When you hear the word “church,” you probably think of a physical structure with walls, a ceiling, a big organ, hard wooden pews, and stained glass windows.
Beth Norcross has a different church in mind; the spiritual one nature creates in forests and meadows or maybe along the shore. Want to attend one of her “services?” You might need a jacket or some hiking boots, because you’ll find yourself outside, where you can bask in the sunshine, hear leaves crunch underfoot, and tune in to birdsong and windy breezes, all part of the “web of creation.”
Beth started the Center for Spirituality in Nature in 2014 in Arlington, VA. studied mathematics and forestry at Duke University, then worked on capitol hill as a senate staffer before becoming a Vice President at American Rivers, a conservation organization dedicated to protecting the nation’s waterways. Eventually, she pursued a Doctor of Ministry degree and wrote her dissertation on the National Parks as sacred ground.
“I had been doing casual nature walks with a spiritual overlay for many years avocationally,” Beth says. But it occurred to her that “we were not going to change environmental behavior until we changed our relationship with the natural world — and that comes from time in nature.”
She established the Center to re-imagine community in the context of “sacred ecological ground, a sacred space where humans see themselves as loving participants,” not the center of the universe, as it were.
In April 2018, she and the Center launched the Church of the Wild to create an opportunity for people to gather monthly and “come home to the sacred ecological ground in which we live.”
Florence Williams has written about the importance of getting a fix” to restore our health and sanity. Norcross agrees, saying she believes that “time in nature might help soothe and comfort and heal a frazzled and wounded world.”
“The more we are out of relationship with nature, the less we appreciate its importance and its value,” she explains. “The profound environmental challenges we face today are, in large measure, caused by this lack of connection… and lack of understanding the enormous role nature plays in our survival.”
The spiritual consequence is that “we run the risk of cutting ourselves off from our first way of knowing the Divine,” she says. “Every major religious tradition has a connection with nature at its core. By living largely separately and apart from nature, we deprive ourselves of this essential and old way of knowing Spiritual Presence.”
“By reconnecting with the wonder and mystery and sheer joy of being with Nature,” she notes, “We have the opportunity to reconsider our relationship with the natural world and reevaluate how our behavior affects it.”
“If we really allow ourselves to see the Divine in the natural world, how could we possibly continue our destructive behaviors towards the earth?”
To help more people re-engage with nature spiritually, the Center’s website offers both Helpful Hints and spiritual practices. “One thing we recommend is to think about time in nature as a “get-to,” not a “got-to” or as my son says: “it’s an invitation, not a subpoena,” Norcross explains. In other words, “it’s not another thing to be jammed in between exercise and community service and work and kids. Rather, it’s a privilege, a pleasure, a moment to stop, a chance to breathe.”
“Grab the morning coffee and look outside and breathe! Take a moment to see where the sun is coming up and breathe! Take a backyard safari and use the same attentiveness you would to a trip to the Grand Canyon to your own backyard. And breathe!”
Norcross also encourages people to take comfort in nature’s own resilience. “We see trees whose roots are impossibly clinging to barren rocks on a riverbank. We see others that are gnarled and split and twisted and yet still reach to the sun with new leaves…We see small plants that are pushing up through rocks…These are the things that continue to give us hope and encourage us to hold on.”
Norcross doesn’t think this is just an issue for adults. “I might add here, too, that it is impossible for our children to learn science and math without experiencing first-hand curiosity and wonder about nature.”