"Earth as Tutor"

A Forgotten Body of Knowledge? The Earth as Tutor in Prayer

printed in Let's Talk, issue 18.2, Easter 2013

Benjamin M. Stewart is Gordon A. Braatz Assistant Professor of Worship and Dean of Augustana Chapel at The Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

In January 2013, I led a class from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on a wilderness travel seminar to study the role of earth’s natural cycles in Christian prayer. Specifically, we explored classic patterns of Christian daily prayer and the liturgical year.1 The course, “Liturgy and the Cycles of Creation,” was held at a retreat center high in the North Cascade mountains of Washington State, Holden Village, where we stayed for two weeks without cell phone service, internet, or any way to drive anywhere (no outside roads lead to Holden, and we arrived by travelling 50 miles up a long, glacially-carved lake).

The village received only about an hour of direct sunlight each day during our time there. We came to crave the light.

The setting made us profoundly aware of our own bodies in a variety of ways: we gathered as a body three times each day in a circle for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline.2 We kept silence after waking until we opened our lips to sing the first words of Morning Prayer (our stomachs sometimes growled in the pre-breakfast silence). We prayed evening and night prayer holding locally made 100% beeswax candles, making the room fragrant with the sweet aroma of the hive, an instant bodily testimony to the goodness of creation.3 Five feet of snow covered the ground at Holden and made the shortest walks outdoors into wonderful, strange, and sometimes-bumbling pilgrimages. We flatlanders learned to move our bodies in new ways: we snowshoed, went sledding, dug snow caves, tracked mountain lions, and jumped into the hilariously deep snow.4 Out under the stars we practiced striking fire from flint and steel in the night (sharpening our skills for the Easter Vigil).5 Because we were far north and the valley in which Holden is located is deep, the village received only about an hour of direct sunlight each day during our time there. We came to crave the light.

This essay explores our bodily experience of the sun and its light at Holden, and how that experience informed our prayer and our theological reflections. This is no exhaustive report of all we explored or learned. Rather, it is intended as an invitational narrative account that introduces a few of the themes of our time in the village. These themes arose as connections between two great dimensions of life, accessed profoundly through the body: the cycles of the earth and the cycles of Christian prayer.

The Dawn From On High

It takes a few days to get to Holden, and our days of travel had been cloudy, with sleet. When we arrived at Holden, the North Cascade Mountains were hidden by low-hanging clouds spitting snow. For all that we could see, we might have arrived at an Illinois state park on the prairie. Our readings and discussions had prepared us for mountains that would be our sundials, carving arcs of light and shadow governing our times for prayer.6 But rather than sharp lines of mountain peaks and sunrays, there was only grey sliding into grey.

After a night of sleep, as we met for class, the clouds began to burn away. Just before noon, we saw the light coming. Further up the valley and higher on the slopes, some of the trees were vivid in sunlight: the clouds had gone and the sun was approaching the rim of the high glacial cirque to the south. We ran as a class to a high point in the village. Standing there still in shadow for five or ten minutes, we watched the sunlight moving toward us across the snow and the trees. From the edge of the cirque above us, in advance of the sun, a white nimbus arced into the sky and the treetops below the rim turned prismatic. The light moved steadily closer to us across the snow. Then, in the time it took to draw a breath or two, the sun broke out from behind the mountain, its warmth pressing through our clothes as we squinted at each other, transfigured. Some of us stood silently. Some of us howled like coyotes. A little group ran just another twenty feet down valley, back into the shadow, to experience the sun rising on their bodies again only a few moments later. More howling. Steam rose from our gloves and hats and from the tree limbs holding snow in the light.

A Creature with Agency

We had travelled for days via CTA, airplanes, a charter bus, a boat, a rickety old Holden school bus, and finally on foot running to encounter this cycling of light and shadow. We had planned carefully, spent considerable money, and burned fossil fuels extracted at high cost. We had exercised perhaps inordinately assertive human agency in placing ourselves in that valley. And yet, for all our intentionality, when the dawn from high above broke upon us that first morning, we were met by a power we experienced as far greater than the sum of all our own efforts.

We experienced the sun as a creature possessing agency and a life of its own. Our bodies knew this immediately, intuitively, while our 21st century minds struggled to keep up.

It wasn’t only that we were paying attention to the sun and its daily cycle. We could have done that in Hyde Park. However, by stripping away distracting technology, by escaping busy task-driven cultural patterns that keep us from attending to all that is simply freely given by God apart from human work, and by stepping outside of buildings that function like architectural blinders, the simple daily event of sunrise was revealed in its primal religious power. The sun rose not as a novelty but as a heavenly body. We experienced the sun as a creature possessing agency and a life of its own. Our bodies knew this immediately, intuitively, while our 21st century minds struggled to keep up. In this expansive and wild setting, the sun seemed to have room to reveal itself to our bodies as more mysterious, enduring, and vital than all of the human inventions that — willy-nilly — collaborate to diminish and obscure the sun’s role in our lives.

