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Sanctuary of the Wild: A Church for the Ecozoic Era

~by Mary Gleason


Spring is bringing with her a glory of mild breezes, bright blossoms, birdsong, and – especially welcome in our area – abundant sunshine. Many are experiencing a yearning to be outside, to experience with all our senses the fullness of this unfolding Mystery. Why are we drawn to this?


A number of years ago, Pastor Victoria Loorz was running a small group in her church. She suddenly noticed that the room contained only one window, covered in faux stained-glass plastic. This style was standard church architecture, meant to close the holy off from the world “out there”. Suddenly, Victoria “told everyone to go outside. Stare at the stars for the last half hour of our gathering…Some said later that it was the first time they had looked at the stars in years.”


Not much later, Loorz saw that the members of her congregation were shut up between four walls with very few windows during worship services. She also knew that everyone had rich stories and insights to share, but the one who was doing all the talking was her. So, she moved her church outside into the natural world and radically altered its format to enable participation from all. That group sharing became the “sermon”. (From Loorz, Victoria. Church of the Wild. c2021).


This story resonates deeply for me. Decades ago, when I was a young adult in the 1960’s- ‘70’s, wrestling with drugs and alcohol, I found myself in the dead of winter on a clear, frigid night, standing on a country road in the Bristol Hills staring at the stars above, with no memory of driving there. Something in me knew that in my deep loneliness, I needed to be beneath – and in relationship with – that astonishing, glittering night sky. And, when I was a very young child growing up in a trauma-ridden home, something in me knew that I needed to be lying in the meadow as often as I could, watching the insects march up and down the grasses, and the bright clouds scud across the impossibly blue sky above. It was – and still is -- in moments like that that I experienced my deepest sense of belonging.


The famed American biologist E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, meaning “the innate human instinct to connect with nature and other living beings”. For indigenous people and other wisdom keepers, it went deeper than that, to a recognition that the more-than-human were, in fact, “all our relations”. For deep ecologist and Australian rainforest activist John Seed, his recognition went deeper still, to a radical understanding that the earth was, in fact, his larger body, leading him to proclaim, “I am not John Seed protecting the rainforest, but rather that part of the earth emerged as John Seed protecting herself.” How must it feel to contemplate that?


Then, to go deeper still, 20th century new physics has taught us that relationship trumps matter, that the deepest reality is energy/information flow/relationship, rather than discrete entities as we had imagined for centuries. When we contemplate the reality of open systems, knowing that flow and relationship are happening constantly – in our bodies, between us and other living and non-sentient beings – we can come to understand that we cannot not belong. We are always held in elegant webs and flows of reciprocity and belonging.


Here is where I want to pause and shout WOW! Hallelujah! Because what I believe all humans so deeply yearn for is already here, available to us, all the time. Belonging. Because we truly are one with the body of the earth. Knowing that, one can have a deeper desire, even a need, to actively experience that oneness. This is the “why” of Sanctuary of the Wild.


Thomas Berry coined the term Ecozoic Era, describing the geologic era that Earth is entering – when humans live in a mutually enhancing relationship with Earth and the Earth community. Sanctuary of the Wild offers a space to experience that “mutually expanding relationship,” while also acknowledging the belief shared by the ancient Celtic people, that all is sacred, that the divine and the created world are infused together. Nature is experienced as a “Cathedral of earth, sea and sky” (From Newell, John Philip, Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul, c2021), and Sanctuary of the Wild seeks to invite participants into recognizing / awakening to the relationships that are already present.


It’s hoped that these experiences can be a part of what helps dismantle our inherited sense of separation, an attitude that we often unwittingly impose on others. It is hoped that we can move into deeper understanding of our radical interconnectedness, and bring that understanding to others – all others, humans, and more-than-humans -- through our words and our actions. Thus, our benediction, often at the end of our time together, that we go forward to love and serve the Earth.


Sanctuary of the Wild provides twice-monthly opportunities for people to gather, to wander solo in nature, and then to circle up and share their experience with others. We also try to deepen in participants a mindset of reciprocity, as taught by indigenous elder Robin Wall Kimmerer. We have so much to be grateful for from our larger body. How can we show it? We invite people to bring bird seed to scatter, to offer thanks as they sit with a tree or a meadow flower, to walk respectfully on the land. The “sermon” is the collective voice of all who choose to share their experiences from their solo wander. Often there is deep identification, revelation, and fresh insight. Sometimes, people linger after we officially break up, to wander more in the forest. People are sometimes invited to court a single being, and to stay with it for longer than feels comfortable. In that way, our enculturated, task-oriented, rushed energy drains away and we can find ourselves moved somewhere new, as in this poem by Mary Oliver.


Five A.M. in the Pinewoods


I’d seen

their hoofprints in the deep

needles and knew

they ended the long night


under the pines, walking

like two mute

and beautiful women toward

the deeper woods, so I


got up in the dark and

went there. They came

slowly down the hill

and looked at me sitting under


the blue trees, shyly

they stepped

closer and stared

from under their thick lashes and even


nibbled some damp

tassels of weeds. This

is not a poem about a dream,

though it could be.


This is a poem about the world

that is ours, or could be.

Finally

one of them—I swear it!—


would have come to my arms.

But the other

stamped sharp hoof in the

pine needles like


the tap of sanity,

and they went off together through

the trees. When I woke

I was alone,


I was thinking:

so this is how you swim inward,

so this is how you flow outward,

so this is how you pray.


Sanctuary of the Wild (SOTW) meets from 11:00am–12:30pm the LAST Sunday of every month at rotating locations, all year-round. Please join our Facebook group for details on those meetings. https://www.facebook.com/groups/414666153678340


Beginning in May, SOTW will also meet the SECOND Sunday of the month at Mendon Ponds Park, 11:00am–12:30pm at the Lookout Shelter on Pond Road, near the parking lot for the Quaker Pond trail. If cancelations occur for any reason, that will be on the Facebook group as well, or you can email Mary Gleason at gleasonmaryb@gmail.com.

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