Retreats, Nature, and Liturgies
Some of the most memorable moments I’ve spent with musicians of various churches where I’ve worked has been away from the church itself—on tour or at a retreat. Don’t get me wrong, the time spent at the church is really valuable in many ways, but you sure get to know people better, observe the group bond, and witness people in a more relaxed state when you’re away. I’ve enjoyed observing their other dimensions, like being a competitive board-game player or showing a creative and artistic side with knitting. A nice trail walk and chat in nature is another shared experience I’ve really found valuable.
Some of my favourite worship moments have been while outside at retreats. Having a simple, short worship service outdoors makes me feel even closer to God’s creation. Watching others lead with courage when they are with a safe group of peers has always brought me joy, especially when it includes time for silent contemplation while listening to the leaves rustling or the birds calling to one another.
Finding just the right music and liturgy for an outdoor event or retreat is a great feeling. Often, I would turn to the folks at the Wild Goose Resource Group, sometimes known as the Iona Community. I found that many times, they would have beautiful words that were just begging to be used in an outdoor setting: around a fire, at an open-air chapel, or in a clearing on a trail. I’ve often synthesized parts from their resources, such as the Iona Abbey Worship Book, Cloth for the Cradle, and A Wee Worship Book (various volumes). They recently released new material specifically on the subject of creation and climate change, including a new songbook, This Is God’s World. Living Faithfully in the Time of Creation (Kathy Galloway and Katharine Preston) is a downloadable book on celebrating Creation Time in the midst of an environmental crisis, and “God’s Good Earth” is a worship booklet produced for the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference. These Wild Goose resources are available from either ionabooks.com or wildgoose.scot.
I’ve often wondered why the Iona community words and music fit these outdoor worship services so well, so I checked in with Ivan Gregan, a member of the Gathering Advisory Board, who knows much about Celtic worship. Ivan made three important points about Celtic spirituality and nature:
The link has to do with the structure of the universe. In the Celtic mythology, the gods were not up in heaven (far and distant) but all around us. Therefore, all creation was filled with God and God was everywhere. Having said this, everything was not God, but rather God could be seen and was revealing God’s self through everything. All creation was something through which a person could see God. Creation was like an icon, a window through which to see God.
Creation was loved because it was a window into God, a stargate through which we could go home. Being in nature was a way of being free; it was a wildness and a place to sing to God with all our being. God constantly spoke through creation, opening our senses beyond human sight into the realm of insight. All creation prompts us to join it in the worship of God.
From the dust of the cosmos, we were created physically—the work of God’s hands, an incarnation of God’s imagination and each uniquely blessed bearing the traces of God’s fingerprints. Into this earth creature, God breathed God’s self. Our physical body will return to the earth from which its elements came and our breath will return to God from whom we came. The Gaels mourned the loss of a physical body but never conceived of a person being “dead and gone.” Like the waves of the ocean, we rise out of an endless sea of creation, propelled into being by the wind/Spirit, coaxed into being by the breath of God. We rise and have our glory like all the waves of the ocean. One day, we will crash on the shore and gently rush back into the ocean—gently go home. We are not lost, nor obliterated; we return home.
Ivan concluded with these thoughts: “All creation proclaims the glory of God who scattered the stars across the universe. Are we more of this world or more of that world? I don’t really know, but I know that heaven is not a strange place.”
During the pandemic, many of us got accustomed to being outside more often and admiring the natural world around us. We experienced God through the natural world. Perhaps this will be one of the things that we keep as a teaching from this time?