Encounters of embodiment

The Rev. Dr. Hilary Oxford Smith

24 July 2013


Earthquakes, aftershocks and tremors change landscapes and lives forever. People living in Wellington, Marlborough and other places in New Zealand await a sense of calm. We are told it will be some time in coming.
So we bear the continual shaking as the movements of the earth alter our perceptions, challenge our physical, mental and emotional strength, intrude on our ways of life.
We also think of and pray for the people in China's western Gansu province, who like us, have felt the ground move under them. As the earth seeks a greater sense of peace and balance, we travel on that painful and uncertain journey with her.
History has shown us that it is often in times of great stress, vulnerability and powerlessness that we are most naturally generous and creative, self-forgetful, capable of doing what sometimes can seem to be very small or ineffectual things, simply because they are worth doing, for the sake of honouring fellow human beings. Whatever our differences, we actively seek the wellness of each other. Our weakness becomes our strength and we find ourselves re-turning more fully to the original goodness of which we are born.       
The dramatic and varied landscape of New Zealand, which we, who live here and others who visit our country, find breathtakingly beautiful and wild, is borne out of great movement. Ancient volcanic eruption and the encounter of tectonic plates, one with the other, have created a panorama of difference, with its own texture and spirit and depth.
On a recent midwinter holiday, my husband, Clive and I became part of such encounter and difference. From the turbulent wind and immense swells of the Cook Strait, to the snow and ice of the Desert Road, to the exultation of climate in the Far North with its great exotic forests, we came to the treasured land of Te Paki and of Te Rerenga Wairua, also known as Cape RÄ“inga…meeting places of earth, water, stone, air and spirit and worth every long rolling mile of curved and twisting roads to reach them. As we walk the earth for a short time of belonging, these windswept and untamed environments bring us deeper, through imagination, into the mystery of why we are here and the memory of time.  
Millions of years ago, the activity of marine volcanoes and sediment formed the island known as Te Paki. Then, as the great movement of sand was pushed inland by powerful westerly winds, the island became joined to the mainland once more. These evolving encounters have revealed commonalities and differences. Baked red clay and ironstone soil, patterned sand dunes rising to one hundred metres in height, wetlands, rare birds, plants and flowers, trees, reptiles and molluscs are only to be found on Te Paki.
Cape RÄ“inga is a place of profound cultural, spiritual and sacred significance for Māori. It speaks to them of a departure and a return. It is to here, that their spirits, after death, come. It is a hallowing place. Clinging to the face of the rock and lashed by salt winds and pounded by waves, is a lone pōhutukawa tree, over 800 years old. Māori believe that their spirits descend to the water on steps formed from its roots and return to their spiritual home of Hawaiki.    
We see whirlpools far out to sea, as if they are dancing in the wake of a waka (canoe). The Cape is where two vast stretches of water come together. On the day, the booming and wildly flamboyant Tasman Sea is to the west and to the east, the vast Pacific Ocean, peaceful and confident. A discordant concerto. They remind me of the music of the French composer, Olivier Messiaen, music I would hear played on the fine, dark red Rieger organ of St. Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh on many a Sunday past.  
A devout Catholic, Messiaen was interned in a prisoner of war camp in Poland during the Second World War. Conditions were horrendous, yet still he was able to compose music. His imagining of colours encouraged him to write and hear musical chords. Believing that birds were the greatest musicians on earth, Messiaen transcribed their song into musical notation.
His music is replete with new harmonies. He looked to the natural world for inspiration, where nothing is even or regular. “What is true,” he said, “is natural resonance…my music is not 'nice'…it is certain. I am convinced that joy exists, convinced that the invisible exists more than the visible, joy is beyond sorrow, beauty is beyond horror.”  
The earth has been here for millions of years before us and without us. It will be here long after us. It has nourished and sustained us over many generations. Without the landscape, none of us could ever have come here. Our lives and our search for meaning would be inconceivable without it. Within its shapes, lines, colours and sounds, discordancies and harmonies, new and sometimes unexpected encounters happen.  
As some of us struggle with the depths of distress which the earth is feeling and revealing to us at this present time, I think of a blessing that is worth sharing:  
“Let us bless
The imagination of the Earth.
That knew early the patience
To harness the mind of time,
Waited for the seas to warm,
Ready to welcome the emergence
Of things dreaming of voyaging
Among the stillness of land.
And how light knew to nurse
The growth until the face of the earth
Brightens beneath a vision of colour.
When the ages of ice came
And sealed the earth inside
An endless coma of cold,
The heart of the earth held hope,
Storing fragments of memory,
Ready for the return of the sun…
Let us thank the Earth
That offers ground for home…
The wonder of a garden…
That transfigures all
That has fallen
Of outlived growth.
The kindness of the earth,
Opening to receive
Our worn forms
Into the final stillness.
Let us remember within us
The ancient clay,
Holding the memory of seasons,
The passion of the wind,
The fluency of water,
The warmth of fire,
The quiver-touch of the sun
And shadowed sureness of the moon.
That we may awaken,
To live to the full
The dream of the earth
Who chose us to emerge
And incarnate its hidden night
In mind, spirit and light.”
Amen. So be it.
©Hilary Oxford Smith
23 July 2013
Extract from In Praise of Earth, from Benedictus, A Book of Blessings, John O'Donohue (Bantam Press 2007)
Image: Hilary Oxford Smith