Church in the Wild: Healing for soul, body, community, and earth

Church in the Wild: Healing for soul, body, community, and the earth

Stuart Higginbotham

As I look to step into this two-month time of rest, reading, reflection, and re-grounding, I am keenly aware that I feel drawn more and more to explore the richness of what it means to pray with and through creation–not in the sense of “using” creation in “my prayer”–but in the sense of understanding myself as part of creation and sharing with creation in a deep prayer that is our own embodiment.  What does it mean to see my life as prayer, to understand our common life as a practice of prayer?  How can we see the sharing of our gifts and strengths, pain and struggles, as an expression of devotion to the Spirit that infuses our very existence–and connects us all in a beautiful web of life?  How do we understand our identity as the Body of Christ in terms of our personal and communal bodies?

These days, I understand prayer much more as walking slowly and listening to trees, as digging in the soil and planting lavender, holding a fallen bird’s nest, and cooking with favorite spices.  While I love reading, I feel drawn to the trees whose bodies actually enabled the books to be printed in the first place.  I take off my shoes and stand on the green prayer rug that surrounds our house.  I sit in awe of the choir of finches that sings their hearts out each morning–to say nothing of the baby titmouse birds that I can hear in their house when I’m sitting on the patio.  As the great hymn says, we are called to “join with all nature in manifold witness” to God’s great faithfulness and love.  

Yet it is so easy to forget this and get stuck in our heads.  Sometimes, even in terms of contemplative practice, it is easy to remain on a cognitive level as we explore what prayer is.  In these challenging days of the church’s life, I believe we are being called to that expansive reality of the Spirit’s presence that infuses all of life.

These past fourteen months have challenged me to examine my own vocation and life, and I don’t think it is a coincidence at all that the timing worked out now for me to take this sabbatical break.  Of course it isn’t.  I find myself at a threshold moment, moving–being carried?–into a different–deeper?–embodiment not only of ministry but of life.  I am paying attention to my body, to the body of our community, and to the shared body of our planet.  

Which brings me to how I am understanding “church” in different ways.  When we were moved out of our normal spaces of worship, something happened.  I never stopped missing the sacred space of the nave, the stained glass, the pipe organ, or the symbols of our faith.  My heart yearned for Holy Communion as we all waited for months to share in the sacrament.  I grieved deeply that we had lost so many of the patterns of our worship, but something happened to me in this time of shifted perspective.  Alongside my very present grief–and fear–my vision began to expand.  It felt like the roots of my prayer found other spaces to stretch into to find nourishment.  The waters of the Spirit were still there in our common life, and my soul stretched to find ways to connect with this ever-present Spirit of healing and hope.  I realized that, even as I had taught and written about the contemplative dimension of faith, I was powerfully experiencing the truth firsthand that God’s presence truly does permeate our lives.  Images of the Divine Feminine, articles on root systems, and sages and mystics who spoke of the pulse of life in all things began showing up in my in-box and online.  

My heart found itself nourished by daily walks where snippets of poems came swirling in.  I found myself imagining new prayer spaces in our small back garden.  I reacquainted myself with my childhood love of walking barefoot in the grass.  I realized why my grandmother loved her birds so much.  I began noticing how there always seemed to be crows around.  I made friends with trees and magically met deer in the forest behind our house.  I buried a dead cardinal in the pot with the magnolia tree on the patio, and then I saw new leaves begin to grow as the days grew longer.  

I guess you’d say that I have connected with a certain wildness in how I understand God–and God’s invitation for us to share in the divine life.  When we were moved out of our predictable patterns, our hearts were challenged to recognize God’s presence all around.  It’s one thing to read the text that says “the Spirit blows where it will;” it’s another thing to experience the wild reality of this wisdom through a pandemic.  Oh, don’t we all have stories to share!  Yes, there is a wideness to God’s mercy, as the hymn says; however, there is also a wildness to it.  

So, what would it mean to pay attention to this wildness as a community?  What would it look like to practice our prayer outside, in wilderness areas, recognizing the way that our shared prayer in such contexts shifts the way we understand our call to live in–as part of–creation?  While we give thanks for the beauty of our worship spaces, I think our hearts crave these encounters with the wildness of God’s Spirit in our lives.  I also think that perhaps we can connect with the realness of our own life struggles when we take off our shoes and connect with the realness of our connection with all creation.  And there is a lot we need to “get real” about with our lives these days.  Our shared hope in the School for Christian Practice is that we can delve deeply into the realness of our lives and God’s grace.

More and more, I see how we need to pay attention to our shared reality as human beings on one planet, integrated with all existence in nature’s call to balance, regeneration, and growth.  I believe our conversations around justice, hunger, exploitation, and greed find their root (literally) in this shared reality of our embodied existence.  We are called to live slowly, patiently, compassionately, and humbly.  Indeed, our very name as humans finds a deeper meaning in our connection with the earth.  

This is where my soul feels pulled in these days: toward exploring the possibility of a once-per-month worship and study experience called The Church in the Wild.  I will spend the next two months reading writings by Bede Griffiths, Hildegard of Bingen, Native American, and indigenous sages, as well as exploring deeply moving works on the Black Madonna and feminine images of the divine, creation spirituality, embodied prayer, and even the Hindu bhakti tradition of devotion.  I am reading our sacred stories from Genesis, Isaiah, St. Paul and the Gospels with fresh eyes.  My teachers are varied, but they all seem to be pointing toward a common point: in order to foster the healing that is called for at this time, we need to pay attention to the connection of our souls, our bodies, our community, and our planet.  

a replica of Notre Dame sous le terre, Our Lady from Under the Earth, from the crypt chapel at Chartres Cathedral… as a Black Madonna, a deeply powerful devotional image for me in these days.

If what I am wondering about connects with you, I invite you to actually start gathering resources and articles so we can share them together when I return.  Then, we’ll look toward gathering on July 31 at Vogel State Park for our first Church in the Wild, and we’ll continue listening for what the Spirit of Christ is inviting us to explore together.  Be well and God bless.


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