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.

george-berberich-Y0N-6lhQwkI-unsplash

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.”

Filling up the Chalice

It’s time to fill up the empty chalice again. In the coming days and weeks I will be using this blog to offer spiritual practices, poetry and readings, music and videos, and humour to help people centre themselves in this new world of COVID-19 pandemic living.

As a Unitarian Universalist I know that the way we get through this is together, with people sharing their gifts and talents with one another.  My hope is that as a UU minister I may be able to provide some insights and practices that help you breathe and find your way back to your inner core of wisdom and strength. One of the fundamental truths of UUism is that we are not alone but part of the web of all life; the COVID-19 virus is painfully showing us how interconnected we are, but that interconnection is also a source of comfort, even when it can only be realized at a distance.

I am at home in self-isolation – well – couple isolation – until the end of March. We came home last week from a week of holidays in Cuba, spending time in close proximity with international tourists and returning through Pearson International Airport.  We are following the government directive to stay home except for walking the dog, and we avoid people when we do go outside.

It was overwhelming to come back to a surge of emails, facebook posts, UU responses, government directives and news coverage after our limited internet access in Cuba. It’s been an anxious few days trying to absorb this new normal, and I have found myself forgetting my usual spiritual practices, when they should have been the first things I resumed!

Today I’ll begin with one of my go-to practices:

Gratitude Journal

For years gratitude journalling sounded a little silly to me; how could saying I like ice cream make any difference to my life? However, in a particular trying time, when life felt bleak I decided to try writing down three things I was grateful for each day.  Each one had to be as specific as I could, not simply “sunshine” but the sun’s warmth shining on my face as I walked the dog in the woods.

At first I couldn’t always come up with three, which shows how much I was struggling, but over time things shifted and I found it hard to stop at three! Taking five minutes each day to sit and think about what was good in my life did re-train my brain to seek the positive.  Each morning after breakfast I sit in my favourite chair and review the previous day, choosing three people, events or experiences. Keeping it specific helps to evoke the positive memory.  Even on sorrowful days there are shafts of light.

When things are going well I can get careless, either not writing at all, or falling back in generalities, but when I am feeling off this practice helps me to remember the good in my life, so I feel like I have solid ground to stand on instead of being stuck struggling in quicksand.

My dog Tikko is a constant in my gratitude journal, so here he is!

Tikko March 2020 2

Tikko is missing his groomer!

 

Thank you, Thank you, Thank you

This month we will explore the spiritual practice of prayer. Prayer can be tricky for Unitarian Universalists, if you don’t have an experience of God/Goddess, then to whom are you praying? We’ll look at different ways to understand prayer – as gratitude, as listening – as we try this ancient practice.

Prayer is traditionally understood as a petition to God, a request for help from a deity. If you don’t believe in a God that intervenes in the world, then what does praying to God mean? What does it mean for atheists and others who have a different sense of divinity?

For some, prayer is a way to relate to the greater whole, a way to connect to that which is beyond us. It is about being in relationship with the sacred, not whether the sacred will answer.  Poet Czeslaw Milosz in his poem On Prayer describes prayer as a bridge:

You ask me how to pray to someone who is not.
All I know is that prayer constructs a velvet bridge
And walking it we are aloft, as on a springboard,
Above landscapes the color of ripe gold…

I like this sense of prayer lifting us up. Some people who pray regularly feel a sense of lightness, of openness. We must each decide for ourselves whether prayer is a meaningful exercise, and to whom, if we wish, we might direct our prayers. There is no one answer. Many UUs who pray don’t think of their prayers as being directed towards a Being, but to the Universe, the Earth, or to all beings around them. Others use terms such as Spirit of Life to enlarge their understanding of God.

Through out this month, consider who or what you might be praying to, but try to take a few moments each day to pray. It may be the practice itself reveals the relationship. I won’t be offering written prayers to be recited, but encouraging you to take some time to think/feel/be each day, with your own words or even in silence.

Prayer as Gratitude

Gratitude as prayer is as simple as the words “thank you”.  Gratitude as a daily practice comes easily to Unitarian Universalists, it has even been argued that our theology is based on an ethic of gratitude.

For this week, our practice is to name our gratitude in prayer. Rather than writing down what we are grateful for, or posting it to facebook, take some time to sit with gratitude.

If ritual helps you move into a more spiritual mode, light a candle before beginning, and end by extinguishing the light.

Sit comfortably and close your eyes. What made you thankful today?  What should have made you thankful, but you were too busy to notice? What was difficult but ended with something positive? Sit with your gratitude until you feel you have acknowledged everything you are thankful for.

You might be directing your gratitude towards God (thank you God), or to the people or creatures or land itself (thank you first robin of spring), or you may be letting your gratitude out into the world without a particular direction (I’m grateful for sunshine). Experiment and see what feels right.

End with a final thank you, or an Amen, or So Say I, or another word or phrase that feels right to you.

Try to do this practice daily for the next week.

Gratitude

I’m feeling gratefsnowdrops twoul today.  The chalice is overflowing!  I’m grateful that the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Durham in Whitby, Ontario has hired me to be their consulting minister beginning in April.  Grateful that the Grand River Unitarian Congregation will ordain me in May.   Grateful that the snowdrops beside the house are just coming into bud.   I’m grateful to be part of this world, a world that include poets like Gary Snyder.

Prayer for the Great Family

Gratitude to Mother Earth, sailing through night and day—
and to her soil: rich, rare and sweet
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Plants, the sun-facing, light-changing leaf
and fine root-hairs; standing still through wind
and rain; their dance is in the flowering spiral grain
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Air, bearing the soaring Swift and silent
Owl at dawn. Breath of our song
clear spirit breeze
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Wild Beings, our brothers, teaching secrets,
freedoms, and ways; who share with us their milk;
self-complete, brave and aware
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to Water: clouds, lakes, rivers, glaciers;
holding or releasing; streaming through all
our bodies salty seas
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Sun: blinding pulsing light through
trunks of trees, through mists, warming caves where
bears and snakes sleep— he who wakes us—
in our minds so be it.

Gratitude to the Great Sky
who holds billions of stars— and goes yet beyond that—
beyond all powers, and thoughts
and yet is within us—
Grandfather Space.
The Mind is his Wife.
so be it.

after a Mohawk prayer

Gary Snyder, Turtle Island