Greening Hearts

Greening Hearts

Presented September 30th, 2018

“It’s in that convergence of spiritual people becoming active and active people becoming spiritual that the hope of humanity now rests.” Van Jones

Several years ago I was at a minister’s retreat at a centre located across the river from Montreal.  Beside the retreat centre was a wildlife sanctuary.  One afternoon, four of us went for a walk through sanctuary’s woods, ponds, and fields.  Enjoying the sunny heat, we strolled along the quiet paths, and it seemed like every time we turned a corner we met a creature also enjoying the day.

Turtles lurked on the path, garter snakes swished away through the grass, any number of striped and spotted frogs bounced away from us.  Each time we passed by water there was a large white heron placidly standing.

As we walked along, watching muskrats busily going about their lives, I said “all that’s left is to see a deer”.

Five minutes later we crossed into a meadow, rounded a bend, and came upon a magnificent deer standing on the trail.  Head high, antlers tall, he looked at us. We looked at him, and then he bounded away into the higher grass, only stopping to graze at a safe distance away.

I spent several months after that calling myself the deer whisperer. I called for a deer, and a deer appeared.

I can still recall that satisfying walk: the four of us, with all the other creatures, peacefully enjoying a sunny spring afternoon. We didn’t solve the world’s problems that afternoon, we didn’t even solve our own problems that day.  But we did get a chance to be in relation with wildlife, to remind ourselves that we live in community with all beings, not just human ones.

The wildlife sanctuary wasn’t just a haven for the animals, protected from hunting and habitat loss, it was also a sanctuary for us human animals.

I need to be reminded that other beings co-exist on this planet, with their own needs and desires and ways to live.  I need the beauty of these mysterious lives that I can only ever catch a glimpse of, the proud deer bounding through tall grass. I need the connection to all my relations.

Life isn’t just the human party, we are a fabulous species to be sure, capable of great creation and great destruction.  We are one part – an overwhelming part at the moment –  of a very great whole.

It’s easy to forget, living in the city.

We are surrounded by human creation, the downtown towers, the flowing highways, the technology we have grafted onto our hands. It’s easy to forget that there is more to life, actually more to life then just us.

It’s why I share my home with two cats and a dog.  My dog tells me on every walk that my neighbourhood is a far more fascinating place than I realize, if only I had the nose to really smell that cedar hedge.

I believe that to be truly human, we need to restore healthy relationships with the rest of the planet.  Without regular interactions with animals, they quickly become the other, something unknown, scary.

I have a very urban friend who was once offered a weekend at a cottage, he went and was so freaked out by a few spiders in a corner, he had to leave and stay in a hotel.  The cottage was on Lake Ontario and, judging from his description, they were ordinary house spiders in cobwebs, but if you grow up not knowing anything about bugs or insects, they freak you out.

I am not going to show him the large orange spider living in the shed in my garden.

And when nature gets scary, even when it’s a house spider, we don’t mind losing it. Which is what is happening.  We are in the midst of the sixth great extinction, losing species at an astonishingly rate.

Our grandchildren will live in a world without lions, without elephants, without polar bears.  Possibly without snakes and frogs and muskrats.

We won’t save what we don’t know, and we will destroy what we fear.

To restore us and the planet to health, we need to make sanctuaries of our hearts, to invite in all our relations, the cute four legged ones and the strange eight legged ones too.

Let’s take some time in silence to consider who we hold in the sanctuary of our hearts. Besides the people you love, who else do you hold in your heart?  A beloved pet, an encounter with a deer, a green and beautiful place?


Wildlife sanctuaries like the one I visited in Montreal are havens that remind us of our relations to all living beings. Sanctuaries are balm to our hearts, a place to restore connections to others.  Green sanctuaries are also vital to our mental health.

More and more research shows that spending time in nature, whether that is walking in a city park or hiking a mountain, offers us all sorts of benefits.

Being outside in natural spaces helps with mental fatigue and improves our problem solving abilities.   The “soft fascinations” of nature – rustling leaves, the trickle of a stream – actually improves our memory and our focus. In contrast, busy city streets can cause cognitive overload.

Time in green spaces has been shown to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone, and improve blood pressure and even blood sugars.   Hospital patients heal faster if they can see trees from their window. Living near nature has been shown to a positive impact on our immune systems and on pain reduction.

I know that a significant part of this service for many people is looking out this window.

