Do we believe in sacred groves?

A green forest

I have a confession to make. The last few weeks, the most spiritual part of church for me hasn’t been inside the church building. It’s been spending the time between classes peeking through a weed-covered chain link and barbed wire fence, trying to get a glimpse of the drainage pond that sits on the church property. Most people don’t notice that the pond is there, even though it is right next to the parking lot, by the dumpster.

Frogs live in the pond. I can hear them calling, and they sound big. Cicadas buzz. Birds trill from the cattails. The pond supports an abundance of life, in all its chaotic messiness.

Inside the building, church is a cold, controlled environment. As a matter of principle, I refuse to wear a sweater in July, even though I usually get goosebumps sitting in the air conditioning. Some of the talks and lessons chill my heart. I’m tired of Sunday School answers, and I’m tired of trying to think of polite ways to push back against cultural assumptions. It’s emotionally easier to just numbly sit there and let correlated catechism enter my ears.

There was correlation in the Old Testament too. The “righteous” kings Hezekiah and Josiah used the power of state religion to throw huge Passover feasts for the whole kingdom*. They used their power to destroy the groves and high places. They used their power to influence the scriptural narrative. In some parts of the Old Testament, groves and high places are holy. (See here, here, and here). In others, they are condemned. (See here, here, and here). I’ve been fascinated by the idea that the groves of the Old Testament could be understood as a place to worship the feminine divine. I wonder about how the woodland on the Smith’s farm came to be called “the sacred grove”, particularly because the word “grove” comes with so much biblical baggage.

The highlight of my spiritual practice last week involved me going to groves and “low places” (My area of the Midwest doesn’t have much by way of “high places”, but I have worldwide company in meeting god by water.) The groves looked like picnic tables under shady trees where I was able to have some honest and needed conversations. A low place (a dock by a goose pond) provided a place for a Sister-I-Minister-To to tell me about her heartaches. These locations aren’t dedicated to worshiping god, but they are intentionally created public spaces that facilitate the human need for connection to others and connection to nature. They provided a site to connect with other goddesses-in-embryo. One of the things I love most about where I live are the number of nearby parks and natural areas in the low flood plains by the river. These places have fostered years and years worth of physical activity, curiosity, meditation, and social bonding (with both church and community members).

And then there’s that drainage pond at the church. I keep returning to the pond, in hopes of glimpsing some of the life I can hear (but not see) through the vine-wrapped fence. For me, this pond has become a metaphor for the feminine divine at church: She’s wild and dangerous. She’s fenced off for your own protection. She’s neglected and unnoticed. Not everyone knows she is there. You have to intentionally go to her if you want her to be a part of your church experience. It’s less frustrating to fill this part of my longings elsewhere.

One time when I was studying the scriptures in the celestial room, I had the thought that the temple is one place among many where I can go to feel the spirit. I’ve sat in countless lessons that taught me that my home is also supposed to be holy. More and more often, I’m finding godliness in community spaces. Naming them “groves” is a new idea that I’m trying on, but it feels good for now. Do you have sacred groves? Where do you feel God? Where do you go to have deep conversations, or to do your ministering assignment? What are the characteristics of a good location? Where are you most often when you feel like you are doing Jesus’ work?

*Hezekiah is found in 2 Kings 18-20 and 2 Chronicles 29-32. Josiah is found in 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35.

Kaylee

Kaylee only wears sensible shoes (if she has to wear shoes at all) and is passionate about pants with functional pockets (even her Sunday slacks).

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26 Responses

  1. Whit says:

    The Sacramnet temple has murials of the high serrieas whichare very nice but when ever I am inthe temple looking at the murials I always wish I was in the high sierras. It never work the other way. My father who was in the Palmyra area on his mission in the early 40’s always felt that the sacred Grove was in the wrong place. But the Dad was a bit of a congrary. Nice oiece thanks!

    • Kaylee says:

      The creation part of the endowment always makes me want to be outside and see all those wonderous things in real life. I’d never thought about how interacting with nature doesn’t make me crave going to the temple!

  2. Beth Young says:

    Yes! This! Hopefully, we all have sacred groves where we commune. Hopefully, we understand that those groves can be and should be anywhere, and not proscribed by what worked for others. High five for expressing this so beautifully. Especially comparing Heavenly Mother to hidden away pond.

    • Kaylee says:

      Oh, thank you. They really can be anywhere. Creating sacred space seems to involve intention, being present, and vulnerability. Maybe there are more things too. I’m still learning.

  3. TenneSea says:

    Great thought-provoking post Kaylee — I love and relate very much to this idea. For me, as an avid amateur astronomer, it also includes time spent away from the noise and light-pollution of the city, out under a canopy of stars, nebulae, galaxies and planets, connecting with the broader creation. The Egyptian goddess Nut is depicted as a star-filled bodily arch of the heavens, so there’s that as well for me, yearning for more of the divine feminine in my worship.

    • Kaylee says:

      Yes! Letting my kids stay up to watch a partial eclipse ended up being a very spiritual experience for us all. I felt so puny, but also a part of something really big.

