Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: Earth, waters, wind, and fire

Biocentric Living in the Space Between

(With gratitude to Rex Nelson for his image)

This universe is sacred no matter how we name it, no matter how we celebrate and honor it ritually, no matter the meaning many people ascribe to it, both those who speak about environmental responsibility and those who understand the planet as that which can be exploited for human use. So, if this universe is sacred, then why do we continue to use formative narratives, language, symbol, and ritual in ways that separate humans from the non-human realm, and separate religions and denominations one from another? Because I do not intend that as a rhetorical question, I continue to speak and write about the space between.

The space between holds the possibility of common ground – language, metaphor, narrative, and ritual – where success is measured in terms of inclusion not exclusion, and the goal is to remove altogether the concepts of right thinking, orthodoxy, the right way, God’s chosen, etc.

My vision for the space between is that place of blessing, sometimes metaphorical and sometimes physical, in which we the people are able to recognize and name the narratives that inform our collective lives. I am speaking of such as the life cycles of birth, death, and rebirth; of compassion, generosity, and kindness; of forgiveness; love; the interdependence of all life forms; our human role as earth citizens; and the nature and ground of our moral compass. This, of course, is what the various religions intend, but by their very nature and intention, their context, doctrines, rituals, and language, religions exclude; they shut people out from the universal sacred community which embraces both human and the non-human.

The space between, then, is that place in which sacred expression, meaning, and a shared narrative can emerge using language, story, and ritual that excludes no one, because its elements are those which we hold in common – earth, waters, winds, and fire. Its stories are those we share – birth, life, death, and rebirth. These are not human constructs alone; they are the formative narratives of universal life.

In this space between, we don’t need to be defining the sacred life around the concept of God (YHWH or Allah) or the gods of a thousand names, around a Jesus known as the Christ, or any other construct that allows a group of people to claim the distinction of being more valuable, of following the “right” (or only) Way, and of some kind superior morality.

One of the comments I hear when I speak of the space between is that I am “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” It’s an interesting concept.

There are differing ideas as to the origin of the idiom. Before the 16th century, baths were not commonplace. Water had to be drawn and heated, and the same water was often used for an entire family’s weekly ablutions, with the father going first (ironically, probably the dirtiest), then the mother, and the children, down to the baby. By the time it was the baby’s turn, you can imagine a certain murkiness to the water, the baby perhaps lost to the accumulated dirt. Toss the water, toss the baby, I suppose, and although it probably didn’t happen (or at least not often) the idiom emerged and settled itself in the various cultures of Europe and elsewhere.

When people suggest that my emerging “web-of-life” theology tends to throw the baby out with the bathwater (I have posted a review and my response to the review elsewhere on this website), usually the “baby” has to do with biblical warrants, Christian orthodoxy, etc. I take the comment seriously, and have had to keep thinking about it.

But in my defense, I am not throwing out anything that religions want to keep. I am simply creating a space between. A parallel exists for me when I hear Christian people who cling to the Defense of Marriage Act suggest that marriage between same-sex couples threatens the sanctity of marriage period, which, they claim, is biblically ordered as between one man and one woman.

How does same-sex marriage threaten the sanctity of marriage so defined? It boggles my mind to hear people say that. In the same light, how does the creation of a sacred space between threaten the orthodoxy of any religion? In truth it doesn’t. It simply invites people into a sacramental and ritual way of being in the world not circumscribed by the particulars of any religion, not defined by any one path or any one God, any one orthodoxy.

The space between strives to give birth to a human recognition of the sanctity of all life forms, and the understanding

Made of Water (And Stardust and Carbon)

It’s a privilege to introduce you to some people doing wonderful work at Climate of our Future, for whom the blog post below was written. In their own words, “Climate of Our Future is a blog meant to open a discussion of global climate change by providing articles, resources and opinions that provoke our readers to thought and action. We’ll attempt to describe how our world’s climate is changing, what’s causing it, and how we can correct it.
Although the discussion of climate change and its man made causes can be controversial, we can all agree that it’s important to do everything we can to safeguard our environment and its natural resources. Toward that end we’ll also be providing links to information that will allow us to reinvent ourselves as a more sustainable society.

Do you ever wonder how we humans have evolved into such a hard driven, over-scheduled, stressed out, anxious, addicted, collection of souls who tend to forget that – contrary to what we might think at any given time – the world does not revolve around our particular needs, opinions, beliefs, and interests? I wonder this! And I wonder when was the last time I remembered with intention that the universe is far deeper, more complex, more mysterious, more astonishing than I can even imagine. Maybe I had this passing thought two days ago, maybe a week ago. I would like to be remembering this all the time, because it matters, the lenses through which we experience our lives!

