OF THE SEASON
Honoring Nature in the City with Inter-Faith Solstice and Equinox Circles
by Stephen Wing
To most people, "the environment" is as abstract as any metaphysical concept. Yet nothing could be more tangible than the air, water, and food we need to survive.
"Planet Earth" may be too large a sphere to imagine. Yet through the air, water, and food that sustains us, we are connected to every inch of it.
"The future" is another abstraction that's hard to put a finger on. Yet anyone who can picture a particular child has a stake in it.
Like the invisible toxins in our air, water, food, and bodies, it's difficult to relate these abstractions to our lives. Most of us are aware that our collective impact is wiping out species and altering Earth's climate, but few are willing or able to change our individual lifestyles in response.
A recent study found that young people today know nothing more enduring and unchanging than the corporate brand names they see every day— the ultimate abstractions. Meanwhile, unnoticed under their feet, the Earth goes on giving them everything they need.
We lack the direct relationship with nature that our ancestors had. In most cultures that relationship was a religious one, and far from abstract. The theology was simple: anything the Creator had made was sacred. Humans had a duty to cherish the Creation and reverently pass its gifts on to their children. Most ancient artifacts were made to honor the Creator. Yet somewhere along the way, human-made things became the sacred ones, the Creation merely a source of raw materials and a dumping ground for waste.
In this light, today's ecological crisis is a religious one. Facing the long-term consequences of technology, even scientists understand why all religions once held nature sacred. But reclaiming that sacredness is not the job of science. Each in their own way, the religions of the world could begin to teach a new/old relationship with nature, based on gratitude for the gift of Life.
The beauty and diversity of Earth's religions mirrors the breathtakingly varied
ecosphere itself. Some revere the Earth itself as a living deity; others call
it the work of a Creator or a pantheon of gods and goddesses; still others say
it's illusory and has no ultimate reality at all. All of these religions have
two main things in common.
One is diversity. Within each— even the monotheisms— dozens of denominations, sects, schools, lineages, orders, etc., have evolved and multiplied.
The other is that they all depend on the Earth's generosity to fill the bellies of the faithful so their traditions may continue. The original seed and primary function of all religion, I submit, is gratitude: reciprocation for nature's sacred gift.
Western religion has long abandoned gods and goddesses for angels, prophets, saints, and the "unified field" theology, monotheism. But in leaving behind Earth-centered religion, we must not forget the Earth itself. If this planet is not our literal Mother, the fact remains that without it, we are helpless infants floating in a vaccuum.
What was that phrase about "the ground of our being"? We are indebted to the Earth even for this metaphor to describe the transcendent God of the Christians! On second thought, Earth itself might be something to celebrate, with or without a gender, cosmology or creation story. Even atheists can see the mystery and magnificence of what-is, no matter where-it-came-from.
Just because our food (and nowadays, even water) comes from the Earth by way of trucks and supermarkets doesn't mean we can't be thankful! And now that the Earth's natural life-support systems are in deep trouble, it turns out that this very thankfulness is the key to stewardship of the Earth for the future.
Indigenous people say, without embarrassment or apology, Creation is sacred; all land is holy; the Earth is our Mother. Many other religions carry on this ancient reverence, at least in principle. But somehow most of us have lost the innocence it takes to see the daily miracle of Creation— the humility to speak of nature as we would our own mothers, and treat it that way, without embarrassment or apology.
Once upon a time, people watched the sunset instead of the news. They watched the campfire instead of prime time. They watched the heavens instead of the late show, making up their own gossip about the stars. They watched the weather instead of the Weather Channel, all day long, and again the next day.
That's how, after generations of observation, they learned to predict the exact moment each Winter when the days stop getting shorter and begin to increase, and the corresponding moment each Summer when the days stop lengthening and begin to decrease— the Winter and Summer Solstices. They also discovered the moments exactly halfway between when day and night are equal, the Spring and Fall Equinoxes.
"Prehistoric" tribespeople pinpointed these astronomical events with scientific accuracy, building sophisticated observatory/temples like Stonehenge. Even here in Georgia, my home state, an ancient structure mis-named "Fort Mountain" by European settlers was found to be mysteriously aligned with the Solstice sun.
