Putting Down Roots

I am a Washingtonian. For a great deal of our very short history, we Washingtonians have taken pride in having gotten away from the rest of the country. Indeed, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing ourselves as escapees from eastern politics, deadening Midwestern weather and, last but not least, what we tend to regard as southern Bible Belt religiosity. We have developed the sly but firm opinion that we are a New Breed, separated from the Old World east of the Rockies just as surely as Americans of the 19th Century saw themselves as separated from the Old World across the Atlantic.

With such a history, it is perhaps not surprising that Washington is the least-churched state in the nation and that Seattle is the least-churched area in Washington. New Breeds typically fancy they don’t need Old Religion. Something instinctive in the Washingtonian character recoils at terms like “religion,” “church,” and (perhaps most of all) “creed.” All such hard and fast words: words binding us to the past–the very thing we came here to escape!

Not, of course, that Washingtonians reject the spiritual. Quite the contrary, living on the shores of Puget Sound, rising morning after morning to the rhythm of the tides and the cry of the gulls, watching the sun rise over the Cascade Range and set over the Olympics… well, it’s all more than enough to transform all but the most hardened atheist into a buttercup-twirling mystical poet. So most Washingtonians believe in “spirituality” of some sort. But that is because for us, “spirituality” is also an idea which denotes escape. It is a word bound up with feelings of freedom, release, boundlessness, and indefinability. This was more or less the attitude I grew up with and drank in with my mountain pure water.

But as I got older, I found such spirituality–warm feelings about a cloudy Something which never sought nor deserved relationship, which never demanded of me that I love the unlovely–was not enough. It came to be too unbearably pat. Too obvious. Too easy. Does the life of spirituality, of love–and therefore of self-sacrifice–really lie in being detached and cut loose, I wondered? Is it true that to be spiritual always means to be vague, cloudy and indeterminate? The very evergreen trees on the mountains I loved argued for more than this. They were connected. They had roots veining the rich, dark and ancient earth; roots which did not tie them down but gave them strength. And these roots, so far from fading off into a blur, instead threw out branches which were articulated with artistic precision down to the last pine needle.

Roots and branches were what my soul longed for; a connection to the soil of the past.

So after years of searching, I found what I was looking for as I stood before the congregation of Sacred Heart parish in December 1987, reciting the Creed as I was received into the Catholic Church. Behind me I could hear the Church speaking in hundreds of voices, voices which joined with millions more voices stretching back 2,000 years. In my heart’s ear I could hear them in every language and from every tribe and tongue. Here was real earth, real roots; not theory or cloudy generalities. These did not speak in pumped up rhetoric about “unlimited human potential” like a Microsoft ad, nor in gauzy platitudes that Niceness is Nice nor in vague assertions that “humanity has certain adumbrations of the divine.”

On the contrary, they spoke something real, something that has endured fire and flood, sword and machine gun, wars and rumors of wars. “We believe in one God… born of the Virgin Mary… crucified under Pontius Pilate… on the third day he rose again in fulfillment of the Scriptures… the Holy Spirit… the Lord, the Giver of Life… one, holy, catholic and apostolic…” These were the words of the Body of Christ, the company of the saints, rooted throughout time and space in the Mystery that has confronted us ever since Jesus of Nazareth turned the cross of death into the Tree of Life on Calvary. And as they spoke and I falteringly spoke with them, I knew myself to be at last rooted in the good earth of that Mystery too. Maybe that’s a little of what Isaiah was getting at when he said, “Mountains and hills shall break out in song before you, and all the trees of the countryside shall clap their hands” (Is 55:12).


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