Armstrong Woods and the First Commandment

Saturday, July 21, 2018. After morning Mass at St. Eugene’s Cathedral in Santa Rosa, eleven hikers carpooled to Armstrong Woods, a state park containing one of the prides and joys of Northern California: redwood trees, some of the tallest trees in the world, even up to 250 feet, and many ranging from five hundred to a thousand years in age. At the trailhead we gathered together for prayer and a reflection led by Peter.

“What does the first commandment say?” he began, and read from the Scriptures: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before me” Ex. 20:2-3 (RSVCE)

He continued. “God talks about having no strange gods before Him, but what does it mean to ‘have a god’ before God? We know that we’re called to give God honor by keeping holy the sabbath day (Sunday, for Catholics), and we know the commandment also means that we are not to give worship to any other god, because God is supposed to occupy the primary place in our daily life, and be the center around which our life revolves.

“The question, then, is this: what occupies pride of place in your life? What do you spend the most time doing, or thinking about doing when you have a free moment? Is it watching that great new tv show? Is it checking your phone for social media posts, games, etc.? Is it that juicy steak you have waiting in the fridge? The thought of having a pint of beer, or a glass of wine, or a tumbler of whiskey? Whatever the particular thing, it seems fair to say that whatever is most important to you is what’s going to occupy your thoughts when you think of how to spend our time. If there are things in your life to which you devote your time, energy, and attention, to the exclusion of spending time alone with God, and which seem impossible to go without, then haven’t those things, in essence, become your gods? If you can’t go a day, a week, a month without tv, cellphone, social media, alcohol, that favorite food of yours, or playing your favorite video game, but you *can* go without saying a rosary, visiting our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, saying your morning offering, going to Mass, going to confession, etc., for the same period of time, then something has gone seriously amiss.

“My challenge to you is to meditate on that, and consider what things in your life have become your personal ‘gods’, e.g,: those things to which you devote your time, energy, and attention towards on a regular basis, and which you can’t imagine going without.”

The first portion of the five and a half mile hike, consisting of a steep uphill climb, was spent in silence and reflection on the ways and means of violating the first commandment. It was an ideal scene for such reflection as the cathedral-like trees towering above us lent a naturally contemplative atmosphere. These immense and ancient beings also inspired awe at the many years they have seen and the great heights achieved, leaving one with greater conviction of one’s finitude and the brief and transient nature of all that composes earthly human life. It is no wonder that ancient cultures fell into worshipping the personalities they believed existed in the trees and other powerful forces of nature.  Yet, in light of our faith and the first commandment, witnessing these solid, patient, gentle towers of living architecture inspired a further awe with the knowledge that they too are finite and transient. How great is our God! Despite their transient nature, they were created by an infinitely loving and creative God for our good that we might know Him. Taste and see that the Lord is good! The descent from the mountain was filled with a sense of humility and gratitude.

After a morning of reflection, we participated in lunch and laughter in a picnic grove. A brief but exuberant game of frisbee ended abruptly as the flying object landed in Forbidden Areas. The remainder of the hike consisted of winding trails through groves of trees and increasing crowds, and a few opportunities to witness these living giants and climb inside them.



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