Founding Director of the Center for Spirituality in Nature
Each semester, on the first day of the class I teach at Wesley Theological Seminary, I ask the pastors-in-training to introduce themselves and tell the class where they live. And, oh, by the way, what I mean is for them to tell us in which watershed they live.
I can see the looks of confusion on their faces, and I know that more than a couple are thinking about how they might transfer to another class. But eventually with some maps and help from the other students each comes up with a creek or a stream or a river that is near to his or her home.
Why do I torture them this way?
Because seminaries teach that spiritual leaders as well as congregants need to know and understand the communities in which they live in order to build fellowship and foster compassion. To fully live in those communities, as we get to know each other, the local coffee shop, and the grocery store, we also need to take the time to know and understand the sacred ground upon which we stand.
For most of us in DC and environs, that sacred ground is the Potomac River Basin. Where does the Potomac originate? How does it meander? Where does it go? What trees and plants grow here? Who are our neighbors – human and non-human – that share this home? Is the river healthy, and how is our behavior affecting its health?
Each of us will come to understand the sacredness of our home watershed differently.
For me, the sacredness of the Potomac River Watershed is a spiritual Presence that cannot be separated out from the physical presence of water, rock, soil. That Presence is wrapped up in, and connected with, the blue bells and May apples that line its banks this time of year, the bass and painted turtles found in its waters, the ebony jewel wings and tiger swallowtails hovering above the river, the foxes and coyotes that run alongside it, and in the myriad human communities that also share this watery home.
As sacred ground, the Potomac River is a constant source of nourishment – physical, emotional, spiritual. I love to explore it, to play in and around it, to quietly sit by its banks. It opens up space for me to breathe. And I grieve as I watch this sacred ground being compromised by human activity, including my own.
All of us creatures are inextricably entangled with each other and with all aspects of this lovely watershed.
In fact, for those of us who have spent many years here, we are quite literally the Potomac itself, having derived most of the water, minerals, and energy in our bodies from the watershed. Perhaps then we might identify ourselves not as Marylanders, Washingtonians, or Virginians, but rather as Potomac Riverans – a people physically and spiritually nurtured by, and nurturing, this beautiful basin we call home.
Beth Norcross is the Founding Director of the Center for Spirituality in Nature, www.centerforspiritualityinnature.org, which offers programs in and along the Potomac River designed to deepen spirituality and reconnect people with all of the creatures and critters that share this marvelous ecosystem with us. She is also adjunct faculty at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC, and a chairperson with Interfaith Power and Light DMV.
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