Sanctuaries are places of refuge where a sense of the sacred emanates so powerfully that those who enter feel infused by that essence.
But occasionally we can experience sanctuary not as a place we enter but as a moment that enters us.
Last weekend, April 22, I had the privilege of co-leading a service with Stephen Blackmer at his Church of the Woods in Canterbury, New Hampshire. When Harper’s Magazine published an article about Steve, “Priest of the Woods,” a couple of years ago, about half a dozen of my friends sent it to me and urged me to get in touch with him.
I did, and he has been a friend of Radical Joy for Hard Times ever since. Recently, I decided to visit him and attend one of his services, and to my delight, he invited me to join him for the Earth Day service.
Several years ago, when Steve started hearing voices telling him he was to become a priest, he resisted mightily. He was an agnostic, a forester, an environmental activist, and he was not interested. But the voice would not be still, and in the course of exploring where it led him, he has carved out a beautiful liturgy and worship affiliated with the Episcopal Church, yet centered on the natural world. The prayers and reflections are related to nature. Every service includes time for the congregants to spend alone in contemplation in the woods or by one of the deep, mossy pools, and when they regather, they can share what they discovered. (Jesus never went to the temple to pray, Steve points out, he went to the mountains and desert.)
As for me, I grew up in the Episcopal church, but I have not associated with that religion or any other for many years. Still, I am fascinated with the spiritual search in all its forms, with the quest—and the questers—for that which is beyond the ordinary, that which connects all beings, that which transcends reason.
I drove up to New Hampshire on Saturday, and Steve took me for a tour of his church. Truly, this church is not in the woods, it is the woods.
I love being shown a special place by a person who loves it, and this walk would have been a treat if we had just walked around and said nothing. But as Steve and I walked, we would stop occasionally and have these marvelous little dialogues:
Is nature sacred?
Or does it bear the sacred?
What was going on in your life when you started hearing those
What does it mean to say that nature is alive?
I think this pool tolerates, but does not invite.
In those moments, with ice still coating the black north-facing wetlands and wood frogs awakening in the warmer southern ponds, with sun dappling the hemlock woods, and periodic pauses to delve into questions like this, I thought, This moment is a sanctuary. It is a place of peace, beauty, and delight. Its depth is bottomless.
Momentary sanctuaries can pop up at any time. The trick is to catch them and marvel.
What are some recent Momentary Sanctuaries in your life?
(Photo above: Rev. Stephen Blackmer (center), Bishop Rob Hirschfeld, Bishop of New Hampshire (right), and me at the newly blessed Church of the Woods well, where the congregation made an act of beauty.