Minnesota Episcopal Environmental Stewardship Commission (MEESC)

Episcopal Church in Minnesota
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We meet quarterly close to the solstice and we meet more frequently at Regional Chapter meetings.


Resolution on the Spirituality of Food Production

Resolution on Church Buildings and Grounds

Resolution on Creation Season

Resolution on Green Congregations

Impressions of Sacred Space

For 1998 the MEESC compiled impressions of what people see as a sacred space. The following is the input we received (then and since). You may click on the title or just scroll through the list.

My sacred space: Lake Superior

Lake Superior instills an ever changing view of God's great works. It is a great recipient of my inward reflections. As I meditate, the Lake can be soothing as well as challenging. It can be mysterious when I have uncertain thoughts. As I witness the wonders of God, Lake Superior helps me to experience them in a clearer light. My quite time is often spent watching the marvels of the lake. In experiencing its power while sailing on its waves it frees to free me of my burdens.

Nelson Thomas, Duluth, MN, 1998

A Mountain Place of Sacred Encounter: Some Visions Never Let Us Go

My younger brother and I saw something nearly 50 years ago that has never left either of us. Two days of heavy hiking in the highest mountains of North Carolina and two nights of camping along the trail had more than challenged us even then at our limber ages of 13 and 21. A thunderstorm had poured rain on us during much of that second night, then finally had left us.

What we next saw I still see as on the morning it came to us. Eager to discover what dawn's early light would bring, we crawl out of our sleeping bags and ascend the nearby highest point of Ogle Meadow, which is our mountain.

From that 6,200-foot height we look eastward across a valley that is enclosed on 3 sides by the horseshoe-shaped range of mountains that we had traversed step by step yesterday. The distance by air from our end of the horseshoe-ridge out over the valley eastward to the other end of that ridge must be a dozen miles. Dark clouds and lightning still blanket Mt. Mitchell over there. Back here half a mile below us, silently shifting fog shrouds a dark meadow. Down there last night we thirstily hunted in vain for a spring.

Suddenly a solitary shaft of light comes in from the East across that whole dozen miles. It pierces with laser-intensity from left to right through fog downward onto the meadow. There far below us a narrow patch of green grass glistens under heaven's light.

What we saw at that dawning has carried its transcendent meaning ever since. That's our vision, held fast only in memory. Brother recalls it to brother, especially in tough times, as our compelling symbol of hope and meaning.

For us Ogle Meadow mountain is a place of sacred encounter. What we brought to that place was essential and integral to the encounter, for we had been predisposed by our young years in the Church to welcome a heavenly and not only an earthly light. The place became sacred to us on that account.

John Gibbs, Park Rapids, MN, 1998

Living in Thank

PREFACE: I believe all space is sacred. Even the the most polluted and overused places that WE have DESACRATED remain SACRED to GOD. In this is a great hope--much like the hope of the Crucifixion, God never abandons anything and anyone. This is the essence of Good News for me, and it is a great awakening at the same time, because it opens my eyes to see that what we do to a place is also what we do to God just as we know from the Gospel that what we do to other people is also what we do to God. This is wonder-full and it is also intensely sobering.

Some places have a way of making us see how present God is. I was blessed to find myself in one of these places in Southern Utah in mid-Summer 1993. It was extremely hot, over 100 degrees, and I sat against a rock that jutted up 200 feet out of the desert floor. I faced west, with the rock at my back and a mesquite tree throwing its canopy over my head. The rock face had not yet been heated by the sun that day, and it's coolness and the shade of the mesquite were refuge from the intense heat.

As I sat I went into a daydream and then into a state more like a trance of meditation. I started praying "Thank". Not "thanks" in the third person, but "Thank". Not the proper grammar that means I know who the object of my exclamation is, but simply the outward turning to gratitude, the giving back out of the gift that is Being itself.

I began to say "Thank" in the name of the enitre creation. I was reminded of a saying I had heard, attributed to a Native American tradition, in which a wolf and bear ask the Great Spirit why humans were brought into being."They have no fur and no claws and sharp teeth. They are not suited to survive," said the animals. The Great Spirit replied that this is true, and yet asked the animals to allow themselves at times to become food for the human people, because they do have one special role;"They make special rituals and raise their voices in chants of thanksgiving for that I have made you all."

