Earth Centered Traditions

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

“When St. Patrick first came to Ireland in the fifth century C. E., he encountered the Celts – a unique race of people with their own flourishing spiritual tradition, already thousands of years old. Whereas the Christians worshipped one God, the Celtic people enjoyed many. They found divinity everywhere: in the waterways and hills; the soil and sky; in home and village; and within their own souls. This Celtic reverence for the spirit in all things survives to this day – a vibrant legacy unique in the Western world, the undergirding reference of our own Unitarian Universalist commitment to earth-based spirituality.

The Celtic imagination embraced nature, divinity, the underworld and human existence as equal partners in one interconnected Whole. Consequently, animals are our ancient brothers and sisters. Wells are sacred places. Rivers and streams are the tears of earth’s joy and despair. Ruins house the essence of our ancestors. The earth is simply chockfull of soul.

The Celts taught that nothing is ugly per se, and everything is to be treated with dignity and respect. We are summoned to bless all we see!” So writes The Rev. Tom Owen-Toole.

Today some of us might think of Native American religions as the most mainstream form of earth-based spirituality. Or perhaps we are more familiar with what is called Paganism. Others here might know West African traditions or maybe the Shinto religion of the East – both of which are bound up in earth-based beliefs. Still others may think of the Druidic teachings from the ancient Celts, or of the Nordic religions of the Scandinavian region, or of the Mayan structures and systems of belief in the Americas.

Regardless of how ancient or modern an earth-based religion is, regardless of whether it is found in an African, Asian, American, European, Caribbean or some other culture, all who would label themselves as believers in and worshippers of the natural tides and forces of nature would find resonance with this prayer from the Ute people of North America.

Earth teach me stillness
as the grasses are stilled with light…
Earth teach me courage
as the tree which stands all alone…
Earth teach me resignation
as the leaves which die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration
as the seed which rises in the spring.
Earth teach me to forget myself
as melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness
as dry fields weep with rain.

At the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in 1995, we adopted the sixth source of our Principles and Purposes. It is printed in your order of service: we Unitarian Universalists partake in a living tradition that draws from many sources, including “spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.”

This action did not take place without struggle. It was controversial and I believe I understand some of the hesitance to include this in our sources. For most of us don’t make the connection between earth centered religions and the writings of the Unitarians of the mid 19th century, the so-called Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Further, we are sensitive to the common assumptions made by the American public whose prejudices concerning earth centered traditions and spirituality are negative and lack understanding. When one mentions Pagan or Witch or even Native American religions, there is often no response, for we have been shut out.

There is a certain irony in this because the teachings of earth centered religions offer a moral and ethical way of life that could be instrumental in helping modern humans to preserve our planet and to live together in cooperative community. We also might gain more positive ideas of ourselves if we truly believed earth is our home.

UU Pagan and NPR reporter, Margot Adler, suggests that Paganism is a religious tradition that is similar to a “poem or a work of art,” since the worshipping of and with the natural world is, as Adler puts it, “a religious practice based on myth and metaphor rather than literal understanding.” Our non-pagan prejudice is that acceptable knowledge is found in books and can be proven by empirical evidence, except of course for those things that we can only know by their effects, such as wind, gravity, electricity and other forms of energy. Looking back at the “Old Time Religion” often called “primitive religions” we see that they evolved thousands of years before any of the text-based religions. Earth centered traditions are as old as humanity itself and traces have been found among Neolithic artifacts dating back 20,000 years. These religions accumulated knowledge that was passed on to generations of shamans, leaders and practitioners. Knowledge of healing, of construction, of agronomy, of weather, of plants and their properties.

As modern people, we prefer knowledge that we can back up with an authority. The folk lore that helped us survive until the twentieth century is now mostly ignored. Our prejudice is for knowledge that is found in books rather than in practice. We base our preference on our conviction that myth and metaphor are less convincing than literal knowledge. Yet all religious texts and scriptures are myth and metaphor with very little accuracy of fact or dates. I wonder why we insist on making a distinction between religions based on writings as opposed to earth centered traditions based on direct experience.

Our prejudice for literal knowledge seems to me to be the cause of many contemporary UU’s nervous tics or embarrassment about honoring earth based traditions. No matter what comes to our mind when we think of earth-based spirituality, no matter how knowledgeable or ignorant we are about the rich histories of these religious expressions, no matter whether or not we find it amazing that these traditions have been part of virtually every culture the world has known – we Unitarian Universalists have a particular responsibility to acknowledge and honor the importance of these earth-based religions.

Earth centered religions almost always share several themes. First, they
find strength and wholeness by honoring the rhythms of nature and finding balance in this process. The seasons of the year bring different gifts and challenges and drive us onward and the ever turning seasons are often referred to as the wheel of the year. The winter is a time of rest and dormancy. All of life needs to rest, and to have time to plant seeds of new hope. Spring is the time when warmth begins to rise, beauty and fragrance reign, and new life emerges. It is the time to tend the garden, both of the Earth and of the Soul. Summer brings the greatest light and warmth, time to enjoy and celebrate the living world and the forthcoming harvest. Autumn is the time of the harvest, reaping the rewards of the year and giving thanks for the food of the Earth and of the Soul, preparing once again for the death of the year and the time of rest.