  4. Geoff - Aus says:

    My wife and I walk together on a golden beach where the waves of the pacific roll in. On the Australian side. Beautifull and peaceful.

    • Kaylee says:

      Ooooh, so lovely. One of the most golden days I had this summer was over on the other side of the Pacific, checking out tide pools and taking a nap on a pebble beach.

  5. Matt says:

    My wife and I (both retired) live in a very small country town where we hear roosters in the morning and crickets at night and quiet during the day. Our sacred grove is our large garden with fruit trees, various berries, melons, veggies, honey bees, an umbrella and two chairs. It’s particularly sacred this week as we’ve been reading Kathryn Knight Sonntag’s “The Mother Tree”.

    • Kaylee says:

      I aspire to have a fruitful garden. I’m just happy I have a child who loves to go sneaking in the raspberry bushes, even though we’ve never harvested more than a few handfuls of berries. That book is on my to-read list.

  6. Mortimer says:

    I appreciate your post, and feel a kinship with anyone who feels God’s presence when looking at frogs and drainage ponds.

    Most people find it easy to feel spiritually uplifted by the great natural phenomenon – the Grand Canyon, the ocean, Yellowstone or the Rocky Mountains (sing it, John Denver! Amen, brother!!).

    But, isn’t it interesting that the most sacred places are seen as wastelands or drive-through country? Seriously- most people don’t see the basic farm hills of Adam Ondi Ahman as the new Zion, or “feel” the temple site of Far West or the Temple Lot. I always get butterflies in my stomach “feeling” the sacredness of the valley when I come into temple square, but would I have “seen” and “felt” its uniqueness when it was bare desert? I like to hope I would.

    Few see the beauty of the Great Plains- whose rolling hills emulate the waves of the ocean, but unlike the tide that measures time in seconds and moments, these hills mark time through millennia and eons. And yet- lds tourism to these sites is at an all-time-low. The church is downplaying this history, and most visitors find traveling to see an empty corn, wheat or soy field (whatever is in rotation) anti-climactic. Even the Independence Visitor’s Center was recently re-done, and the powers that be removed the main exhibits on local lds history and replaced them (get this) with an indoor replica of Arches National Park in Utah as well as a cut-away of a modern-day Utah-based home. In that home, a tear-jerking story of a contemporary Utah-based family receiving the gospel is told. It’s a missionary lesson that has absolutely nothing to do with the sacredness of the area, or why the saints were there…that’s swept under the rug. Makes the location of the visitors center completely irrelevant, or frankly, taking the time to visiting it if you already know the first and second discussion. But, the bloggernacle disagrees with me, museum experts say it is “on message” with the church’s mission. Ok. Whatevs.

    But yeah, I wish we spent more time connecting with nature and “feeling” spiritual sites. Native American history (most tribes/peoples) emphasized sacred sites, and European and middle eastern history does as well. Yet, we seem to be pushing against this metaphysical connection with grooves and nature. I know many new temples are no longer built on ancient sacred sites or underground springs, but in suburban Ensign (LDS) Real Estate developments that are near highways for maximum visibility.

    But I do know we can consecrate temples, and that we can also connect with the most unassuming spots of nature as well as the awesome vistas, to connect with the divine.

    • Kaylee says:

      I wish I could see the frogs there! I haven’t been lucky enough to spot one yet.

      Pre-covid we went to the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters at the end of a trip. It was okay, but we’d been to better pioneer museums already that trip (it seemed like a lot of the kid-friendly places on our route were pioneer museums…)

      You sound like someone who would appreciate the book “Annals of the Former World” by John McPhee. He travels along different sections of I-80 with local geologists to help him understand plate tectonics. This book has a rhythm unlike anything else I’ve read (just like geology has a timescale that takes some time to wrap your head around), and it’s beautiful.

      We drove across the great plains this summer and everyone thought we were crazy for driving instead of flying. There was a hotel in northern Nebraska that had a big patio overlooking the prairie. If there hadn’t been a storm blowing in with 80mph winds (and I didn’t have kids that were desperate for the swimming pool), I think I could have sat out there for hours just watching it. And North Dakota stole my heart a little bit. We came across two rattlesnakes on a trail in Painted Canyon. The second one was injured and rattled at my daughter. Yes, it was an adrenaline rush, but also there was this amazing feeling of respect for that snake as part of creation.

  7. Mortimer says:

    Reposting, I got an upload error.
    Thank you for the book recommendation, I have taken it and will read! Sounds just up my alley!

    Wishing you many more adventures in the Midwest and w nature.

    BTW, the best pioneer and LDS-related museums in the Midwest (in my opinion) is the Steamboat Arabia in Kansas City. A steamboat from 1853 sunk in the Missouri River (the bite out of the NE corner of Kansas). The mud and silt perfectly preserved the cargo. In the 90’s, the boat was found and in an incredible excavation- pulled up. Unlike the Titanic excavation that recovered broken fragments- the Arabia was captured perfectly in a time capsule. The clothing and patterns on bolts of fabric were ready to use with bright l/original colors! Jars of pickles- supposedly edible! All sorts of 19th c supplies- perfectly in tact, and the wheel and steam works completely there and restored and working on display! The Arabia was an important connector for LDS saints immigrating from Europe- who would arrive in New Orleans from Liverpool or Northern European cities and then catch a steamboat up to KC or Nebraska- get out, walk to Winter Q and then join handcart or wagon companies out west. The church donated to help build this museum and there is a display commemorating the many saints who comprised a large component of Arabia travelers up to its sinking. My own pioneer ancestors from Denmark rode the Arabia before joining a handcart company. You can find out whether yours did on the Mormon overland trail database. (Other steamboats were in service on the Mississippi and Missouri too, but the Arabia is the only historic one we can see.) fascinating!!!