I was being blessed to be a full participant in this ritual at that very moment. I was awed and began to lose my focus, but it slowly came back. As the chanting wound down, I thought, "What a great job description! To simply chant 'Thank'!" I repeated "Thank" again in gratitude for the whole experience.

FINAL THOUGHT: Living in "Thank" is, of course, the challenge of being truly spiritual. It is the Great Work, and I am convinced that obedience to a discipline of opening ourselves to its claims is the only way to a true Deep Ecology. That is, it is the only way to living in a manner that respects the Earth and all its (human and non-human) peoples as vessels of God's Presence. I admit that my discipline has been lax, and my respect and reverence often lacking. But this vision from the desert is one that remains as a call and as a gift. Thank for the gift. Thank for the call. Help me with Grace that I may live in obedience and reverence.

The story attributed to a Native American tradition is mirrored in one of the Supplemental Eucharistic Prayers that are available to use in the Episcopal Church, along with the four in the Book of Common Prayer. In this prayer we affirm that "we give voice to all creation as we sing" immediately before we chant the Sanctus:



Eugene R Wahl, then (1998) residing in Minnesota

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The Farm

When I was a young girl, my family owned a piece of land several miles away from where we lived. We called it "The Farm" although that was more wishful thinking than existing reality. Although various fruit trees were planted there, they were never well-tended and my parents' dream of retiring and building a house there never materialized.

This small parcel of land was not extraordinary in any of its features. But beside and beyond it lay worlds full of adventure. To our south was a large parcel owned by "Brother Brown", an older black man, and his family. His land holdings were much larger than ours, but fences were ambiguous or non-existent, so I was never sure when I was on his land, or who else might be adjacent owners. On Brother Brown's land was the confluence of two small creeks, the one that crossed our land and the one that ran under the road. As a result, much of the heard of Brother Brown's land was flood plain – hauntingly bare and ever-changing – even in the midst of Summer.

Following the combined creeks to the east, one quickly climbed up from the flood plain – along a hillside of rocks, trees, and thickets – to the top. And it was this secluded hilltop that regularly called to me to come and visit. Having climbed up and up until I was breathless, I could smell it before I saw it. From the dark cool of decaying leaves and bark, I could gradually smell the upcoming warmth of the clearing. Suddenly there it was. On top of this silent, secluded hill was a clearing as pronounced and immediate as the bald dome of a Fourteenth Century monk.

It was full of life. Birds were chirping, butterflies flew lazily from place to place and grasshoppers sang to me. The clearing was knee- to hip-deep in wildflowers and weeds. But no trees were allowed. They protected the perimeter, allowing the hilltop to echo with life. I imagined I was the first and only person to find this place. I would take from the gentle trees enough material to build a small shelter for myself. Thus I would live on this quiet space protecting it from those who would convert its pristine beauty into "productive" farmland. Daily I would walk among the purple-blue, yellow and white flowers, the long green horse-tails, gently stepping so as not to kill or damage any thing. I would hear and translate these messages of tranquility, interdependence and otherness for all the world.

In that space, I was never alone. Never scared, never inadequate, I was the king of the hill, the steward sent to protect this vista. My responsibility and my privilege was to watch over all that had been created, to tend the garden. Eden could not have been more beautiful or prolific. All the plants and insects called to me, proclaiming their celebration of life – abounding in fragrance and bright glory. Surely, in this place it was always Summer.

This place is/was not sacred to me because I heard Go speak there – that is the case in many places. Nor, was it held in high holy esteem because of how it had been developed from its natural state into something of value. It was sacred because of who it was – of its intrinsic, natural value. Its butterflies, ants, and grasshoppers sanctified this space. Gangly, uneven buds and blossoms atop nameless stems and worthless weeds contributed to its aura of uniqueness. Its quantifiable value lay in its simplicity. Its honesty of being evoked collaboration from one. It is simply because it was.

Wanda Copeland, then of Ramsey, MN, 1999

Water as my Sacred Space

There is more than one way for me to experience the thin place where the Divine meets the human. This is one of them.

My sacred space is not just one place and it is not a place only in my mind. It has taken me many years to identify my sacred space and that which makes it the place where I am touched by the Divine. My sacred space is water.

