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.”


The Ocean Refuses No River

This past Sunday was the Water Ingathering Ceremony, or water communion, for most Unitarian congregations in Canada.  Unitarian Universalists don’t have many rituals and I cherish the times when our services go beyond words to being.  The water ingathering, with people bringing water from their backyards and their trips around the world, is a welcoming way to begin the congregational year.  Each person pours their small cup of water into the great bowl of our common life so that it brims to overflowing with all the gifts we bring.  I love that fluid and flowing sense of return, of beginning again together in community.  I think of the folksong which points out that the ocean refuses no river, that we try to accept all people who seek to join our chalice community.  The offerings of everyone come together to create the whole; the whole that we depend on for sustenance.

The water ceremony is a relatively recent tradition, evolving from a ritual created by Carolyn McDade and Lucile Shuck Longview for the 1980 Women and Religion Conference in East Lansing, Michigan.  They wanted their service to speak to the worship needs of women, which some felt had not been widely included in UU life.  They wanted to focus on a sense of nature and of community. This “celebration of connectedness,” as McDade called it, was intended to empower women instead of offering the traditional religious notion that women should serve others. The water symbolized the birth waters, the cycles of moon, tides and women, and all the waters of this small blue planet.  Since 1980, the water communion, with evolving meaning, has become the fall welcoming ritual and spread across most North American congregations.  Most keep some water back from the ritual – well boiled – and use it to begin next year’s ritual.

Given that we Unitarians like to talk, I love the rituals that allow us to move, share and simply be together in moments that are beyond words.  This past Sunday I got to be at my home congregation for the first time in a few years, to share in the water ingathering.  Lively music, beautiful images, seeing old friends, it was good to be welcomed home.  I’ve had the image of a canoe in my head these last couple of weeks, as I paddle towards the final step in my ministry journey (the interview with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee in Boston).  It’s good to know that even in stormy times, there is a safe harbour nearby.