As a teenager, several of my friends had “gone veg” for a variety of reasons: animal rights, environmental, health, political, and so on. And so the conversations among us began. Krishna devotees I knew, though, situated all of these very good arguments for vegetarianism within a wider spiritual context that I, as a fairly typical young Catholic omnivore, found intriguing—and eventually very challenging to my own worldview and lifestyle as I entered adulthood. Though it would take a few more years, after college I realized that through these encounters I had come to internalize an evolving commitment to nonviolence, to seeing creation as sacred, and to understanding eating as a religious act—or better, a sacred or sacramental act. I have been vegetarian, and sometimes vegan, ever since. And when people ask about my reasoning—whether it is for animals rights, environmental, health, or religious reasons—I simply say all of the above.
Becoming a Catholic vegetarian at that point in my life, and before I entered into graduate theological programs and various forms of church and activist work, helped me to enter a path of discovery of resources within my own faith community that witness to a neglected but important tradition of concern for animals, one that is now, thankfully, becoming more well-known and widespread. In the twenty years since I’ve embraced vegetarianism, I have watched the development of deeper reflection on animals among Catholics: a richer appreciation for the care of animals from our tradition’s past, as well as creative expressions of “animal theology” among Catholic theologians, often deeply connected with wider social justice and “life” issues and with more recent eco-theologies as well. This recent reflection has even arguably “trickled up” into “official” church teaching, as concern for animals is seen in the Catholic Catechism and in the teaching of Pope Benedict, and most recently as Pope Francis affirmed the intrinsic worth of animals in his encyclical Laudato Si’.
The gifts I received from these early interspiritual friendships did not end with my own vegetarianism, however. Often, when Christians open themselves to encounter with other faith traditions and learn what they teach about vegetarianism or meditation, they realize that their own traditions contain lesser-known ideas and practices along these lines as well. And they are then content to return to a Christian context which now “meets their needs,” thankful to non-Christians for bringing to their attention aspects of Christian tradition they had not previously seen. While these kinds of revelations are certainly worthy of celebration, I have come to appreciate a more relational and dynamic approach to interspiritual friendships.
Since returning to the Ohio Valley after a time away, I have been blessed with continuing and deepening (and multiplying!) interspiritual friendships with people of many faiths, including members of the New Vrindaban community. Together, in both informal and formal ways, we have initiated a number of local practices of interspiritual friendship, not only to “take” from one another, or to become more aware of obscured aspects of our own traditions, as valuable as these might be, but to nurture real friendships; to share experiences of common worship and contemplation; to enter together into that Holy Mystery within, between, and beyond the words of our particular traditions; and to work together as people of many faiths to create a better world.
One of the ways we have done this is through a small interspiritual community we are calling Wild Church West Virginia. My friend and colleague Ed Sloane and I had heard of the outdoor Eucharistic liturgies of the ecumenical Wild Church Network and Watershed Discipleship movement, and thought it would be appropriate to explore the possibility of a Wild Church community here in West Virginia, bringing to it the uniqueness of the place where we are rooted. From our Catholic context, it seemed especially fitting given our own involvement in the Catholic Committee of Appalachia (CCA) and the Roman Catholic Church’s ecological turn under the leadership of Pope Francis.
Inspired by CCA’s place-based liberation theology, Francis’ theological vision of global eco-justice, and the Wild Church Network’s various expressions of deep ecological liturgy—and deeply moved by the interspiritual experimentation of Bede Griffith’s Saccidananda Ashram (Shantivanam) and the monthly Yeshu Satsang in Toronto—Wild Church West Virginia was born on Pentecost Sunday 2017. Our current mission statement reads:
Wild Church West Virginia is an experiment in “re-wilding our faith.” We believe that many people of faith and good will seek a connection with God and one another that is not limited by institutional walls. Loving encounter grounds and nurtures tradition. By stepping outside and going to the margins we can more readily encounter the mystery of God.
Our monthly outdoor agape meal liturgies witness both to the goodness and brokenness of creation. We have gathered in the hilly, wooded terrain of land connected to Bethany College in West Virginia and in the breathtaking natural “cathedral” of Raven Rocks in Southeast Ohio. Yet we also plan to gather at ecologically damaged places—mountaintop removal sites and street corners which represent to us the destructive social environments humans have constructed and which cry out for justice.
As the community grew, we saw that many people attracted to Wild Church West Virginia were from non-Christian faith traditions, or people alienated from various Christian churches, or people who, like us, share a deep curiosity about “other” faiths and believe that we can and should celebrate with and learn from one another. Though rooted in the Catholic tradition, we soon, very consciously, made more of an effort to become a wildly inclusive, interspiritual community that acknowledges the holiness of the many names of the Divine and welcomes people of all religious traditions to the table.
For our December Wild Church liturgy on the second Sunday of Advent, we worked with a number of devotee friends to hold an Advent/Christmas celebration at New Vrindaban’s goshala (cow shelter), part of their cow protection program. Gathering in the chilly barn among the community’s cows, the interspiritual and multispecies liturgy celebrated Christ coming into the world among people of many faiths and among other-than-human animals, blending Hindu and Christian chants and hymns accompanied by harmonium and guitar (including “The Friendly Beasts”) and readings from Vedic, Hebrew, and Christian scriptures. Ed gave a rich homily on the readings, stressing the unique ability that animals have to teach humans about the Divine and reminding us how fitting it is that animals and their caretakers were the first to welcome the coming of the Light of the World. The lay-led agape meal’s offertory included a Hindu arati service led by a devotee (including the waving of lights before the altar and icons), and we blessed and shared locally made bread and apple juice made from local apples—no wine, as devotees abstain from alcohol. The liturgy was followed by a short kirtan with communal chants to Krishna under the name Gopala (“protector of the cows”) and a sharing of prasadam, a vegetarian sanctified meal, in this case paneer over spinach rice.