Spiritual Activism: Soil and Soul

My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed

I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,

with no extraordinary power
reconstitute the world.1

This weekend, I attended the Spiritual Activism: Soil and Soul retreat held at the Tatamagouche Centre and facilitated by Isle of Lewis native Alastair McIntosh, who is perhaps best known for his work that advanced land reform on the Isle of Eigg and helped stop the proposed Harris superquarry in a National Scenic Area.2 Since then, he has devoted his life to the connections between place, spirituality and the people who inhabit them both by proposing a spirit-infused ecological activism.

It was only after I paid the deposit for the retreat that I realized the Tatamagouche Centre is a United Church of Canada resource. I was disappointed to learn this but decided to go anyway, believing I would spend the weekend with a well-meaning group of Christians who were just beginning to look at the relationships between their faith and its failure to respond to the ecological crises their 'dominion over the Earth' has enabled. At the very least, I might glean something to share with my own community of faith, which I have long faulted for failing to be at the vanguard of ecological activism in spite of its lip service to reverence for the land, sea and sky.

I came away from the retreat certain that I am a grumpy, jaded cynic whose well ran dry a long time before she noticed it was empty.

Yes, there were Christians present. My favorite among them was a Roman Catholic sister who has started a Motherhouse (don't you just love that term?) in Nova Scotia that seeks to learn more sustainable ways of living while it reaches out to its local community by way of regular, interfaith meditation gatherings. She was committed, resilient and kind. She asked me what I'd like to be caught dead doing, and I told her that the urgency of our time calls us to act on behalf of the Earth together, no matter what faith we profess individually.

There were also people of no professed faith, people who had discovered organic Paganism out of their connection to the natural world, people who had discovered organic Universalism out of a desire to connect with the planet and its people as a whole, a Hindu man and me, the flag-waving Druid of the bunch. I needn't have brought my flag, but it was a coming-out experience for me, since there were three members of my local, Gaelic community present.

I've been reticent to share the details of my faith in my cultural community; many Gaels are committed Christians, and let's face it, the Celtic Pagan community often doesn't understand the difference between revering the culture it borrows from and appropriating it. That can be hard for cultural Gaels to swallow, given that the struggle to retain what remains of Gaelic language and culture is hard enough as it is. But I'm discreet about my faith in the company of Christian Gaels, and I have a tremendous respect for the culture I am learning to bear, and the time was right. As it happened, my faith was well-received by my Gaelic friends and led to conversations about the second sight, traditional belief in the fey and the Christo-Pagan prayers and rituals of the Carmina Gadelica.

What's more, I had the opportunity for the first time to speak Gàidhlig frequently in a social situation where most everyone else was speaking English, to switch from Gàidhlig to English for the sake of those who joined us at the breakfast table and such and to switch back to Gàidhlig again when it was appropriate to do so. I also had the opportunity to sing in Gàidhlig and to celebrate the contributions of my friends when they transmitted the culture. But perhaps most importantly, I was recognized, both by my own cultural community and by the rest of the retreat attendees as a tradition-bearer, and in both cases that role was positively-reinforced while at the same time my faith was accepted by both groups. It was a powerful support of my Gaelic Pagan identity and one I'm not sure I'll ever have the words to adequately express.

But back to the root of the retreat. Alastair McIntosh self-identifies most closely with the Quaker tradition, so while he was a passionate and poetic speaker, he encouraged us to find wisdom in one another. We addressed a number of hard questions throughout the weekend; indigenaity and whether or not it could be reclaimed, re-tribalization of the urban descendants of colonizers, reshaping the conversation when we speak truth to power in ways that positively affirm the legitimacy of our position when possible and with firm conviction when confrontation is necessary. We tackled the heartache of burnout that comes from acting too long and giving too much. We looked ahead at the future we wanted to shape for our communities in the next ten years. We saw in one another the miann3; the desire, will, purpose and intention to care for something important. We gave each other a hope we all needed very much.

It will be awhile before the retreat entirely shapes my consciousness; I'm still sifting through what I've absorbed. But there are several things percolating in my heart and mind in addition to the quieting of my inner cynic, the reinforcement of my Gaelic Pagan identity and the hope I've been given. I'm convinced now that spirituality and activism are inextricably intertwined and that the former must feed the latter if any long-term success is to be achieved. We just can't sustain this urgent work of our time without a deep well of nourishment to draw upon. I'm also convinced that interfaith dialogue is crucial to the success of any environmental activism; our wells might look different, but the water tastes the same and we need each other desperately right now. Finally, I think it's time for me to be the change I want to see in my community of faith, to create the space where Pagans can gather to discuss environmental issues and act upon them. I envision this as a physical space and not a virtual one, since I believe the psychology of virtual space is not conducive to the hard work of real community-building, which is another cornerstone of effective activism. I've also decided to begin writing non-fiction for the Pagan community. Before, I didn't believe I had anything to offer in the way of spiritual teaching. Now I do. I doubt I'll have anything solid to report on that front for some time; the things I want to say will take prayer, thought and research. But in the end, I believe I have something to write about on the topics of Pagan contemplative practice, Pagan activism and authentic Gaelic Pagan practices.

Needless to say, this weekend was a watershed moment for me; there is a definite before-and-after division in my consciousness now that I welcome with a whole and open heart. I should also report that in the middle of this experience I discovered that my mosquito allergy has indeed gotten much worse. Saturday morning, I went for an early walk and was bitten several times. By noon, my arms were red and swollen, my left eye was swelling badly around a bite on my eyelid and some of my fellow attendees were worried I might go into anaphylactic shock. I went to the emergency room of the local hospital and was given a course of steroids and Benadryl to bring the swelling down. The triage nurse said the local mosquitoes seemed especially venomous this year, and the doctor on call said I wasn't the first person he had seen recently with a severe mosquito reaction. Still, the staff nurse made noises about an epipen, and I plan to chat with my doctor about it.

I hope to write more about this retreat as it resolves into action for me, but I think I should close for now. I've written all I feel comfortable sharing publicly at the moment, and the rest is mostly planning anyway. Thank you for reading. May your well be full, and may you act out the nourishment it provides you for the good of the Earth.

  • 1. Adrienne Rich, "Natural Resources," The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974-1977 (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1978), pp. 66-67.
  • 2. McIntosh, Alastair. Rekindling Community: Connecting People, Environment and Spirituality. Devon: Green Books Ltd, 2008. Print.
  • 3. From the Gàidhlig