As we approach this first birthday of Church of the Woods, I have been reflecting on what happens at Church of the Woods and why it matters, at this time in history, to be a church that is in and of the woods.
Here are a few reflections on the central elements of our practice at Church of the Woods, salted with commentary from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudate Si’:
Encounter Church of the Woods provides an opportunity for a direct encounter with peace, beauty and wonder, all aspects of the divine mystery we call God. Following the patron saint of ecology, St. Francis and his namesake Pope Francis, Church of the Woods “invites us to see nature as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness.” (Laudate Si’, 12)
In a world where such encounters with divine mystery and beauty are rare or absent, setting aside places and times for such direct encounter is essential. And in a time when the human relationship with nature is so often one of destruction and self-gratification to the point of global devastation, it is essential to break down the walls (including church walls) that separate people from nature and be reminded that “we are not disconnected from the rest of creatures, but joined in a splendid universal communion.” (220)
Contemplation All too rarely, in our frantic world, do we take time to be still and to listen deeply. The biblical accounts of Jesus’s life repeatedly tell us that Jesus left the crowds, and even his disciples, and went alone up the mountain or into the wild places to pray.
We believe this is such a fundamental practice — and so foreign to most people in our culture — that we spend about 30 minutes in the middle of our service in silence and stillness in the woods.
“Inner peace is closely related to care for ecology and for the common good…Nature is filled with words of love, but how can we listen to them amid constant noise , interminable and nerve-wracking distractions, or the cult of appearances?… An integral ecology includes taking time to recover a serene harmony with creation, reflecting on our lifestyle and our ideals, and contemplating the Creator who lives among us…” (225)
Eucharist The heart of the Christian ritual and mystery is the act of eating holy food. The radical belief that God took on physical form as a human creature reveals the union of the material world with divine truth and love. Accordingly, Holy Eucharist — Thanksgiving — is at the center of our service at Church of the Woods.
“Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures. The Lord, in the culmination of the mystery of the Incarnation, chose to reach our intimate depths through a fragment of matter… Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed, the Eucharist itself is an act of cosmic love.” (236)
In keeping with this radical understanding of Holy Communion as an act of love and thanksgiving with and for the whole cosmos, at Church of the Woods we share the first morsel of holy bread and the last sip of holy wine with the Earth herself. It is a joy to see the other creatures of God, led by the ants, carrying away tiny fragments of embodied love. The mystery of divine love is intended for all the creatures of God.
Community It is utterly obvious, at Church of the Woods, that the community gathered together in prayer consists not only of human beings. We come together and form a worshipping community of people, trees, birds, ants, chipmunks, ferns, rocks, wind… each present in its own way with its own voice. We are reminded that we are but one part of the whole creation and that we live in community with many other forms of life and being.
“[T]he world, created according to the divine model, is a web of relationships. Creatures turn toward God, and in turn it is proper to every living being to tend toward other things, so that throughout the universe we can find any number of constant and secretly interwoven relationships.” (240)
As human beings, we have separated ourselves from the rest of the natural world in the false belief that everything exists to serve and support us. Our understanding of community has become poorer as a result. The radical reawakening to our proper place in the cosmos that is needed can only begin when we realize that community is broader and deeper than we can know.
Rejoicing and giving thanks! As humans, unique among all creatures, our ability to shape the world is a gift — one that sometimes we use well and sometimes we use very badly.
What humans also uniquely do is purposefully give thanks and sing. Life is a gift, nature is a gift, our own existence is a gift. Along with shaping the world, we are distinct in our ability to sing praise and thanksgiving to the source of all gifts. In the woods and in all of our lives, may we become grateful, joyful, bearers of divine love!
“Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope…Praise be to him” (244, 245)
Rev. Steve Blackmer