I invite you to stop reading this now, listen to a copy of the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth,” and go sing it in celebration while walking around your neighborhood.
If you’re still with me, I’ll explain why:
Since learning the hymn several years ago, it has come to mind in many memorable places that now fill my mental landscape whenever I sing the hymn. One of those places is a park overlooking the Anacostia River near my house in Washington, D.C. Kenilworth Park was built on the site of a city dump that was plowed over 40 years ago and is now undergoing a remediation process to control suspected groundwater contamination. But despite its tainted legacy, it’s still one of the most beautiful places in Washington D.C.
The park constantly reminds me of the distance between what is and what could be. It’s full of potential, but sometimes the park’s potential is the only positive thing I see. On a recent walk through it, I came to my favorite overlook across from the National Arboretum and was momentarily struck by the contrast. The overlook is always full of trash from the river and at times overgrown with invasive plants, but this time, as I walked up, I caught a glimpse of a Northern Harrier flying along the river. I had never seen a Northern Harrier, much less so close to my house and in such an unlikely place. It momentarily caught me and my bird-watching friends breathless; we were reminded of the potential always hidden within the park.
Multiply this single moment of breathlessness by the “thousand thousand reasons to live this life,” and you’ll be approaching the all-encompassing spirit of thanksgiving expressed in the hymn “For the Beauty of the Earth.” The hymn, written by Folliott Pierpoint, a 29-year-old student of the classics, after a walk through the countryside surrounding his home in Bath, England, celebrates the goodness of every ordinary thing he would have seen on a walk around his neighborhood.
But this is no mere celebration of beauty in general; it is a challenge to see every individual tree and flower, hill and horizon, person and relationship as a reason to celebrate. In six short verses, the hymn beautifully recognizes that the immensity of the created world and the privilege of experiencing loving human relationships are cause for ongoing thanksgiving. From the grandeur of the horizon to all “gentile thoughts and mild,” this is a celebration of the intricate ordering of life on earth.
It’s hard to sing this hymn and not think of mountaintop moments of beauty, love, and joy. But the hymn is more than an expression of ephemeral romanticism dependent on breathtaking scenery. It’s a Eucharistic hymn, originally written to be included in the liturgy for Holy Communion during the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus.
For Folliott, the joy of experiencing the human and natural world is dependent upon the one to whom the hymn is directed:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our Sacrifice of Praise.
This refrain, which has been modified in many recent compositions, recognizes Jesus as the source of all that is good in our varied experiences of the human and natural world. It is an affirmation that, when experienced through the lens of the death and resurrection of Jesus, all things become a source of praise for the one who is all in all, and in whom all things hold together. This lens of cruciform beauty, a theme which is more fully explored in Brian Zahnd’s book Beauty Will Save the World, allows us to sing this hymn in celebration of both the flourishing social and ecological landscapes in our lives and also for those landscapes which could flourish through the restorative presence of Jesus Christ.
As an environmental scientist, and more generally as a Christian who partakes in Communion every Sunday, this is a provocative way to sing this hymn. More often than not, my work brings me to places of imminent socio-ecological risk and unavoidable impact: the mountaintops slated for removal, the communities destined to be relocated, the rivers that will be dammed, and the legacy of contamination in the park in my own backyard. The disparity between the beauty celebrated in this hymn and my experience of actual socio-ecological relations often makes me want to retreat to those beautiful people and places which don’t cause such conflict. But ignoring that conflict would be to ignore the cruciform beauty celebrated in this hymn.
So like Psalm 34, I take this hymn to be an invitation to taste and see that the Lord is good. To sing this hymn while walking through the park in my backyard is like confessing the contamination in my own heart each week before taking the bread and wine of communion: it’s knowing the contaminated state of the park’s socio-ecological health and inviting the one who created it to recreate and restore what has been lost.
Matt Kuniholm is an environmental consultant and coordinator of the Washington, D.C., A Rocha group.
Image: Northern Harrier, Peter Schwarz / Shutterstock.com