One student tried to explain it. “Obviously, I expected the sun to rise.” But, he wrote, he was unprepared for the embodied sensory experience of the light’s play on the landscape, the sun’s halo presaging its appearance, the sudden enveloping warmth, and the shouts of joy erupting around him. The event drove him instinctively to prayer, in thanksgiving and awe, with his mind searching for words for what his body seemed naturally to understand.

Could it be that these daily natural cycles are not only observed by daily prayer but that they also actually evoke such prayer? Does the sun in such a setting call us — muezzin-like — to prayer? A number of recent studies suggest that natural settings do in fact draw us into meditative states of attentiveness.7 And especially in their undiminished wild splendor, these daily cardinal moments — sunrise, sunset, the nighttime sky — perhaps evoke particular modes of prayer characterized by a sense of outstretching wonder, gratitude, and peace. Could these natural cycles function in some ways like an exquisitely composed hymn, an artful worship space, or a powerful sermon — all of which encourage, support, and guide our practice of prayer? Such things do not guarantee full, active, and conscious participation in worship, but they have been known to help. And contrariwise, could our hyper-altered cityscapes that literally wall us off from these natural realities be the functional equivalent of a bumbling musician, a garbled sermon, or a jackhammer in the church basement? Those breakdowns in the mechanics of liturgy do not destroy the possibility of worship, but they do undermine the effort toward common prayer, and have been known to cultivate distraction, ingratitude, and grumpiness.

An Unavoidable Relationship with the Sun

Certainly, our built environment largely masks the truth of our bodily and ecological dependence on the sun.8 But our bodies — even during space travel — seek the 24-hour cycle of interaction with the sun, as would any human offspring born outside of earth, as our sun’s pattern on the land is encoded in our genes. Almost all of the energy we earthly animals consume in our food has traveled from the sun across 93 million miles of space. Here on earth, fleshy plants do what our animal bodies cannot: they receive and then store energy as fuel directly from the sun. Our bodies can receive this energy only indirectly, by eating plants — or by eating some other animal that has eaten the sun’s energy at some point stored in the flesh of a plant. For every living body on earth, even when we travel in deep shadows, we run on solar power. And yet any such conceptual description of our relationship to the sun is something very different than the primary bodily experience of the sun’s cycle across the sky, the landscape, and the cultivated field, especially when it takes place in a setting in which human architecture and culture do not function to mask our fundamental dependence on the sun.

The Sun as Tutor in Prayer

The psalmist draws on this primary experience of the sun’s daily cycle as a metaphor for the majesty and perfection of divine wisdom:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
        and the sky proclaims its maker's handiwork.
One day tells its tale to another,
        and one night imparts knowledge to another.
Although they have no words or language,
        and their voices are not heard,
their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world,
        where God has pitched a tent for the sun.
The sun comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;
        it rejoices like a champion to run its course.
It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again; 
        nothing is hidden from its burning heat.
The teaching of the LORD is perfect and revives the soul;
        the testimony of the LORD is sure and gives wisdom to the simple.
The statutes of the LORD are just and rejoice the heart;
        the commandment of the LORD is clear and gives light to the eyes.9

Our theological categories had been tutored by the sun and our bodily senses.

Only days into our time at Holden, we prayed this psalm in daily prayer. Certainly, we could, through our recent bodily experience, identify with the psalmist’s description of the sun running “like a champion” from one edge of the heavens to the other. But the impact of our embodied encounter with the sun in the wild also changed the way we understood other parts of the psalm. When we sang that “the commandment of the LORD is clear and gives light to the eyes,” the metaphor of light that stood for divine wisdom was defined for us in large part by the other-worldly light that our bodies had just known: the expanding nimbus in the cirque, the prismatic trees, the enveloping light and heat that found us when we stood in deep shadow, the steam rising from our bodies, and the surprising joy that sprang up in our voices. Those bodily experiences now contributed to the theological meaning of the psalm: God’s wisdom is like that dawning. Our theological categories had been tutored by the sun and our bodily senses. The entire class agreed that missing out on that bodily experience would have weakened our reading of the psalm by diminishing the psalm’s metaphorical description of “the commandment of the LORD.”10

