We are community. Me and Kai-the-dog that is. We live together, virtually alone, and yet not, in the center of a 20-acre farm of such beauty and silence that I can hardly believe God’s goodness to us. We remember Mrs. Osborne from time to time.
Kai- the-dog is my companion here on Parajito Farm. The Spanish word means “little bird,” named for the many birds living here for the vast amounts of water around us, the desert not-withstanding. Basically, we live in a green birdbath – a 20-acre garden. Though we live in the bright desert sun of New Mexico, we also live inside a web of canals which divert water easily and regularly from the Rio Grande a few hundred yards away. We are surrounded by horse farms and raise the alfalfa and grasses needed to feed those horses. We also raise peaches and apples, each of which will soon need harvesting, cooking and canning. We live here. I make pots on the front porch and write on the porch too, looking out onto this very field for hours each day. We are remaking our lives. Making a new kind of spiritual practice.
Kai likes to wander the alfalfa because it is cool beneath its leaves. Cool and moist. He rolls around in it to scratch his body and he sometimes sleeps in it so that the hot New Mexican sun cleans his oily coat and warms his achy muscles in his funereal attire. We are as it were, in a kind of mourning, Kai-the-dog and me.
We are, Kai-the-dog and I, well-acquainted with the land here. We know the short cuts, the right trees to climb) I use a pulley system for Kai-the-dog,) the right part of the canal for our swims and how to cut and use the lavender to sweeten Creme Brule’, pillows, milk and closets. Also, we find God here on this land.
Dedicated as I am to Celtic spirituality, I am learning how to find God in land as much as in any church. The land is changing me, for the better I believe. As is the hot sun.. I no longer step on ants when I walk. I step between their little parades. I turn lights off when I leave a room. I buy vegetables and bread from outdoor markets, directly from farmers and bakers. I watch birds a lot. I ride my horse St. John (pronounced “s’nj’n”) occasionally and I like to feel the holy New Mexican sun on my body when Kai and I spread a blanket in the alfalfa to nap. It forms a soft mattress and bounces back the very next day from the invasion. It seems to whisper to me “You are loved.” Which is always nice to be reminded. I like to keep an eye out for wee fairies who live, I believe (as did a mentor – John O’Donohue,) in the trunks of many trees; and under all of the alfalfa.
This time last summer, I spent a lot of time in the chapels and glades of Iona, an island off the coast of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland. A shift seemed to occur there which is playing out here at Parajito Farm. The shift is that of finding God in the land, and “church” in a family room with a few new friends.
My “church” is in a family-room and dining-room of eight or so friends, five minutes away from the farm. They raise fruit and eggs and together, we host what some would call a “house-church.” We gather every other week to read a few pages of John Philip Newell’s book Listening for the Heartbeat of God (https://www.amazon.com/Listening-Heartbeat-God-Celtic-Spirituality/dp/0809137593) after consuming a wonderful meal of warm soup and hot bread with butter, and a salad. Often we have a dessert of fresh fruit and occasionally, fruit from the gardens of our host’s home. We talk over dinner for an our while we eat, sharing soup and bread and salad responsibilities and having read a bit of a chapter of Listening.
We talk about our lives, what’s going well and what failures and griefs are cropping up. We discuss the politics of the day, New Mexican foods and spiritual soundings. We then move to the sunlit, cathedral-ceilinged sitting room where we, well, we sit. We sit for about 20 minutes of absolute silence as the sun sets slowly around us, giving way to twilight’s magic. Then we discuss a few pages of John Philip’s book, how it informs our lives, how it resonates, how it changes our pathways and practices.
A “house-church” it is not. Not really. Nor a book club. We pray and we listen and we talk – sharing deeply our lives, our wounds and our minor successes. Might not this be what Jesus had in mind before the church became The Church? I am old I am not aloud to ask such a question in public which makes me wonder what the church might be afraid of? When Christianity “got into bed with imperialism” as John Philip says so provocatively, what did it become? A patriarchy perhaps.
There is no structure to our “gathering”, no liturgy and no hierarchy. We take turns offering wisdom and asking questions without anyone dominating or receding. No megaphone voices and no wall-flowers among the eight or ten of us. Nobody pays pledges and yet I am sure that when one of us is ill the others will drop by. Bring warm soup. Bring hot bread. Sit for a short spell.
We do not have a name for these sweet, refreshing evenings. “Gather” perhaps. We are dedicated to reading John Philip’s reflections on Celtic Spirituality because it fits our love of the land, but we worship God, not John Philip. And we bring other writers into the conversation. And our own thoughts, free as they are of dogma.
Each one of us wanted something we were not getting in our respective religious traditions (and there are many represented.) Some still go to church and add this bi-monthly gathering to their Sunday experience. Others choose this gathering instead of church attendance. And both are equally welcome. We seem to agree on some things, not on others. We all seem to agree that we want spirituality without patriarchy. That we do agree on, without exception.
We gather outside of “church” because we want connection, real, deep connection with a few others, rather than polite nods to strangers at church. Coffee-hour and formation classes, we all agree, is without any real depth-of-sharing, of conversation of human accountability and an all-in-it-together feel. We want to choose our preacher (in this case John Philip) but we do not want to be “talked at” as much as “convened” for conversation – conversation made possible because we really are getting to KNOW each other. Trust each other.
In Colonial America of the 1760’s, a woman named Sarah Osborne was charged by religious leaders of her town. The charges were of “unwomanly behavior.” Her husband’s illness had kept her at home and so she welcomed friends into her home for what she called “the sweet refreshing evenings, my resting reaping times.” And this is how she described her home-gatherings when, in the midst of an ecclesial trial, she was answering to charges with the Reverend Joseph Fish, the ecclesial authority of her day and town. The town’s religious authorities, between witch-burnings and ecclesial courts, found time to attack and shut down home-gatherings. Two hundred years later, I would be born, and now even 54 years after that, our society and our church are very different indeed. Young people are making new choices about attendance and pledging. Churches are, as my mother used to elegantly say “in reduced circumstances.”
I am told by others that this trend of home-gatherings is becoming “a thing.” Well, they and hikes. And picnics.
God, who was, for so long, found only in churches and mediated only by clergy, is peeking out from new places. God, our pathologically shy deity, wounded-healer that God is; seems to be allowing a new flourishing to take place making church treasures quake a bit.
Might God be found in a forest of alfalfa? Might God’s love be found in an old, tired English Black Labrador or a stone or a tree? Might God shimmer from everything and not just from sanctuary lights? Might some in this new century find warmth in warm soup and hot bread among friends-gathered without charges and ecclesial courts? Might some few, who wish to do so, now gather around Celtic theology, one which was so vigorously attacked in the fourth and seventh centuries and 11th centuries by ecclesial courts? One which finds God in all things?
Might a new day dawn for spirituality in these United States? A spirituality of “resting reaping” much-needed it seems? Much needed indeed.