Archeologists believe that "primitive" people used to gather on these four specific days each year for important religious rituals. But one could conclude from the same evidence that they gathered to hold a birthday party for each new season. All we know for sure is that they declined to be mere spectators as the parade of the seasons went by.
The annual cycle of seasons is familiar to anyone who lives north or south of the tropics. You may not associate it with anything spiritual, but to me Spring, Summer, Fall and Winter are among the greatest wonders of Creation, compounding its glory with endless repetition and ceaseless change.
I call the Solstices and Equinoxes "the birthdays of the seasons" because they officially mark the seasonal transitions on our calendars. But in many of the world's elder traditions they are sacred days, based on precise calculations of the sun's angle to the Earth which were first performed by ancient scientists for whom science and religion were one.
As "civilization" advanced, science and religion parted. Religion grew steadily more abstract, complex, and hostile to nature. Yet most of the world's liturgical calendars still bore traces of the seasonal cycle. The vast majority of humans depended directly on the turning seasons to survive. Anyone could see the life-sustaining miracle of dead leaves falling in the Fall and live ones springing up again in the Spring.
The accelerating successes of science, however, have distanced us drastically from the natural source of our sustenance, leading to the environmental crisis of today— and a time fast approaching when the Earth will no longer be able to sustain its human population. In this new millennium, in real danger of ruining the Earth for our grandchildren, we stand for a second time where our distant ancestors stood when they looked around at the fresh, primeval Garden of Creation, knelt down and called it sacred.
Our civilization is built on the assumption that through technology— fruit of the Tree of Knowledge— humans can "upgrade" the original Creation for human use. The story of Adam and Eve grows in significance as we repeat it on an ever-expanding scale, until the entire planet is threatened by the efforts of humans to become "as gods."
But where will go once finally exiled from Earth itself?
Adam and Eve were only the first of many throughout the Old Testament who refused to heed prophecies of doom. We now live in such a time. All of us are called to prophecy who see the degradation of the Earth as a sign of catastrophe to come. Who can look around and not ponder what lies ahead? Certainly not a responsible parent; voter; investor; shopper; person of faith.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SUMMER!
On any planet that spins merrily day and night, traveling an elliptical orbit around its sun, the inhabitants will notice certain things repeating. Pay attention; these are clues.
In Atlanta, for instance, hosting the 1996 Summer Olympics was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a great honor— but every single year our city hosts the Summer, a greater honor by far.
Just go outside when the greenery is at its peak and feel Summer's generosity. The streets are overhung with leafy boughs. All Creation glows with life and vitality. Birds and insects are everywhere. Worms and micro-organisms teem in every inch of soil, feeding our magnificent trees and our gardens.
Here in the South's largest city, where our most widespread public ritual is commuting by car, Summer reminds us with regular Ozone Alert Days from May through September that we are breathing "federally condemned air."
Slowly but surely, our long hot Southern summers grow longer and hotter as global warming heats up. Yet through the droughts and floods and blights, a miracle happens. The Earth keeps feeding us, year after year.
Ignore it if you can— Summer is back, breathing hot in our faces like a fire-and-brimstone-spitting Southern preacher, as hard to ignore as the haze on the skyline on a clear sunny day.
So what are you doing to celebrate?
In most "uncivilized" cultures, the Earth is treated as sacred. When we look closely, the global "civilization" we have inherited consists mainly of certain bad habits which are toxic to our bodies, communities, ecosystems and gene pools: our cultural addictions to oil, plastic, paper, chemicals, electricity . . .
Global warming is only one example of how such abuse of the Earth can disrupt human well-being on a large scale. Cancer and other environmentally-influenced diseases are epidemic. And the Environmental Justice movement has documented how the health effects of industrial pollution disproportionately burden communities of color.
The religious community has always come through with shipments of food, clothing and medicine when people are suffering. A "green" religious movement is indeed beginning to grow. But people of faith can also address the environmental crisis another way: by celebrating.
