I’ve been writing about worship as a way of entering an alternate reality, which Christians might call the Courts of Heaven, The Heavenly City, The Heavenly Banquet, The Resurrection Life, or by many other names. But I don’t think that worship is the only way to do this. My own first entrance into this alternate reality took place when I was seventeen, and walking in the John Muir Woods. I had done nothing to prepare for it and had no meaning system that could help me make sense of it. It was a pure act of grace on God’s part, and I spent many years climbing mountains and camping in deserts in an attempt to relive the experience. I couldn’t make it happen on my own. Try as I might, I couldn’t recreate that profound experience of God-in-nature.
Then I began attending Episcopal services, and the beauty of the liturgy gestured at the experience I’d had in Muir Woods. It wasn’t the firehose of grace that I’d experienced on that day, more of a drip from a leaky faucet late at night. Nonetheless, it was there, a persistent, rhythmic reassurance that grace was still present, that the divine presence I’d encountered at seventeen was still available to me. I kept going to church, and gradually a funny thing began to happen. I began to encounter God in nature again, to be able, when out walking, to step into the alternate reality for a moment or two. It was as if the liturgy was teaching me how to do this.
I’ve been thinking about this ever since my friend Jamie showed me this passage from Christine Valters Paintner’s book Earth, Our Original Monastery: Cultivating Wonder and Gratitude through Intimacy with Nature:
One of the classic definitions of a sacrament is something that is an outward, visible sign of an inward, invisible grace. This idea of sacramentality extends beyond the formal sacraments such as Baptism, Matrimony, Communion, and the Anointing of the Sick. This sense of sacramentality, rooted in the Incarnation, extends our vision out to the world so that everything can be a sacrament, meaning every person, creature, plant, and object can be an opportunity to encounter something of the Divine Presence in the world. Sacramentality is a quality present in creation that opens us up to the Sacred Presence in all.
This discovery that every creature and every created thing can be a window of revelation into the divine nature is an invitation to fall more and more in love with the world. To see teachers of grace existing everywhere means to bring a sense of reverence to the way we walk in the world. When we encounter nature as sacrament, we can no longer objectify it.
There is a sense of God’s incarnate presence in creation that shimmers forth to reveal the holiness of all things. Notice how your senses come alive when you walk out in the world aware of its sacramental nature. What do your eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin each reveal to you about how God is alive in the world around you?
Our worship does lead us into the Courts of Heaven, but it goes farther. It reveals to us that the Courts of Heaven are everywhere. Worship isn’t meant to create an exclusive access to the alternate reality. It’s meant to train us as sojourners, people who can find doors into that reality anywhere we go.