Spiritual but not Religious: the Church of Whale and Redwood

Spiritual but not Religious: the Church of Whale and Redwood August 15, 2014

We listened to the preliminaries while still outside the sacred space, the sanctuary.  About 35 people had shown up ranging in age from eight to mid-70’s. Groups of two to four had slowly gathered, but did not enter into conversation with others.

After an introduction, we were given a quick briefing of behavioral expectations, including an admonition to respect what I termed “the three-point doctrinal stance,” as this would provide for us needed stability in the mysterious time to come.  Which, by the way, would be on a boat, on the ocean, and we had better be prepared to hang on with two feet on the deck and one hand on the rail, i.e., the three point stance.

At this point, we were invited to board and find a comfortable place. Silently, we moved, single-file, still not speaking, uncertainty abounding. Finally, as we settled in, the more adventurous ones near the very front, the less comfortable ones at the back, a little nervous conversation began.

There were physical challenges–not enough seats, no climate control, completely inadequate and nearly unusable plumbing. But under the skillful instruction and guidance of the leaders, the hope of transcendent adventure began to permeate this unlikely and often discomfited congregation.

People began to participate actively, offering their own backgrounds and experiences, encouraging those who still couldn’t quite catch it to look at things differently, try a different perspective, be aware of things materially different from our normal world. Periodically, silence would settle over all as we experienced a collective sense of awe for four hours in a world not previously known to most this morning.

And thus I am describing the “Church of the Whale Watcher,” which took place for me this past Sunday morning, off the coast of Monterrey, CA, on a small boat owned by a company indeed called “Sanctuary Cruises.”

And yes, that sanctuary offered us hours of holy moments –and the deep disconnect that comes from taking an intentional journey into a place that is foreign to most, the life of the whale living in its natural habitat.

Under the skillful hands and guidance of the pastor (pilot) and liturgist (marine wildlife expert), this group of strangers, each in their own way, experienced the Creator in the creation on this day. There was little easy about it, much unsettling and demanding, and rapidly growing awareness of how little we know about those intelligent, family-oriented, air-breathing, water mammals who occupy this planet with us.

As the morning progressed, more and more silence permeated this congregation as we simply watched a world at play and work and life utterly independent of this tiny bit of humanity.

As a group, we also became aware that, should several whales wish to hurt us, all they had to do was surface enmass under that pretty small craft heaving with the waves under our feet. But not only did that not happen, many solo kayakers suffered no mishap while paddling within feet of whales that had gathered close to the harbor.

The close-in whales were from the humpback variety, but we pushed out about ten miles into the ocean, and there we were treated to the sight of several other whale family pods–these are known as “killer whales” and for good reason. They have no natural enemies–and could have had a feast with us, but also left us alone.

While we were in the midst of waiting for the killer whales to surface, the boat floated freely on the swelling waves. I had weathered without problems from the very front of the boat the wild bouncy ride out. Suddenly, with the engine off, my inner balance went to the birds. This land creature could no longer deal with the deep, ever-changing rocking motion.

A word to the “liturgist” lead to a device strapped on a pressure point at my wrist and aromatic lavender oil dabbed behind my ears. I had been anointed with oil, was gratefully receptive to the healing touch and hope, and soon recovered my ability to enter into the worship of the Creator through the glory of creation.

After returning to land, we headed to a mountain retreat known as the “Land of Medicine Buddha.” Immediately upon stepping out of the car, we were enveloped by silence. Deep, peaceful, penetrating silence that permitted thoughts to flow and swirl away and eventually leave just simple Presence.

We took a three mile hike in the redwood forested mountains, meeting others, greeting without

speaking, stopping at meditation spots set up around the trails, enjoying the holy peace.

And so, after this day of worshiping in the Church of Whale and Redwood, I say, with deep gratefulness, that I am gloriously small and unimportant in this giant universe–and that silence and awe are doorways to moments of transcendence.

[Note: this article ran originally in the Denton Record Chronicle.]

Additional notes:  Rarely in my retired months do I miss church on Sundays, but the friend whom I was preparing to visit in San Jose heard that the whales were plentiful there and thought I would enjoy the cruise, so booked it for us.  She was right–it was a powerful morning and afternoon.

The walk that followed at the Buddhist meditation center capped off a perfect day for me, a day full of worship and awe.

But, having said this, and also affirming the stances of the “spiritual but not religious” group, I also say that my years of practicing spiritual disciplines also gave me a framework to see and experience the day as full of holiness. I had a vocabulary to help identify the sense of transcendence, and eyes that were practiced in seeing the sacred in that which others might think ordinary. This is why we need to learn and practice them. I don’t know of a better environment than regular church attendance and the observance of the Sacrament of Holy Communion.

Something interesting happened near the end of the walk that also intrigued me.  My friend and I had conversed very little, and with lowered voices, on the walk–it was clear this was a place for deep silence and quiet thought.  As we were heading toward our car, we came upon another walking couple who were engaged in fairly loud conversation as they debated the merits of Boulder vs. Vail on an upcoming trip to Colorado.

I felt assailed by their conversation, by their unwillingness to acknowledge the unspoken rules–this was a place to leave petty thoughts behind and permit the largeness of the Spirit of God (however defined) to penetrate.

It left me wondering about the whole nature of many of our conversations–utterly unnecessary, concentrating on the mundane, and distracting from the hope of peace and beauty.  Possibly those kinds of conversations are noise pollution at their worst–and why it might be good for all of us to be more aware of how we may be polluting the minds of others but subjecting them to our phone conversations and too-loud interpersonal conversations in public place.

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