    • Kaylee says:

      That museum sounds so cool. I also have pioneer ancestors from Denmark! It doesn’t look like they took that boat though.

  8. Becky says:

    I too have been fascinated and amused with exactly whether the Grove is or is not sacred, especially when I taught GD so many years ago. I came across this quote from “Effigies: A Faye Longchamp Mystery” by Mary Anna Evans –

    “Was this spot more sacred than the glass-clear Gulf waters around the island home he shared with Faye? More God-touched than the cool, green Appalachians, or the familiar expanses of his native Oklahoma? All those places seemed holy to him. He saw no difference. It never occurred to Joe that perhaps the holiness lay in a man’s appreciation of Nature’s gifts. Perhaps those places were more sacred simply because he’d been there.”

    I have been pondering this idea a lot. And we are invited to stand in holy places. I often went out to the back of the parking lot to greet the maple trees behind our church building before going inside for worship. It was part of my ritual. I have lost some of my ritual with being busy and tired. I appreciate your perspective on Groves. There are times my soul needs the peace of nature, and times my soul needs the temple. Yes, my high place, my Grove is a wooded area of walnuts, poplar, maples and oaks on a bluff above the Potomac River. I try to go weekly. Maybe I will see you there sometime. I don’t mind sharing.

    • Kaylee says:

      I love that you greet maple trees! There was a *huge* maple tree at the center of one of our playgrounds. They tore down the playground and built a new one. The tree came down too. Even though it’s been a few years, last week I saw a conversation on Facebook where there were some moms missing that old tree.

  9. Kaylee says:

    I was sorting through some links I’d saved from way back and found this painting that absolutely belongs with this discussion. Winter Landscape by Caspar David Friedrich:
    https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/caspar-david-friedrich-winter-landscape

  10. Becky says:

    Also Kaylee, do you go to church in the Oakton Stake Building in Virginia? Because there is a fenced drainage pond at the back of that building.

    • Kaylee says:

      Nope. I’m in Michigan.

      I’m assuming that drainage ponds are fenced for legal liability reasons (like a swimming pool in a backyard). But drainage ponds in parks aren’t always fenced in (or fenced as high). I kinda wonder what church could be like if more buildings had beautiful public gathering spots. Those kinds of spots can be a real asset to a community. They require long term maintenance commitments though, and, well, my building only has one vacuum that works good so I’m not sure we’ve got the facilities management part down.

  11. JC says:

    I loved this post. Thank you for this pertinent reminder that our sacred groves can be anywhere we want them to be and anywhere we feel God speaking to us the most.

    Correlation and the handi-snack “gospel” really have ruined what it means to commune with God and worship. People forget that where and how we worship is highly personal, between each person and God, and shouldn’t be limited to a church building. I consider one of my sacred groves to be the temple to the point that if I could go to the temple on Sundays instead of regular church, I would do so in a heartbeat. My worship in the temple feels more peaceful, deeper, and with a greater sense of purpose. I think it beats sitting through the same repetitive lessons and sacrament meeting talks every week.

    Other sacred groves of mine include bookstores, mountain towns, museums, symphonies, and the sea: anywhere I’m either improving my mind and learning something new, or resting it. Sometimes a sacred grove I retreat to is the local deli where I can disappear into a booth for a while with a good meal, my eyes to people watch, and my mind to wander. It may be weird, but I don’t think a loving God cares about that – all He cares about is being with us in a place that speaks to us to the most, no matter where it is.

    • Kaylee says:

      “Other sacred groves of mine include bookstores” Gasp! THE LIBRARY IS A SACRED GROVE!!! I love libraries. They are full of pressed tree pulp and community and Wisdom. And the Wisdom/information bit reminds me of another experience where I’ve envisioned sacred groves:
      I was jogging along a path that runs parallel to powerlines. The idea of Asherah poles was new to me, and I was wondering what they were like. I thought maybe the Asherah poles were similar to power line poles. And maybe like the power line poles, Heavenly Mother carries warmth and light and internet/Wisdom to me.

  12. tennesea says:

    Words of wisdom from Joan Chittister:

    Look around you. Do you have everything you need? Then why are you exhausting yourself trying to get more? Learn to enjoy what you have and you will have everything life has to give. The Native American Sioux pray, “You, O God, are the God of the mountains and the valleys. Open my eyes to see their beauty.”

    • Kaylee says:

      I like that quote. Today I started listening to Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh and it has a similar theme of living in the present moment. Why is it so hard sometimes to simply enjoy what you have?

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