by Justin R. Cannon
The future of the Church, the future of humanity, and the health of this earth depend on one relationship: the relationship between humanity and the whole of creation. Too often that relationship is simply delegated to the realm of environmentalism and thereby reduced only to issues, overlooking the relational dimension of the crisis we face. Catholic priest, historian and “Earth Scholar” Thomas Berry once wrote, “There is no such thing as ‘human community’ without the earth and the soil and the air and the water and all the living forms. Without these, humans do not exist. In my view, the human community and the natural world will go into the future as a single sacred community or we will both perish in the desert.” A true and lasting solution to the environmental crisis of our day must focus on the rebuilding of that single, sacred community. Indeed, every dimension of our ministry hinges on the health of this relationship— the rebuilding of communion with all of God’s creation.
But what does that look like? What does it mean to “rebuild communion” with creation? More and more churches have comprehensive recycling programs, are installing solar panels, and becoming forerunners in advocacy to confront environmentally damaging practices that have become normative in our culture. These are all very needed and they are the beginning, but a relationship must go deeper. A quick Google search brings up this definition of the word relationship: “the way in which two or more concepts, objects, or people are connected, or the state of being connected.” Systematically, as a culture and society we have severed this connection. While our day is generally structured around the rhythm of the sun, we often stay awake with artificial light and go to sleep with a sudden flick of the switch—a drastic shift from bright to dark, as opposed to the graceful, gradual fading of the sky. The norm in our culture has separated us so much from the source of our water and food—thank God there are still farmer’s markets where we can meet the people who grow our vegetables and even tour their farms. I think the greatest problem, however, is just how much time we spend indoors. American author and journalist Richard Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder” to give a name to this phenomenon (see his books The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, or for that matter any of them!). What can be done, however, to restore our connection to the earth?
Like any relationship, we must spend time outdoors. So many people I meet say they enjoy hiking, but when I ask people how often they get hiking, they usually say “not that often” or “not as much as I would like.” I am biased, as hiking is one of my favorite outdoor activities, but there are so many other outdoor activities we could talk about: gardening, kayaking, biking, etc. I believe we need to find ways to wed our faith and the life of the church with the outdoors. I was inspired to find a glimpse of this when I visited an outdoor ministry led by Episcopal priest the Rev. Jon Anderson called Worship in the Wilderness, which was just what it sounds like. The same type of thing could be done with any other outdoor passion— essentially forging a bridge between our faith and the outdoors. We could start a “Garden of Eden” movement encouraging churches around the country to plant community gardens on their property. I have spoken with a priest in my diocese about a “Holy Bikes” outing. Whatever your passion, I suspect there are others who share that interest and would love to band together to find ways of building that connection between our faith communities and the outdoors. And do not be afraid to bring prayers—perhaps even the Eucharist—into these spaces!
In 2010, in the Diocese of California, I started Holy Hikes™ as an eco-ministry committed to rebuilding communion with all of God’s creation (http://www.holyhikes.org). Holy Hikes offers a simple model to build connectedness between the life of the church and the rhythms, beauty, and ministry of the outdoors. We celebrate a stational Eucharist in the context of a hike, usually somewhere between 2-4 miles in length total. We’ve celebrated Eucharist on the beach, on the trails of Muir Woods, in Golden Gate Park right in the heart of San Francisco, and have even held our liturgical hikes in the rain. For a glimpse of a map showing all the location where Holy Hikes—SF Bay Area has held hikes click here. We are also supporting dioceses around the country (and the world perhaps!) in planting local Holy Hikes chapters to offer these opportunities locally and to build a network of support for one another. We currently have chapters established in Mid-Michigan, Southeast-Michigan, the Adirondacks, and others forming. To learn more about forming a regional chapter of Holy Hikes in your diocese, click here. Other similar affiliated ministries include The Garden Church in San Pedro, California; Church of the Woods in Canterbury, New Hampshire; Second Winders in the Diocese of El Camino Real; and the Forest Church’s worldwide network. You can also find a great wealth of resources through Earth Ministry or the Episcopal Ecological Network. Last, but not least, I’ve put together an online source through Amazon with a listing of Green Christian Books, which can be a good starting place for finding resources and educating oneself on the emerging field of eco-theology.
Such outdoor ministries are one way of rebuilding this relationship, but it also must be a beginning. In what ways might God be calling us, in our daily lives, to restore our connection with the earth? It could be in small ways like spending time each day praying or meditating outdoors, setting a regular hiking schedule for yourself, growing your own food, or changing your diet. I am convinced that we are called, both in large ways and small ways, to reorient our priorities to the restoration of this relationship. What small step might you take today to work towards that “single sacred community” of which Thomas Berry spoke?
The Rev. Justin R. Cannon is Priest-in-Charge, Saint Giles Episcopal Church, Moraga and Founder and Director, Holy Hikes www.holyhikes.org.