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Meeting God in the wilderness

'We live in sacred places already'

Rev. Stephen Blackmer, recently named “The Priest in the Trees” by Fred Bahnson in Harper’s Magazine, leads a church that meets in 106 acres of New Hampshire forest. In 2009, after a career in forest and river conservation, Blackmer heard a call from God to the Christian faith, to Yale Divinity School and, eventually, to a unique calling as an Episcopalian priest at the newly-formed Church of the Woods.

When reading the Bible for the first time, Blackmer was struck by how often Jesus would go up a mountain, into the wilderness or to a lonely place to pray. Rooted in Jesus’ prayer practice, Church of the Woods offers its small core congregation and those who visit from far-flung places a chance to connect with God and each other in this rugged woods, a “scrabbly, scruffy, somewhat mysterious” corner of creation.

Sunday services involve pieces of set liturgy, Bible readings and a brief homily. This part of the service may be held in the small barn during heavy rains or bitterly cold spells, but, whatever the weather, services always include a time for going into the woods for quiet wandering and bringing back a token, such as a stone, acorn or twig, to be placed “on or around the altar as part of the offering.” Blackmer noted that Bible stories are brought to life by the surroundings; the story of the Good Shepherd takes on special meaning when shared in the dense woods with its many knolls: “it’s easy to lose yourself in,” Blackmer acknowledged with a laugh. He said that reading Scripture in that setting “opens up” the stories in new ways. Bible readings “become very alive in the woods.”

At the lakeshore

Rev. Theresa McDonald-Lee, one of the Executive Directors at Camp Kintail in Ontario, affirmed that the outdoor setting without ceiling or walls helps people to build connections with the stories of Scripture. Kintail’s chapel, which was constructed on the bluff, surrounded by trees and with a view to Lake Huron, lends itself to imaginative storytelling. Staff members use the space to show what it might look like, “for Abraham and Sarah to go on a journey, or for Jesus to gather his disciples by the lakeshore.” The experience of the natural world increases these connections. While “stained glass is beautiful,” there is also something meaningful about “not having any boundaries between yourself and creation.” McDonald-Lee added, “When you read a Psalm in the outdoor chapel, it just feels different.”

The chapel was built by necessity when the previous one (also an outdoor space) was lost to the camp during a dispute about boundary lines. With the loss of the much-loved previous space came the opportunity to reimagine what the chapel could be: within sight (and sound) of the lake, among the trees, wheelchair-accessible and with “scope for the imagination.” Tara Gaskin, a Kintail alumnus who was studying to be an architect, helped to design the space. The contractor was another staff member’s father, and everyone on staff helped to build the chapel, creating a sense of group ownership. McDonald-Lee noted that, while all places can be considered sacred, the process of commissioning the chapel prompted conversations about “what it means to ‘hallow’ something,” to designate a space for worship. The first time that communion was served in the chapel was at a Presbyterian Young People’s Society retreat in 2010, when only three of the benches had been installed. Since that time, it has provided space for daily morning services, individual quiet reflection, cabin meetings as well as baptisms and weddings. The chapel is at the heart of the camp: “It’s the place and the time at camp that everyone remembers.”

Photos left to right: Kintail wedding chapel; Rev. Stephen Blackmer; Inauguration of Church in the Woods

Encountering God in the wilderness

Summer is a time when many Canadians head into the wilderness, which can be a place to encounter God. Blackmer said that Church of the Woods “approaches the earth with true reverence, as a reflection of God and as a revelation of God,” not simply as a stockpile of natural resources or a place for recreation. He commented that an invitation to “inward transformation, within me, within you, within everybody” distinguishes the liturgy and worship practiced by Church of the Woods from secular environmental activism. June 30, 2017, the day of his interview with CC, was Day 31 of the River of Life: Connecticut River Pilgrimage, a 40-day canoe-and-portage journey from the Connecticut River’s headwaters to Long Island Sound. Blackmer had participated in the first portion of this pilgrimage and planned to join in again for the last leg of the journey. This pilgrimage is another way of taking a Christian tradition “and situating them in the places where we actually live. We live in sacred places already.”

Blackmer noted that like-minded communities are starting to find each other and connect online, forming the Wild Church Network of “churches who encounter God in the wilderness” (wildchurchnetwork.com). Two Canadian churches that are part of the network are Burning Bush Forest Church in Kitchener, Ontario and Salal + Cedar in Vancouver, B.C. The Wild Church Network churches represent various theological and geographical contexts, but they hold in common the belief that “our Christian tradition of spiritual transformation has always been rooted in the actual local wilderness.” While not every church may be called to relocate to the nearest forest, all of us can look for opportunities to encounter God, ourselves and community in the wilderness. 

  • Judith Farris lives in Sarnia, Ontario with her family.

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