This is an excerpt from Victoria’s book, Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us into the Sacred, which will be released on October 5 in bookstores near you. The book is a love story, her own journey from traditional Christian worship to a more inclusive beloved community that expands to the whole creation. “Church of the wild is not a new, trendy form of church for people who shop at REI and backpack the Pacific Crest Trail. Gathering with intention and an open heart in the ‘wildish’ spaces outside of buildings is more than connecting with the natural world in order to reduce your blood pressure or obtain any of the other proven benefits of time spent in nature. It’s not even a sneaky way to get religious people to care about climate change. It is a movement of people who are taking seriously the call from Spirit and from Earth to restore a dangerous fissure. Spirituality and nature are not separate.” ((Victoria Loorz, Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us into the Sacred, (Broadleaf Press: MN, 2021) p 6.))
“We are between stories.
The old story is no longer effective.
Yet we have not learned ‘the new story.’
We are talking only to ourselves.
We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars.
We have broken the great conversation.
By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe.”
-Thomas Berry ((Thomas Berry, “Befriending the Earth: A Theology of Reconciliation between Humans and the Earth (Mystic, CT: Twenty-Third, 1991) p 20.))
For me, the call to step into my particular role in “restoring the great conversation” came in an implausible encounter with a great horned owl in the foothills of the Grand Tetons. A raven, drawing me off the trail and into the woods, flew straight to a great horned owl in the middle of the afternoon, resting on a branch not too far off the ground. For a half hour, the owl and I regarded one another. An I-and-Thou encounter. A conversation of silence and mutual respect. One of those deep encounters where you sense something holy is happening but you don’t really have words for it. After she flew away, a voice from deep within me — from God and from the owl herself somehow — spoke clearly as I walked away, “You need to be ordained by the wild.” And then, “Rewild the church.”
Ordained by the Wild
What does it mean to be ordained by the wild? How am I supposed to rewild the church? When you find yourself on the receiving end of an implausible and ridiculous call, it is a good idea to hold it closely, reverently, and with tender curiosity. And don’t waste too much time trying to figure it out. The call comes from Mystery, which remains mysterious no matter what.
Saying yes to an implausible calling into full participation with the Great Story actually requires a kind of arrogance. An “arrogance of belonging” is what David Whyte named it when talking about what we need in order to live our most creative and adventurous and expressive lives. The arrogance of belonging simply says, “I am here. I belong here. I have a role here in the whole.” It took me a while to learn that.
At this threshold of collapse and new life where we are standing now, our full engagement is too urgently needed to mess around with false humility. It takes a degree of arrogance, holy arrogance of belonging, to say yes and step into the unknown, trusting that you will know what to do as you take the steps. Holy arrogance is also paradoxically humble. As part of a great, interconnected story, we are never called to act alone.
I have no illusions that I am single-handedly responsible for “rewilding the church.” The sacred experience with a great horned owl has, though, helped me discern the seeds of purpose in my life. I remain an edge walker on the fringe of the Christ tradition, even as I reckon with the multiple extreme and heartbreaking ways the church has harmed people. Still, I love her in her brokenness and cannot fully walk away. I did for seven years, and I needed to. But now I feel compassion for the wild truth and love embodied by Jesus, which has been buried beneath centuries of distortion by men of the patriarchal system who didn’t get it. And I feel wholehearted about the vocation of reconnecting nature and spirit, church and wild.
Any of you with a similar call to reconnection will be asked to live fully into the full expression of your own characteristic gifts in order “to assist the world in renewing herself,” as storyteller and truth sayer Michael Meade puts it. He uses the term genius to describe the unique gifts and essence of each person, called into service to the world: “As resident spirit of the soul, the genius in each of us is both our natural connection to nature and our secret connection to the divine.” Intimacy with nature, he agrees, helps us to remember that we belong to a greater story. Our call is to learn our unique and important role in advancing that story. Meade asks, “Could nature, now overburdened and sorely mistreated, be calling on each of us to take up the thread of genius that is closest to our own nature and set to the work of helping to reimagine and reweave the whole divine thing?” ((Michael Meade, The Genius Myth (Seattle: Green Fire, 2016), 12.)) I think so.
