An Altar in the Wilderness

An Altar in the Wilderness

by Kaleeg Hainsworth

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Provocative, passionate and populist, RMB Manifestos are short and concise non-fiction books of literary, critical, and cultural studies.

Father Kaleeg Hainsworth, an Eastern Orthodox priest with a lifetime of experience in the Canadian wilderness, grounds this manifesto in the literary, philosophical, mystical and historical teachings of the spiritual masters of both East and West, outlining the human experience of the sacred in nature.

The spiritual ecology described here is fully engaged with the wilderness beyond our backyards; it is an ecology which takes in nature as “red in tooth and claw” and offers a way forward in the face of accelerating climate change. This manifesto also challenges our modern self-conception as dominators or stewards of the natural world, claiming these roles emerged from western industrial history and are directly responsible for the environmental damage and alienation from nature we know today. The ecological scope of this book begins with a meditation on natural beauty as the divine that breathes through all aspects of life. We discover along the way that awe and mystery are so vital to the human experience of the natural world that without them we are doomed to treat nature as little more than a resource, a science or a playground for recreation alone. Instead, a new role emerges from these pages, one which accounts for the sacred in nature and places us in relationship to the world of which we are inextricably a part. This role is a priestly one, and Father Hainsworth outlines the significance and benefits of it in detail while also offering a vision of life in which a human being stands in the world of nature as at an altar built in the wilderness, a sacred offering in a holy place.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781771600378
Publisher: Rocky Mountain Books
Publication date: 11/14/2014
Series: RMB Manifesto
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 168
File size: 506 KB

About the Author

Father Kaleeg Hainsworth is an author, speaker, poet, naturalist, podcaster and Eastern Orthodox priest. He has been writing and speaking for more than twenty years on subjects as diverse as poetics, literature, Christian history, biblical exegesis, eastern spiritual traditions, family structure, addiction therapy and ecology. He holds an honours BA in literature from the University of British Columbia and a masters in divinity from St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary in New York. He founded and served an Orthodox parish in Victoria, BC, for ten years, during which time he established a youth camp and an outreach centre for the poor as well as serving as a chaplain at the University of Victoria. As an avid and respected naturalist, backcountry enthusiast and ecological educator, Father Hainsworth has led numerous guided trips into the BC wilderness, where he taught spiritual ecology, survival and team building to youth and adults alike. He has three daughters, Ella, Heulwen, and Bridget. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Read an Excerpt

An Altar in the Wilderness

By Kaleeg Hainsworth

Rocky Mountain Books

Copyright © 2017 Kaleeg Hainsworth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77160-037-8


The World Is Charged with the Grandeur of God

In the Beginning

Ever read the first three chapters of Genesis? The story is simple enough – most people know the basics. God creates the world in five days, creates man on the sixth and rests on the seventh. Then the first man asks for a partner, so God takes a rib from the man and makes woman. He then tells both of them to enjoy their home but not to touch the fruit from a tree that is beside another tree they have permission to eat from. A snake comes along, offers the woman the forbidden fruit, which she takes and eats, then gives it to the man who also eats. Then both are cast from their divine garden cradle to live in a harsher world where they have to work for their food, feel pain in giving birth and wear clothes to protect them from the elements.

This is the Sunday School version. Set against the evolutionary science we know today it appears painfully naive, hardly possible to take seriously. When I served as a university chaplain, Judeo-Christian students with a dilemma sometimes approached me. They had grown up with this story, but in university they were encountering a much more sophisticated and plausible version of how life on earth evolved. They felt that to accept the evolutionary model was not only to reject the Genesis story but also the faith and family that came with it. This is an unnecessary dilemma, for the Genesis story is not science and it is not meant to be read as history; it is an ancient story drawn from many sources in prehistoric Mesopotamia and is a distillation of many profound observations of human nature, life on earth and spiritual ecology.