Australian environmentalist John Seed says, "I believe that loss of the ceremonies that acknowledge and nurture our interconnectedness with nature is a large part of the problem. We modern humans are the only ones— as far as I can tell— who have ever attempted to live without these rituals as an integral part of our lives."
Among the holidays we observe each year, only Earth Day and Arbor Day honor the natural world. Both are worthy occasions, deserving of full "legal holiday" status, in my opinion, but clearly secular ones.
Since 1995, "Earthlings" in Atlanta have been reclaiming the Equinoxes and Solstices as religious occasions. Four times a year, Atlanta's interfaith community is invited to come together to remember that the Earth is sacred, and celebrate the "birthday" of another season. Because the Solstices and Equinoxes existed before people did, they belong to all human traditions and therefore to none— fitting occasions to set aside our differences and pray and celebrate together.
These festive events have a serious intent: to remind city folks that whatever our beliefs, we all depend on nature for food, water, air, and Life itself, just as our ancestors did and our descendants will. It may be the one thing that people of all religions and no religion at all have in common.
We call the entire spectrum of faiths together publicly because of the tradition of gratitude they share— and because what they share is just as important as each faith's uniqueness. Especially now, when the ethical discipline of religion is so desperately needed, we come together as members of Earth's spiritual community to say: Life is a miracle. Gratitude to the Creator is respect for Creation. Respect for Creation is essential to our children's future, as gratitude to the Creator is the essence of a spiritual life.
In Katuah, the Southern Appalachian bioregion, regional Rainbow gatherings for the Summer Solstice are a 24-year tradition. Coming home to the mountains to celebrate the Solstice summer after summer, I slowly began to feel in my body the sacredness of the cycle itself: the living Hoop of the year.
Spring and Fall Equinox gatherings sprouted up in the Southeast for a time. Life began to feel incomplete without a quarterly pause to honor each new season. But the Hoop was missing one of its sacred quarters, when it was too cold to comfortably gather in the National Forests. And traveling to the woods four times a year was not an option for many. After marrying, settling down in Atlanta and finding a job, I couldn't make all the gatherings myself.
The need for a healing connection to nature is greatest in the cities, I began to see— and the Earth is no less sacred beneath Atlanta's pavements, the water no less sacred in Atlanta's storm-sewers than anywhere else on Earth.
In 1995, I was blessed to meet Kayode, the Ghanaian director of Africa House in Atlanta. Kayode shared my vision of bringing all the religions together to celebrate nature in the city.We began with a modest Winter Solstice circle in the back yard of Africa House, where traditional Africans gathered to pour libations every Solstice and Equinox.
When their ritual concluded, ours began. Buddhists, Muslims, Wiccans, a Native American, and the African elders each took a turn sharing their traditions. Afterward, we feasted and socialized inside.
A month later, Kayode married and moved to Canada, and Africa House closed. With help from Atlanta's local Rainbow circle, Equinox and Solstice circles grew and shrank as the Hoop turned.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, AUTUMN!
Autumn is the time of Summer's dying, when almost all that's green shrivels up and dies, making way for Winter.
Leaves will be falling soon, hence Autumn's nickname, "The Fall." The leaves take on a special beauty, showing their true colors as the green chlorophyl ebbs away, just as our loved ones grow more precious and beautiful as they grow old.
We miss Summer, but we don't mourn it, because we know the parade is neverending— these fallen leaves will fertilize new growth next Spring. Perhaps that is why Autumn is so lovely: to remind us when we need it most that death is only a passing phase.
Autumn is the season not only of all this dying but of Harvest, when that very dying rewards the farmer's patience with a miraculous bounty that keeps us alive through the winter.
Today, when agriculture has merged with industry and the food chain has evolved into a supermarket chain, most of us no longer plant seeds in the Spring and nurture them until Fall. Yet we still depend on the Earth for Life itself. This makes it more important, not less, to remember our debt to the Earth. Even if we enjoyed the fruits of someone else's harvest all year long, imported from halfway around the world, Autumn is an appropriate time to give thanks.
So what are you doing to celebrate?
In every tradition, the purpose of ritual is to re-connect with what is most important. People and cultures change; without a periodic re-affirmation, even fundamental values can slip away.