A Contested Reign

In the wilderness our class was reintroduced to the “greater light” that “rules over the day.” The experience was profound for us in part because the sun did, in fact, rule in ways few of us had experienced in other settings. We adjusted our time for prayer based on its rising and setting. As we snowshoed through high valleys, we had to calculate the sun-exposure of hidden mountain faces above us in order to gauge the avalanche danger for our group. The complex natural surroundings (including the ubiquitous refractive snow crystals) — far from diminishing the prominence of the sun — bore witness minute-by-minute to the always-changing nature of sunlight. In this setting, the sun seemed to change everything it touched: melting, reflecting, energizing, bleaching, illuminating, heating, evaporating, revealing, purifying. The sun’s rising made us pilgrims to its light. It ruled over the day, and its departure at night seemed to cause the sky to sag toward us with the weight of so many stars.

Of course, the sun’s reign can be less than benevolent. It can burn, cause sun blindness, and bring drought. It can be tyrannical. St. Paul warns against a slave-like conformity to the cycles of the sky that obsesses over “observing festivals, new moons, or sabbaths.”11 In some strands of Christian Neo-Platonism, the image of gentle sunlight provided a guiding metaphor for a spirituality that at times sought to ascend out of the earth into a realm of pure spirit bathed only in light.12 And the history of religion chronicles attempts to satisfy the sun’s regnant demands through bloody sacrifice.

In our own time other rulers have risen up and largely eclipsed the sun’s most public ways of ruling. But it is not always clear that their rule is more benign. The electronic alarm clock that jerks us out of sleep for work well before sunrise exerts its own sort of tyranny. And the contemporary augury that attends slavishly to cost-benefit analysis and the rising and falling of the stock market demands its own forms of sacrifice — some of it literally bloody.

The logic of the Christian daily office takes for granted the rule of the greater light over the day and the lesser light over the night.13 Morning Prayer keeps silence until the sun rises. Evening Prayer acknowledges a daily fundamental human dependence: as the sun’s light fades, we come to rely upon the more humble and relatively short-lived domestic lamps we light. At night, we surrender to darkness and sleep, praying our way into this vulnerability in Compline, Night Prayer.

Brother Sun, Sister Moon: Creatures of God

But, of course, in Christian daily prayer, the givenness of the rule of the heavenly bodies is also always being broken open to the larger rule of the God of Israel who made the heavens and the earth. The cycles of the day become sacramental: they are earthly elements to which comes the word of God.14 When Morning Prayer welcomes the new day’s sun rising in the east, it does so in terms that simultaneously welcome the great dawning of the messianic age in Jesus Christ, singing the song of Zechariah: “In the tender compassion of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” A classic opening psalm of Morning Prayer, Psalm 95, draws our gaze across the wide panorama of creation — seemingly made new every morning — and acknowledges joyfully that the whole sweep of it belongs to God: “in your hand are the caverns of the earth; the heights of the hills are also yours. The sea is yours, for you made it; and your hands have molded the dry land.”15 The opening prayers, words, and hymns of Evening Prayer help us come to know the light we kindle sacramentally — the candles becoming signs of Christ the light who rises in deepest darkness. As we light candles and stand in their beauty in the evening, we sing of the most true and hidden light: “Jesus Christ is the light of the world.” Even in our era of the nearly effortless light switch, Evening Prayer tutors us to recall that the true light that enlightens everyone comes into the world from outside of our own power, as a gift. And finally, at Compline, our surrender to the vulnerability of the darkness and sleep is understood, more widely, as the commendation of ourselves and our lives and deaths — even the whole world — to God, who grants a peace that the world cannot give. Entered faithfully, the daily office directs our meditative attention to the cycles of creation. It does so sacramentally, which means that our practice highly esteems the physical signs — showing them reverence — even as the signs at work in our prayer also point to the one who made them and even now sustains them.

We travelled across the country to place ourselves in a specific valley for our classroom. We wanted a place of natural — even wild — abundant life and also precious shelter. (The time in our much-loved wilderness also increased our appreciation for the simplicity and necessity of shelter: the crackling fireplace, the freshly baked bread, and the hand-made quilts were to us welcome embodied signs of God’s shelter from danger.) We settled into a place where our bodies were given ample space to experience the cycles of the earth, and where the cycles of the earth had wide expanses to unfold in their flourishing splendor. We found ourselves “ruled” by the greater light in the day, and by the lesser light at night, and we sensed in this relationship to the natural rhythms something like a homecoming for our bodies. The awakening of our bodies’ senses to the natural world was amplified by our practice of daily prayer. That pattern of prayer in turn drew our sense of wonder and awe for the natural world into thanksgiving to God and intercession in the name of the crucified Christ for the health of all the suffering and needy creatures.

