Finding Peace in the Orchard Sanctuary

By JoAnn Skousen

orchard-bicyclingAfter a month of sheltering at home, many Americans are missing their communion with God, faith and congregation, especially in the month where Passover, Easter, and Ramadan are observed. Is there a way to regain that sense of communion without going to church, temple, or mosque? Of course there is.

Emily Dickinson was the queen of sheltering at home. She had a close circle of friends with whom she shared intimate relationships, but she seldom went out in public, and she shunned most social customs and expectations, including the tradition of “being at home” once a week to receive drop-in callers. Instead, she made her own rules and determined her own path. Her poem “The Soul Selects her Own Society” celebrates the sovereignty of the individual, claiming that the soul is a “divine majority” that cannot be ruled by custom, tradition, or social democracy. She writes:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

She identifies individual sovereignty as natural, inalienable, sacred and divine. As we adapt to “sheltering in place” and doing without our usual activities, we can learn a great deal from Dickinson’s poetry and her philosophy of being at peace while being alone.

thoreau-cabinDickinson was a well-read second-generation transcendentalist who was heavily influenced by the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Michael Meyer says in The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, “Like Henry David Thoreau, she simplified her life so that doing without was a means of being within. In a sense she redefined the meaning of deprivation because being denied something—whether it was faith, love, literary recognition, or some other desire—provided a sharper, more intense understanding than she would have experienced had she achieved what she wanted.” For examples of Dickinson’s “deprivation” poetry, you might want to read “Water is Taught by Thirst,” “Success is Counted Sweetest” and “Heaven—Is What I Cannot Reach!”

American Transcendentalism, founded by Emerson and his literary circle in the early 19th century, was influenced by the sacred works of eastern religions that had only recently been translated into German and from German into English. Emerson was particularly taken by the idea of direct revelation, and believed that all ideas were derived as personal inspiration (literally, to breathe in spirit) from God. Thus intuition was divine inspiration. Emerson used to carry a notebook with him and would jot down thoughts that came to him throughout the day. He would later develop many of these personal revelations into formal lectures and essays.

Joel Porte’s excellent Emerson in his Journals provides a chronological collection of Emerson’s random thoughts; one of my favorites is “The whole of Virtue consists in substituting being for seeming, & this God properly saith I AM” (May 30, 1835). You might want to contemplate that thought during your next leisurely walk or meditation session!

The transcendentalists did not reject God per se, but they often rejected organized religion, which they saw as posing a barrier between ourselves and that direct inspiration from God described by the eastern religions and embraced by their Americanized version of it. They also felt a strong affinity toward nature and believed that a person could come closer to God while exploring outside than while sitting inside a building, even one dedicated to worship. Dickinson, already resistant to going out in public, embraced this idea as well and expressed it charmingly in my favorite of her poems:

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
and an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice—
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling a Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last—
I’m going, all along.

monet-orchardThe “tree whisperer,” Peter Wohlleben, says in The Hidden Life of Trees, that trees are biologically drawn to one another so that their branches often intertwine at the top, creating a domelike shape. Dickinson’s speaker recognizes this shape in the vault of the orchard and transforms it into her church. In the second stanza she plays with the homophones “surplice” (a robe worn by a minister) and “surplus” (more than enough) to suggest that we have more than enough ministers to go around. She chooses instead to wear her “wings,” a clear allusion to angels and the divinity bestowed upon her by God himself. She needs no bell clanging in the distance to call her to worship when the sunlight and cheerful sound of birds draws her naturally outside.

In the final stanza she rejects the criticism of those who tell her she must come to church in order to be “saved” by claiming that God is her minister—a “noted clergyman” she says, implying, “perhaps you’ve heard of him?” And then the zinger—while the town folk endure seemingly interminable sermons on earth in order to get “to Heaven at last,” she is in Heaven every time she walks out into her Orchard sanctuary.

I don’t go so far as Emerson or Dickinson in suggesting that I have no need for a minister; I enjoy my church experience, and I’ve missed my church community during this time of sheltering at home. I’ve kept in touch through telephone and social media, but I miss the face-to-face communion with my friends. I’ll be glad when we can return, and I can again sing in the church choir and listen to the words of scripture and exhortation.

Meanwhile, I have enjoyed my own “Orchard sanctuary” these many weeks as I have hiked the canyon near my home, listened to the songs of birds in the trees, contemplated scripture, and enjoyed my inward conversations with God. I encourage you to find a place where you, too, can feel the peace that nature brings, and hear the sermon that God places in your heart.






