fun.
A medieval Christian mystic named Hildegarde of Bingen wrote: ”the breath of the air makes the earth fruitful. Thus the air is the soul of the earth, moistening it, greening it.” I see it as a green fire burning through all of the connected earth, through the grass, the trees, through us. Watching any spring unfurl I see that greening breath moving up slowly through the stems, sending energy through the tips of the leaves as they lift, gathering in what they need from the sun and sky.
I grow in cycles like the plants do. Sometimes I’m a winter spirit, where my branches look bare and all life has gone underground. I’m grieving or resting, ill, confused, or injured. I look out from my dark rest-place at people who are in a more summer spirit, lively and open, flourishing and at a peak of productivity, and, depending on how hungry, angry, lonely or tired I am, I might compare myself to them and find myself wanting.
A spring spirit, I think, has to do with blossoming. Blossoming is a time of big change. I used to have roses by my house in South Carolina that would bloom in the spring and keep blooming through November. I found myself wondering if it hurts to bloom. I know scientifically, that doesn’t make sense, but suspend disbelief for a moment and picture this: if you were a rose, and this were your first time out, would you be having fun being a bud, all curled around yourself, feeling hugged and tight, knowing what’s what? You are soaking up the sun, being gently tossed in warm wind, and suddenly everything starts to loosen up. Your petals are letting go! They are moving apart from one another! Do you try to hold on, try to grab for the edges and keep the changes from happening? Maybe you think to yourself, “I don’t understand this, but maybe it’s what’s supposed to happen.” You allow the once tight petals to move apart. Does it hurt? Does it cause anxiety? The roses seem to accept each stage with grace, but how do we really know that? Maybe we just can’t hear them screaming.
The same green fire that shoots up the stem of a rose and causes it to bloom also drives the petals to open so far that they fall to the ground. The rose hip swells and turns red and bursts open, releasing the seeds of future roses. Is it any wonder that we tell stories of human blossoming, then growing wise, spreading our seeds, our deeds, our words, our offspring, then falling to the ground to lie still for a time before rising again? At this point in my life, my rosy bloom is finished, and I feel myself to be a rose hip, filled with seeds to share, glowing in the afternoon sun. We see the mystery all around us. Spirits winter over, and then spirits bloom. The same green fire drives it all, the Spirit of Life to which we in my faith community sing praises. What is more worthy of worship than this?
My made-up religion even has a theology of the afterlife.
I was thinking about death and greening one weekend camping with my friends. We were nestled in a clearing on a Carolina mountain side. Most of the folks were around the campfire, talking or dozing. Our chef was in the cooking tent grilling and gossiping with his girlfriend and a couple of others. He wasn’t wearing his high heels that day. He does sometimes, but only on camping weekends. I love those people, and they love me. Being surrounded by love is a fine way to spend your time. I wandered off to the hammock, and lay there looking up at the sky through early April leaves. I was soaked in light, the blue of the sky, the green of young leaves, the sun shining through them like stained glass. I thought, “When I die, I want to have my ashes buried under this tree, so that for one spring after another my body can be part of this particular green.” I could feel my life flowing through the cells of a leaf, feel the leaf opening to the warmth and the light, feel myself part of that green, and I was happy. If that is my afterlife, I will be deeply happy.
The hope of that afterlife doesn’t take any leap of faith. I know it can happen. The minerals and the water in my body can be soaked up through the roots of that tree. A part of my body will be unfurling, green in the sun. My soul may be somewhere else. Sometimes I think my soul will float in an ocean of love. Will I recognize old friends, family who have gone on ahead? I don’t know. I think I will know they are there. I will know this: there is not now nor was there ever any separation between us. I will know that they were with me as strongly when I was alive as when I’m part of the leaves. The green of a new leaf, lit from behind with the spring sun — that color stays inside me, a glowing place of peace, the certainty of remaining part of life. During a memorial service I see that green, I feel that peace.
This poem by my friend Mary Feagan might be one of my new religion’s hymns:
Listen. I learned something this morning.
Fruit comes from flowers. Do you get it?
See, results come from joy and beauty first.
You don’t hammer seeds in the ground
and wait for breakfast.
The important step is in between.
You graciously plant ten seeds or a thousand.
Then the seeds, so quietly and invisibly,
in comfort and heat, drowning and dryness,
well, the seeds either die or open up. And
if they open up, mind you, if in their own time
they graciously come up for you,
what do they do first?
They bloom! “Beauty first!” they shout.
Beauty first, then breakfast.”
The pretty yellow flower didn’t start pretty. It started as a seed buried in the soil, and its journey, long before blossoming, is already courageous and astonishing. When it’s in the dark, not knowing what to do, sleepy and shivering, does it know that the time spent buried is necessary, that the damp and the cold, the time under the ground works toward the moment of breaking open. Something inside the seed is gathering, green, growing as the outside is breaking down. The moment the inside is too strong for the outside, it will break open and the shoot inside starts seeking the sunlight. Antoine St. Exupery says “The seed, haunted by the sun, never fails to find its way between the stones in the ground.” The soil around the shoot is pushed aside. If it encounters a stone, and the stone won’t be moved, it will grow around the stone, still and always toward the sun. Contemplating this drive in the seed, I wonder what sun haunts me and my growing. Toward what am I always moving? What feeds me, what draws me, what warms and nourishes my life? I think it is Truth. I’m always trying to say the truest thing. My spirit leaps when I hear someone say something true.
What sun draws you toward it? This is a good question for my new religion to offer. It would have been useful information to know early on that I would have to spend some time in darkness, unable to move, not knowing what is coming, and that after that I would break open. I should have been told that the dark is as sacred as the light, a time of resting and attending to the roots.
The religion of my childhood taught that “the heart is deceitful above all things,” so you would never be encouraged to follow you heart. I wish I had been assured when I was young that there was something inside me that would guide me, that would fight for expression, find its way past obstacles, feel its way through times of sacred dark. I wish I’d known that there was something inside that would emerge into the light.
I root my experience of aging in what feels to me like the greatest miracle. When the flower is old, its attractive beauty has faded and fallen. What is left is the generative beauty of its seeds, holding within them infinite future plants, infinite flowers, infinite years of beauty and generous giving. This miracle cries out for worship.
The seeds then fall to the ground, or they’re carried off by the wind, eaten by birds and dropped miles away. The pretty yellow flower is a traveler, and does not confine itself to blooming where it’s planted, despite that cute sign in your Great-Aunt Cordelia’s kitchen.
In my religion, anyone being sworn in to public office, would do so with their hand resting on a packet of seeds.