Walking and running along Atlanta’s BeltLine, while others wheel and roll, has given me a new appreciation for the term “arboretum.” I always thought of arboretums as enclosed spaces with exotic, tropical plants, like the ones in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, and multiple other cities I have lived or visited.
The Beltline is an abandoned railroad track being transformed into a walkway that encircles the city and connects neighborhoods. Planting native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs and trees along this path, Trees Atlanta and the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum explain their efforts with signs like the one pictured above, broadening my understanding of the term:
ar-bo-re-tum / noun - A botanical garden devoted to trees or a place where an extensive variety of woody plants are cultivated for scientific, educational, and ornamental purposes.
When doing a five or ten-mile run, I have a lot of time to meditate on such words, and of course my mind goes to things spiritual, and I find myself amplifying it to read, “cultivated for scientific, educational, ornamental, and spiritual purposes.”
As I once thought of an arboretum as a confined and controlled environment, many of us think of a house of worship as a kind of spiritual arboretum, an enclosed space or sanctuary in which delicate hothouse plants are cultivated—plants that could not survive outside, either in their communities or the world. And it is true, many worshipers wilt at the notion of being involved outside their churches, temples, and mosques. I’ve been told that some plants do better in pots, so being “potted” in one place might benefit some—a good reason, perhaps, for the monastic vow of “stability.”
But I need the outside, which is why I run outside rather than use a treadmill in a gym. In my first book, Uncommon Calling, I wrote that “though the church could give sanctuary to so much of me and so many of my concerns, it was to the sanctuary of the seashore that I fled to reflect on the relationship of my sexuality and spirituality. … Particularly at sunset and twilight, the colors of water and sky joined the rhythm of the waves to mete out God’s grace in language both more primitive and profound than that of liturgies.”
I could identify with William Blake’s reservations about church as he remembered his youthful innocence in this Song of Experience, “The Garden of Love”:
I went to the Garden of Love,And saw what I never had seen:A Chapel was built in the midst,Where I used to play on the green.And the gates of this Chapel were shut,And “Thou shalt not” writ over the door;So I turn’d to the Garden of Love,That so many sweet flowers bore,And I saw it was filled with graves,And tombstones where flowers should be:And Priests in black gowns were walking their rounds,And binding with briars my joys and desires.
Affirming that houses of worship can also be helpful, Mahatma Gandhi contrasted their limitations with the limitless sky:
Churches, mosques, and temples which cover so much hypocrisy and humbug and shut the poorest out of them seem but a mockery of God and His worship when one sees the eternally renewed temple of worship under the vast blue canopy inviting every one of us to real worship, instead of abusing His name by quarrelling in the name of religion.
Celtic Christianity saw the effects of grace and redemption not only in Christ and church but in creation, a creation that the apostle Paul—a progressive in spite of his blindspots and ours—described in Romans 1 as making God “plain” even to Gentiles, in which divinity is “seen through the things God has made.” “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” the gay Catholic priest and poet Gerard Manley Hopkins affirmed.
Mary Oliver captures an aspect of the contemplative life:
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.I do know how to pay attention, how to fall downinto the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields.
When our Good Shepherd prompts us to lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters, restoring our souls, we better understand the assurance of the Psalmist: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.”
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