The awakening of our bodies. senses to the natural world was amplified by our practice of daily prayer.

Most of us arrived for class in January with a cloud of witnesses already around us: those who had, over the decades, taught us to pray. We could picture their faces and name their names: musicians, Sunday school teachers, pastors, family members, professors, and authors. After our weeks in the wilderness at study and prayer, we could now count among that cloud of witnesses… actual clouds, some craggy mountains, great ponderosa pines, darting hummingbirds, a sub-alpine valley, our sun. Those creatures now stand vividly among our other teachers of prayer. We have now come back to the glass and steel canyons of Chicago looking for local, natural mentors for prayer and our eyes have swept over Lake Michigan at sunrise, gazed into the canopy of trees along Woodlawn street, watched the sun’s progress across our own bodies stretched out on the LSTC quad, and seen the inadequate shelter for many who face danger especially in the dark of night.

I am aware that these students who have been tutored in Christian prayer by the sun and the stars in the wild may have some things to teach us all over the coming seasons about how we might learn to pray with the creation in the language and images of the psalmists and our ancestors in faith, deepening and broadening our life of prayer in Jesus Christ, the firstborn of the new creation. In these practices — and in this ecologically troubled era — we may find the earth itself and its many creatures, beasts of the water and the sky, and the lights of heavens, once again to be our teachers too.


1.      This essay explores some nature-body themes related to daily prayer. For a detailed account of some 20th century movements to correlate the liturgical year with the earth’s cycles, see Woods, Michael J. Cultivating Soil and Soul: Twentieth-century Catholic Agrarians Embrace the Liturgical Movement. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, c2009.

2.      For an evocative engagement with the daily cycles of Christian prayer that is attentive the body, see Bass, Dorothy C. Receiving the Day: Christian Practices for Opening the Gift of Time. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000.

3.      Upon returning to Chicago, our sacristan, Chad McKenna, found a local source for 100% beeswax taper candles — made by orthodox monks for a lower cost than the part-stearin candles we had been using at the seminary. Inspired by the course, we now use beeswax candles for all of our candles in the seminary chapel, making this easter’s exultet ring all the more true in the dark of the Easter Vigil, when we gave thanks for the paschal candle’s flame in the ancient words of the prayer, “fed by the melting wax that the bees, your servants, have made for the substance of this candle”

4.      On the importance of outdoor embodied play for the development of the mind and the spirit, especially in children, see Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder, (Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2008).

5.      In a reflection on the nighttime imagery of Easter, I included a short description of our class’ fire-striking in this article: Stewart, Benjamin M. “Living By the Word: Easter Sunday 2013.The Christian Century, March 20, 2013, p. 23. See also the liturgical-elemental reflections in Gibler, Linda. From the Beginning to Baptism: Scientific and Sacred Stories of Water, Oil, and Fire. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press, 2010.

6.      See the fascinating history of various cultural approaches to timekeeping, beginning with the earliest ways of tracking the sun and the stars, in Lippincott, Kristen, Umberto Eco, and E. H. Gombrich. The Story of Time. Merrell Publishers, 2003. Relatedly, listen to the BBC podcast, “The Measurement of Time.In Our Time Podcast, 29 March 2012.

7.      Reynolds, Gretchen. “Easing Brain Fatigue With a Walk in the Park.” Well Blog in The New York Times, 27 March 2013.

8.      For a fascinating example of an exception to this pattern, see the account of churches constructed to allow the sun’s light to indicate through indoor sunbeams the date of the spring equinox as part of the calculation of the date of Easter. Heilbron, J. L. The Sun in the Church: Cathedrals as Solar Observatories. Harvard University Press, 2001.

9.      Psalm 19.1-8

10.  On wider questions of the earth’s role in shaping the mind in education, see Orr, David W. Earth in Mind: on Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2004.

11.  Colossians 2.16

12.  See the ecotheological and ecoliturgical critique of these patterns in Santmire, H. Paul. Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008; and in Santmire, H. Paul. The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985.

13.  For reflections on the ecological dimensions of daily prayer see Lathrop, Gordon. Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. Also, on the larger questions of liturgy and ecology, see Stewart, Benjamin M. A Watered Garden: Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2011.

14.  “Accedat verbum ad elementum et fit sacramentum.” (The word comes to the element and there is a sacrament.) Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 80.3.

15.  Paul Santmire describes such a vision as a proper expression of having “dominion” over creation. Inspired by St. Francis, Santmire describes such panoramic vision as a “contemplative dominion” over the earth. Santmire, H. Paul. The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, 69-70.