As long as humans believe ourselves to be the most valuable life form on the planet, existing external to the network of all life – the living web – then we will continue to exploit the earth, waters, air and all life forms for our own use, and we will continue to exploit one another. We are an anthropocentric bunch, believing and behaving as though the world revolved around us; that we are the most important; that the earth exists for our use as we see fit. We couldn’t be more wrong.

I am not sure it matters how we name the ecological crises which frame our conversations, our politics, and our behaviors: climate change; acid oceans; mass extinctions; habitat destruction; pollution; carbon footprint – it’s the same problem. And until humans come to understand ourselves as intrinsically connected to each and every life form of our planet – created of the same stardust, in the words of Neil De Grasse Tyson – the human disconnect and isolation from the earth community will only increase.

The questions I am holding are the questions of heart and soul, and, in fulll partnership with the science are the ground, I believe, for all our efforts to engage in healing.

Although – and to my regret – I never met Thomas Berry, I claim him as mentor. “I speak of the earth as subject,” he wrote, “not as object. We are born of the earth; the earth is our origin, our nourishment, our support, our guide. Our spirituality itself is earth-derived. If there is no spirituality in the earth, then there is no spirituality in ourselves.”

What we do to the earth and the waters, what we continue to do regarding destruction of habitat, we are doing to ourselves and each other. That’s what it means to be part of this living web and not external to it. Every name we assign to our continued degradation of the planet – every way we describe it – is a reflection of our spiritual sickness. If we knew our proper place within the biotic community, it would not be possible for us to do what we do.

In The Space Between Church & Not-Church ~ A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of our Planet, I introduce a man who modeled the partnership of ecology and spirituality. In Southern Maryland lived a scientist/educator/songwriter, Tom Wisner, whose lifetime commitment had been directed to the healing of the Chesapeake. A few years ago, Tom extended an invitation into the community for a “beautiful something” that would capture the hearts and imaginations of the Bay area Corporations and D.C. area politicians, compelling them toward such a glorious vision of a restored Chesapeake that all objection and resistance and self interest would simply melt for the sake of this sacred body of water and watershed.

The iconic “something” was imagined into being, with the help of plywood, PVC pipe, chicken wire, and water-resistant glue for the papier mâché. She emerged as a tundra swan, a species formerly but no longer a resident of the Bay, thirteen feet in length and seven feet high, with the identifying black bill and gracefully curved neck. She carried her cygnet in her wing, and the two embodied the sacred story of life and death and the battered hope of new life, an ancient story finding new shape and form, a call to hope and rebirth.

One of Wisner’s many Chesapeake songs is titled “Made of Water,” and its lyrics are a call to remember our very identity.

I’m made of water
flowing water
sun and salt
and winds that blow.

Though my bones
were formed in the mountains,
it’s through my blood
this river flows.

June 2009 marked the twenty-second year of the annual Patuxent River Wade-In, and for Wisner, the man who inspired the ever-evolving ritual, it was his last. Later that month my husband Jim and I were among those who gathered with Tom in the living room of his old farmhouse. Tom’s eyes focused slightly beyond us, eyes holding years of remembering. “For a brief moment,” he said softly, and to no one in particular, “a moment which might have lasted a lifetime, I could forget about the river.”

At that my head shot straight up. What did he mean? How could Tom forget about the river? We all knew what the river meant to Tom, and we knew that the Wade-In was the most significant ritual of his year. “When ritual is live and imbued with meaning,” he went on, “it makes me one with the river in such a way that I can forget about it. I lose awareness of the water itself for the sake of the . . .” he struggled for a word. “Fellowship. I couldn’t tell where I stopped and where the diatoms and the blue crabs began.”

As Tom found the words to describe the experience, he shared with those of us around the table that the ritual had dissolved the separation between himself and the river. The separation is of the ego,” he said. To claim no memory of the distinction between self and river is to release the egoic piece to become one with the water. This is the experiential, and I have come to believe it is the first step in the shift to a biocentric perspective. Such experiences awaken our capacity to change and to learn, and, as we learn, the shift in perspective is strengthened.

