Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Holding Ourselves into a New Future

by Rabbi Katy Z. Allen
[This article was first published at Eden Keeper. Links are to other Eden Keeper articles.]

Tragedies are the staple of our days. Black youth are murdered. Police officers are killed. Grocery stores are bombed. Shootings take place in malls and offices. Bombs are dropped on civilians. Superstorms devastate coastal areas. Cancer is rampant. Angry outbursts fill social media.

We hear daily about the impact or the potential impact of climate change: rising sea levels; more intense and frequent superstorms; drought; flooding; crop failure; food shortages; acidified oceans. The list goes on and on.

What does our future bring? Is the human species in danger? What will become of our planet?

Such questions are unanswerable, but hang in the air around us day in and day out. Amid these questions, we go about our daily lives. What else can we do? We must feed ourselves and our children. We must work to pay our rent or mortgage. We must do the many tasks of daily living – cooking, cleaning, shopping, laundering.

Our reality? We live, day in and day out, with huge amounts of background stress.

How do we hold ourselves into the uncertainty of our future? How do we live with the existential threat of climate change? How do we stay sane?

One explanation can be found in an exploration of the very process of living. The past is the past forever. Each and every instant of each and every day, the actions we take and the words we say move from the present into the past, and there they stay.

What do we want our past to look like? We have no control over the existing past, but we do have control of the past that is yet to be. With each and every action we take and word we speak, we create a “new” past.

In the stress that we hold daily in our lives, what emotional and spiritual tools assist us in being capable of acting in ways that are filled with wisdom and compassion and speaking with words of truth and love?

For each of us, developing the tools to both manage stresses and find meaning and joy is the personal journey of life. And a new role is developing in our world to help us find those tools. That role is a new kind of chaplain.

A chaplain is a trained clergy person or lay person with a theological background. We are familiar with hospital chaplains and prison chaplains and university chaplains. Each of these is defined by the location, generally a secular institution, in which the chaplain works. A hospital chaplain, for example, visits those who are ill or dying, or their family members. The chaplain provides a safe and empathetic ear to hear the patient’s story, however it is told, to hear it deeply and reflect it back through words or prayer or meditation. The hospital chaplain holds the pain and suffering of the patient and family by being a non-anxious presence in the room, unafraid to name the reality of death, knowledgeable about the kinds of fears patients may hold in their hearts, skilled at building relationships and helping people feel supported.

An Earth chaplain – or nature chaplain, Creation chaplain, or eco-chaplain – is also defined by his or her place of work, on Earth, in nature, in the Created world, in the ecosystems of our planet. In other words, just about anywhere. The role of Earth chaplains is yet to be developed and defined; the field and the options are wide open, but underlying the concept of the nature chaplain is the notion that systemically and institutionally, the societies and cultures we have built are harmful to our well-being, and as a result, we are gradually and inevitably destroying the very planet upon which we all depend. Our societies have caused us to become disconnected from the Earth out of which we evolved and to enter into despair and distress in response to that disconnection.

Knowingly or unknowingly, we yearn for better connections to all Creation and we can be healed by our connections to the Earth. 

Into this space of despair and fear steps the Earth chaplain, bringing a compassionate, listening presence, unafraid to name and hold our despair, our fear, our grief, able to provide the safe space we need to voice our emotions, to facilitate our collective re-connection to each other and to the rest of the natural world, of which we are a part. Into the abyss in which we find ourselves steps the Creation chaplain, steady and empathetic, ready to provide the connections between our religious and spiritual traditions, ourselves, and the Universe that can give us the strength we need to go forward, using the tools we already have so that we can journey to yet deeper levels of understanding of ourselves and our relationship with all that is.

The Earth is the workplace of the nature chaplain.

Each of us walks through life embedded in three kinds of sacred texts. One is the text of our lives, the stories we tell of ourselves and our families and friends. One is the texts of our tradition, whether religious texts or texts of some other canon of public knowledge, texts that may range from the Bible to the Koran to the Talmud to Thoreau to Winnie the Pooh to Mary Oliver. And one is the texts of the Earth and of the Universe – the trees, the rocks, the plants, the sky, the stars, the rippling stream, the waving fields of grasses, the jagged mountain peaks, the weed poking through the sidewalk – all that is living and nonliving beyond ourselves. And when we weave these three sacred texts of our lives together – unique for each of us, shared by all of us – we create a tapestry that is more powerful and more mysterious and more wondrous than any one of these texts alone.

Myriad are the texts of the Earth chaplain.

An Earth chaplain may take a group of people outdoors, in nearby parks, woods, or fields, and guide them in ways to be more present and aware of their natural surroundings, to connect, to hear, to see, to feel the Earth at depths they may not usually experience it. A nature chaplain may provide a safe space for people to share their stories and their grief about the losses they are experiencing in relation to the physical world. A Creation chaplain may provide a secure environment in which people can search out and identify ways to live in greater harmony with the Earth. A nature chaplain may create and lead rituals and prayers that strengthen connections to other human beings, to G!d, and to the Universe.
Still to be fully explored is the work of a Creation chaplain.

The search for new ways to hold ourselves into the future is an ancient one, with new dimensions. But no one needs to search alone, and nature chaplains can help in the exploration of this journey.

In Metrowest Boston, a community nature chaplaincy program is in its early stages of visioning and development. You are invited to join the exploration. Please contact us, or come to a public forum to help envision the role of the nature chaplain. Dates, times, and locations can be found at

Please be in touch.

Rabbi Katy Z. Allen is the founder and leader of Ma’yan Tikvah – A Wellspring of Hope in WaylandMA, and a staff chaplain at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. She is the co-convener of the Jewish Climate Action Network, a member of the editorial board, and a board member of Shomrei Bereishit: Rabbis and Cantors for the Earth.

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