Dwelling in the Wild Places, Welcoming the Light

Advent Meditations on Multispecies and Interspiritual Encounter

by Ed Sloane

For the last several months—since June—along with my friend and colleague, Michael, I have been involved in a spiritual adventure. Oddly, this adventure doesn’t require going anywhere. It is an adventure in the arts of dwelling. Out of a desire to live in greater spiritual kinship with all life in a place and to deepen our sense of justice to include more-than-human beings, we began an experiment in faith and worship in and around our home of Wheeling, WV (situated in the Upper Ohio River South watershed), which we have come to call Wild Church West Virginia. You can read more about our adventure from Michael here

 Cows at the New Vrindaban Temple Goshalla (Cow Shelter) | Photo by Ed Sloane

Cows at the New Vrindaban Temple Goshalla (Cow Shelter) | Photo by Ed Sloane

We began this experiment in “rewilding our faith” out of a conviction that encounter with God and one another should not be limited or bounded by institutional walls. By stepping outside and going to the margins we can more readily encounter the mystery of God. ‘Re-wilding’ builds bridges where boundaries have caused division, cultivates an expansive sense of community and belonging, and honors difference while attending to points of commonality.

As we begin to know and feel with the human and more-than-human others with whom we dwell in a place we see that we are more connected and share more in common—something we would have never experienced if we chose to remain hermetically sealed in our own little institutional containers. Rewilding allows us to live in a more connected and capacious world, or, better, to acknowledge that the world is a composite of worlds and worldings. It has been such a joy to cultivate interspiritual friendships and to expand our sense of justice and kinship to include the more-than-human cohabitors with whom we share our place. Dwelling in the wild places, those dark corners of self, society, and season where the dividing lines are less visible and where the marginalized often make their home, forces us to focus our attention, or to pay attention, in a different way that seems especially suitable for the season of Advent. We have to slow down and let our eyes adjust. We have to pull others closer so that we might gently warm one another.

At our last liturgy, as Michael recounts, this praxis of dwelling occurred in beautiful fashion. We celebrated Advent/Christmas alongside our Vaishnava Hindu (often referred to as Hare Krishna) friends in their Goshalla (Cow Shelter) alongside many of the cows who call this place home. Happily, the cows were often vocal participants, offering their own joyful noise during song and prayer. In what follows, I offer some reflection on the readings from our last liturgy.[1]

wild looking cow.jpg

As the days grow shorter and colder, at least here in my little corner of the global North that is West Virginia, I am more aware of darkness in our world and in my own life. Before electricity and central heating, when life was somewhat more attuned to the rhythms of the earth and its seasons, this was a time of expectant waiting for the return of light to the Earth.[2] Location aside, light seems to be a potent symbol of hope for the dark nights of soul, society, and season. Both Vedic and Christian Scriptures draw upon this symbolic resonance. Further, both traditions connect the imagery of Divine Light to the expectant hope for a better world characterized by peace, harmony, and justice for all beings.

In the hymn to Usas, the Daughter of Heaven, The Rig-Veda proclaims, “Dawn comes shining like a Lady of Light, stirring to life all creatures…Beam forth your light to guide and sustain us, prolonging, O Goddess, our days. Give to us food, grant us joy, chariots and cattle and horses” (Rig Veda VII, 77).[3] In Christian tradition, the candles of the Advent wreath call to mind hope, peace, joy, and love and the light of God, which Christians believe is Christ, entering into the world. The words of the prophet Isaiah offer a vision of a world transformed by the light of God. As we read, “he shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.” Isaiah is clear too that this transformed world includes the more-than-human, “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid…They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain” (Isaiah 11: 3-4, 6, 9). However, both the Vedic and Judeo-Christian traditions make clear that while the light’s dawning is inevitable our ability to notice it is not. Our own action and awareness is necessary. The question is, how are we to orient our action and attention; in what manner should we practice dwelling?

Christ is born into a world in which there is no place for him

Capaciousness is also an important theme for the Advent Season. After all, as we read in the Gospel of Luke, Christ is born into a world in which there is no place for him. People in Bethlehem are busy, preoccupied with other concerns, and they cannot, or will not, prepare a place in their lives for the divine. More to the point, they are hermetically sealed in their own worlds. They occupy a space in which they do not really dwell. As we hear, Mary “wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7).  It is often passed over that Jesus is born among more-than-human beings. It is these, and those who live in something of a symbiosis with them (those who synch their lives to the rhythms of the more-than-human, ie. the shepherds), who first give witness to the birth of the new light, the Son of God. They dwell in such a way that they have a place to both notice and welcome this other.