I have been asked why, if we have so much knowledge now, we would read such an ancient text as Genesis at all. The answer is simple: the sum of all we know and could know about the origin of the universe or life on earth will only answer what happened and maybe how. The Large Hadron Collider, for instance, might reveal the so-called God particle, but it will never tell us why it exists in the first place. Genesis, like all great world literature and stories, addresses those and other questions directly.

The human mind has been searching the infinitude of the cosmos for as long as we have had the capacity for abstract thought. Over the last century, we have spent billions on particle colliders and orbiting telescopes to answer questions we have privileged over others, with extraordinary results. Proportionally similar levels of effort were invested in answering questions that previous generations felt were vital. Genesis is not a book written by one person trying to explain his or her version of reality; it's a collection of hundreds of years of thought across many cultures about the nature of life. Let's avoid what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery" by thinking our science trumps earlier philosophy, theology or cosmology. "If I have seen further," wrote Isaac Newton, "it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants."

The starting point of Genesis is trickier than we think. Most translations begin, with minor variations: "In the beginning God created heaven and earth" (Gen. 1:1) However, this wording somewhat obscures the meaning, especially to modern readers who will naturally assume that a chronology has been introduced here – there is a beginning, here it is and in this beginning God did something. But what is actually being said is that "God, who is the beginning, created heaven and earth." In other words, God is the first principle for everything that comes into existence. If there was a Big Bang, then God lit the fuse. Everything that came from that Big Bang, from particles to galaxies to the physical laws that govern them, also bears in some way the divine mind from which it came. So, to say "God, who is the beginning" is to say that God not only stands at the beginning before time and creation but also that He is the principle through which everything is formed. In the fourth gospel of the New Testament, John has the chutzpah to adjust the text of Genesis in light of his belief in Jesus as the promised Messiah. He says, "In the beginning was the Word," meaning that Jesus was with God before all things (John 1:1). His choice of "word" is significant (the Greek word John uses is logos, which has a long history in Greek philosophy and psychology) because by it he is saying, essentially, that God is the word and creation is the language. To put it another way, God is the deep structure from which all things take their shape, meaning and substance – an endless cornucopian diversity tumbling out from a living singularity.

The narrative of Genesis continues as God brings from Himself light, the stars, the sun and moon, the seas and land, the birds, animals and fish, the plants and flowers and, finally, the human being. But what is truly wonderful about this text for me is the sixfold declaration that it is all "good." At the end of each day of creation, we hear, "And God saw that it was good" (Gen. 1:4, 1:10, 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, 1:25, 1:31). It would be understandable if we glossed over this, because "good" has a very broad semantic range in English. In this text, however, it is a powerful statement about God and what He is doing. The ancient Greek version of Genesis (the Septuagint of the first century BC) uses the word kalos, which means beautiful, upright, motivating, correct, God-bearing, full, according to principle and much more. In other words, God beholds the cosmos taking shape and declares it to be beautiful. And He does so six times. In fact, each thing created is beautiful; I would like to be even more specific and say that each thing created is the divinely embodied word for beautiful.

God speaks, His language is creation and everything created is the word "beauty." We will come back to beauty, and why it is so important, in the next chapter. However, it is worth meditating on this, since it has profound consequences for how we view ourselves and nature. For instance, if I am a creation of God, then I am God's word for beautiful. I am also created correct, life-bearing, creative and self-revealing of the creator. This means you are too, as is everything we see and know in life. God, who is the beginning, created everything, and everything is an expression of beauty and goodness. Everything, therefore, is god-bearing.

Several years ago, two of my daughters were quietly eating cereal with me at the kitchen table. The younger looked up and asked her sister, "Ella, what's life?" Her sister, 7 years old at the time, thought for a moment and replied, "Life is being, created by God." I knew right away what she meant. We had just been speaking the night before about life as a constantly unfolding creation. Her sister, however, was not as impressed: "No, Ella, I mean what is Life cereal?"

