BLOG: Wild Beauty, God’s Altar in the Wilderness

By —Paul Stanwood

How can we begin to build a new altar at St. James’?  Our celebrations are rich and plentiful, and the church is a centre of beauty.  Yet we still want to see what isn’t there: a wonderful world of ecological harmony, of ourselves and of all creation at peace. A special kind of work needs to be done, which requires a journey and an understanding.

An Orthodox priest, Fr. Kaleeg Hainsworth, defines this journey in his book, An Altar in the Wilderness (2014). Our central action—to own a true and faithful “spiritual” ecology—must be to embrace the natural world  through the sensitive ordering of our conscious life. He invites us on a journey whose ultimate destination is the heart—that is where we build our altar. But this journey requires preparation, just as any trip into the literal wilderness of mountains and lakes, or figuratively into our own ordinary existence.  Our faithful journey begins in this “real” wilderness, for it shows us how and where to build a worthy altar.

Fr. Hainsworth, as a life-long venturer into God’s created world of mountains and wild beauty, describes his experiences in discovering nature, and in responding to the mystery of its bold yet intricate rawness. And so a direct knowledge of nature is essential for an ecological world view (neither romantic nor materialistic), for discovering and developing a sacramental vision, and for building an altar in the wilderness.  The four chapters of his book progressively evoke the way toward this goal. He relates, for example, his experience of a wilderness hike in Wells Gray Park, in British Columbia. Finally, after a long and exhausting climb, he reaches the summit of a mountain, where he is afforded magnificent views, “the scene . . .too immense to take in.”  He takes out his pocket Bible, and begins to read the final chapters of Job, where God speaks from a whirlwind, not in answer to Job’s questions, but rather to declare his immensity: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth!”

We need to see through eyes that encounter God’s world everywhere, for “beauty will save the world,” an enigmatic statement that occurs in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, one which holds deep meaning in Fr. Hainsworth’s explication; for “beauty,” he writes, “is the language of God in life, in the presence of which all our theological affirmations about the divine must fall silent.” We are urged and instructed to see how our world—God’s world—is sacred: we must therefore embrace a sacramental view of life. In his remarkable book, Fr. Hainsworth offers a stirring summary: “At our heart’s altar, built of the sacrifice of our ecological stewardship, we become a priest in whom and through whom the mysteries of heaven and earth meet and kiss and dance before the love that lit the stars.”