Ordain: to command, to destine, to order
To be ordained is to be called into service, to accept holy orders. It is a sacrament in the Christian tradition, but some form of ordination is practiced in Buddhism, Judaism, and (with different words) in just about every other tradition, as well. Ordination is not necessarily just for priests either. An ordination is important to ritually mark a vow of fidelity to a calling. At first, ordination just meant an order for a particular vocation. From the queens to the priests to the ones who lit the candles, all were ordained with respectful ceremonies.
But in the twelfth century, something happened with Christian ordination. Given the problems the church was creating as it distorted itself with state power, it is not surprising that ordination shifted. It became a ritual that affirmed only religious vocation, which appropriated power to men (and only men), elevating them above the “laity.” Women who were already ordained—and there were many women leaders in the church until then—were actually unordained. It took another eight centuries to undo their undoing.
Without getting too caught up in the folly of powerful men in charge of the church in the Middle Ages and beyond, I do want to honor the sacrament of ordination and imagine what a wild ordination might look like. How could ordination help us to treat the vows we have made or will make to serve the world—the whole, wild world—with dignity?
I am not suggesting an institutional ritual. Wild ordination is not even an essential part of starting a wild church community (though you may want to consider it if you do start your own church of the wild). But I looked into the diverse ordination processes for several different denominations and found that there are some commonalities. Most of them included these steps: a call, a preparation, lots of committees and questions to answer, a ceremony, and placement into service.
Imagining a Wild Ordination
In wild ordination, it is the wild that calls you into service. It’s not the hierarchy. The calling comes when it comes, from whomever it comes, and at the right time. I can’t be more specific than that. What I know though is that we are deeply interconnected with a world yearning to be whole again. I have heard people say that Earth doesn’t need humans for her wholeness, and that without humans, Earth would be just fine, thank you. I get it. But we are part of Earth and our stubborn attempts to disconnect have led to an unraveling that affects not just the parts (species extinction, habitat destruction, wars, and oppression) but the whole. There must be an essential role that humans play in the whole system’s healing, as well.
The biologist Andreas Weber relates the same message for us today: “Earth is currently suffering from a shortage of our love.”((5 Andreas Weber, Matter and Desire: An Erotic Ecology (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2017), 67.)) Falling in love with particular places and beings, like particular people, means that we open our hearts to groan as we feel the pain of others as our own. The whole creation is waiting for the awakening of wild human souls to restore the broken relationship, in all the magnificently diverse ways. We are all in this together.
Buddhist mystic and spiritual ecologist Joanna Macy told a story during a recent webinar with Seminary of the Wild that she has told many times before. She recounted a meeting with deep ecologist John Seed, who is a radically successful forest activist. When Joanna asked him how he had the courage to stand there, alone, facing giant bulldozers meant to destroy an ancient forest, he said that he sensed the forest rising behind him. He felt himself rooted in the immensely larger beings that had called him into service. He said, “I was no longer John Seed, protecting the rainforest. I was the rainforest protecting herself through this little piece of humanity I cradled into existence.”((John Seed and Joanna Macy, Thinking like a Mountain: Towards a Council of All Beings (Gabriola, BC: New Society, 1988), 1.))
It is worth saying again: we are not separate from nature. We simply are a part of nature that comes in this particular human form, with our own particular interests and gifts and flaws and voice. We humans who can hear the call are urgently needed. The rainforest is calling us, the deer are calling us, the open vast sky suffering invisibly with too much carbon is calling us, the rabid fox is calling us. What is your role in this love story of reconnection, restoration, and compassion? What part of the sacred wild is calling you to be ordained into service on her behalf?
ReWilding Sacred Vows
Many religious ordinations require an extended time of preparation: seminary, internships, spiritual direction, and so on. I think the word that fits a wild ordination would be something like apprenticeship. When you hear a call from the wild, it can take years to live into it. Apprenticing to those beings or places that reveal the sacred to you is an act of learning from them, honoring their wisdom, and learning skills. It is more than an encounter. It takes time, learning to listen to the wild beings who may have beckoned you into relationship.
