[dropcap size=big]K[/dropcap]elsey and I are studying the Revelation to Saint John. We’ve studied the Bible together for almost four years, starting when she was a sophomore at OSU. It was a relief to me when she got into OSU medical school, because I value our weekly time together. We’ve read bits and pieces of the Old Testament, particularly Genesis and 1 & 2 Samuel, plunged through Matthew’s Gospel, and spent more than half a year on Paul’s Letter to the Romans and the Book of Acts. We like to say that we’re reading the Bible very slowly, often no more than two chapters at a time. And a few weeks ago we decided to turn towards one of the most confusing, tangled, abused, and majestic pieces of poetry in all of scripture – John’s Revelation.
[su_pullquote align=”right”]If you’re going to presume to pray on behalf of something, you should try to understand it.[/su_pullquote]Ah, that throne in heaven and the strange winged beasts that surround it. They send us flipping back through our Bibles to Ezekiel and Isaiah. Eugene Peterson, whose book Reversed Thunder has been our guide through the imagery of the Revelation, says that the seraphim and cherubim represent the totality of the natural world, all of those creatures whom we presume to speak for when we raise our voices in prayer. Lions and oxen and eagles, of course, but also bacteria, and nematodes, and octopods, and insects. The sum total of all the creatures of the earth, represented in those weird figures with six wings and eyes all around and inside (4:6-8). In John’s vision, these creatures sing “holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”
That should sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s ever attended an Episcopal Eucharist. We usually sing those words, or some version of them, to settings by Schubert or William Mathias. How often do we pause and think about the ultimacy of what we’re doing? Do we even understand that we’re singing on behalf of that vast majority of living creatures that don’t have human voices? For me, singing the Sanctus is a profound moment of creation spirituality, lived out in our worship. When we sing it, we reveal that the seraphim and cherubim are expressions of the earth and all that lives on it, not abstract heavenly beings.
I think about this as I lead the Eucharistic Prayer during our Sunday evening services on campus. Most of the people who come are involved in the sciences. Before the service three Sundays ago, Jared and Peter were telling me about botulism, and why babies get it. Apparently, there aren’t very many bacteria in a baby’s stomach to start out with, and without bacteria, we can’t digest correctly. An infant spends its first year trying to get the bacteria balance in its stomach just right. So introducing foods that might carry bad bacteria can upset the balance. That night, we prayed on behalf of the bacteria that allow us to digest food and live.
Last Sunday a new student joined us for worship, and then ate dinner with us afterwards. At the end of the meal, Jared pulled out his computer and showed us new images he’d captured of muscle growth in zebra fish. The day before he had, quite possibly, become the first living person to witness this particular kind of growth with his own eyes. Watching his slides, we were among the second group of people to do so. As she was leaving, the new student remarked that it was the first time she’d ever discussed science in church. We assured her that we discuss it all of the time. Why? Because of the seraphim and cherubim, of course. If you’re going to presume to pray on behalf of something, you should try to understand it.
God has gifted the world with a startling diversity of life. I’m reading Diana Butler Bass’s newest book, Grounded: Finding God in the World, a Spiritual Revolution. She quotes the journalist Kristin Ohlson, who writes, “I was stunned by what I learned about life in the soil, that when we stand on the surface of the earth, we’re atop a vast underground kingdom of microorganisms without which life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Trillions of microorganisms, even in my own smallish backyard, like a great dark sea swarming with tiny creatures.” Katie, a graduate student in entomology who’s a member of our little Sunday night group, would point out that there are also millions of tiny creatures above the surface of the earth, whizzing by our ears and alighting on our arms and settling on the trees and flowers. There are so many different kinds of life that we can’t hold all of it in our minds when we pray. But life in all its diversity peeks out from behind the language of our prayer, and we lift our voices with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, looking out with many eyes, both inside and outside, and unfolding innumerable wings as we pause to listen to the sanctity of the earth.
[su_divider top=”no” divider_color=”#9e2922″ link_color=”#1c1b1a” size=”4″]
The Rev. Karl Stevens serves as Missioner to Campus Ministries for the Diocese of Southern Ohio. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.