Community Chaplain Network (conceptual)

Earth Chaplains


The Art of Being an Earth Chaplain

A Brief Essay on Participation


Chris Highland


“So breathe deep [the dirt’s] pungent aroma. Appreciate natural renewal.  Just try not to think about the several thousand mites, spores, pollen bits, and bacteria that can be inhaled with every breath.”

~William Dietrich, Natural Grace

“Scientists estimate that there are 300,000,000 bacterial cells on the skin of the average person.  Add those in our intestines, and the bacterial cells far outnumber the human cells in our own bodies!”

~Andrew Beattie & Paul Ehrlich, Wild Solutions


From time to time I am asked to perform a wedding.  When I do, I often begin the ceremony by explaining to the gathered family and friends that they are not an audience–“please try not to see yourselves as observers or spectators here today.”  I make it clear that we are, each one, including me, participants in the blessing, the touch of sacredness that is evidenced in the Love that stands incarnate before us, in our midst.  Many of these celebrations of new life are held in locations with magnificent surroundings:  Lush wineries, gardens, forests, ocean cliffs or elegant balconies with spectacular views of landscapes and natural scenes.  I enjoy drawing attention to those scenes; the context in which vows of the heart are spoken and enacted in timeless fashion.  Whether I encourage the gathered guests and the loving couple to notice the sight of hawks and hummingbirds, the sounds of the ocean curling on the rocky coast or the scent of jasmine, roses or vineyards caressing the air, I invariably call for us all to take deep draughts of air into our lungs and sit or stand, to participate, body and soul, in grateful grace.

My role as an interfaith chaplain in these moments of awe, reverence and revelry in some measure complement my feelings and actions in the wilder places where I sometimes see myself as a kind of Earth Chaplain.

A few years back I took a sabbatical month on Whidbey Island in Washington State.  Clearing and constructing trails, chopping fire wood, repairing fences, mowing lawns and gardening made me appreciate the work it takes to maintain a plot of land.  All my sweat and evenings of backache left me tired but wonderfully refreshed and renewed.  Late in the day I could take still and silent walks to sit somewhere in the green heaven.  Days off were filled with exploration into whale and bald eagle country nearby.  It was a productive time for writing and my words sprouted from the hard physical labor close to the sweet earth of Autumn.  And it was a month of self-reflection on clearing my own path into a new wooded vocation.

At the end of my time on the island I offered to stay on as a caretaker of the land.  I proposed to the owners of the property that I would create a new working position, what I called an Earth Chaplain.  My understanding of this was grounded in my acute sense of the sacredness of that groundscape.  I was irritated that many would come there and not respect the soil they drove over, ran over and played on.  The place was being “used” and occupied not honored in the manner and to the extent that I felt it ought to be.  So I offered to remain as someone who would deepen an intimacy with the forest, the meadows, the fauna and the contours of this patch of island.  I would help call attention to the attentiveness necessary to a full and fulfilling spiritual experience of it all.  It apparently was not the time for this radical adventure.  I returned to that other, Southern island, called California.

Since that island immersion nearly two years ago I have moved back to the Northwest, settled here and there in cabins on the isle of woods, and continue to simplify my life.  I have thought long about what my role is, and could be, as I venture deeper into the wooded sanctuaries of my journey.  Some basic guiding understandings have cropped up.

What I envision in an Earth Chaplain is this:

*An earth chaplain is grounded in and intimately in partnership with the land upon which she or he resides.

*An earth chaplain cares for the creation and creatures that share the residence, and is open to being cared for by earthmates.

*An earth chaplain walks or rolls, works and plays, contemplates and celebrates, gently in harmony with the Way Things Are.

*An earth chaplain practices a balanced relationship with the Life of the present patch of planet.

*An earth chaplain is a presence of respect, honor and peacefulness, teaching through example and word.

*An earth chaplain does not merely observe or study the world around and within, but participates in Nature’s enlivening environment.

Earth Chaplains are needed everywhere.  I see myself as a student of the earth who also desires to teach the way of the chapel of the earth.  Maybe some of us around the planet will work together to create an Earth Chaplains Organization (ECO) that draws together the insights and inspiration of circles of independent and communal caretakers around the globe.

Until I do something more with these meandering mind-rivers I’ll continue seeking to find my place with the environment, to participate in my own sense of place, on this big rock in space, our care-hungry, parenting Home.

Chris Highland

Summer 2003


2 responses to “Chaplaincy

  • Guardian (Ben)

    Hello Chris,
    I have talked with you many years ago and have left an reply recently but with no success. If this gets through to you, I am starting an “Earth Chaplain Chapter” here in El Paso, Tx. Excuse me, I am Ben, the Native American you chatted with many years ago and you mentioned this concept to me then and I am happy to finally start somewhere. Give me a reply so I know your still alive. Thank you.

    • naturechaplain

      Ben. Sorry to take so long to discover your comment! You have me intrigued by the ECC you started. Can you tell me what’s happening with that? I am very interested to know the shape and philosophy of your endeavor. All the best with your work and your life.

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