When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy

IN HIS 2003 BOOK, The Path: A One-Mile Walk Through the Universe, Chet Raymo takes readers on his walk to work while also taking us through an attentive and often profound look at the natural and cultural history of the landscape through which he had passed nearly daily for four decades. In his most recent book, When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy, Raymo turns his prolific writer’s skill once again to the world’s most intimate and intricate details. The book traces a long and nuanced dialogue between science and religion and offers readers at the same time a deeply academic perspective and a passionate meditation on grace. Whether his exploration moves deftly among written texts — religious, poetic, or otherwise — or the perceived language of phenomena, of things, Raymo’s approach is to transcend the ambit inscribed by the word in the world.

When God Is Gone pulls on interwoven threads of a tapestry of literary touchstones from poetry, fiction, history, psychology, philosophy, and theology to help draw together Raymo’s own ideas about religion, nature, spirituality, and self. In the book’s opening sentences, Raymo lays the foundation for the book’s literary framework. He acquaints us with Myles Connolly’s novella Mr. Blue as a seminal text in Raymo’s formative youth as well as in more recent reflective years. His more critical rereading of Blue’s life in his later years frames Raymo’s narrative of his own development from Catholicism to what he has come to call a Catholic agnosticism — a potential paradox of science, faith, and wonder that he explores over the course of the book.

As we seek both wisdom and practical approaches to resolving our environmental crisis, this small, densely packed book sows the seeds for an ecological future supported by the strength of faith-based as well as scientific communities. Raymo shares equal fascination for the intimate miracles played out every second in our own bodies on the cellular and genetic level, the rich traditions of faith, and the places where the two find ways to coexist.

I read in this book a hopeful meditation on how religious faith and scientific insights can guide us together toward a more attentive and mindful future. By the simple yet profound act of just paying attention to one another and to the world around us, we can embrace the eternal braiding of human with nonhuman, of the sacred with the mundane, and of the miraculous with the quotidian. There is hope that we can learn to feel, as Raymo writes, both a “love for the world as we empirically find it, and a sense that everything is holy.”

Early in the book, as he rereads William Carlos Williams’s well-known poem “The Red Wheelbarrow,” Raymo limns the art of seeing deeply and seeing well. “Attention,” he asserts, “is the highest form of prayer”; it is the spirituality of attention that Raymo sees in Williams’s poem, and the simplicity that guides his thinking about the relationship between the human and the nonhuman worlds. It is not always sufficient, writes Raymo, to be aware of what we know, but it is imperative to ask why and how we have come to know what we do.

Pavel Cenkl is Dean of Academics at Sterling College in Vermont. He is the author of This Vast Book of Nature: Writing the Landscape of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, 1784–1911, and editor of the forthcoming collection Nature and Culture in the Northern Forest.