How Nature Invites Us into the Sacred- Victoria Loorz
The divine communicates to us
primarily through the language of the natural world.
Not to hear the natural world is not to hear the divine.
—Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe
On the edge of the barranca, behind the 1970s Southern California suburb where I was a teenager, among the sagebrush and valley oaks, I had a Place. Before it was completely developed into million-dollar homes, this canyon’s edge of the barranca was my Place. I never brought anyone else there. I never talked about it to anyone. It was a secret.
I liked the getting there nearly as much as the being there. The path wandered through tall-as-me wheat- looking weeds that squeaked when you pulled the heads out. Boulders and even taller brushes of scrubby sage and laurel sumac defined a particular path, a deer trail that looped around the edges of the barranca wall.
The entrance was appropriately hidden. To recognize it, you needed to train your eyes and leave markers like stones atop one another or a small ribbon tied to a broken branch. It took me several visits before the homing beacon of the Place would draw me there without annoying backtracking. But once I knew precisely where to pull aside the scratchy pointed leaves of the sprawling oak brush, my Place would be revealed. It was a small clearing on a scrubby cliff that looked out over a mysterious campground that I couldn’t quite see.
The acoustics of the canyon allowed me to listen in on entire conversations of strangers at the campground who didn’t realize the walls amplified their voices. I felt deliciously invisible, imagining whole lives of the unseen but clearly heard people beneath the rocks sixty feet below me.
But the humans were not my primary interest. The hawks were. The lizards and the spiders were. The cloud structures. The warm Santa Ana winds. A particular scrub jay stopped being a bird in the background and became a sacred other: one whom I encountered in second person. She became familiar to me, and I would look for her every time I visited.
I made a circle with rocks. And around that, a square with sticks. And inside the circle, a triangle with three branches. I was adapting a symbol I knew from YMCA camp: a cross in the middle of a triangle in the middle of a square in the middle of a circle. It just didn’t look right to me, so I rearranged it. In the middle of the triangle, where the cross is supposed to go, was the space for me. From this vantage point, at the crest of the barranca cliff, protected by amulets of ritual I didn’t fully understand, I would sit. And listen. And watch.
Twice a year, sheep grazed in the fields on the other side of the canyon. Sheep. In fields, baaing. Seriously. In my suburban California town. That doesn’t happen anymore, but even then it felt surreal. They even had little cowbell collars. It was so enchanting that those sheep still show up in my dreams. In my world of swim meets, algebra exams, and long notes to my best friend left in her locker, these sheep were threshold totems, inviting me into another world.
Once, near dawn, a single, curious doe came to see what I was doing. She didn’t notice me at first, but when our eyes locked, she didn’t run. As we stared at each other, I saw her alarm melt into curiosity, and some kind of deep knowing passed between us. I didn’t even try to understand it; I felt honored and grateful. It was a sacred moment, though I didn’t use those words then.
I longed for her return every time I went to my Place. In fact, the hope of seeing her again was half the impetus to head out there at least once a week. She only returned once, which was a little disappointing and confusing, until I read about a similar encounter Mary Oliver captured in her poem, “The Place I Want to Get Back To.” The poem, which is about a numinous visit by two does, explains that “such gifts, bestowed, can’t be repeated” . They can, however, become beacons to show you the way. Numinous presence through deer became an important beckoning toward the divine for me, a gentle nudge to pay attention.
I didn’t know it then, but I was learning ceremony. I was learning to meditate. I was learning prayer. I was learning that God is found in the bushes, hidden from the trail, in communication with the birds and the wind, and in the trusting visit of the deer. My Place was slowly turning into our Place as I recognized that I belonged to a much larger story.
It took many years before I had a clue that this private ritual I had as a teenager was calling me into relation-ship with the land, the world, the sacred, and my own soul. I was unaware that the relationship I built with this particular place held the DNA for a calling and expression of vocation that would develop in my life. I didn’t realize that this little sanctuary was an initiation into my own direct experience of God—my first church of the wild.
PAID RECORDED PROGRAM
Wild Spirituality: A Five Part Online Course to Restore the Conversation Between Nature and the Sacred
Victoria will introduce you to spiritual practices that will allow you to experience the natural world as teacher, companion, and kin and to enter into an actual relationship with specific places and living beings that can provide an embodied, rooted foundation for your transformation and that of the Earth.
