As if we all needed a reminder, the Rev. Daniel London, pastor of Christ Episcopal Church in Eureka, began our “Sacred Saunter” on March 16 with the injunction to just “breathe.” From there, the 20 or so of us gathered inside the main entrance to Sequoia Park began a slow descent to the duck pond, a half mile below us, passing by a trickling waterfall and blooming trillium as we went.
Midway through the walk, London provided a short sermon in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, likening the three-pronged bloom of the perennial flower to the theology of the Trinity as framed by the Christian missionary. Once at the pond, amid squawking geese, we would share the “sign of peace,” exchanging handshakes and hugs in a circle formed around a fountain before emerging into the light of a forest clearing close to the starting point of our 30-minute journey. Gathered around a redwood stump that would serve as a makeshift altar for the closing Eucharistic celebration, we would end the saunter feeling nourished by fresh air and bread.
The idea of hosting a Sacred Saunter gestated while London was on a clergy retreat in Morgantown, Indiana, last fall. Now in its third week, the Sacred Saunter takes place every Saturday, starting at 11 a.m. at the Sequoia Park red gate entrance, including on Holy Saturday (April 20).
“At the end of the conference,” writes London in a sermon posted on his blogsite, referring to the aforementioned retreat, “we were expected to write and share a Rule of Life, which is an intentional pattern of disciplines that provides structure and direction for holiness and health.”
One of the priests at this conference, the Rev. Dr. Bill Harkins, spoke of the “healing and therapeutic power of simply walking slowly through nature,” referencing a Japanese practice called shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
“I thought, when I was hearing all this, I should be going to Sequoia Park all the time … at least once a week,” said London in a video message to the Times-Standard after last Saturday’s saunter (he had to run to write a sermon following the walk), particularly in light of the burnout which young clergy face in meeting the many demands of church ministry.
After giving it further thought, London decided to incorporate the holistic health practice into his ministerial life by inviting all interested on a weekly walk through the woods during Lent.
It would be something to experiment with, London thought, and perhaps continue on a monthly basis in the summer if it should prove successful for the Lenten season.
Lent, like the preparatory period of Advent leading to Christmas, is a time dedicated to the quiet spiritual discipline of waiting. In a world where the pressures of the work week weigh heavily on the body, prodding us into a hurried, head-down and thrust-forward pace, the silence and stillness of this Christian church calendar season may seem like an unwelcome distraction. Yet, as research suggests, a slow walk through the woods may be the perfect remedy for that hard-wired impulse to “do,” especially during a time in which the Christian faithful are called to symbolically accompany the figure of Jesus Christ on his 40-day journey through the desert wilderness. The forest provides one space in which to engage such a practice and, in this, simply “be.”
Though research conducted in the 1970s out of the University of Michigan and recent studies out of the University of Kansas and the University of Utah have yielded interesting finds regarding increased brain function and decreased levels of psychological distress after time in nature, Japan has led the way in findings around the benefits of the natural world on the human mind and body, according to environmental journalist Florence Williams. Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba in Chiba, Japan, and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo are at the helm.
“They’re using field tests, hormone analysis, and new brain-imaging technology to uncover how the magic works on a molecular level,” writes Williams in a Nov. 28, 2012, post on the web version of “Outside” magazine.
Research from Li, chairman of the Society of Forest Medicine and an immunologist at Nippon Medical School, suggests time in nature both boosts a type of white blood cell called the “natural killer immune cell,” or NK cell, and anti-cancer proteins, in addition to lowering blood pressure.
Miyazaki’s research, involving hundreds of human subjects, meanwhile shows time in nature also improves creativity and focus while reducing stress hormone levels. Miyazaki’s findings alongside Li’s insights, based off of research involving middle-aged Tokyo businessmen and the effects of hikes, particularly the inhalation of forest scents, on their NK cell levels, have inspired a turn toward the healing powers of nature — what is called, “forest medicine” or “forest therapy,” in Japan and abroad.
“The idea with shinrin-yoku, a term coined by the government in 1982 but inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices,” writes Williams, “is to let nature enter your body through all five senses… .”
London is on the trend, taking tips from a fellow Episcopal priest in Berkeley, who hosts weekly “Holy Hikes” — more intense, hours-long wanderings through undeveloped spaces in quadrants of the San Francisco Bay Area. After having discovered Eureka’s regional Sequoia Park last summer, London thought he might like to host these Holy Hikes himself. Feeling burdened by the financial obligation of paying yearly dues to use the Holy Hikes trademark, however, London decided to create his own variation on the theme.
As he was discerning what he’d like to do for the benefit of his own health and that of his congregation, London’s partner, Ashley Bacchi, who, like him, earned a doctorate from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union, provided a muse in the voice of Scottish-American naturalist John Muir. She shared with him a quote — attributed to Muir by author Albert Palmer in his “The Mountain Trail and its Message” — that’s now included on the front of the paper programs distributed at the weekly event.
“Hiking — I don’t like either the word or the thing,” the quote begins. “People ought to saunter in the mountains — not hike!”
Muir then provides a brief etymology of the word “saunter,” which derives from the Medieval tradition of attending pilgrimages to the Holy Land. According to Muir, when pilgrims passed through villages on their way to their sacred destination, the people would ask, “‘Where are you going?’” To which they’d respond, writes Muir, “‘A la sainte terre’” — “‘To the Holy Land.’” From then on, he says, “they became known as saint-terre-ers or saunterers.”
In the spirit of Muir, London designated the trees of Sequoia Park “our Holy Land,” demanding the reverence of a pilgrimage.
The Sacred Saunter is indeed what it sounds like: a slow, reverent walk through the cool air hanging beneath “the ancient elders of the forest” as I’ve heard them called before.
“The trees make me feel secure,” said long-time Christ Church congregant Elizabeth Harper-Lawson, as we were trekking through the park.
She found an echo in her fellow parishioners.
“The trees,” said Bev Olson, a 19-year congregant at the church, in response to a question about what brings her here.
“It’s another level of Christianity,” said Cat McAdams, a parishioner who conducts Christian meditation retreats. “It’s meeting with nature which is something that a lot of people are concerned with today. A lot of people are going to nature for their inspiration. And this melds those two worlds (Christianity and nature) together.”
The Rev. Anne Pierson, a deacon at Christ Episcopal, encouraged those who have not yet experienced worship in nature to join.
“There’s something very special about being surrounded by the trees — at one place there’s a little waterfall,” said Pierson. “It’s just very peaceful.”
For more information about the Sacred Saunter, visit London’s blogsite: https://deforestlondon.wordpress.com/2019/02/21/sacred-saunter/.
If you go
What: Sacred Saunter, hosted by Christ Episcopal Church
When: 11 a.m. every Saturday through April 20
Where: Sequoia Park, Eureka, at red gate entrance
Rob Peach can be reached at 707-441-0503.