The Sacramental Nature of Forests:
Catholic Values and the Future of the Forest (Part One)
by Br. Keith Warner, OFM
Theologians are encouraging Catholics to see the seven sacraments as rooted in a sacramental universe. As a Franciscan, I encourage this understanding of sacraments and the material world. I want everyone's celebration of water, wheat, wine, and oil to reflect earth's bounty, beauty and goodness. And somehow we must work to heal the psychological schism which allows our brothers and sisters to celebrate God's love on Sunday and then see the earth as something to abuse and pollute on Monday.
The U.S. Catholic bishops recognize that the universe is God's dwelling. In their pastoral letter on the environment they put forth the sacramental nature of the earth as a fundamental starting point for theological reflection on care for the environment:
For many people, the environmental movement has reawakened appreciation of the truth that, through the created gift of nature, men and women encounter their Creator. The Christian vision of a sacramental universe -- a world that discloses the Creator's presence by visible and tangible signs -- can contribute to making the earth a home for the human family once again (Renewing the Earth).
Our challenge is to bring this sacramental theology out of books and into daily experience. Forests are excellent places to help those who are suffering from the psychological schism between earth and spirit.
Sacramental Forests
I spent no time in forests before I was 19 years old, so perhaps my experience of coming to recognize forests as sacramental might be illustrative. I took a nine-year break after my freshman year at college, and joined a Jesus community in Oregon that relied on income from a reforestation co-op. For six months every winter and spring, we put seedlings back into clearcut forest. At the beginning, I hated the job. Treeplanting is grueling work, and in the Northwest this work is often conducted in pouring rain on hillsides almost too steep for a person to stand. Strapping 30-40 pounds of refrigerated seedlings onto your hips and climbing through brambles and rockpiles was a shock to my body, accustomed to suburban comforts.
Yet over five seasons, the forest touched my heart. I developed a respect for the inhabitants of the forest, even though I spent most of the day in clearcuts. The sheer size of the Douglas firs in Oregon's ancient forests never ceased to awe me. The immense quantity of biomass inflicts a measure of humility in me, and, I suspect, in most people. Walking through an ancient forest grove reminds us that among God's creatures our species is not the biggest, nor the oldest, nor necessarily the wisest! As human beings we are distinctively gifted by our Creator, but God's creativity, blessing and love were communicated to me by the magnificence of the forest's trees.
Ironically, my awareness of the sacramental nature of forests became clearer after I moved from rural Oregon to urban Portland. I missed the beauty and quiet of the forest. Something about my life was lacking, like I was missing a family member, because I was not in the forest. Surrounded by noise, concrete and crass material culture, I escaped by returning to the beauty and serenity I found in the woods. That sense of longing for the splendor of an ancient forest endures in me today, fifteen years later.
Making a Return
My love of the forests led me to learn more about their biological diversity and the complex relationships within them. My feelings of reverence, humility, and gratitude have all grown and I have become an amateur natural historian of western forests. I love God more because of the way my spirit has been nurtured by our Creator in the forests. I don't know what most urban theologians think of when they write about the sacramental nature of creation, but I think back to the way forests have spoken to me of God's blessing, grace and love. I feel such a gratitude to forests that I am compelled to speak out on behalf of their damage, suffering and loss. As a Franciscan, I struggle to do this while always remembering the love of God I have experienced in them.
I love God more because of the way my spirit has
been nurtured by our Creator in the forests.
Western forests have been so spiritually important in my life that it can cause tension. In all honesty, my experiences of prayer are more consistently renewing out in the forests than inside church buildings. This does not mean that my best experiences of prayer have not been in church nor that sacraments are not vital to my life. I love a well-led liturgy and I entrust myself to the grace made manifest in the sacraments. Nor does it mean that I don't treasure the human community which has nurtured me in countless ways. My life is dedicated to nurturing community. But there is something special about being in a forest.
When I think of the hundreds of forest hikes I've taken, the word that best describes the overall experience is intimacy. I experience God intimately in forests. I love other ecological communities, but there is nothing quite like the communion and sacramentality in the moist, quiet, and sensory experience of an ancient forest.
Keith Warner OFM is a Franciscan friar and geographer, living in San Juan Bautista, Central Coastal California. He is a doctoral student in environmental studies at UC Santa Cruz.