A retired Episcopal priest and native of Canton, N.C., Dan Matthews owns The Swag, a western North Carolina country inn, with his wife Deener.
A retired Episcopal priest and native of Canton, N.C., Dan Matthews owns The Swag, a western North Carolina country inn, with his wife Deener. His first parishes were in Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau; his last post was Trinity Church
Wall Street in New York City.
An old split rail chestnut fence built by the Civilian Conservation Corp camps in the 1930s delineates the southeast boundary of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The rail fence divides the world of the park from the world of private ownership.
The creation of a national park itself was a far-fetched idea during those depression days of the ’30s. It seemed absurd to hundreds of isolated mountain families who were moved out of their homes and forced to sell their land for a national park. Today, however, we revere that same land as holy ground as it straddles the North Carolina and Tennessee border.
In some ways, the rail fence boundary separates the sacred and the secular. On the private side, we can bulldoze, plant, cut, harvest and do most anything we want to with our land. We claim dominion, as Scripture implies, over all we own. However, the moment we cross the park fence we are on holy ground that can’t be touched.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God commands God’s people to rest on the seventh day. This concept of rest has been twisted in our contemporary world. Today we interpret it to mean take a deep breath so we can work harder next week than we did the past week. That is not the meaning of the Hebrew celebration of Sabbath. Holy rest in the Jewish tradition is a time when all creation is honored and allowed to be undisturbed in its uniqueness just as it was created. For six days we are given permission, in the Biblical tradition, to plow, to plant, to cultivate and to cook, but on the seventh day, we are to cease any form of exploitation so that our human order may recognize its connection to and interdependence with the rest of creation.
It is a strange and unusual idea that is almost lost on modern civilization except as we ecologically rediscover this planet earth, our island home. As the world begins to appreciate the fragile nature of where we live, the concept of Sabbath as holy day, the reverence for the holy ground, grows in importance and slowly begins to become a part of our common sense.
The Hebrew people knew that the corn had a right to be corn one day a week, that water had a right to be water one day a week. This weekly ritual is an essential part of getting a glimpse into what Jewish theology calls messianic time – the vision of peace when every part of creation would be respected and have its proper place and meaning. In a world dominated by consumerism and an abundance of stuff, we find ourselves suffocating under the passion that we can’t get enough of what we don’t need.
Walking into the park makes me feel as if I am inside a great cathedral or temple or mosque. It is truly a world of abundance. It is holy ground. Its walls are a broken-down, 70-year-old rail fence, but those hand-split chestnut rails divide the Sabbath and secular. Honoring our sacred earth resounds deeply with our Blue Ridge mountain folkways. It bespeaks the reverence for the earth which is so central to our future.