Despite this small misunderstanding, Ella's first response was right on the money. In a wonderful little book called Theology of Wonder, Seraphim Sigrist recounts hearing a rabbinic scholar remark that for God, the act of creation and the act of sustaining are one act, meaning that God creates every moment anew. We draw each new breath from a wholly new creation. The great ecologist John Muir similarly described the continuous unfolding of creation this way in his journal of summer, 1879:

One learns that the world, though made, is yet being made; that this is still the morning of creation; that mountains and valleys long conceived are now being born, channels traced for coming rivers, basins hollowed for lakes; that moraine soil is being ground and outspread for coming plants ... building particle on particle, cementing and crystallizing, to make the mountains and valleys and plains ... which like fluent, pulsing water, rise and fall and pass on through the ages in endless rhythm and beauty.

Another way to understand this is offered by a seventh-century Byzantine genius named Maximus. He was great at asking good questions and had the ability to answer them in ways that both synthesized and transformed the philosophical and theological traditions that preceded him (that is, until he was tried as a heretic and had his tongue cut out and his right hand cut off). He was posthumously recognized as a saint. In a letter to his friend Thallasius, he asked, "If God already finished creating the world in six days, what is he doing now?" Some have tried to answer this question by positing a kind of watchmaker role to the divinity. The divine creates, and sits back and watches the mechanics roll along and do their job. In other words, God is still resting on the seventh day.

Others see God's role in the universe like a builder/contractor. He built it and appears once in a while to fix it when it goes horribly wrong. Still others see God's warm presence in the cosmos, helping things along the way by sending books, divine messengers, special signs and generally cheering us on. In some ancient religions, there are many divinities. These may be able to bend the universe to fit their needs but are really just as constrained to it as we are, except they are bigger, more powerful and usually quite fickle if we get a sacrifice or a word of prayer wrong.

For Maximus, however, the cosmos expresses the living heart of its creator. But just as Ella and the rabbinic scholar observed, the cosmos is still being created and still growing into further perfection. "God," Maximus wrote, "completed the primary principles [the Greek word here is logoi, the plural of logos] of creatures, and the universal essences of beings, once for all." In other words, the essence of what makes a star a star, a human a human and a dolphin a dolphin were brought into being at the beginning. "Yet, He is still at work, not only preserving these creatures in their very existence," that is, providing for them, "but effecting the formation, progress, and sustenance of the individual parts that are potential within them." Each essence created is carefully developed into a multitude of particulars. So God took the essence of a human being, the principles that make a human being unique from the dolphin or the star, and He started producing actual human beings, like you and me and William Shakespeare.

But there is more. "Even now, in His providence, He is bringing about the assimilation of particulars to universals ... through the movement of these particular creatures toward well-being, and mak[ing] them harmonious and self-moving, in relation to one another, and to the whole universe." In his dense, philosophical way, Maximus is saying that each thing that comes into existence is being fashioned to fit into the whole cosmic picture. God is a poet, using grammar and poetics to fashion lines of poetry, and though each line is unique, it also fits into the larger poem, which would be incomplete without it. "Everything," he declares, "shall be unique, but everything shall express each other thing. Everything shall be in perfect harmony to one another ... one and the same principle shall be observable throughout the universe, though there may be many principles and many unique expressions of it." Each unique thing will express the universal order, and the universal order will be revealed in each unique thing! "To see a World in a Grain of Sand," as William Blake put it, "And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour."

The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things

A question comes up at this point that is of great significance to ecology and natural philosophy. Is a thing sacred in itself? Many theistic traditions, including some forms of Christianity, believe that a thing only expresses the creator and has no intrinsic value or substance beyond this. Some religions would take the very different position that a thing is indeed sacred in itself, expressing nothing beyond this. The truth, I believe, holds both positions in harmony while introducing a further dimension.