Malidoma Patrice Some of West Africa's Dagara people says the purpose of ritual is to step outside our human world to communicate with the non-human: plants, animals, Earth, spirits, ancestors; what other cultures call angels, devas, goddesses and gods; what monotheists call God and Buddhists (along with Existentialists) call the Void.
The experience of the Dagara, a tradition older than the great world religions, confirms my experience even with rituals created by neophytes like me. Ultimately, any ritual is a communion partaking of the Oneness of the entire Universe, and a tangible antidote to all abstractions, theological or otherwise.
I understand that I am part of this Earth and Earth is part of me. All Earth's creatures are my relatives; all Earth's people are my family. The wilderness and the cities of the Earth are all sacred. I know and believe it with all my head and heart. But ceremony gives me the chance to go further: to experience it through my body as well, so that body, heart, mind and spirit stand together in unity with Creation.
Honoring the sacredness of Creation with my inter-faith community is a powerful experience— one I'm likely to remember next time a sales clerk offers me a plastic bag or a disposable cup. But how can that transform an entire civilization?
It took people of many cultures and subcultures, languages and religions working together to build our worldwide economic system. People of all faiths are caught up with atheists and agnostics in our materialistic lifestyle. Yet faith itself— Spirit— is virtually the only force that still stands opposed to materialism, selfishness and exploitation.
"Faith" and "Spirit" are slippery terms to define, in the abstract. But we all recognize spiritual values when we see them at work. Whenever people seek satisfaction in the service of others, give their all for something greater than themselves, risk danger or death for the sake of some inner integrity, we witness the mystery of Spirit, the manifestation of faith. It has little to do with declared religious affiliations.
No matter how we differ on other matters, we all share a common love for our children, a common dependence on the Earth, and a way of life that threatens both. This love for children may be the highest shared spiritual value in our eclectic and self-centered world. If their future matters to us, the solution may begin with inviting the Earth and its community of Life into our spiritual lives.
Rather than call for converts to a new Earth-centered religion, I envision our existing religions coming together with a new commitment to care for the Earth. A ceremony honoring the whole community of Life on Earth is an invitation to all spiritual traditions. By its nature, it can exclude no one.
Because around the world people of different religions continue to clash and compete and even kill, it's extremely important that we do this. And because the Earth and her mysterious powers of sustenance can no longer be taken for granted, thanks to human meddling, it's all the more significant that we come together to humbly acknowledge our place in Creation.
Whether the God we worship is many or one, male or female, immanent or transcendent, nameless or known, to honor the Creation is to honor that force which makes Creation possible. We can bridge our conceptual crevasses simply by holding hands here on the green Earth, honoring it for what it gives without trying to settle the ultimate source of its gifts.
We can honor this divine miracle of Life anywhere, since every inch of the Earth is sacred. Especially here in our town— because we live here.
In 1997 my visions of honoring the sacred Hoop in my adopted city found a home with the Dekalb Inter-Faith Coalition for Prevention, a small, diverse group representing most of the religions in Dekalb County. They welcomed me with the unconditional warmth that is the mark of a true church, never questioning the validity of my unorthodox spiritual path. And they too had a vision of celebrating Solstices and Equinoxes in the city.
The coalition's focus on inter-faith work balanced my Earth-centered approach; their network, newsletter, office and staff raised my efforts to a new level. That fall we held the first Inter-Faith Prayer Circle for the Equinox in Freedom Park.
The Dances of Universal Peace, introduced by participants in past circles, began to play a larger role. These are simple, beautiful, circular dances that invite heart-to-heart connection, set to equally simple and beautiful chants borrowed from many languages and traditions. The Dances perfectly set the tone, the pace and the mood for a friendly, culture-bridging ceremonial space.
Equinoxes in Freedom Park alternated with Solstices at the Atlanta Friends House, the home base for Atlanta's Dances of Universal Peace community, until the Dance community offered to co-sponsor the events and host them four times a year.
