Ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1989, Caroline Fairless has served several congregations, and founded – with her husband Jim Sims – The Center for Children at Worship, a non-profit whose focus is the full inclusion of children in the life of faith communities. She is the author of Hambone, a book for children; Children at Worship ~ Congregations in Bloom; Confessions of a Fake Priest; and The Space Between Church & Not-Church.
In My Own Words
In Half Moon Bay California lives an aging Cypress tree, old enough to have nubs only, where branches used to be, a tree shaped over the years by the winds coming off the Pacific. My then twenty-something daughter Heather introduced me to this magnificent testimony to age and beauty, to resilience, to generosity of habitat, but above all, to its mystery. By that very mystery, a person like myself could stand at a distance from this magnificent tree – at one moment utterly appreciative yet separate – and at the next moment, one with the tree as I was once one with all trees, one with all life, the boundaries disappearing between that which we held in common, the tree and I – water, sunlight, stardust, dirt, but even more – the resilience, the generosity, and – although I don’t necessarily attribute this to the Cypress – my own hope and a longing to be at home in this world, with purpose, with compassion, and at peace.
Here’s how it happened; Heather made me climb it. I was, at the time, fifty-three years old, and it probably wasn’t what my orthopedist would have been willing to sign off on. Yet, possessed of a cellular memory of my tree-climbing childhood, and still willing to embrace a challenge, I followed Heather up the tree.
I placed all my weight on the nubs of the fallen branches, climbing the tree like a ladder, and resting without apology or fear on the arms of what had lived and let go before me, three inch stobs I couldn’t know were there until I needed the next one, and mystery again – the mystery of the universe – the next one was always there.
Suddenly there was no Heather; she had disappeared into the uppermost boughs of the Cypress, and try as I might, I could see absolutely no way through. Suddenly I knew without doubt I was fifty-three years old and soon to become my orthopedist’s nightmare.
The canopy seemed impenetrable, yet Heather had to be up there somewhere, right?. The Cypress was altogether willing to have me, but not willing, apparently, to make things easy. I snaked my way through the branches that formed the crown of the tree, astonished that my own limbs could do the impossible. By the time I had negotiated perhaps six feet of canopy, I felt fear for the first time, the kind of fear you know when you can’t see your way forward and you can’t retreat. I kept going.
At one moment the utter density of the Cypress canopy, at the next, the same blue sky above me as the sky I had abandoned when I took that first step. As my head broke through, and then my shoulders and torso, there was Heather, flat on her back, cradled by the branches as though she were in the arms of the universe. She was. I lay down beside her, not believing for a moment, that the branches would hold me as well, but of course they did.
I had no idea and no concern about time; we were bathed by the wind coming off the ocean, the same wind that lifted single feathers of the hawks and gulls and terns. We stayed until the sentinels of brown pelicans, one group close on the wings of the next, pelicans heading for the rock of their namesake, to roost for the night.
That afternoon and early evening, I knew myself to be of one substance with the universe, distinct yet of one being.
Maybe this book was born on that day, because the foundational premise practically formed itself: humans cannot do the healing work on behalf of the earth community until we know ourselves to be of and intrinsic to the planetary eco-system(s), not outside and endowed with human privilege and entitlement.
The question, of course, is how do we do that – re-imagine our proper place within the biotic community? My quest through the writing of the book itself and subsequent articles, has been to explore the potential partnership among the sciences, the arts, and ritual – a partnership whose deep desire it is to honor the sacramental nature of the universe. Regarding the ritual piece, I have leaned heavily on the words of Harvey Cox, who defines ritual as enactments, in song, story, visual representation, and gesture, of the narratives that inform a people’s identity. All this has required me to tease the sacraments and rituals usually associated with churches, into sacred space that is neither church nor secular, but the space between . . .
The path to healing is apophatic; I think of it as the Way of Release, metaphorically, the Way of Walking Backwards until we have unburdened ourselves of doctrines, opinions, attitudes, and behaviors that divide us, all for the sake of one goal, the healing of our planet including its subset of humans.
The Space Between Church & Not-Church ~ a sacramental vision for the healing of our planet, is the reflection of my deep desire to introduce my particular area of experience into what continues to be a rich conversation.