05 December 2018

Mní wičóni

The headwaters of the Mississippi

Last week, I attended a formal protest organised by members of Honour the Earth, Youth Climate Intervenors, MN 350, the North Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace at the State Capitol building, to present a petition with 67,000 signatures to Governor-Elect Tim Walz and Lieutenant Governor-Elect Peggy Flanagan to stop the proposed new oil pipeline route for the Enbridge Line 3 project. I was impressed that both Mr Walz and Ms Flanagan came out to listen and talk to us in person, but given Governor-Elect Walz’s prior support for the pipeline it remains to be seen whether they will take action. This protest compasses a broad variety of concerns, from indigenous rights to clean water to climate activism. This dangerous and frankly-needless corporate boondoggle stands to threaten the natural beauty of the Mississippi headwaters, the lakes and wetlands throughout northern Minnesota, those of us who depend on water from the Mississippi and thus, the entirety of the river system downstream.

I’m going to have to beg your indulgence now, gentle readers, that this post is likely to be a retread in some degree of the admirable work of Fr Kaleeg (Hainsworth) on the subject, and of my œcological reflections last Theophany which were deeply inspired by Fr Kaleeg, as well as by Saint Gregory the Theologian and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Saint Gregory’s poetic treatment of our mediated vision of the Divine in the created order provides us with a certain insight that all water is holy water. But it is necessary, as I think the commentary from Matt Celestine on that post proves, to bring these reflections down to the realm of the concrete, the specific, the embodied.

The natural place to begin is with the event itself. Christ’s baptism in the Jordan, and the revelation to the eyes of belief through the transparent and life-giving element of water of the vision of the Holy Trinity, did render that water holy. But we must remember the circumstances in which the Theophany occurred. Saint John the Forerunner, calling his nation to repentance, drew them out into the wilderness, drew them away from the city. He called to them from a remote place, a politically-symbolic border between the West and the East. The act of washing oneself in the river, in the middle of a wilderness between Rome and a foreign land, was to the Jews of the time already symbolic of the Exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea out of Egypt, out of slavery, and into the desert. Saint John the Forerunner’s baptism was an act of political subversion, with Rome standing in for Egypt. But when Christ Our Lord undertook to be baptised Himself, it was not only a symbol of rejection of the logic of empire, but also the true appearance of the Holy Ghost to the world, a manifestation of new life.

The Mississippi River is not the Jordan – true. But it has in common with the Jordan these characteristics. Like the Jordan, the Mississippi River has long stood as a great border between the west (of the North American continent) and the east. It remains the holy source of life to many nations on either side of that divide: to the Cheyenne, to the Anishinaabe, to the Dakota and to the Meskwaki. To the Cheyenne the river is the ‘Big River of Oil’ (let’s not render that imagery literal, what say?); to the Anishinaabe it is simply Gichi-Ziibi, the ‘Great River’. Further south, the descendants of the great world civilisation which built the mounds (the Choctaw, for example) still revere the waters of the Mississippi, calling it ‘Beyond Age’. When the brutal Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto beheld the Mississippi, even he held it in a kind of reverence. We do not have to admire the man, and we probably shouldn’t, to recognise a certain degree of reflective truth in its similarities with the Jordan when he called the Mississippi ‘Rio del Espíritu Santo’: the River of the Holy Ghost.

All of us who live here – Natives, white, Asian and black folks, Christians and not – depend on the Great River for so much in our lives. We don’t only drink that water and use it to wash clothes, though we certainly do that. My wife Jessie and son Albert were baptised last month in water ultimately drawn from the Mississippi. As a machinist, the roto-grinders I run depend on a constant flow of coolant (an emulsion of oil in filtered de-ionised water) to keep finished parts ground to a precise size. Even my job literally depends on clean water, ultimately sourced in the river, being readily available. The Orthodox Churches in Minnesota recognise this and demonstrate it, not just with pretty words or symbolism, but in a physical, specific and concrete liturgical way. Last year we held the Great Blessing of Waters out-of-doors in the Mississippi River itself. Part of the Liturgy involves a blessed cross being cast into the river, and someone diving in to retrieve it. In this blessing of the waters we show that we have a real stake in the cleanliness and health of the water that we live by. The conservation and protection of our fresh water is something we can and should fight for.

I believe therefore that it is meet and right for us stand in solidarity with our Native neighbours on this issue, just as Saint Herman or Saint Tikhon would have done. To us, Christ is the living water. Not only does our iconography show that was it in the midst of the Jordan’s water that the Holy Spirit descended from the heavens, but it was water along with blood that flowed from His side when He was pierced with the spear at Golgotha. Thus, we can and should say gladly and without fear along with our neighbours the Dakota: ‘Mní wičóni’ – ‘Water is life’. And we should oppose the construction of Line 3.


  1. On a side note, Matthew, are you familiar with the work of Philip Sherrard on ecology and modern science (Rape of Man and Nature, and Human Image: World Image)? His approach is very similar to Hossein Nasr's, so much so that I thought Hossein Nasr had carried it from Sherrard (this appears to not be the case).

  2. Dear Joseph Zheng,

    Actually, I had not checked either of those two out yet! I love Philip Sherrard’s writing, though, and have two of his broadsheet books on my shelf (the one on Byzantium and the one on Athos). Thank you for those two book recommendations, however! (And I just discovered your blog. Excellent stuff. Your recent piece on Holocaust revisionism is particularly on-point.)