The 19th-century poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins was one of many naturalists of his time who were concerned with the rising tide of industrial capitalism. He watched his English and Welsh countryside quickly transform at the hands of "dark Satanic Mills" (to borrow Blake's vivid phrase) and the gradual exploitation of the earth for minerals, especially coal. Hopkins is a "minor poet" in the English literary canon, due mainly to the paucity of his overall corpus. However, his poetry and journals offer a major contribution to ecological philosophy and naturalism. I believe he is one of the finest, most comprehensive spiritual ecologists in English, even if he is challenging to understand.

His poem "God's Grandeur" deserves to be quoted here and discussed in full. I encourage everyone to memorize it and read it out loud outdoors over and over again, especially if children are around:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
  It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
  It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
  And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
  And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
  There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
  Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs –
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
  World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

Hopkins unpacks that first line, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God," in a letter to Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate of England at the time and one of his closest friends: "All things therefore are charged with love, are charged with God and if we know how to touch them give off sparks, and take fire, yield drops and flow rings and tell of him." So the world is charged – electrified, vivified – and reveals the grandeur and the presence of God as we touch and experience it. Hopkins then expresses this revealed presence in another image, that of "the ooze of oil crushed." He is referring to the Biblical symbol of the olive, which, when crushed, oozes out the king-making, athlete-anointing, light-bringing oil. The world is alive for Hopkins and, when pressed, expresses life and beauty.

Hopkins then asks an important question: "Why do men then now not reck his rod?" He envisions the sacred radiance revealed in the natural world as the "rod" of the creator, the shepherd's staff that leads and protects us. Personally, I feel this shows just how original a thinker he was. Hopkins, like John Muir, points us to the natural world as the locus for revelation and daily guidance, and in doing so roots us in spiritual ecology. So why, then, do we not "reck his rod"? In other words, why don't we listen to what all this glory reveals to us? "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod" upon this world, and "all is seared with trade," meaning we have commodified everything for trading, searing it as if with a brand, and in doing so missing the glory of it that is as brilliant as "shook foil."

I'm reminded of when Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Little Prince comes to the planet of the businessman and asks him, "What are you doing?" The businessman says, "I'm counting the stars." "Why are you counting the stars?" asks the Little Prince. "Because I own the stars. If I count the stars then I own the stars." "How can you own the stars?" the Prince rejoins. "If I count them," replies the businessman, "I make them mine, I own them." Perplexed, the Little Prince asks, "What good can you do with the stars if you own them? They're no good to you." "That doesn't matter," grumps the businessman, "I own them." And so trade takes that which is God's creation and commodifies it, creating a kind of slavery as a result.

Hopkins also points out that "the soil is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod." The soil itself has been tortured, overused, exploited. We have subjected the material that provides us with our food to strip mines, coal mines, fracking, degenerative farming, clear-cut logging, factory contamination and much more. We do not notice the effects of "trade" on the soil directly because we are "shod." Hopkins is referring to a detail in the book of Exodus where Moses, standing in front of the burning bush, is instructed by God to "take off your shoes, for where you stand is holy ground" (Exod. 3:5). Moses is being told he must commune with the sacred in an unmediated way. He must connect directly with the earth, sole to soil. When we look at our own society, we are almost always living such a mediated experience. We rarely have bare feet, and rarely connect directly to the natural world. The streets, suburbs, houses and technologies, indeed just about everything we see, are mediated through human design and through human eyes. This may be why our culture does not really have a place anymore for sacred ground, and even less genuine connection with anything of this grandeur of God.


Excerpted from An Altar in the Wilderness by Kaleeg Hainsworth. Copyright © 2017 Kaleeg Hainsworth. Excerpted by permission of Rocky Mountain Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Chapter One: The World Is Charged with the Grandeur of God,
Chapter Two: Beauty Will Save the World,
Chapter Three: The Wilderness Temple,
Chapter Four: The Altar,
Postscript: Ho'oponopono,
About the Author,

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