To us, "ceremony" doesn't mean something repeated exactly the same
way time after time. Our ceremonies tend to vary a lot, with a couple of running
One is gratitude to and for the Earth, and to its Creator by any and every name. As a gathering of the spiritual communities of our particular place, we re-affirm that we gather on sacred ground.
And more sacred every day. Here in the shadow of the Native American holy site of Stone Mountain, Dekalb has grown into the most diverse county in the entire Southeast. Our other consistent focus, therefore, is to share and appreciate the many different cultures and religions of our neighbors.
The circles sometimes take a sort of spiritual pilgrimage around the globe. We begin where we stand, asking who is present to speak for the Native traditions of the Americas. Then we proceed west across the Pacific to Polynesia, Japan, China, India, and so forth. Participants read scripture, sing, pray, lead or perform a chant or dance, sharing their ways of honoring the Earth. Buddhists and Hindus have spoken for the religions of Asia, Muslims and Jews and Bahai'is for the Middle East, traditional Africans for Africa, Christians and Pagans for Europe.
To close, we always pass something sacred around the circle, and each person offers an individual blessing for the season to come. To me, this is the most powerful moment— though the hot cider that Elizabeth made one Winter Solstice was a perfect follow-up to the passing of the candleflame.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, WINTER!
Winter again? Didn't we do Winter last year?
The Winter holidays are here, and with them the particular responsibility of people of faith to ensure that they are also holy days. Yes, it's Shopping Season, but also the season of Ramadan, of Yuletide, of Hanukkah, of Kwanzaa, of Christmas, and the beginning of a whole New Year.
Our winters in Atlanta are just severe enough to let us know we have seasons. And in any place that has seasons, each in its turn brings one more reminder to be thankful. Winter's blessing is a slowing, a turning inward, a time for rest and reflection.
It begins on the long night of the Winter Solstice, zenith of the night's winterlong dominion over daylight, beginning of the light's return. In many cultures it's traditional to light candles and bonfires, exchange gifts, feast and celebrate.
Atlanta's Christmastime tradition is to string beautiful colored lights on our houses and burn extra coal in the antiquated, carbon-spewing power plants that encircle our city. Clearly it will take more rest and reflection to discern what is truly sacred, and the deeper meaning of "light."
Meanwhile, here comes Winter: a damp, moody spirit that will haunt us with rain that sometimes freezes, surprise frost that kills our perennials, wind that occasionally cuts through even the hardiest refugee from "up north."
So what are you doing to celebrate?
In October 2001 I attended an inter-faith service at First Iconium Baptist Church here in Atlanta. Complete with Native American drumming and chanting, a glorious Baptist choir, and testimonials from nearly every religion under God's sun, it opened a two-day conference organized by Physicians for Social Responsibility entitled "Climate Change as an Issue of Faith."
This profound worship experience and the variety of talks and workshops the next day confirmed to me that God is indeed calling people of faith to care for the Earth. It's a natural extension of the religious tradition of service to others. Considering the long litany of environmental crises large and small, raising awareness that the Earth is sacred may be the greatest service we can do.
"Sustainability" is another abstraction that is difficult to grasp. The scientific prognosis that human extinction is a distinct possibility brings it into better focus.
"Primitive" peoples who still resist "civilization" will probably survive anything. But those of us who depend on the global economy for food, water, and breathable air had better start paying attention.
An attitude of respect and gratitude toward the Earth is the key to a sustainable future. The task of the religious community is helping to turn people's desire for material growth into an aspiration for spiritual growth. Sharing and celebration make it fun.
Here in Atlanta, we're trying to bring back a sense of the sacredness of the Earth and the Life it supports— including our own— by building an ongoing tradition of welcoming the seasons. We gather not to worship or pray to the Earth, but simply to honor her, each in our own way (with or without a gender), as a gift we receive and reverently pass on.
A Christian might consider it a revival meeting to revive the notion that "the Earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof"— to proclaim with God that Creation is good, exactly as God made it. A Buddhist might say we honor the Buddha-nature of nature itself. Even an atheist can come to pay respect to the mystery and magnificence of what-is.
