A year or so ago I had a dream: I am in what seems to be a church, and the altar—the holy place that radiates spiritual force and blessings to the congregation—is in the center of the room, with space for the congregation all around it. But the “altar” is actually not a human-constructed altar—it is a vast virgin forest. In the mysterious way of dreams, an endless, verdant forest manages to also occupy a delimited area at the center of this church-like physical space. And symbolically it clearly shows that the forest is at the center of the spiritual work that takes place here.
I grew up irregularly attending the United Church of Christ until I was 10 or 11, when I lost interest. One thing I remember is the solemn layout of the church, with the pews fixed rigidly in place, lined up to face the altar and raised pulpit in front, where the minister delivered his weekly sermons. It didn’t feel much different from going to an assembly in the auditorium at school, with the authorities in front, standing above and removed from the “congregation” of us restless kids.
I never gave another thought to going to any kind of church until decades later. In the 1990s I started traveling to Brazil to attend spiritual works in the Santo Daime religion, a syncretic Christian ayahuasca church. The church buildings are typically six-sided, and the altar, where the leaders of the work sit around a star-shaped table, is in the center of the space. Thus the altar is like the hub of a wheel, or the center of a web, radiating spiritual energy from the center out to the participants sitting around it. This layout was much more satisfying to me than having the altar in front, separate from and raised up over everyone else.
But my recent dream went even a step further, removing anything human-created from the center and having a forest there instead. It couldn’t have demonstrated any more clearly that the forest—Gaia’s Green World—is the center of my path. The Sacred Land is my altar.
Human beings collectively have a several thousand-year history of human-centeredness, in which the flourishing, well-being and comfort of humans is the most important thing on earth. Not surprisingly, this belief also applies to much of human religion and spirituality, both mainstream and new age. The evolution and perfection of human beings is not only the central thing but the only thing in most religions and spiritual paths. The only other beings of any importance might be upper-world beings like angels. The Earth and the beings of the Earth are rarely considered to be spiritually important, and are sometimes even considered dangerous.
What a difference it would make in the world if the Earth Herself, Mother Gaia, were the center, the altar, of everyone’s religion! In the great web of Gaia, there is room for every being, including human beings, to flourish, while Gaia Herself—her vibrant, interconnected, life-affirming Presence—is the web’s center. She is also the web’s Creatrix, always weaving, always combining and recombining the infinite strands of Her vast, living, green creation. This belief is embodied in a number of ancestral traditions, including Spider Grandmother of the indigenous peoples of the American Southwest, and Orchil, the Weaving Goddess in some Celtic traditions.
We could also say that our “altar,” the living center of our spiritual as well as our physical world, is our heart. The heart is the life-generator of our material body, and also the emotional and spiritual source of our love and connection with others. It seems fitting that in most chakra systems, the heart chakra is green. It is organically connected with the Green World of Gaia, and supports us in knowing ourselves as dwelling within Gaia’s web. This natural capacity of the human heart has been sadly diminished by the actions and attitudes of the presently-dominant culture, but it’s still there if we cultivate it.
The most important tenet of whatever religion or spiritual path we follow in these times is reaffirming ourselves as part of Gaia’s web, with the physical and spiritual tending of this web—this altar—being central to our practice. Whatever form our path takes, we all need to find and honor the Forest in the center of our hearts, our path and our world.