As a youngster, I sought refuge along a stream away from my house, in a place of comfort in the sound of the moving water; in later years of youth, we worked to “channel” the waters in local brooks, studying with fascination what water can do. It seems like I’ve nearly always lived near a river or a lake or a pond. I found a warmth and peacefulness whenever I am near bodies of water, often spending time watching, listening, praying. When we moved to Minnesota, a house on a lake seemed as natural as breathing.

It wasn’t, however, until our trip to Alaska with the Environmental Stewardship Commission that I began to recognize and understand the why of the sacredness I felt for water. It came upon me all at once on that day as we flew from Fairbanks to Beaver and then on to Fort Yukon. We crossed the White Mountains and entered the Yukon Flats. The Yukon River was below us, a snaking stream of water with many rivulets leaving the main stream and returning later. This braided flow of the Yukon River stayed in my mind long after our return. Finally, I recognized that the Yukon River’s braiding was, for me, a symbol of my relationship with the Divine.

What is it that makes water for me sacred? The image of a river with rivulets constantly flowing out and back in to the main stream of the river comfort me with a feeling of the warmth of the Eternal One (God). For me the main stream of the river is God and eternity; each of the rivulets that leave and return are our times away from the presence of God (i.e., being on earth). This symbolism reminds me that I came from God’s eternity and will return to this same eternity when my stay on earth is over. This microcosm on Earth is my reminder of the ever-presence of the Eternal One in our lives. It reminds me that Eternity is now (not an abstract time in the future) and that the Eternal One is present for me in all of creation.

Whenever I see water, I am reminded of the presence of the Divine in our daily lives, and I feel enriched.

Chuck Morello, Eveleth, MN, 2003

Gathering With God

In the mid 70’s I found this sacred space in the wilderness north of Ely, Minnesota near the Little Indian Sioux River. In the late 70’s I discovered it near a nameless pond beyond the Spring Creek Draw. In the early and middle 80’s this sacred space lie across Mud Creek up on a high, pine covered ridge. In the next 15 years it moved variously to an old abandoned trailer park near Iron River, Wisconsin, to an deserted pasture less than a 30 minute walk out my back door, to a vast rocky bluff within view of a large city.

In this sacred space I gather blueberries. In the middle of the summer, when the call goes out that a patch has been found, my mother, father and I would fill a basket with the days food and abandon our work-a-day jobs for gathering. We spent the days under a blazing sun, cooled by a summer breeze or a tree for shade.

We returned at the end of the day with buckets full, backs sore, fingers weary, knees bruised and spirits lifted. We had found a spot where God has walked and rested causing the earth to rejoice with a super abundance of berries. At Thanksgiving, Christmas and other family gatherings when my mother baked pies from the berries, we would measure the wonder of a patch by the number of times my mother had to move to fill her bucket with berries. The fewer the better.

God most often prepares these sacred spaces with fire and after a few years the surrounding forest or brush land reclaims them. And so they move and must be found again.

In the last 6 years I have not found it at all. Scanty snow cover allowed buds to freeze, spring frosts killed the blossoms, or dry weather shriveled the berries.

So today farmers plant fields of berries in rows just as other farmers plant furrows to provide our daily food. However, nothing matches a wilderness patch for flavor and the ‘smell’ of God. Like the field, in the wooden furrows, the pews of our churches we are fed with the sacraments and watered with the word of God, but they seldom provide the window for my spirit to God as does a berry patch.

I have known old women and men drawn by the intoxicating scent of God to a berry patch, well beyond their years for a prudent excursion. They lacked the strength to return, must be ‘rescued’ by anxious relatives or authorities – if ‘rescued’ from God is an apt term.

Others as well as myself recognize the Lord in other such places of harvest as the vast, late August bed of Wild Rice or like St. Peter, in the sudden, unexpected catch of fish1. This display of plenty in the harvest lifts my heart to God and inspires me to be more generous in my own life.2

----------------- 1. "Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, "It is the Lord!" As soon as Simon Peter heard him say, "It is the Lord," he wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water." John 21:7 2. "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" Luke 5:8)

Ken Jackson, St. Andrew's Episcopal Parish, Cloquet, MN, 2004

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I feel so lucky that every day gets a night. I want to walk the whole darkness of night.

