Why is religion such a big part of rural life? An author I was reading the other day decided it was because there are more poor people in rural places, and poverty fosters the idea that there’s a better home a-waiting in the sky, Lord, in the sky. Another thought involved the idea that rural places are homogenous, and it’s hard for people to go against the intellectual grain of everyone around them.
I don’t find much truth in either of these theories – come to town meeting in my town and you’ll find that most people make it a point to go against the intellectual grain of everyone around them – and so am more inclined to think it has something to do with the fact that urban places are testaments to human beings, with all the self-interested baggage that entails, while rural life involves a closer communion with nature. There’s something very temporal about asphalt and steel towers and municipal services. There’s something very eternal about the wind through the tree branches.
I was raised Catholic and have a fondness for that church (especially our new pope), but like a lot of people my adult spiritual life is less denominational. It’s a kind of magpie faith – little snippets of this and that brought back to build the nest. Or maybe mockingbird faith, where I gather sermons that resonate and sing them back. “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” “You can't approach the subject of God without metaphor... literalism, like legalism, is an attempt to shrink God to recreate him in our own image.” “One of the moral diseases we communicate to one another in society comes from huddling together in the pale light of an insufficient answer to a question we were afraid to ask.” (Those from Albert Einstein, Paul Hewson, Thomas Merton.)
Sometimes in the midst of autumn’s hunting seasons and slaughter seasons I dream of being a prey animal but it’s not a nightmare. There’s a peace in it – in the idea that this ritual is circular in nature; in the idea that the cards get shuffled and it repeats. The idea of reincarnation was taught to me as a Buddhist philosophy, but you see it often in the faiths of traditional hunting cultures around the world. The Inuit thought that the soul is reborn over and over again, and they pointed seal skulls towards the new hunting grounds so the animal souls would know where to go. “That’s how we kill the same seal over and over,” one explained. (That from a book by Gretel Ehrlich.)
The whole life and death exchange would be impossibly cruel if you didn’t allow yourself to feel some sort of divine or mystic logic. The same thing applies to felling a tree. Hugging a centenariate being and then cutting it. Feeling its fall in your chest. You might have a western religious take where your faith is guiding you to own this under threat of punishment, or an eastern one where you’re an expression God and it’s implied that you’d better act accordingly. But you’ve got to feel something. You’re not feeling basal area as you fire up the chainsaw.
(There’s a self-interested expression of faith here too, of course. The sign of the cross before a power that could crush you – that might someday crush you.)
I see religious mystery in silence – those still, bone-cold winter mornings. I see it when nature reminds me of how much I don’t know, like when people ask me how the oaks know to mast together and I say they talk to each other somehow. There’s plenty that’s not mysterious, too. The exquisite architecture of an open grown maple tree. The vertical pupil in a cat’s eye.
We have a bunch of deeply religious readers, and in the spirit of the season it would be great to hear about the manifestations of faith in their daily rural life in the comment section. And I’d like to wish all our Christian readers a Merry Christmas. My favorite detail of the Christmas story is that God – this incomprehensible power – chose to express itself not as a king, not in a golden tower, but as a child born in a pile of straw in a barn out in the country.