The berm and swale are a haven for toads, for cardinals, for sparrows, for mice and for rabbits.  Bees, butterflies and moths make this property their home.  I am astonished by the abundance of life that flourishes here.  We have a haven here worth loving and protecting.

We are steadily working towards a Green Sanctuary designation, given by our U.S. association, but in truth we are already a green sanctuary.  We are a haven in the city and that is something to be proud of.  We are necessary and needed.

I’m grateful for all the people who have worked so hard to create this haven, most especially Carole Berry, Shirley Daniels, and Michael Wheeler.  All this green life needs tending and they tend it well.

We hope to have our Green Sanctuary action plan approved for a February start to the sustainable living and eco-justice projects. But we are planting seeds this fall. In two weeks we will experiment with a multi age service and multi age exploration time.  The service will be shorter, and then we will learn together using a UU curriculum about water.

After the service on October 28th,  we will host a nature identification and appreciation workshop from Faith and the Common Good, the group who provided our Green Audit. And on Saturday December 2nd, I will lead Roots Hold Me Close, an eco-spirituality retreat.

All of these are intended to help us green our hearts, minds and spirits, by connecting us to the abundance of nature.

My hope is that over this year, we continue to build compassionate connections with other beings.  Educator and activist Margaret Wheatley suggests we try thinking more like animals. She says:

but what if we were as intelligent as animals?

if we had their intelligence
we would not push away
what we don’t want to know
we’d know denial is a form of suicide

if we had their intelligence
we would notice who’s around us
no longer duped into thinking
we can make it on our own

if we had their intelligence
we would engage with everything
mindfulness not a fad knowing
staying awake means staying alive

we are a young species
we would be wiser if we
recognized our immaturity
and used our intelligence
to take our right place on the planet

This is a way to green our minds:

if we had their intelligence
we would notice who’s around us

if we had their intelligence
we would engage with everything

As we seek our green sanctuary designation, let us seek to green our minds, to stay engaged with the greater whole.


As a Unitarian Universalist community we attempt to live into our national vision, that our interdependence calls us to love and justice. This is different then choosing the cheapest, easiest, efficient path. A vision of interdependence asks more of us.  It asks us to live differently, to choose not what is cheapest, but what is healthiest for the planet. Instead of talking about meeting goals, we consider whether an action creates beneficial relationships.

Living by interdependence is healing, it calls us back into compassionate connection with all our relations. It’s good for our spirits.

A couple of years ago the ministers went back to the convent beside the wildlife sanctuary for our annual retreat. The sanctuary paths were closed because the river had flooded much of the land.  I decided to walk through anyway, hoping I might see even more wildlife as only person out there.

Nature doesn’t answer to our expectations so the snakes and herons were in short supply. The path was indeed flooded and my feet got very wet. I began to feel foolish, sloshing along, until I reached a bit of open forest.

There was a small black capped chickadee flying from branch to branch just beside the path. I slowed down to look at it.  The chickadee looked back at me.

It was a young chickadee, fully feathered but not full grown. It was close by my head and wasn’t afraid, just curious.

So I lifted up my hand and the chickadee flew onto my fingers and perched there. Its tiny twig claws were tight but light on my hand.  And it looked at me quizzically and pecked at my hand.

The chickadee looked back at me, took a couple more pecks, then flew away to a near by branch. I held up my hand again, it came back, perched and pecked, figured out I wasn’t food, and then flew off. I am sure that was the first time this little chickadee had met a human being.

It was delightful!  Not only am I a deer whisperer but I am a chickadee teacher. I taught a chickadee that humans are not good to eat.

The encounter with the chickadee was the best part of the minister’s retreat, the best part of that May.  Experiences like this take me outside of my ordinary existence of washing dishes and writing emails.

The deer and the chickadee remind me of all the life that surrounds us, of all the life that makes life on this planet. Life that is alive, conscious and communicating, if only we stopped to listen, if only we stopped to engage in conversation.

To live as part of this whole living planet is part of our work in being a green sanctuary.

To make not just this property a green sanctuary, but the greater ambition of making ourselves green sanctuaries.  To learn how to live in interdependence, in relation with all that is.

This is a worthy ambition for the people of the chalice. Green sanctuaries are needed and necessary.

We live in a broken system, and even with all the good it has given us, we need a different way of being. One that doesn’t turn women into objects, or send animals into extinction.

We need a way of being that keeps us connected to all beings. That heals the planet and ourselves.

Let us learn how to become a green sanctuary, not just this property, but in our own hearts and minds and spirits.

May it be so.



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