Many of us are catching on, and it’s reason for radical hope. The rise in environmental activism, I think, has a direct correspondence to our internal yearning for connectedness, our desire to remember our proper place within the earth community. We already have language and imagery that speak to our longing; it’s the language of poetry and music, the imagery of beauty. This is the spiritual sustenance for our healing work, derived from our deep internal knowing of the sacredness of all creation.

Green in Spirit ~ Green in Action

The intentionality with which I am learning to offer my eco-spiritual writings into the world has been a stretch for me, and a steep learning curve. Many “green” websites and organizations are providing their services as resource centers for projects of all kinds – recycling, urban farming, green housing, organic clothing – the list is extensive, and the sheer numbers of such web communities help to insure that the commitment to shrink our human footprint is becoming normative.

Of those, only a few seem to step outside the bounds of green action into the realm of spirit, willing to explore the connection.  It’s a privilege, therefore, to be a guest blogger on a website to which I subscribe, Green Talk.

For those of you who are becoming familiar with my way of thinking about things, talking about the space between . . . (I hope) is becoming a part of your vocabulary. For those of you who might be new to this site, I would encourage you to explore the category by the same name, to get a sense of the significance of the space between . . . The preface to my book begins in this way: There is a space between things, between all things. The space is sacred and it is rich with blessing. I know this because I have lived in one such space for more than a decade, and I speak from it.

For the purposes of this conversation, the space between . . . holds ecological and spiritual content both. Eco-spirituality has begun to show up in Google searches, which says to me that we are becoming accustomed to the partnership. What I am discovering is that the partnership requires new vocabulary. Elsewhere on this site I have begun to explore new language and the meaning it holds for the space between . . . with this post I want to continue the exploration of the meaning of sacrament which, in the context of Green Talk, makes the connection between spirit and activism.

I believe that green activism is the outward expression of an inner longing for connectedness to the earth community. In the language of churches, a sacrament is defined in just that way – the outward expression of an inner spiritual propensity. So I hope that you’ll read my guest post. I’ve linked to it above, and I will paste it below.

Our Need for Spiritual Connection with the Earth (As posted on Green Talk)

It’s a wonderfully hopeful thing, to have access, direct from fingertip to keyboard, to environmentally sustainable resources that range from urban farming, to rooftop gardens, to household cleaning products, to the challenge to go plastic-free for a week. Web communities that serve as clearing houses for such resources are of immeasurable value.

The cynics among us speak of the warts in the concept of “sustainable living”, and yes, underneath the sarcasm lie concerns worth exploring. Yet this is not the time for the cynics among us. Prophets, yes, but not cynics. Our earth community is in too much trouble, and there is too much work to be done.

From my perspective, what’s motivating us isn’t just “feel good environmentalism” or some kind of nagging moral thorn in our side that says we ought to be doing this.  From where I sit, all these efforts – to clean up, to recycle, to establish farmers’ markets, to replant indigenous seed – all of them – are the action/expressions of the deepest sort of longing, and it’s one that we may not even be aware of. These are the outward expressions of our innate longing for connectedness to this planet.

It’s a spiritual longing, and serves to remind us that our care of the earth, the waters and air, and wildlife habitat are spiritual endeavors. We are spiritual beings, and the spiritual dimension belongs not just to humans alone.

The words of Thomas Berry make me want to dance with joy. “The earth is our origin,” he writes, “our nourishment, our support, our guide. Our spirituality itself is earth derived. If there is no spirituality in the earth, then there is no spirituality in ourselves.”

The only way humans can understand ourselves as spiritual beings, then, is to understand our own spirituality as linked to, and inseparable from, the spiritual dimension of all life forms.

To make the claim, as many do, that humans alone are possessed of and share a spiritual life apart from earth community, is utterly false. This eco-spiritual component doesn’t yet carry a lot of weight in legal arguments, nor in moral persuasion, and certainly not among the religious, yet it is this connection – and this alone – that serves as the ground of true planetary healing and restoration. It follows, then, that the human-to-earth connection is the very ground for human healing and wellness as well.

I’ve been blessed with mentors such as Thomas Berry, Alice Walker, John Muir, Margaret Wheatley – some living, some not – who have insinuated themselves deep into the core of my true knowing – a knowing which is all too often eclipsed by a surfeit of information and righteous opinion – mentors who have insisted that I open my eyes to the interconnectedness and interdependence of all life forms.

The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson reminds us that all life consists of “chemical elements forged in the center of high mass stars, unstable at the ends of their lives, which then exploded to scatter their enriched contents across galaxies, forming into gas clouds which in turn collapsed, forming stars, and planets, and life.”