In the Vedic scripture, The Rig-Veda, cows are identified as a sacred animal, acting as a conduit to the divine. As Raimundo Panikkar explains, “the Vedic world often utilizes the cow as a symbol. Cows draw the car of Dawn and are also called its beams; reference is made to the rain cloud as a cow and even the Gods are sometimes said to be born of cows. For Men [sic], cows represent riches and all the blessings of a happy earthly existence” (Rig Veda VI, 28).[4] These images suggest fascinating multispecies and interspiritual crossings. Echoing the story of the more-than-human species making space for Christ, the light of the world, cows draw light into the world; cows give birth to the divine. The Rig-Veda takes us further than the Christian Scriptures. Not only do cows witness to the divine, they actually bring the divine into our lives. The Rig-Veda offers a vision of multispecies play and symbiosis in which ecological processes co-mingle, and life is a co-creative venture.

Our tendency, especially in the West, has been to separate from the more-than-human, to define the Other as less-than-human (and therefore inferior and uncivilized), and to exhaust and extract rather than cultivate and nurture.

This encourages us to shift our ethical thinking away from stewardship and toward kinship as a principle to orient our action and attention. It seems that from these scriptures it is the more-than-human who are much more effective stewards of the divine than we humans. Our tendency, especially in the West, has been to separate from the more-than-human, to define the Other as less-than-human (and therefore inferior and uncivilized), and to exhaust and extract rather than cultivate and nurture. But, to echo Isaiah, this is not the way of the Peaceable Kingdom in which none shall hurt or destroy.

As an ethic suitable for rewilding our faith, for embarking on the adventure of dwelling, kinship challenges us to let go of the enlightened paternalism of stewardship, which leaves us with the comfort of control and the conviction that we know best what is needed. Becoming kin, embracing an Other as friend and coequal, and as a subject with whom our own being and becoming is mixed on some deep level is, of course, a challenging space in which to dwell. It means we might be changed. It means that this other human or more-than-human might know better and have something to teach!

Christians have been comfortable with the stewardship ethic, because it echoes other tendencies toward enlightened paternalism to which we sometimes fall prey. Indeed, it is tempting to take the fact that The Rig-Veda and Hinduism precede Christianity and suggest that Christ fulfills and completes these earlier revelations. Christians often fall to this temptation. Humans more generally, mainly Western humans, fall to this temptation too. We like to think in linear terms. Our religion, our species, our civilization is the more evolved, the more complete. Wild Church, and the interspiritual and multispecies encounters it provides, and an ethic of kinship encourage a different thinking about how we situate ourselves in time and place, and in relationship to the Divine. When we attune ourselves to the rhythms of the Earth we find that other beings and other traditions continue to cultivate and enrich the mystery of God.

Anthropogenic (human induced) climate change, the fruit of Western intoxication with colonialism and consumer capitalism, requires we become more attentive to how we dwell in place, how we make our homes, and how we encounter difference. Interestingly enough, when we attune ourselves to one very specific place, our world becomes much larger. In fact, we discover that what we once understood as our world, our place, is really in fact a shared commons that is composed of many worlds, which are distinct enough that we can learn something and be invited to think about our own world-making in new ways, but similar enough that we have something to talk about and share. I don’t have much faith, hope, or love for the future of the ‘world’ we now occupy. There is too much destruction, pain, and exclusion there. In this present darkness though, I do believe in the advent of new light. I do seek to attune my heart that I might hear in the hymns sung by my more-than-human kin and my more-than-Christian friends a proclamation that a different world, or, better, the flourishing of many once excluded worlds is possible and that all beings might some day dwell together in the wilds of the Peaceable Kingdom(s).

Ed Sloane is a doctoral candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. His research focuses on place and community based pedagogy in religious education and multispecies justice. Ed also serves as chair of the West Virginia Chapter and is a board member for the Catholic Committee of Appalachia. He is the co-coordinator of Wild Church West Virginia. 

[1] The readings were, in order from the liturgy: Rig Veda VII, 77; Isaiah 11: 1-9; Luke 2: 1-20; Rig Veda VI, 28. The readings from the Rig Veda can be found in Raimundo Panikkar, Mantramanjari, The Vedic Experience: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977): 169-70; 286-8.

[2] I think it worth reflecting on the ways that electric lighting screws with this symbolism. When electricity, and the privileges attached to it, provides endless distractions, fuelling consumer lifestyles and ecological damage, should our hearts long for darkness? How has the taken for granted, and silently destructive, character of lighting shaped the imagination of the privileged? How do those who do not have access to electric lighting, or those who constantly worry that their economic marginalization might result in the loss of light experience the lack or loss of light in their lives?

[3] In Raimundo Panikkar, Mantramanjari, The Vedic Experience: An Anthology of the Vedas for Modern Man and Contemporary Celebration (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977): 169-70.

[4] Ibid., 286-8.