A couple of weeks back I spent a Saturday afternoon with forty other people of all ages in the beauty of Wytham Woods. It was the first gathering of the Oxford Forest Church group, and we’d come together to explore nature and connect with God.
On that clear crisp afternoon we spent time both together and alone, with space to be and to breathe in the woods. Amongst the fallen leaves we reflected on the coming darkness of advent. Our surroundings gave us much to reflect on. From the way the leaves were being shed so that the tree can survive the winter; to the way those same leaves provide essential nourishment, protection and darkness for the tiny seeds from the tree to find life in the spring.
Research has started to attribute certain health and behavioural issues, at least in part, to a growing absence of time in nature. John Muir, the Scottish-born American naturalist, is credited with saying, “I’d rather be in the mountains thinking of God, than in church thinking about the mountains.” And for many of us time outside enjoying nature is good for our souls, as well as our minds and bodies. Wonder and awe are important sources of our spiritual growth, and such transcendent moments, when we feel deeply connected to something bigger than ourselves, often occur in nature. This nature connection can also have a positive impact on wider environmental issues – after all we don’t protect what we don’t care about, and you don’t tend to care about what you’ve never experienced.
That afternoon in the woods was a chance for us to mindfully engage with nature and prepare for the darkest part of the year, and the busyness of the pre-Christmas rush. It was food for the journey, engaging us spiritually in fresh ways. Of course none of this is new or restricted to the concept of Forest Church – it draws on much older traditions when sacred places and practices were outside, and it is just one expression of perhaps a wider thirst for a deeper connection with nature and something bigger than ourselves.* But it could be part of what we need to be physically, mentally and spiritually healthy – as well as respond well to the signs of our times.
As we embraced the falling darkness in the woods at Wytham we reflected on what we wanted to take into this time of advent. Like the tiny seeds beneath the fallen leaves all around us, it might be little and fragile – but making space to participate with nature this advent may be just what we need for mind, body and soul, and enable us to hear the familiar story in a fresh way.
This article first appeared in The Oxford Mail
* Nor, for that matter, is it restricted to Oxford – groups are springing up all over the country – see www.forestchurch.co.uk.
For more information about Forest Church and groups in the Diocese of Oxford see www.earthingfaith.org/forestchurch