FREE RECORDED PROGRAM
How Nature Invites Us Into the Sacred: A Freee Online Talk
Nearly forty years later, a small group of brave souls launched Ojai Church of the Wild with me. I’d been imagining it for a few years: a way to redefine church and reconnect with nature by meeting outside, without walls that block out the rest of the world. Under a cathedral of live oak branches, the altar would be a mandala created with acorns and dried leaves and rusted bits of barbed wire. I longed for church to be a place where Mystery is experienced, not explained.
The core of the service would be an invitation to wander on our own, to connect with the natural world at our own contemplative pace. We would find or create spiritual practices that re-member ourselves back into our home terrain as full participants. Reading from the “first book of God”—which is what the ancients called nature—the liturgies would include the whole world, not just humans. And instead of sermons from one preacher, we would learn how to enter into conversation with the living world. Sitting in a circle, not in rows, we would share our wanderings with one another and listen for the voice of the sacred in the sermons of the trees and the gnats and the crows.
And that’s what we did. After twenty years as a pastor of traditional indoor churches, I walked out the chapel doors and into the sanctuary of the oak trees. A small group of us put ancient-yet-new spiritual practices into place that reconnect us with the living world as sacred. And called it church.
“We are in trouble because we do not have a good story,” Catholic priest and evolutionary theologian Thomas Berry often said. “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.”
Over the last thirty years I’ve wrestled with this broken conversation as a pastor of indoor churches, a climate activist, a mother, and now as a guide who leads people in spiritual practices that reconnect them with the natural world. I’ve discovered something I’ve known deep down all along but never had the cultural, religious, or even internal permission to embrace: spirituality and nature are not separate. Attempts to keep them apart break the world.
These times restore that conversation. In doing so, we participate in the emergence of the new story. It will emerge through us.
The old story continues to be exposed as a story constructed in service to white supremacy and patriarchy. I’m writing this in the days of the COVID-19 pandemic, watching helplessly as forests on the West Coast burn and the ice in the Arctic melts. Ongoing police violence against Black people has triggered protests that are finally starting to wake up white people. At least some. There is not a single institution unaffected.
We are staring at the slow-motion collapse of an empire. Standing at the threshold of profound change.
We as a society are being asked to reckon with the reality that a select few have benefitted from a patriarchal society that has taken the gift of life on Earth and treated it as a right. Those in the dominant Western culture have demanded not just the fruit of the tree but the whole tree—and the water and sun and birds and beetles too— and consumed it all as if they were the only ones who mattered. As if the rest of Earth were here for their taking. For a person, group, or species to act as if they are the only ones who matter, they need to strip the inherent worth of those they wish to dominate and objectify them. Otherwise, domination is impossible.
Professor, philosopher, author, and visionary Carol Wayne White observed the same root of objectification underlying racial oppression, citing a “lethal combination of intimately conjoined white supremacy and species supremacy. . . . Both of these impulses—white supremacy and species supremacy—evoke a hierarchical model of nature built on the ‘great chain of being’ concept, and they have produced violent and harmful consequences.”
The hierarchy that Dr. White names is deeply embedded in every aspect of our society and worldview. The needs and desires of those on the top of the pyramid are prioritized. Everyone and everything else is objectified and valued according to their usefulness by those on top. Forests become lumber. Cows become beef. Deer become game. Land becomes private property. People of color become cheap labor or a threat.
A false belief system of separation and dominance is opposed to every system of life, with disastrous consequences ecologically, spiritually, culturally, socially, economically, and every other-ly you can think of. These worldviews are so deeply embedded that it takes a lot of effort to even see them, much less change them.
The layers of crises and cruelty we face will not be solved with technological, political, or economic strategies alone. A deeper transformation of heart is necessary to welcome in a new story. Moving away from a worldview and a way of life that treats others as a “collection of objects” toward a new way of being human that participates honorably in a vast “communion of subjects” is what Thomas Berry calls “the Great Work.”
The Great Work is spiritual at the core. Gus Speth, an environmental attorney, ecologist, and climate advocate, has summarized the problem brilliantly: “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. . . . But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfish-ness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”
Do we spiritual people know how to do that? I spent twenty plus years in church leadership, and spiritual transformation was rarely, if ever, connected with actual cultural change that addresses these problems. I also spent a dozen years as a nonprofit leader in the climate movement, where spiritual transformation meant something more like “engaging faith communities” in the campaign of the moment. But it rarely meant developing a new way of life, directed by a spirituality that deepened relation-ship with the land and waters and species we were seeking to protect.