We Can Reverse Our Own Destruction

That life includes not only humans, but all else as well. I find it thrilling to consider that we are all of the same stardust! The poets write lyrics, and the musicians sing songs. In this world view, Berry’s words ring with startling clarity. In our lifetime, he says, “the glory of the human has become the desolation of the earth. And now the desolation of the earth is becoming the destiny of the human.” In other words, what we’re doing to the earth, we are doing to ourselves. We are charting the course of our own destruction.

We have lost our bearings, but it need not be a permanent description.
If we can remember that healing and wellness – of all life including human life – is a spiritual endeavor, and that one cannot be healed without the other, there is hope. We long for healing, and such longing is given expression by the very actions of green that – we can say in celebration – are becoming increasingly the norm.

We are of the same stardust!

The Language of the Space Between . . .

Over the twenty plus years of my life as a clergy person, I have learned to talk often and easily about sacrament and ritual, about liturgy, forgetting that these words which might be second nature in a church context, are not otherwise commonplace. I forget, too, that even as I entered seminary, I had no language with which to engage my books, my classes, my professors, or my fellow students. Everyone but me seemed to have language. I rarely dared speak for fear of being exposed as the imposter I was.

I wrote about it in Confessions of a Fake Priest.

I bought The Story Bible, Pearl S. Buck’s two-volume series on the Old and New Testaments. I asked my friend Dick, “What does liturgy mean?” And when he began to expound philosophically and historically, I interrupted him, “No. What does the word liturgy mean?”

In September, the new students met as a group, and we introduced ourselves. Everyone knew what they were doing. Everyone knew why they were there. Everyone was called. Everyone but me. I approached a woman who exuded a confidence born of a sure and certain authority.

“Hi. My name’s Caroline.” I stuck out my hand and she had to take it.

Too flustered to make intelligent conversation and too flustered to go, I asked her the question that was searing its way into my brain. “So, why do you want to be ordained?”

The woman was shorter than I to begin with, but by the time she had puffed herself up, I had become altogether insignificant, both in stature and in meaning. She looked at me for what seemed like hours before she answered, and it was on the tip of my tongue to apologize when she said, “It’s all sacramental, of course.”

Oh. Of course. How silly of me.

I fled.

Later I called my friend Dick. “What’s a sacrament?”

The question I am holding is this: what will be the sacramental and ritual language for the space between . . . ? What is the sacred language of the earth, the waters, the wind, and fire? Where do we begin?

Not long ago I was interviewed on a talk radio program called The Green Divas. This is how they describe themselves: Host Green Diva Meg and a variety of Green Diva Correspondents throughout the US offer information on green or sustainable living from a guilt-free, low-stress perspective making information accessible to a broad audience using credible information, humor and technology.

Not a word about sacrament and ritual. I panicked. What if I were asked to define sacrament. By this time I was screaming at my husband Jim. How would I define it in an uncomplicated way? Where is my friend Dick when I most need him? Dictionaries refer to the bread and wine of holy communion; they refer to the sacrament of baptism. Churches define it as “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”


This is an audience that recycles, that replaces Deet-laden mosquito repellant with something non-toxic, an audience that wears clothing of cotton, linen, and bamboo, an audience that would never dream of dousing pesky nettles with Round-up. Never mind talking about things of the spirit.

Finally I remembered to breathe.

During the twenty or so minutes of the interview I was reminded of what I already know. There are untold numbers of people – myself included – who want truly to talk about and celebrate things of the spirit. Just not in churches. People who understand the spirit nature of the earth herself, who have not been encouraged to discover alternative avenues of expression.

So, what is the language of the Space Between . . .? How do we shape a holy language that is not rendered inaccessible by the theological and doctrinal language of religions? How do we speak of the mysteries, the patterns, the rituals of the earth community? How do we celebrate them? How do we offer thanks?

My greatest hope for this website is that it serve as a resource for sacred ritual designed especially for the space between . . . The invitation is to you, to share earth celebrations, water rituals, etc. As I close this  post, I want to lift up the definition Harvey Cox gives to ritual. It’s the best I’ve heard, and speaks to the heart of the space between . . . “rituals are enactments – in song, story, visual representation, and gesture – of the narratives that inform a people’s identity.”

How wide open is that! How filled with possibility! What are the earth-centered narratives that have shaped our lives – some universal, some regional. What songs shall we use, what poetry, what visuals shall we use?

