Above my home in Boise, Idaho, a steep trail called Rock Garden rises hundreds of feet through boulders left behind when a prehistoric lake collapsed and rushed off to the Pacific two million years ago. Its many-colored rocks, lichen and moss, waterworn shapes and sparse desert vegetation are, for me, an everfascinating sculpture garden. I’ve climbed it nearly every day while otherwise sheltering in place.
North of the trail lies one of the largest wildernesses in the Lower 48, stretching 300 miles with but a single intervening road. Together with the Teton Range near where I grew up, this mighty landscape formed my family, formed me and is still thrilling. Now, however, instead of grand adventure at altitude or in rivers, I walk trails slowly, taking it all in, remembering.
I seem to have reverted to childhood on cue. On my bedroom dresser is arrayed the abandoned nest of a tiny bird; a little ball of fur and bones that an owl left behind after eating a mouse; and an old spike from the quarry where prisoners chiseled out rock to build their own prison, which now sits empty below the trail. I collect rocks, like the one next to me as I write this, covered in four colors of lichen, and I’m still disappointed when rocks bright in last week’s rain are dull when dried, just as when I brought them home to my mother 75 years ago.
Arriving at Notre Dame in 1954, I fully expected to be a middling student, coming as I had from an empty state and modest schools, but for freshman composition I drew Richard Sullivan ’30, an acclaimed novelist and a kind man. For him I wrote of my life outdoors back home: skiing in deep powder; sinking into soft cold soil on early October mornings when schools closed and every child was turned out to pick spuds; of simply looking as summer clouds rolled above our apple trees. I wrote of bringing irrigation water down from a canal built by my great-grandfather; of plugging the gopher holes along the way; of how killdeer faked broken wings to distract us from their nests.
Sullivan liked all that, encouraged me and sent me on my way. I think of him as I walk the trail.
I also remember John Kirsch.
During the Great Depression, Kirsch was one of those teenagers from back east who was rescued by the Civilian Conservation Corps and sent into the woods out west, never to return. After a wartime spent in India, he took up ranching near Cody and Bozeman, then got a master’s degree in wildlife management before joining the Montana Department of Fish and Game.
At 50, Kirsch became a Catholic priest. While a professor and chaplain at Montana State University and Carroll College he created a course called Eco-Theo to explore a subject with deep but contentious roots in Christianity: the relationship between creation and the divine, nature and spirituality. He was teaching not only theology but also ecology and direct experience from nature.
To help visitors “Find the Spirit in Nature,” Kirsch also founded the Living Water Contemplative Center in West Yellowstone, Montana, just north of my hometown. That’s why, 20 years ago, I was in Yellowstone National Park with him looking at a single, large rock for what seemed a very long time. Just looking. What do you experience, he asked after many minutes passed. What is sacred here? Can you experience Spirit?
I could not. Maybe water, but rock?
For Kirsch, rock, water and wood were not only a reminder, an inspiration or even a path to God. They were holy in themselves. Everything is holy. All matter is divine.
I was charmed by Kirsch but the whiff of pantheism was more than my conventional Christianity could accept. I was not going to choose the Church of the Great Outdoors over the real thing. Yet two decades later I cannot get enough of rocks. And I have moved toward his spirituality.
Kirsch died in 2002, an obscure follower of St. Francis of Assisi. Today, however, he would be among those reviving a Christian theology critical to mankind’s future: a love for the natural world so clear and fierce as to save mankind from slow suicide.
Kirsch’s “Theo” would be consistent with that of the priest-paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, with Thomas Berry, another priest published by the Sierra Club, and with all those reviving Celtic spirituality, like the late, dear John O’Donohue or John Philip Newell of the Church of Scotland.
Beginning in the fifth century, Patrick and those who followed him in Ireland, Scotland and Wales built a fully Christian theology on the foundation of druidic paganism, in which women were among the spiritual leaders. Irish Christians looked on creation as a second scripture, akin to and of equal merit with the Gospel. For them, God was immanent and near, not removed and elsewhere — just as Native Americans would tell us today. The Celts brought this spirituality to Europe for a few centuries before being diminished by Rome.
Five years ago, in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis tried to rouse the world into action over climate change, particularly on behalf of the poor who will suffer even more in the future than they suffer today — most severely from the pandemic. Tragically, the pope’s message was not taken seriously, if what has come from Idaho pulpits is any example, yet he carries on, pleading most recently for protection of the Amazon.
As he soldiers on, I grieve for him. In a way, he walks with me on Rock Garden Trail and I with him.
So, again, how might I consider the rocks on my trail? Have I become a pantheist?
I’ve run through a lot of books in the last 20 years as my grip on the faith I grew up with has come and gone and come. My constant handhold on this slippery rock has been Father Richard Rohr, the Franciscan founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who is considered heretical by some. In his latest book, The Universal Christ, Rohr writes that “Christ is not Jesus’s last name.” Instead Christ denotes God’s first gift — the first Bible, the first incarnation — which is the universe itself, and the Love of which it is made.
The word Rohr chose for this indwelling of God is “panentheism.” God is the soul of the universe, extended beyond space and time, yet present, pervading and interpenetrating everything — Every Thing — including my rocks.
Wildly incomplete as it is, that’s quite enough Eco-Theo for today. I’m going to take a hike.
Jerry Brady was publisher of the Idaho Falls Post Register for 25 years and twice was the Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho. In the summer of 1958, he accompanied Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, on a two-month trip through Africa.