Ceremony as Gratitude

“When he lifts the coffee pot from the stove the morning bustle stops; we know without being told that it’s time to pay attention. He stands at the edge of camp with the coffeepot in his hands, holding the top in place with a folded pot holder. He pours coffee on the ground in a thick brown stream. The sunlight catches the flow, striping it amber and brown and black as it falls to the earth and steams in the cool morning air. With his face to the morning sun, he pours and speaks into the stillness, ‘Here’s to the gods of Tahawus.’ …

“The power of ceremony is that it marries the mundane to the sacred. The water turns to wine, the coffee to a prayer. The material and the spiritual mingle like grounds mixed with humus, transformed like steam rising from a mug into the morning mist.

“What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, ceremony that makes a home.”
Robin Wall Kimmerer from her book Braiding Sweetgrass.

I found these words from Kimmerer in artist Terri Wilding’s blog Myth & Moor: Wilding pulls extended excerpts from books on topics such as art, nature, and ritual, pairing them with her own words as well as beautiful art images or photos from her own life in a Dartmoor village. Wilding’s blog has offered me much solace and insight over the years.

Wilding notes that simple ceremonies, like the morning coffee Kimmerer’s father offers the earth are acts of gratitude, humbly offered to the greater whole.  I realized that although I keep a gratitude journal it is an inward, more internal action of grounding – I acknowledge what I am grateful for as a reminder to myself, but I don’t offer any thanks to the world which provides these gifts.  Since reading Wilding’s post, I have been wondering how to include a simple gratitude ceremony – one that is not all about me – into my life. How can I show respect for the earth and all its gifts in the midst of a Brampton suburb?

This suburb is mundane in the extreme, all houses and driveways and asphalt. Highway and airplane noise are constant so we have keep the windows shut all year round. Very few trees were planted when the suburb was built forty years ago and few people garden so what vegetation there is struggles to thrive. Most shrubs and plants are ornamental, with only the occasional native pine or birch tree.


Photo by George Berberich on Unsplash

At the same time, we are fortunate that our backyard has three youngish trees, just now coming into bud.  The crabapple will bloom soon.  We set up a birdfeeder and have been rewarded with visitors, from doves to red-winged blackbirds to sparrows to cardinals to finches. With the global shutdown – the Great Confinement as one artist named it – there is little traffic noise so windows can be open and I can hear bird chatter all day.  Right now the feeder needs to be refilled daily as the birds busily prepare nests and seek mates. As I spend time every day just watching the birds I realize that this may be my  offering to the earth – the daily replenishment of black sunflower seeds – a small expression of my gratitude for the joy of their songs and soaring arcs through the sky.

“What else can you offer the earth, which has everything? What else can you give but something of yourself? A homemade ceremony, ceremony that makes a home.”


Dancing with Fire

Every January Unitarian Universalist congregations across Canada celebrate a fire ceremony.  For many, this ritual of burning paper in flame is a New Year’s ceremony, a release of the past.  But this has never felt right to me, I see this ceremony as one which honours the power of fire.  Our symbol is the flaming chalice, a lively, ever-changing flickering flame of life. It is a symbol of the vital, sacred spark of life that resides in every living being.  And like every living being, it has the power to destroy and to create. Yet we so often light a chalice in services and meetings without thinking about that flickering flame.  The fire ceremony gives us an opportunity to meet the flame and celebrate it’s power.

The Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga will be celebrating the fire ceremony this coming Sunday, looking at how we can focus our energy in the coming months.  Where do our passions lie? What can we do to make our passions “blaze with life”?

To me, fire is one of the most beautiful elements of life on this planet. Scary, energizing, mesmerizing, gorgeous. The fire dancers in these two videos highlight fire’s living beauty.


For Life and Death are One

“For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet.

I first posted this video in the spring a couple of years ago. I’m posting it again in recognition of the upcoming Honouring Loss service this Sunday at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga. A visual poem about the inseparable nature of life and death, it speaks to the Unitarian Universalist sense that death is part of the natural cycle, to be grieved over but not denied. Life crumbles into decay and composts into new life, over and over and over again.

