Restoring The Waters

Category Archives: the space between . . .

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In her keynote speech, “Elements of Renewal: Fourfold Wisdom,” (as yet unpublished) given at the 2010 Epiphany West Conference, Dr.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 . . .

To Rediscover The Good News

The news around aging and shrinking mainline churches is neither new nor good.

A 2008 article in the Boston Globe observes, “(yet) Protestant denominations are leaving many of their small churches open, allowing for a sizable number of struggling, even moribund, congregations with minimal programming and part-time clergy.” These (and other) congregations insist that it’s not about the numbers.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks”. With apology to the Shakespeare’s Queen Gertrude, the lady here is the mother church, and her consistent disclaimer sounds like this: “we are not talking about the numbers”; “we are not talking about building up churches”. Of course this isn’t true. If it were true, then churches would be sending people out their doors – not, to proclaim The Good News of Jesus and thereby bring people into churches – but to gather where The Good News is already everywhere, as elegant as a monarch emerging from her cocoon, as wobbly as a fawn on newborn legs, or as awkward as a fledgling robin’s first flight pattern.

My friend Tom Wisner once challenged me, “you damn church people. You put a The in front of what you call good news, and you speak of it with a capital G and and a capital N, as though there were just one expression of it. That can’t be right.”

My intent for this book The Space Between Church & Not-Church ~ a sacramental vision for the healing of our planet – is to “borrow back” what the church has laid claim to in terms of good news, in terms of sacrament, liturgy, and ritual; to reflect upon the incalculable cost to the earth community of scriptural warrants such as Chosen; dominion and rule; multiply and fill the earth; subdue all the creatures of the land, and the water, and the air; stewardship. My intent is to name human privilege for what it is – the refusal to acknowledge our true place, within and intrinsic to an intricate web of life. My intent is to invite the church into the exercise of its prophetic voice and moral action around the urgency of justice for all living things – plants, animals, rocks, and rivers, as well as human beings.” (Terry Tempest Williams from The Open Space of Democracy.) My intent for this book is to invite all of us into the space between . . . where the process of engagement is apophatic – requiring that we unbuild, unsay, and unlearn that which has served to separate us from our true home.

For Reflection

What do you think of Tom Wisner’s remark? Is there only The Good News of Jesus and none else that can go under the captital G, capital N heading? Can you see this might be a problem for people outside churches?

Harvey Cox, in The Future of the Faith, defines ritual in this way: rituals are enactments – in song, story, visual representation, and gesture – of the narratives that inform a people’s identity. It’s a wonderfully broad understanding, filled with possibility for diversity.

What might be lost to both people within churches and people without when rituals become institutionalized, when the informative narrative is uniform? Is it possible for people in churches to look at the photograph above (Rex Nelson) and imagine that The Good News can be offered in ways other than requiring Jesus be at the center?

This would be a good conversation to have in a church group. It would be a good conversation to have with the young people of congregations who are clearly being informed by narratives other than the one offered by their churches.

The Space Between . . .

“What do you mean by the space between . . .?” It’s a question I hear often; I consider the concept itself as the fruit of my reading and reflection on the works of John O’Donahue. In particular, the title of his last book before he died, To Bless the Space Between Us, and, in particular, his notion that all we need is here within us and here between us.

Although I am using the phrase in a spiritual way, and as metaphor, I hear the political equivalent when – in reference to the Senate or House – I hear the words “on one, or the other side of the aisle.” In the congressional arena, the space between . . . would be the aisle itself. Imagine what would be required of democrats and republicans to get up from their seats to conduct their business from the center of the aisle. Imagine what they would have to release to come into that space.

The space between church and not-church is similar. It’s the space into which those who are able to release doctrines and ideologies, traditions, attitudes and behaviors in order to move into the space between them. It is holy and blessed space. It is the space that allows us to gather at the pool of our deepest knowing – our knowing of the mystery and miracle of life in this universe, our knowing about hope and transformation, our deep and rarely accessed pool of knowing in which we lose our forgetfulness about our divisions, our isolation, and break down the barriers that have walled us off from our own longing.

The space between . . . will be unfamiliar territory, not altogether different from how it was when the planet earth was formed. Before its formation, there was space.

Maybe we understand creation in the way the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson describes it:

. . . chemical elements forged in the center of highmass 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.

Or, perhaps we understand it according to the biblical account, where, in the beginning there was only darkness and formlessness until a mighty wind swept through, and God said “let there be light”.

What matters is that we find our way into this new space – formless, yes, but grounded in a narrative fourteen billion years in the making. We carry this knowing, all of it. We carry it in our genes, our blood, and at the cellular level.

This space between . . . is our path and our journey.

The poet Antonio Machado wrote, “Friend, there is no road. You build the road as you walk. Our new path and vision can emerge only from the space between . . . It is a third way (or fourth or fifth way) of being in the world. I call it the apophatic way – a way of unlearning – to distinguish it from mere compromise. The space between . . . is that sacred space from which a new vision, a new world, can emerge.