In an institutional ordination, you often have to study to come up with the right answers to the questions you’re asked by a thousand committees. But in a wild ordination, the questions come more in the form of a conversation, and there are never wrong answers. The committees are diverse interactions with trees and gnats and sunsets, and they meet at unexpected moments like when the crimson leaves let go and fall to the ground or the shoreline erodes suddenly into the sea. The conversation weaves a new story within you. And you, in turn, help to weave the new story emerging through all of us.
Ordination ceremonies in churches are usually a big deal: a full mass with regalia and choirs and bishops, and there’s usually a confirmation question or twenty asked. Something like,1“And will you, in accordance with the canons of this Church, obey your bishop and other ministers who may have authority over you and your work?” Obedience is unsurprisingly important in an institutional ordination.
In a wild ordination, the questions you might be asked are more along the lines of the first ordination, issued by Jesus to Peter at the shore, beside his boat where he was fishing. Using the language of deep relationality, Jesus asked him, “Peter, do you love me?” And Peter said something like, “Oh my God, yes, I love you.” Three times Peter affirmed his love. Three times Jesus said to him, “Okay, then, go feed my sheep.”
“Do you love me?” Earth asks, the deer ask, the remaining oak tree in the park asks. And you say, “yes.”
“Will you speak for those whose voices have not been heard?” And you say, “yes.”
“Will you represent the wild ones whose authentic worth has been disregarded for too many generations, to recover and rescue and restore them?” And you say yes in the way only you can. “Okay, well done, go and feed my sheep.” And so you do. In the way only you can.
The Call to Restore Sacred Relationship with Earth
You will likely feel a bit intimidated by your particular call into service, once you hear it from the deepest level of your soul. It will require that you reframe the old stories that keep you safe…and small. It will require, as well, a movement from me to we. A fidelity to my part of a greater story that includes all of us. We can only do what we are uniquely called to do in relationship with one another. In relationship with the land, herself.
The implausible calls from the sacred heard through relationship with great horned owls or a colony of bees or a field of marigolds or even a glimmer in your child’s eye are never meant to be realized fully on your own. It’s like the old story about the three sisters who responded to the problem of the babies drowning in the river. It’s told in many different ways. I tell it this way: One sister ran to rescue as many babies as she could, urging her two sisters to come join her. But her two sisters run away, up the river. The second sister went to see where the children were falling in and began building fences and barriers to protect them. She called to her sister, “Help me! There is too much work to do this on my own!” But the third sister ran farther up the river to the village to teach the children how to swim. The moral of this story is summarized by Mark Pullam, elder of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz, in the question he asks at the end: “Which sister did the right thing?”((Mark Pullam, “Native Story of Three Sisters Offers a View into These Troubled Times,” Yachats News, April 12, 2020.))
The answer, of course, is that all the sisters did the right thing. They saved the babies not because of any one of their efforts but because of all of them. All of our efforts are important, and we need one another—or our implausible callings do become impossible.
The work we are all being called to do to restore relationship with the earth as sacred is both dangerous and liberating. The system won’t like it. Living true to your wild ordination and reconnecting with the wild sacred disrupts the status quo. It is inherently countercultural because we are creating a new, more compassionate, and regenerative culture and community and religion and everything. You might get called a pantheist or a heretic or a dirt-worshipping tree hugger. You might get accused of leading the sheep astray. But we are simply leading the sheep back into the wilderness where they belong.
We are making the road by walking, as poet Antonio Machado says. Nobody has all the answers. There are no operating manuals. This kin-dom of God, the new and yet ancient story, is emerging through us. We are defining what the world will be like for our great-grandchildren and for the remaining species on Earth. We are forging new ways, like deer paths, off the trail. For those who are rushing by, the deer paths are overlooked, nearly invisible. But if you are wandering slowly, pausing to listen for the sacred sparkling in the raindrops on the tips of the needles in the trees, you’ll see the trails easily.