In my next blog post, I plan to offer an excerpt from The Space Between Church & Not-Church ~ A Sacramental Vision for the Healing of our Planet. It describes the putting together of sacred ritual to celebrate a neighborhood’s successful efforts in the restoration of a local pond.

In the meantime, back to the Green Divas. The morning of the show, my husband and I had the opportunity to hike along Adams Creek, in Dingmans’s Ferry, Pennsylvania, through one of the last stands of virgin timber in the state. As we dangled our feet in the still frigid water, I wrote a simple blessing for the Divas and their audience, which I offered at the end of the show.

May we be planted by the waters,
a planting so deep that our roots sink down into the rich moist earth
until we stand on solid rock.

May our minds and hearts know the intimate touch of the wind,
our faces the heat and healing power of the sun.
Until we know ourselves as one with all life.

Getting started need not be any more complicated than this.

The Sacred Elements: An Alternative Perspective

In her keynote speech, “Elements of Renewal: Fourfold Wisdom,” (as yet unpublished) given at the 2010 Epiphany West Conference, Dr. Marion Grau, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, cracked open the classic institutional forms of understanding of sacrament. “The sacrament is a deep life force around which a community gathers,” she said, “depending on it with a deep need and hunger that nothing else can satisfy.” Another way to think of it is this: something has sacramental value when you understand it as carrying a piece of you, even as you are carrying a piece of it; when you understand that each needs and depends on the other. The relationship is always mutual. As we move our anthropocentric worldview to a biocentric perspective, we can anticipate the opportunity to reframe our understanding of sacrament, and, ultimately, our sense of ritual.

“Earth, water, fire and air are deeply imagined ways of exploring and comprehending the world within and around us,” Grau continued, as a preface to her question: “Can we truly get over the self-focus that is forefronted by some of our own religious traditions, that focus almost all rites, texts and practices on God/human or human/human interactions. Can we remember the elements . . . to give them back their rightful place into our own personal and global cosmos?”

I am indebted to Dr. Grau for opening up a line of inquiry I might not otherwise have stumbled across. Earth, waters, wind, and fire – these are what all life forms hold in common, the sacred elements.

What better way to explore the parameters of a non-doctrinal, non credal spiritual life than to tease out (borrow back) from churches the breadth and depth of sacrament, allowing those elements we hold in common to shape what Thomas Berry insists is the spirituality of the earth itself.

Berry writes (The Spirituality of the Earth) “The crassness of our relation to the earth cannot but indicate a radical absence of spirituality in ourselves, not the lack of a spiritual dimension of the earth. The earth process has been generally ignored by the religious-spiritual currents of the West. Our alienation goes so deep that it is beyond our conscious mode of awareness.”

Berry challenges us to distinguish between human tributes to the earth, and a true acknowledgement of the spirituality of the earth itself, including our human place within the earth community.

So engaging Marion Grau, Thomas Berry, and Caroline Fairless in the same conversation (Oh I wish!), how better to acknowledge the spirituality of all life than to celebrate sacramentally with the elements all life forms hold in common: earth, waters; wind; fire.

To be specific, take, for example, a loaf of bread, and a cup of wine. In Christian churches, these are defined for us (whether literal, metaphorical, historical, or symbolic) as the body and blood of Christ. For those who might understand these sacraments differently, there is little or no room in churches, at least not without a fair measure of deception. The truth is, the grain and the grape are shared by not only among all humans, but across the species as well;  it’s time to reclaim them. They are birthed and formed by the sacred elements of earth, waters, wind, and fire. To share in the bread and the wine is to celebrate the richness, the beauty, and the abundance of life.

Another example, the sacrament of Baptism, which, in Christian churches, celebrates initiation into Christ’s body, the church. Pretty simple. But it’s a rite whose core is Jesus, and includes the theology of being cleansed from sin (Original Sin, by the way), dying and being reborn into the life of Christ.

The waters of baptism, however, not only are shared by everyone, but they are a deep reminder that water forms our very identity; it is water which connects humans to all life forms; water, the basis of our very identity. Understood in this way, then, baptism is a rite of remembrance, or, as I have said elsewhere, a rite of the loss of forgetfulness.

For Reflection

What has it cost us, within churches and outside both, to put a doctrinal and credal frame around the sacraments? This is fodder for a group discussion, church or not. I’m hoping to be a part of it, from the space between . . .