What Does the World Give and What Does It Ask in Return?

This is a story a friend gave to me. I am giving it to you.

There was a man who searched and searched for the sacred in nature - in the forest, at the beach - and sure enough: One day, as he was walking along the coast, he heard a voice, loud and clear.

"Stand here," it said, "and God will speak to you."

The man stood. What else could he do? What would you have done? He stood for a very long time, shifting his weight from one leg to the other. His back stiffened up. A flock of brants flew down the trough between the breakers. The wind came up and died back. The tide flowed in. He zipped his jacket and unzipped it, zipped it again, as the sun went down and the gulls cried out and flew to their roosts. He shivered in fog that came with night, and finally he went home.

I'm not sure what he hoped to hear. The sound of wind bringing rain, the ache in his legs-didn't these tell him what he needed to know? That he is alive in this place, at this time, alive in the midst of all this life. That he is aware in the midst of all that is mysterious, every fact that might not have been and yet is. Stinging sand, the storm-driven waves, people calling out to their friends are all cause of surprise and celebration.

Instead of bowing his head and waiting for instructions, what if he had laid on his back in the midst of the mussels, laid there with barnacles poking his scalp, felt - in the hollow echo-chamber of his ribs - the breakers pound against rock, listened to the shouts of far-away children and the pop of sand fleas next to his ear, as all the while tide crept in around him and surf exploded closer and closer to his brain?

Then what would he have heard?

I don't want to say he would have heard the voice of God.

I want to say he would have heard - really heard, maybe for the first time - the squeak of mussels, the smash of surf, the peeping of sandpipers. Maybe a fish-crow cawing or a chain saw cutting cedar drifted in on storms.

And I want to say that this is enough. I want to say that this is astonishing enough - the actual earth, the extraordinary fact of the ticking, smashing, singing, whistling, peeping earth - to make me feel that I live in sacred song and to make me understand that I must live my life as part of this harmony.

I want to say there is a secular sacred. That this phrase, paradoxical as it seems, makes good and profoundly important sense.

Here is what I believe: That the natural world - the stuff of our lives, the world we plod through, hardly hearing, the world we burn and poke and stuff and conquer and irradiate - THIS WORLD (not another world on another plane) is

irreplaceable,
astonishing,
contingent,
eternal and changing,
beautiful and fearsome,
beyond human understanding,
worthy of reverence and awe,
worthy of celebration and protection.

If the good English word for this combination of qualities is "sacred," then so be it. Even if we don't believe in god, we walk out the door on a sacred morning and lift our eyes to the sacred rain and are called to remember our sacred obligations of care and celebration.

And what's more: If the natural world is sacred, and "sacred" describes the natural world; if here are not two world, but one, and it is magnificent and mysterious enough to shake us to the core; if this is so, then we - you and I and the man on the beach - are called to live our lives gladly. We are called to live lives of gratitude, joy, and caring, profoundly moved by the bare fact that we live in the time of the singing of birds.

Then, every act of gladness is a counter-force to those who would make the stuff of the earth into commodities only. Gladness lifts the natural world out of the merely mundane and makes it wonderful, and reminds us that when we use the sacred stuff of our lives for human purposes, we must be do gratefully, and responsibly, with full and caring hearts. That's what I want to say.