What the River Says, that is what I Say

In honour of the beautiful mystery of water – and the  mystery of living –  this poem comes from American poet William Stafford:

Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
William Stafford

Water is Life

We are celebrating our Water Ceremony this Sunday at the Unitarian Congregation in Mississauga. This annual in-gathering ritual begins our community year using the symbol of water. People bring water from their summer experiences and pour it into our communal bowl, honouring the community which brings us together, reminding us of our shared connections. Every day this week, I’ll post poems, stories and videos about the value and beauty of water.

While his description of humans as “blobs of water” is not poetic (!), David Suzuki in his book The Legacy of Nature reminds us of our deep ecological dependence on water.

“A visitor from another galaxy would surely call our planet Water, not Earth.  Seventy-one per cent of the planet’s surface is covered by oceans. If the globe were a perfectly smooth sphere, water would cover it to a depth of 2.7 kilometres. The air is filled with water vapour that condenses as clouds. Above the great Amazon rainforest, trees pull water from the ground and transpire it upward, where it flows in great rivers of vapour toward the Andes.

Every person in the world is at least 60 per cent water by weight. We are basically blobs of water with enough organic thickener mixed in to prevent us from dribbling away on the floor. The hydrologic cycle of evaporation, condensation, and rain ensures that water cartwheels around the planet. We are part of the hydrologic process. Every drink we take has water molecules that evaporated from the canopies of every forest in the world, from all the oceans and plains.” (pg.76)

We are water.

Death and Love and Candlelight

I’m thinking about death and dying this week as I plan for our Unitarian Universalist remembrance ritual this Sunday. Like many religions and cultures at this time of year, many UU congregations  take a moment of shared community to honour our dead. We bring photos to our common altar, tell a story or two, and light a candle in memory of those we have lost. There are many tears, but we are together, connected and caring for each other. For me it is one of the most meaningful services of the year, allowing people to name their losses in community, to speak of death freely.

So when legendary musician Lou Reed died this past week and his wife, brilliant multi-media artist Laurie Anderson wrote a wonderful tribute to him for their local newspaper East Hampton Star, which is making the internet rounds today, I was particularly struck by her words. Light and love are evident in Anderson’s note as she paints a picture of a good dying – leaving this world “happy and dazzled” by nature. There will always be pain in this world, but it is made bearable by the beauty.

To our neighbors:

What a beautiful fall! Everything shimmering and golden and all that incredible soft light. Water surrounding us.

Lou and I have spent a lot of time here in the past few years, and even though we’re city people this is our spiritual home.

Last week I promised Lou to get him out of the hospital and come home to Springs. And we made it!

Lou was a tai chi master and spent his last days here being happy and dazzled by the beauty and power and softness of nature. He died on Sunday morning looking at the trees and doing the famous 21 form of tai chi with just his musician hands moving through the air.

Lou was a prince and a fighter and I know his songs of the pain and beauty in the world will fill many people with the incredible joy he felt for life. Long live the beauty that comes down and through and onto all of us.

— Laurie Anderson
his loving wife and eternal friend


Life is Water Dancing

Years ago I visited my cousin in Trewennack, Cornwall, England. She lived with her family in a farmhouse just beside a main road, but was otherwise surrounded by fields and cows. A couple of days into the visit she asked me to come with her so she could show me something. We waited for the cars to pass, scrambled over a fence, and trudged in knee high grass along the edge of a damp and muddy field.

I began to wonder what she wanted to show me. Surely it wasn’t the cows?

St. Justs, Cornwall © Copyright Chris Allen Creative Commons Licence

St. Just, Cornwall
© Copyright Chris Allen Creative Commons Licence

She walked around a small group of trees, scrambled down a bank,bent over and motioned me close.In the shadows of earth and trees was a small smooth stone enclosure, no more than five feet tall.Inside were two stone seats, across from one another. At the back was a spring, the water flowing out of the bank into a stone trench. My cousin had brought me to one of the ancient holy wells of Cornwall.

From the small stone seat, I could look out over the fields, a view, I think, not very much changed in a thousand years. The water, the stone, the grass, it all smelt fresh and tangy. It was a place of shelter and protection.

