Tuesday, November 11, 2008


My Forest Cathedral

Fred Symes

For most followers of mainstream religions their main place of worship is a building. It may be a tiny weatherboard church needing a coat of paint. Or it could be one decorated inside with superb carving and tuku tuku wall panels as is the one at Tikitiki near the East Coast’s Ruatoria. Then again, it could be the quite majestic white-spired Roman Catholic edifice in Palmerston North, the Assembly of God hall in the same town’s Ferguson Street or the lounge room in the home of an obscure sect leader.

It could very easily be a magnificently domed and minaretted mosque, a vaulted synagogue, a Taoist temple in Japan, Russian Orthodox cathedral in Kiev, a Hindhu temple in India or even the well-preserved 1000-Buddha temple in the Fragrant Hills of Beijing.

As aesthetically striking and architecturally impressive as many of these houses of god are (choose your own belief) they are but the puny efforts of egoists trying to mimic the grandeur of the creator. Too often, I feel, the perceived man-made grandeur and the vast expense to achieve it are equated by guilty and fearful humans to a need to placate god, to ensure a place at his right hand after death. There have been times in the evolution of human civilisation that the same equation has been achieved by animal, and even human sacrifice. I trust that, as god did for the sacrificial Jesus, all those innocent virgins, goats and sheep experienced deserved resurrection.

The grandeur of, and vast expenditure on, the houses of god is directly related to their position in the hierarchical structure; the closer to the leadership of a particular belief, the finer the houses of worship. It seems to me that fine structures are built more to the glory of the leaders and as a display of church wealth and power than to the glory of their particular god. Does god really care about all this rather grotesque show of finery – and obscene wealth?

When I see these quite miserable attempts of man to attain the creative genius of god – and I have visited many major houses of worship in Europe and Asia – I am reminded of the cartoon by the Australian social commentator, Leunig. It shows a father and child sitting spellbound in front of a television set. On the screen is a beautiful sunrise. Father and child are completely oblivious to the real thing that could be their’s to glory in if they would only look through the window.

Which brings me to the title I have given this story, ‘My Forest Cathedral.’

Call me strange if you will but, with two exceptions, I have never experienced feelings of spiritual awe in any church – not Anglican, not Catholic, not Baptist, not Methodist, not Seventh-day Adventist, not Uniting, not Buddhist, not Hindu nor Moslem. The exceptions were in a high-steepled Anglican church in the tiny village of Bloxam, near Banbury Cross, and in Canterbury Cathedral. Even then the feeling was more aligned with my own personal spirituality and a family problem than with the Anglican god.

My spiritual awareness woke from its dormant condition when, as a 19-year-old, I lived in Te Aroha and discovered the New Zealand bush. I discovered a few other things about life there, too, but the majesty of the bush was the real clincher in establishing religion in my mind. Not any established, institutionalised corrupt and hypocritical religion, but my own, inner-self harmony and belief in the purity of the natural world.

During the year I was there I spent many summer evenings climbing on the bushclad Mt Te Aroha and many weekends enjoying the strenuous climb across the ruggedly steep Kaimai Range. Whenever I was in the bush I marvelled at its sublime beauty and gave thanks for its being. It was a place where I always felt at peace, both with myself and with the world.

It was a few years later and after a too-long bush-free city life that I eventually came face to face with my god. I was on a business trip to the Bay of Islands region. On a rough, gravel road on the way from Kaikohe to Kaeo I noticed a weathered sign announcing Puketi Forest. Having time to spare and not having been in the bush for a couple of years or so, I pulled over. There was a hardly discernible, narrow, muddy track leading into the forest.

Stepping as carefully as I could to keep my polished shoes from as much mud as possible I ventured along the track, ill lit by the dappled light of an overcast sky sneaking through the thick canopy. All around me were magnificent kauri trees, straight backed and lofty. Little did I realise as I gaped and gasped at this great natural beauty that I was about to discover the home of my personal god.

Around a bend in the track and only about 200 metres from the road was a cheek-by-jowl trio of truly beautiful, long-lived specimens of kauri. Alongside was a paint-flaking sign naming the grand trio as the Three Princesses. Well, that’s how some forest bureaucrat might have seen them, but not me. These creations of my god were the template for the cathedral beauty that man has strived mightily to achieve over centuries. But never has, and never will.

I have been back several times to my forest cathedral and enjoyed friendly chats with its owner. I was last there in 2000 and he told me he was a little concerned that humans were turning his beautiful home and the extensive grounds surrounding it into a flashy place with fancy boardwalks, billboards and other paraphernalia of tourist worship.

I just hope no one installs a tv set there.

© Fred Symes 2005
[Used without explicit permission, but that C in a circle says to me: Copy! Right!]

My friend Fred and I exchanged places for quite a while; before we knew each other he lived in my hometown Sydney, while I was here in his city Palmerston; he has now returned, and we are both helping to increase the average IQ of this country.

I understand the reference to Michael Leunig. My son Michael sends me the Sydney Morning Herald calendar every year, with a Leunig cartoon for every month, and the naked father and son watching the sunrise on the television screen instead of through the window has been on show in my office in October. I have not turned the page yet, but I see it has another TV one for November: she (the woman holding the remote control?!) asks him as they scoff their take-away pizza: "What violence do you want? Sporting, military, or random-psychotic?".

Now, I am not going to disparage watching television, which literally allows us to see (video vision) from afar (tele) things that are significant and beautiful, without having to trample the earth ourselves, polluting the air and the water as we go. Today a group of us had a rewarding time watching Dava Sobel's LONGITUDE, about John Harrison and his son William devoting their lives to making chronometers to enable navigators to know where they are on the ocean, instead of being all at sea. (The terrible thing about television is that it is a horrible hybrid of Greek and Latin!)

From the same source, my bus-driving son in Sydney, I have received Leunig's little book THE PRAYER TREE (copyright 1990). Picture the naked man with his constant companion, a white duck. "A person kneels to contemplate a tree and to reflect upon the troubles and joys of life. The person imagines mornings and evenings in a great forest of prayers, swarming and teeming with life. The person is learning how to pray."

Trees are getting lots of mentions in Bonzoz; it is starting to look like an obsession. This one includes a veritable and venerable Kauri Trinity.

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