Sunrise Has Been Canceled Until Further Notice

by JoAnn Skousen

Sunrise at seaThe rising sun has long been a symbol of faith and hope, reaching back to pagan times when it was worshiped as a god. The sun brought light, warmth, nourishment, and most of all, reassurance that life would continue. “I know this as surely as the sun will rise tomorrow” is a familiar declaration of confidence.

Just as Christmas Eve is often celebrated with a midnight mass, Easter morning in most Christian congregations begins with a sunrise service. But not this year, when public gatherings, even for outdoor events, have been banned.

Why do Christians watch the sun rise on Easter?

The practice is a reminder of the faithfulness of the women who had loved Jesus and followed him throughout his ministry. When Jesus died, the Sabbath was only minutes away. His disciples had barely enough time to wrap his body in a clean linen cloth and lay it hastily in the nearby tomb owned by a disciple, Joseph of Arimethea, before the sun went down and the Sabbath began. The women who loved him would have to wait, grieving, through the long lonely hours of the night, before they would be able to wash away the blood and dirt and anoint His body properly with funeral spices and herbs. Those herbs included myrrh, which had been one of the gifts of the magi, symbolizing his death.

The women waited respectfully in the shadows of the garden until the sun broke through the darkness. Then they hurried forward to begin their final act of sacred service.

Similarly, Christians rise in darkness to watch the sun rise each Easter morning. It is an act of devotion and gratitude, and commemorates the loving service of these women disciples.

Our first experience with a sunrise service was less than inspiring, however.

Sunrise services had not been a part of our Easter tradition, but when our youngest daughter was attending preschool at the local Methodist School for Early Education, we decided to give it a try. We woke our children at 5 am, dressed them in their Sunday finest, and drove them to the church. The air was moist as we stood on the shore of the nearby lake, waiting for the service to begin. Our children were fidgety from standing and itchy from the damp grass sticking to their ankles. We had not prepared them for the event but simply dragged them to the shore and expected them to “get” it. A choir sang. A minister spoke. The sun rose. We went home. It was barely 7 am with all of Sunday stretching before us. Our kids were cranky all day. I was disappointed. Why hadn’t I felt uplifted by the experience?

Too often we go to a worship service expecting to be inspired or uplifted when we haven’t prepared. We take a passive approach, expecting to be moved without actually moving. We want to be spiritually fed, but what we really need is to partake of the spirit—to reach out actively and participate in the event. The choir hadn’t failed, and the minister hadn’t failed. The sun hadn’t failed, and certainly Christ hadn’t failed. I had failed. I had been an observer, not a participant. Simply attending a service was not the same as worship.

Sunrise-Lake-virginiaI learned from that experience the importance of preparation. We experienced many wonderful sunrise services as a family after that, but not in formal services. Instead, during the week between Palm Sunday and Easter, I would read the story in the four Gospels and contemplate the events of the Savior’s final earthly days. I set my alarm for 20 minutes before sunrise on Easter morning and then, donning our robes and slippers, Mark and I would gently wake our children, wrap each of them in a comforter—a symbol of the Savior’s spirit, incidentally—and guide them quietly through the dark house out the back door and down the slope to the lake behind our house. We helped them into our boat and motored quietly to the center of the lake, where we listened to soft sacred music and nibbled on strawberries while we waited for the sun to rise. Birds chirped their wake-up songs, and occasionally a fish would splash out o the water. It was peaceful, cozy, and deeply spiritual.

Quietly I would remind the children why we rise so early on Easter to celebrate the sunrise. Jesus’s body had hung from the cross for six agonizing hours. Usually a person was crucified by being tied to the cross with ropes, and the body’s weight would put pressure on the chest, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. For a while they would push up on the board nailed below the feet to take a breath, but as exhaustion set in, they gave up and suffocated. But Jesus’s tormentors had driven nails through his hands and then through his wrists and feet. It must have been excruciating as he hung there for six staggering, agonizing hours.

I would remind them of the respect his followers had for the Sabbath, observing it as a day of rest even though Jesus’s body lay in the tomb without being properly prepared. But they were determined not to let his body wait one minute longer than necessary. As the sun broke through the darkness, they hurried to their work. But his body was not there. He had risen.

I always ended these family sunrise services by reading my favorite chapter in all the scriptures, John 20, which describes Mary Magdalene’s experience at the tomb. I have read it aloud more than a hundred times in my life, yet I can never get through it without a catch in my throat when Jesus calls Mary by name. I urge you to read it today.

On those Easter mornings when our children were young, we would stay in our boat a bit longer, listening to the birds call to each other their wake up songs. Then we would motor to the dock, the children would troop back upstairs for another hour or so of sleep, and Easter bunny would arrive to do his business. Our hearts were full, because the Son arose.