I wondered what it must have been like, living in a time when water was a gift from the ground,flowing freely. When it was carried in back breaking buckets from streams to homes,an endless, necessary, daily chore. With clean water available pretty much wherever and whenever we want it, it is easy to forget just how precious water must have been to those who had to work for a daily supply.

So precious, that the early Celtic culture of Cornwall,like other ancient cultures,expressed a deep reverence for water and its life giving properties. Water was seen as a powerful substance.The spring heads of Cornwall were venerated as places to come for blessings – or to ask for a curse on someone!

When Christianity arrived, the priests built little stone chapels or buildings around the spring heads,and insisted the blessings be asked of God instead. With that Christian transformation, the waters stayed protected over the centuries, allowing me a magical moment that day in Cornwall.

Whatever we may think of asking water, or water gods or God – for blessings – or curses – these traditions reflect a deep truth: water is a powerful substance. Life on earth would not exist had water not come into being billions of years ago. Our creation story begins in the distant oceans – our salty blood connects us to our ancient marine evolution. Water is truly the elixir of life.

We depend on the fresh water cycle of evaporation and precipitation. Water gives us body and substance – by weight we are more water than not. Water moves within our cells constantly, entering and leaving us, returning over and over to its on-going cycle. So much so that David Suzuki suggests that the whole enterprise of life might be seen simply as a vehicle for the transformation of water. Human beings, he says, might just be a way water molecules get to talk to each other (from The Sacred Balance).

Whether we are water talking or talking because of water, I don’t know. But I do know that the old religions acknowledged the vital value of water through rituals and myths. The springheads of Cornwall were kept clean and cared for because the Celtic and Christian traditions called for their protection.

Water is the source of life.

Our Unitarian Universalist water in-gathering ceremony echoes this deep knowledge. We share this whole and holy liquid to renew our community each September. May it help us remember our connections not just to one another but to all life on this wondrous planet.

Musings from the water in-gathering service at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Durham.

Information about the ancient wells of Cornwall came from Terri Wilding’s blog, Myth & Moor.

Becoming Reverend

final poster web

On Sunday May 5th, the Grand River Unitarian Congregation in Kitchener will ordain me as a Unitarian Universalist minister, bestowing upon me the title of Reverend and a stole as a symbol of ministry.

Please see my Ordination page (also up on the menu bar) for more details about this special service of celebration.

woodcut chalice

Much of ministry is a benediction—
A speaking well of each other and the world—
A speaking well of what we value:

– honesty
– love
– forgiveness
– trust

A speaking well of our efforts—
A speaking well of our dreams.
This is how we celebrate life:
Through speaking well of it,
Living the benediction,
and becoming as a word

Susan Manker-Seale

In praise of salad….

This blessing by UU minister Nancy Shaffer brings with it memories of spring salads filled with bright green lettuce fresh from the fields of local farmers.

Field at Table

When I begin to bless this food
and close my eyes I lose myself
first just in green: how
do leaves grow themselves this
green and how do they
grow at all to be so large and
how do they make themselves from
soil which in itself is only brown and
sunlight helps and water but
how is the end of this, green? How
can I bless this food? It blesses me.

Thank you, I say, for this bowl
which also is field, this green
which is meal before
I eat. Thank you, I say,
that this green becomes me.
Thank you for mysteries, this life.

First Salad of the Season

First Salad of the Season (Photo credit: Chiot’s Run)

Fire and Dreams

fire (Photo credit: matthewvenn)

Light.  Paper sparking into flame.  Every year at this time many Unitarian Universalist congregations hold a Fire Communion service.  Using the neo-pagan ritual of writing on paper, then burning the paper to release the words, UUs use the light of our chalice to help us move into the new year.  It’s a beautiful ceremony – using flash paper (available at magic stores) which bursts into flame and leaves no ash – the room is filled with brief explosions of light as each person steps forward to cast their paper into the flame. This service is typically held close to the new year and often focuses on letting go of past regrets and sorrows;  I prefer to look forward, to focus on hopes and dreams for the upcoming year. I see the fire service as marking the transition into the upcoming season of creativity and beginnings.

The following is an excerpt from a fire communion service I led a few years ago which focused on dreams. Continue reading