For reflection

It will be important to gain familiarity with the concept of the space between . . .

It is where we can begin to discover the deep knowing that lies within each of us. Those such as Parker Palmer call it the “inner teacher”.  Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer in her book Extraordinary Knowing, refers to it as anomalous knowing. I think of it as the knowing of the soul, knowing which rarely dares emerge, so dampened is it by opinion, doctrine, even fear. The space between . . . is safe space, what which The Center for Courage and Renewal calls a Circle of Trust.

Think of an experience in which you and another (or others) have been able to release the attitudes, thought patterns, ideologies that had divided you, for the sake of a conversation or effort more important than yourselves. How did that happen? What was the result? If you are willing to share such an experience below, that will help others begin to familiarize themselves with the concept of the space between . . .

Because this might be new territory, I will start the conversation with a recent experience. Although it rarely happens this way, I think of the long New Hampshire winters as my time to sculpt, and I have had in my mind for some time, a large work. I say I’ve had it my mind, because it doesn’t exist anywhere else, but for the photo images from which aspects the sculpture were to emerge. But nothing was emerging. I could look across my studio and see it in perfect detail what didn’t yet exist, but I couldn’t cross the space between it and me. One day, in the mysterious way these things happen, I understood I had to step into the space between us, and I invited the sculpture to do the same. Eccentric as it may sound, we are both in the space between . . . and, having released the certainty of detail about the way this sculpture was to look, I find I have begun.

Another quick example, in the human realm. My friend Bob died some years ago, and Donna his widow asked me if I would officiate a gathering of the celebration of his life. It was important to Donna to have communion, although neither she nor Bob nor any of their children had ever had any church connection. I was puzzled by this request, until I understood I needed to move into the space between . . . releasing my own (at the time fairly orthodox) concept of the meaning of the bread and wine – what the church calls the elements. Donna understood them as the fruits of the earth, the waters, and the sunlight, and it was the connection of the natural elements that symbolized for her the joyous life of her husband.

I would love to hear from you.

A Vocabulary Lesson ~ Anthropocentric

(from an article submitted and just as quickly rejected by Mother Jones magazine)

We are an anthropocentric, or human centered, bunch. With few exceptions we believe that humans live outside the frame and laws of the natural world; that creation is the gift bestowed upon humans alone; and that said creation exists to serve humans who have been designated the planet’s overseers (stewards) with the biblically based license to dominate and rule, To subdue the earth, rule over the fish of the see, all the wild birds of heaven, and every living thing that moves upon the earth. The word which most aptly describes us as a species is anthropocentric; we insist on our place of human privilege and entitlement. What we have yet to acknowledge is the vast body of scientific evidence to the contrary, which states without apology that the biosphere is a complex and interconnected web of the living and the dead, and that humans live – not disconnected from it in any superior and overseer kind of way – but are intrinsic to it, of no more or no less value to the system itself than, say, a dung beetle or a coral reef. It follows, then, that all human behavior which harms the earth community, harms the humans whose proper place is within it and integral to it.

This is not new news, but our refusal to claim an appropriate human place within the greater earth community has had, and continues to have, disastrous impact. In the words of the late Thomas Berry:

The deepest cause of the present devastation is found in a mode of consciousness that has established a radical discontinuity between the human and other modes of being. . . the other-than-human modes of being have reality and value only through their use by the human.

In this context the other-than-human becomes totally vulnerable to exploitation by the human, an attitude that is shared by all four of the fundamental establishments that control the human realm – the political, economic, intellectual, and religious.

Until we know and can accept this, then reeducate ourselves as to the appropriate place of humans, not the biblical place but our place within the earth community, nothing we say or pledge to accomplish regarding the care of our natural world will have bite. Humans cannot care for the earth from the position of steward, or overseer, and the reason is simple. Growth in terms of human progress is valued more highly than the health of the ecosystem. We are not understanding that if the health of the ecosystem continues to deteriorate at our hands, there will be no growth in human progress. There is no way around this, and the state of the planet at present bears this out. In order to turn our attention to the healing of the planet, we have to redefine ourselves from a biocentric not an anthropocentric perspective.

For Reflection

Our sense of human privilege and entitlement blinds us to countless destructive aspects of our very ordinary behavior. Here’s a simple example: consider how our desire for green, weed and pest-free lawns leads to weed killers, bug killers, and lawn fertilizers, which then upset the very delicate balance of organic life, leech into waterways and contaminate them, and destroy habitat for many birds, small animals, etc.

Can you name – with specifics – the negative impact your own, often unconscious, sense of privilege and entitlement wreaks on the earth community?

This question might belong in the context of a group discussion, could be within a family,  although you certainly can tackle the question solo. As always, thoughtful commentary is not only appreciated, but enriches the ongoing conversation.