The spiritual transformation that both scientists and spiritual people are all calling for is not about bringing nature inside for the church to remember that God’s love covers everything. It’s not about having churches play nature sounds on cassette tapes. It’s about going out-side and spending time with the other beloved ones of Earth and offering our tender, gracious attention to their needs as well as our own. That’s what you do when you fall in love. This connection will give us the courage and the energy and even the ideas we need to challenge our prevailing consumerist mindset for the healing and restoration of our world. As simplistic as it sounds, I believe that only love is strong enough to bring about the change we need.
The new story is emerging, and I cannot pretend to know all the layers. Yet one aspect that seems essential relates to the worldview of belonging—a way of being human that acts as if we belong to a community larger than our own family, race, class, and culture, and larger even than our own species. The apocalyptic unveiling happening in our world right now makes it difficult even for those who have been sheltered in privilege to look away from the reality, both tragic and beautiful, that we are all deeply interconnected. Humans, trees, oceans, deer, viruses, bees. God.
Many people, whether they go to church regularly or avoid it, feel closest to God while they are in nature. Even a simple gaze at a full moon can be a spiritual experience if you are mindful enough. And a glorious sunset can summon hallelujahs from deep in your soul. Humans are made to engage in life-affirming conversation with the whole, holy web of life.
Those who self-identify as spiritual but not religious have told me that nature is already their church. They’ve said, “If this wild church had been an option for me, maybe I would not have left religion.” I understand. And relate. Many have been wounded, disappointed, betrayed by the institutional church or by the people who misuse the power that the institution of church gives them.
Nature, powerful though she is, doesn’t abuse her power. Re-placing our spirituality back into the actual sacred world, where it has been rooted for most of his-tory, is a way to restore our place in a more primal power embedded in systems of Earth. Wild church re-places a human “kingdom” paradigm of hierarchy, monarchy, and inequality with the power systems of Earth, which can be described as a “kin-dom” of cooperation and kindred reciprocity.
Church of the wild is one way to help us live into a new story of a kin-dom of God that includes the whole system of life and regards all humans and all species as inherently good and valuable. In this kin-dom we love neighbors—all neighbors—as ourselves. We do unto others—all others—as we would have them do unto us.
Can the world be saved by love alone? It sounds nice, like a meme with a sunset in the background. Some may want to call this a spiritual bypass: in our current state of crisis, the need for immediate and active resolution is real. Against what odds, in these coming days of unraveling, can love prevail? How can a civilization based on domination and control and selfishness and all the other disturbing things wrong with our society change into literally its opposite—before we succeed in destroying the entire planet? It’s implausible. And yet the preposterous transformative power of love at the core of nearly every religion, including my own, may just be the only way through.
Excerpted from Church of the Wild: How Nature Invites Us into the Sacred, by Victoria Loorz (Minneapolis: Broadleaf, 2021)
 “such gifts”: Mary Oliver, “The Place I Want to Get Back To,” in Thirst: Poems (Boston: Beacon, 2007), 35.
 “We are in trouble”: Thomas Berry, quoted in Mary Evelyn Tucker and Brian Thomas Swimme, “The Next Transition: The Evolution of Humanity’s Role in the Universe,” in Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, ed. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee (Point Reyes, CA: Golden Sufi Center, 2013), 59.
 “lethal combination”: Carol Wayne White, “Black Lives, Sacred Humanity, and the Racialization of Nature, or Why America Needs Religious Naturalism Today,” American Journal of Theology & Philosophy 38, no. 2–3 (May–September 2017): 111, https://doi.org/10.5406/ amerjtheophil.38.2-3.0109.
 “collection of objects”: Thomas Berry, Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, ed. Mary Evelyn Tucker (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 2006; Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010), 17. Citations refer to the Counter- point edition.
 “I used to think”: Gus Speth, quoted in Monty Don, “Religion and Nature,” October 1, 2013, in Shared Planet, BBC Radio 4, MP3 audio, 0:41, https://tinyurl.com/ 2nwahwse.
Victoria Loorz, MDiv, is a wild church pastor, an eco-spiritual director and co-founder of several transformation-focused organizations focused on the integration of nature and spirituality. She is the cofounder of the ecumenical Wild Church Network and co-founder and director of Seminary of the Wild, which is focused on a deep-dive yearlong Eco-Ministry Certificate program for all those who feel called by Earth and Spirit to “restore the great conversation.” Mother of two young adults, Victoria now calls Bellingham, Washington her home, a beautiful land along the Salish Sea on territory tended and loved for generations by the Coast Salish peoples, in particular the Nooksack and Lummi nations.