My neighbor knows that I like dog walking in the dark of night and she tries to oblige, but she often is in bed by the time my night starts. Her dog, never too late for a walk, comes with us.

Lou Lou, our cat, walks with us, very lucky, because the neighborhood cat slides away from the scrimmage line with Lou Lou flanked by two bad dogs.

I tap on the neighbor’s door and tell her the Northern Lights are out. She turns off her yard light and darkness lets the lights appear.

The sky is full and a shooting star streaks. Northern lights and a shooting star both. I want a third portent and the darkness allows me to believe that I hear the wings of an eagle in a nest above us. Lights, meteors, and a holy eagle, all three.

All three I say and pray the rosary of the globe. My neighbor says, Ya, I’m buying a lottery ticket in the morning.

Back home, dog, cat, and me, I open the window to let the night continue in.

Natalie Constance, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Duluth, MN, 2004

Minnesota's Orchestra Hall as Sacred Space

What makes a space to be "sacred"? The answer is clear in spaces built for sacred use. Other spaces, however, can be filled with sacred meaning at a particular time. They enable encounter with "awesome and fascinating mystery" (mysterium tremendum et fascinans), which was Rudolf Otto's expression in Das Heilige, tr. as The Idea of the Holy.

In the latter case, our use of time within common space may transform the place so that it becomes a memorable bearer of sacred meaning. That has happened on occasion at Orchestra Hall.

Anywhere any time we can worship the Creator. If our concepts "space" and "time" are abstractions from reality, then we may be freer than we had imagined to experience the sacred anywhere and any time. Our focused time can sanctify its space.

Some spaces were built specifically to serve sacred purposes Chartres, Cologne cathedral, the Vatican, Hagia Sophia, Westminster in London, Riverside in New York, Temple Israel, your local church building (if you were providentially blessed in your architect). You can't miss what such spaces are about. Duke Ellington knew when he performed in Riverside Church's sanctuary.

Other spaces were built to serve a variety of purposes for instances, Carnegie Hall in New York City, or Northrop Auditorium at the University of Minnesota where the Minneapolis Symphony performed, and where individuals such as guitarist Andres Segovia and pianist Artur Rubenstein gave concerts. The Minnesota Orchestra, as the Minneapolis Symphony was named in 1968, also performed at Northrop until Orchestra Hall, with better acoustics, was first opened in 1974. Both Carnegie and Northrop have also hosted jazz concerts where the sacred and the secular are often intermixed.

Orchestra Hall has on many occasions become a place of revelation, disclosure, opening, exaltation, new hope, breakthrough whatever you name the sacred when it grasps you by the lapel, shakes you alive, will not let you go, makes a pilgrim of a wanderer, points with John Bunyan toward the far gate to which the pilgrim progresses, sings in your soul and in the collective psyche of the audience a compelling ode to joy. That has been the case not only for me, but also for entire audiences who have been forged into one compelling witness.

Were it not for the carefully architected and constructed space of Orchestra Hall, we would not have had those experiences. Composer, performer, and conductor all presuppose acoustics suitable to the work being performed. Though Orchestra Hall is not confined to sacred use, it is malleable to the Spirit's movement within us. More than that: this Hall enables the great chain of music-making both to mould us into one community of attuned listeners, and to interpret for us the meaning in the music, which sometimes is sacred.

For sure, the issue of meaning in music is complicated. Leonard Bernstein lists four kinds of meaning that music may communicate: narrative-literary, atmospheric-pictorial, affective-reactive, and purely musical meaning. [The Joy of Music (New American Library Signet, 1954), p. 15] I think he would assign the above discussion to that third level, and while that would be accurate, my intention here is to include the purely musical meanings. As I make that focus, I want to claim that "purely musical meanings" sometimes have originated in, and point toward, transcendent and/or immanent sacred reality. The sacred has been given a multitude of musical expressions. The very fact that such musical meaning exists astonishes us and points to reality beyond itself.

Gustav Mahler's Second Symphony ("The Resurrection"), for instance, is replete with purely musical meaning and exquisite orchestration. At the same time Mahler's driving vision leads from a funeral (Totenfeier) in the first movement through the second movement that celebrates the life of the departed, the third movement that raises doubts about any meaning in life, and the fourth movement "Primal Light" (Urlicht) that forms his transition to a resolution of longing and liberating exaltation in the final fifth movement. This musically expressed progression from death into life carries profound meaning, much of it without words, though poetry is wed to music at the end.

