I am sometimes drawn to great cathedrals as though to a great promise once offered by God and later denied by man. Like many a heathen before me, I have been seduced by architecture, song and colored glass.
I recently found sanctuary at St. John the Divine Cathedral near Harlem in New York City. Listening to the great emptiness of spirit above the tumult of the city streets, wandering behind the altar, I discovered a depiction in stained glass of a monk chopping down a tree with a sword—St. Boniface.
Born Wynfrith of England at the beginning of the eighth century, Boniface made a name for himself by converting Germanic and Celtic tribes to the official practices of the Roman Church. After the fall of Rome, many of these tribes practiced hybrid versions of pagan Christianity, while continuing to worship ancient gods in sacred groves.
Wynfrith won fame by confronting one such group in Lower Hessia around 720, felling an oak sacred to the thunder God Thor, at Geismar, near Fritzlar. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "He had a chapel built out of the wood and dedicated it to the prince of the Apostles. The heathens were astonished that no thunderbolt from the hand of Thor destroyed the offender, and many were converted. The fall of this oak marked the fall of heathenism."
Perhaps it also marked an end to the sacred connection with nature the church might have gathered into its many folds.
Speaking recently at the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival, Matthew Fox described the earliest Christians as nature mystics. And he called for a return to true Eros—a creative and generative force that pervades all of life and was once worshipped in many different places around the world, including the sacred groves of ancient Europe.
Before the Romans, in a fit of defensive religious intolerance, destroyed all the pagan temples of Europe, the Greeks honored local deities, appeasing Zeus and his thunder bolts at shrines in the Mediterranean, while simultaneously exploring philosophy, atomic theory and calculus, and laying the rules of civil society.
It seems there was once room for all of us.
The sword of St. Boniface, immortalized in stained glass in a tiny corner of church history, seems emblematic of a moment when theologians made a fatal decision to consolidate power at the expense of a deep wonder and regard for nature's power, a decision that has had dire consequences for the modern world.
As I was rocked by lightning and thunder in bed last night I realized that St. Boniface might have made his point well enough, eventually getting promoted to archbishop and involving himself in the intrigues of the Carlovingian Dynasty. But what a far cry his efforts were to the priorities of our day. While he felt compelled to give up on nature, we wonder if nature will soon give up on us.