Do we believe in sacred groves?
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?