October 14, 2021

"Nooks Hill Road Underpass in Fall" by Eric Rennie

One of my long-standing projects as a landscape photographer is to shoot subjects within walking distance of my house.  You might argue that I am at least partly making a virtue of necessity.  Given my age (mid-70s), my globetrotting days are mostly behind me, to the extent I ever trotted around the globe to begin with.  I admit I am sometimes envious of spectacular images shot in exotic locales by fellow landscape photographers.  But then again, I have found that I never lack for subject matter in allowing the world to come to me, as long as I keep my eyes open.

In this and in other things, I take my cue from that noted homebody, Henry David Thoreau, who wrote in one of his journals, "The man who is often thinking that it is better to be somewhere else than where he is excommunicates himself.”  It’s not that Thoreau never left home.  After all, his first book was entitled, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.  But he is best known for his next work, Walden, in which he extolled the virtues of staying at home — in this case, a shack in the woods that he built himself.  Thoreau wrote, ”I have traveled a good deal in Concord.”  He saw no need to set out to discover the world, preferring to sit by the hour at the door of his little cabin and let the world come to him.
When I was young, I saw no particular virtue in staying put, whether by necessity or otherwise.  And yet looking back, I find that is exactly what I have done without ever quite intending to.  I came to Connecticut in 1965 to attend college and have never left.  I have lived in the same small town since 1974.   I worked in the same company for 30 years until I took early retirement at age 55.  I have been going to the same Episcopal church since 1975 — the same denomination I grew up in. I have lived in the same house — one my wife and I built ourselves, although not in the woods like Thoreau -- since 1986.  She and I recently celebrated our 50th wedding anniversary.
You could make a strong case that my life to date shows a serious lack of initiative — but only if you confine yourself to external circumstances.  I long ago realized that the fewer distractions the better if you mean to get on with the serious business of life.  To that end, I refer you to Marty Rubin’s observation: “There is nothing to seek and nothing to find.”  This may come as news to those who fancy themselves spiritual seekers.  In the first flush of spiritual discovery, we might imagine there is some spiritual practice or some exotic teaching or some guru that can provide a sure pathway to God.  If you happen to be a Buddhist or Hindu, your seeking can take many lifetimes.   However, every legitimate spiritual tradition I am aware of winds up leading to the same destination: right back where you started from.  Here I defer to T.S. Eliot: ”…the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

On his second missionary journey, St. Paul stopped off in Athens — a city that reputedly housed more gods than people, with temples and shrines dedicated to every deity imaginable.  This, of course, would have been a sore provocation to an old Pharisee like Paul, who would have been steeped in Jewish abhorrence of idolatry in any form.  But Paul also saw an opening to instruct the locals in a better way.  "Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious,” he told them. He added, "The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man.”  Now came the clincher.  Paul quoted one of their own philosophers, Epimenides, to make the case that God was not to be found in any temple:  “They fashioned a tomb for thee….But thou art not dead, thou livest and abidest forever. For in thee we live and move and have our being.” 

Spiritual seekers all suffer from the same misapprehension: that wherever God is to be found, it must be somewhere else.  They are like fish who set off in search of water — not the least because they often swim in schools.  The last thing they want to hear is that they are already immersed in what they seek (…in thee we live and move and have our being).  

Paul is sometimes taken for a pantheist for saying things like that.  He was also partial to locutions featuring the preposition “in,” as in, we are “in Christ.”  He used the phrase no less than 89 times in his epistles; add to that “in the Lord” and “in him” and the total comes to 165. But Paul was not technically a pantheist; the proper term for him is “panentheist.”  The difference between the two is this: a pantheist believes that God dwells in rocks and trees and everything else in creation, whereas a panentheist believes that everything in creation dwells in God.  In the words of the theologian Paul Tillich, God is “the ground of being.”
If you truly understand yourself to be rooted in God, it no longer makes much sense to go looking for him elsewhere.  Where in creation can you go that will bring you any closer to God than where you are right now?  Is there a shrine or cathedral somewhere that is holier than your own abode?  You not only don’t need to set off in search of God, it is not even necessary to let God come to you.  He is closer to you at every moment than your own breathing.


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