Through these small events, I believe we are building a new civilization where people of different spiritual traditions are not afraid to celebrate together with mutual respect, as children of One Creator; where gratitude for the gifts of the Earth is a central strand of life; where by cultivating this gratitude, people learn to care for the Earth on behalf of their descendants.
Concluding a recent interfaith conference, the Dalai Lama said, "Change only takes place through action, frankly speaking, not through prayer or meditation but through action." Above all, I hope these circles will remind Atlanta's "Earthlings" to take tangible action to preserve the ecosphere, starting with our own daily habits and choices.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SPRING!
Was ever an arrival so eagerly awaited as the awakening of Spring?
Was any Spring ever so moist and fragrant and flowery as ours here in Georgia?
And who can remember a Spring more pregnant with possibility than the one before us now?
Spring is a time of rebirth— a miraculous drama of Life emerging once more from its seeds, its eggs, its wombs, its winter dens, drawn irresistibly by the changing angle of sunlight.
To the brand-new sprouts and hatchlings it's all wondrous and new, yet it's the repetition of an age-old awakening. Leaning toward the sun again, the Northern Hemisphere begins to thaw; its creatures return from hibernation or migration, sap rises in the stems. The ground begins to push up an endless variety of food, and sensible people everywhere declare a holiday for gratitude and celebration.
Well, almost everywhere. Where I come from, scientists continue to solemnly study and catalog and manipulate the processes of nature, unaware that from the moment they open their eyes each morning they are witnessing a divine miracle. People from the agribusiness boardroom to the grocery checkout line take for granted that the Earth owes them a living, never considering the cosmic mystery of the food chain— let alone taking a day off to celebrate it.
However . . . picture a parade in honor of Spring.
In our newborn millennium, Spring is the springing forth not just of a new year's growth, but of a vast necessity and potential for change in our society. It's the Spring of a last-ditch defense of the living planet, species by species, against our own consumptive habits.
For Spring Equinox 2001, we preceded our ceremony with Atlanta's first "Happy Birthday Spring Parade." Three dozen people gathered in costume, carrying banners and towing one miniature float, a little red wagon in disguise. After parading several times around Little Five Points, Atlanta's Bohemian shopping district, we headed down to Freedom Park.
At the crest of the first hill we formed our circle on the grass, in full view of the busy intersection below. Everything went according to plan— aside from one small boy who wanted to lead a Spiral Dance in the midst of it all, and did, with help from his Mom.
In closing, we towed the little float around the circle from one celebrant to the next. It was decorated with colorful bunting, surmounted by a large cardboard birthday cake. Instead of candles, the top of the cake was covered with little cupcakes of potting-soil. Three egg-cartons were mounted in front of it, three dozen little cups each filled with a different type of garden seed.
Each person in turn chose a seed, made a wish for Spring's birthday, and planted them both in a cupcake of earth. Some people took their cupcakes home to replant; the rest soon found a home in a neighborhood community garden.
In our humble way, we two-leggeds— even the smallest— were physically joining in the mystery of Creation, assisting Mother Nature with the actual miracle of Spring. This is why we gather: to be not just spectators but participants in God's glorious parade.
No matter where you go in your life you are part of the sacred Hoop. Wherever you go in the Northern Hemisphere you can participate in the Equinox. (They're celebrating in the Southern Hemisphere too, but it's Autumn there.) If you feel a calling to share or re-kindle your tradition's reverence for nature— or just your own— take a moment to appreciate the blessings of nature and you'll be part of the circle, too.
Yes, Summer again. Do not adjust your set. And by the way, that's a window. Remote control won't help. On the Window Channel, the same drama repeats itself, year after year. The plot never varies: not Summer re-runs, but Life, coming to you live and in living color.
Season after season the unseen sponsor, Life, shares her bounty for free— beaming down sunshine, showering rain, waking the secret ingredient inside the seed that sprouts and grows— Life— filling grain, fruit and vegetable with that miraculous byproduct which sustains the rest of us. Life.
All the sponsor asks in return is a little gratitude, a little respect. Enough to sustain the cycle for another generation . . . or seven.
Thank you, Creator Spirit! Thank you, Mother Earth! Thank you, all my relations!