Those who honor all life also consider the movements of the moon and planets, and other celestial bodies as well. Earth centered traditions acknowledge and revere the elements of Nature, often identified as earth, air, fire and water. These are sometimes connected with the four directions. Everything in the natural world, everything that we perceive, is comprised of the elements of Nature and lives within the cycles of Nature. Chief Seattle wrote the following about 150 years ago. “This we know. The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.” Our seventh principle reflects this in the words, we affirm the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Another theme of earth centered religions is that no distinction is made between the so-called secular and the sacred – between the cultural and the spiritual. We humans are spiritual beings, living our days among other spirit-filled beings. We live in partnership with other beings and thus, we live out our religious beliefs in all that we do. One’s religion isn’t “out there” to be figured out. It is “in here” to be felt and lived. Earth religions are experiential in nature.

Connected to this is the belief by most adherents of earth-centered religions that all of Nature is alive and imbued with spiritual energy. There is no difference between the material world and the spiritual world; between human life and plant or animal life.

Rather than divide experience into good and bad, most earth centered traditions define duality as “the state, character, or quality of being two or comprised of two.” We see each as having challenging and beneficent characteristics, rather that seeing evil as existing as something separate. The simple Wiccan rede states, “An ye harm none, do what ye will.” This “golden rule” protects the Pagan from the possibility of negative results of the Threefold Law. Whatever we put out comes back to us threefold, in thought, action and deed. Those who attempt to live a life of peace and generosity, will find those things coming back to them threefold. This reminds me of the Biblical injunction from Ecclesiastes to cast your bread upon the water and it will come back to you.

Scholar Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade, has written extensively on the image of the female in ancient religions. She writes that early peoples tried to calibrate the cycles and seasons and put into physical form and ritual what they had learned. They came to venerate the life-giving powers of the universe and developed an association of the earth with the image of women as the givers and sustainers of life.

Eisler’s research indicates that early believers – or “primary religions” – linked the body of the earth to the mystery of the human body of a woman. “Our early ancestors recognized that we and our natural environment are integrally linked parts of the great mystery of life and death and that all nature must therefore be treated with respect.” Mother Earth makes sense to many. We humans are inextricably tied to the health and well-being of the planet.

We can’t talk about Earth Centered Traditions without talking about the rituals and mystery of many of these spiritual paths. I believe this is the part of our understanding which probably needs the most information, yet this information is not forthcoming in a style that we easily accept or understand. Many shops sell the paraphernalia of magick with a “k” including tarot cards, runes, crystal ball, I Ching coins, spell books. Those of us who choose to dismiss such things as supernatural or hocus pocus, probably do so on the basis of assuming that the users of these items invest them with some kind of power. And it is a kind of power, but nothing that is not present and potential in all of us were we to take the time to access this kind of intention and knowledge. Some Pagans use the rituals and readings to access their unconscious, to direct themselves to fuller appreciation of their personal strengths and their identities. In Native American religions there is the Shaman, the healer, the one who knows the medicines of the tribe. The dances of the tribes in New Mexico correspond with the wheel of the seasons. Community, worship, ritual and expression of the connections with all that exists are represented by these sometimes hypnotic dances in costumes fashioned by each dancer throughout the year.

And what of the Pagan rituals and the Native American dances, what is the importance of these expressions of earth centered religions? What dances and rituals do we non-pagans perform in our lives? One of my rituals is my morning walk with our dog, who understands more and more of the things I say to her. One morning last week I went out on time and saw mist rising from the north pond. My breath was visible and Devi was chasing a squirrel. Underneath a low growing bush near the shore we often see a muskrat sitting on a branch out of the water. I stopped to see if she was up yet. Standing there looking out over the water, my breath became part of the cloak of mist surrounding me. When we got around to the other side of the pond, all had changed and the magic of that moment remains only in my memory.

During times like these, the disappointments and failures of life seem totally absent. I suppose I might be vulnerable standing there in the middle of the road less traveled, but my experience was of being part of a whole. I was aware of the goodness of physical life, the goodness of the planet. Earth centered religions do not doom us to an unending battle with our natural selves in order to become acceptable or saved from judgment. We are all right, just as we are.

The themes of earth centered traditions may include seeing the earth as a living organism, a Mother usually, with whom we have a relationship. This relationship links us, inextricably, not only to our planet but also to all the natural world surrounding us. Our lives may not be divided into segments, the spiritual on one side and the material on the other. The sacred is everywhere, in everything, all the time. Seasonal changes are significant markers on the wheel of the year. Tomorrow night the Full Moon Dance held here in this room will celebrate Beltane, when the sun is released from winter and the growing season begins. You are invited to join this auspicious occasion. In the meantime, may we celebrate the goodness of physical life and our connection with all of nature. May we seek to live in harmony with who we are and the Earth on which we live. May it be so for us.
By Rev. Carolyn R. Brown