During the prolonged process of composing this symphony (1888-94) Mahler came to great uncertainty about how to conclude this work until he was in attendance at the funeral of the esteemed conductor Hans von Blow where he heard a setting of Friedrich Klopstock's "Auferstehung" hymn. "It struck me like lightning," he said of that hymn, "and everything was revealed to me clear and plain" about how to finish this symphony. The first two verses of Klopstock's "Resurrection" hymn introduce the choral part of this last Fifth Movement.

What Mahler composed is "purely musical meaning" that also conveys "affective-reactive meaning" at the apex of the Romantic period in classical music. [Musicians may refer to Michael Kennedy, Mahler (NY: Schirmer division of Macmillan, revised edition 1991), pp. 119-24; and Donald Mitchell's 3 volumes on Mahler in 1958 rev.1980, 1975, and 1985.] "The last section of the Finale, prefaced by a strange orchestral stillness, punctuated by distant fanfares and mysterious bird-calls culminates in the magical soft entry of the chorus singing Klopstock's hymn Auferstehung." (Kennedy, p. 124)

If there is a more uplifting peroration in orchestral literature than this fifth movement I have not found it. According to notes online at the Orlando Philharmonic, Mahler had this to say about the final moments of this symphony, though the music alone communicates as much: "What happens now is far from expected: Everything has ceased to exist. The gentle sound of a chorus of saints and heavenly hosts is then heard. Soft and simple, the words gently swell up: "Rise again, yes, rise again thou wilt!" Then the glory of God comes into sight. A wondrous light strikes us to the heart. All is quiet and blissful. Lo and behold: there is no judgment, no sinners, no just men, no great and small; there is no punishment and no reward. A feeling of overwhelming love fills us with blissful knowledge and illuminates our existence." [Such music's self-contained meaning (in a fluid architecture of moving sound and rhythm) forms simultaneously a trajectory that ends beyond the furthest horizon of our prior insight. As such it is revelatory in another way than words alone can tell. Though Mahler often used words with music, as did Verdi, Mozart and others in opera and other genres of music, the first four movements of this 2nd symphony carry their wordless meaning into the last movement. There's also Mendelssohn, who composed "Songs Without Words" (for piano), and whose 5th Symphony concludes with the powerful "Mighty Fortress" (Ein feste Burg) musical theme borrowed wordless from Martin Luther. There is not only the 9th Symphony from Beethoven which in its last movement adds to the orchestra chorus and soloists singing Schillers Ode to Joy, but also his other 8 which carry their meaning wholly in musical terms without words. Even Beethoven's 6th Symphony ("Pastoral") is not "program music," as if it could not stand on its own apart from nature. If words could tell it all, so to speak, we would not need music. Most symphonic scores require no words to be sung or spoken to convey their meaning, and that meaning again and again is penetratingly spiritual.

The Spirit, like the wind (Greek word pneuma in both cases), "blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it" (John 3:8). A space that was built for multiple uses may nonetheless become a place of sacred illumination, depending in part on what we bring to it, the quality of the time we live within it, and what the artist-performers bring into it. Not only in intense climactic moments, but also in the largo and pianissimo moments, such as a heartrendingly beautiful flute solo near the close of Brahms' First Symphony the Spirit may be made known whether the composer did or did not so intend.

We meet the Holy, the Other, not only in scripture (sola scriptura?) and not only in nature (John Calvin's theatrum gloriae dei) but also "anywhere any time...," including in Orchestra Hall. There the sacred has claimed us by the thousands for 36 years and more, for renovation is coming to this great place. Under the masterful inspired leadership of maestro Osmo Vanska the Minnesota Orchestra is now in the top rank of orchestras across the world. For the kinds of sacred experiences I mention here we are indebted to Orchestra Hall and the expert dedication of those who labor there for us.

John G. Gibbs, Park Rapids, MN, 2011

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To Biblical Perspectives of Sacred Space

Please address your comments to:

MEESC c/o C. Morello 4451 Lakeside Drive Eveleth, MN 55743-4400 USA

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