In celebration of Earth Day, my interfaith family got swept up in a spiritual experience beyond religious labels. I seek out such moments for my family, in order to complement my children’s education in Judaism and Christianity. The careful balance of two religions, the prescription to question and delineate, holds a risk that we will remain on the surface, at a distance, skeptical academics. As much as I appreciate this intellectual approach, I also want my children to have the opportunity for full emotional and sensory immersion: for letting go.
And so it was that my husband, my teenage daughter and I found ourselves in a community chorus of 125 people on Friday night, singing a “Song of the Earth” program to an audience of over 1000 people in the glorious acoustics and architecture of Strathmore Hall. I often write about how moments we call spiritual, or mystical, or simply happy, are usually triggered by some combination of art, music and nature. At Strathmore on Friday, we had all three. The program centered around poems by Kentucky farmer and activist Wendell Berry, set to music by folk composer Malcolm Dalglish. Malcolm led us on hammered dulcimer, and the chorus backed traditional Japanese dancers, Irish step dancers, and Appalachian clog dancers, as well as percussionists, a fiddler, a cellist and a bagpiper. Like my interfaith family, the program was joyously eclectic and inclusive, with dissonance sharpening the senses, and contrasting layers yielding surprise and delight.
Singing six-part harmony in the midst of a huge choir creates a pulsing in the air: sympathetic, sensual, full-body resonance. My daughter stood next to me, at times following, at times leading me through the challenging music. At one point, she moved away from me to the front of the stage with a dozen singers, to perform a sign-language interpretation of a fragment from Berry’s poem “Rising.” I was acutely aware that she is preparing to set out into the world; that we may never sing together like this again:
The earth opened in the spring,
Opens in all springs.
We reach through the ages with the seed.
Wendell Berry’s poetry did not strike me at first as overtly Christian. In a key essay in which he struggles with the relationship between Christianity and environmentalism, Berry writes of his own religious identification: “I have a considerable debt myself to Buddhism and Buddhists. But there is an enormous number of people, and I am one of them, whose native religion, for better or worse, is Christianity. We were born to it; we began to learn about it before we became conscious; it is, whatever we think of it, an intimate belonging of our being; it informs our consciousness, our language, and our dreams.”
For better or worse, my children have two native religions. As I seek to nurture a positive sense of Christianity in my children, and in all children, I eagerly claim Wendell Berry as a favorite writer inspired by his Christian roots. I reach through the ages to plant seeds of Jewish and Christian appreciation in my children, so that they can scamper to the treetops of both religions, swing from the branches, close their eyes and harmonize.