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LEED certification & the environmental commitment of Prairiewoods

Otis & Friends 2I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

During this school year, I have become friends with a local college student, Katie Gerhart. She is a student at Coe College double majoring in Environmental Studies and English. (And although squirrels aren’t great at English, we’re proficient in Environmental Studies!) During this school year, Katie is working at Prairiewoods as an AmeriCorps intern. Here are her thoughts on Prairiewoods’ LEED Gold certification …

Part of my internship at Prairiewoods involves doing research on current environmental practices, both at Prairiewoods and in the surrounding community. This fall I was handed a massive binder titled “LEED Application with Documentation: 2012” and was asked to read through it to my heart’s content. My supervisor knew that, realistically, I could not get through the 10-pound behemoth, so she recommended that I skim the technical jargon and spend more time on what interests me. As I began reading it, I encountered an undeniable problem: the binder is full of information that is both extremely interesting to me and pertinent to my studies.

Upon receiving the binder, I was excited to discover how Prairiewoods received its prestigious LEED Gold Certification. As an Environmental Studies student, I had heard of LEED and equated it to environmental excellence in an institution. However, I was clueless about how to become certified, which rankings were offered, and even about what LEED stood for. Luckily, The Binder was full of handy information.

LEEDLEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification offered to institutions who apply through the U.S. Green Building Council. The application is quite lengthy and very detailed. It requires documentation on everything from the size of the buildings to the cleaning products used. Often, an engineer is hired prior to submitting the application to help assess the current environmental standard and to offer suggestions to earn points on the LEED application. The points earned on a LEED application are out of 100 and relate to specific environmental techniques reflected in the building, design, and operation of an institution. The final score given to the application is assigned to a certain level of certification: Certified, Silver, Gold, or Platinum (with Platinum being the highest level possible).

The fact that Prairiewoods was granted LEED Gold certification in 2012 is a pretty big deal. Prairiewoods is the only nonprofit organization in Iowa to earn this certification based off of their preexisting building structure. Many institutions are keeping LEED certification in mind as they build new structures because LEED certification showcases environmental values and it can lead to government-issued incentives. However, Prairiewoods was set on becoming as environmentally conscious as possible before it was hip to be green.

LEED Team 2

Sister Helen Elsbernd, Bruce Hamous and Jean Barbaglia Wenisch, the team that secured LEED Gold certification for Prairiewoods in 2012

The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who founded Prairiewoods felt a deep connection to the land and committed themselves to “develop right relationships with all creation and promote sustainability of Mother Earth” (according to their Long Range Land Management Plan). The Sisters worked for a year to develop a common vision for Prairiewoods that revolved around human-Earth relations, and these ideas have been at the center of the organization ever since.

The opportunity to submit a LEED application doubles as an opportunity to physically show the relationship between Prairiewoods and the environment. As I leaf through The Binder, it is clear that years of hard work, dedication, and reflective thought are ever-present at Prairiewoods.

—Katie Gerhart, Prairiewoods’ 2015–2016 Intern

Otis & Friends: Introduction

Otis & Friends 1I’m Otis, Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel, and I’ve taken over this blog for 2016 in honor of Prairiewoods’ 20th anniversary. You’ll hear from me or one of my friends each Friday.

First, let me introduce myself … As I said, I’m Otis, a resident of Prairiewoods and a member of the menagerie of animals. I will make a few comments and observations about life here through the intervention of St. Francis, who has enabled me to dictate my comments to you. (They were recorded and now are being made available in print.)

I love living on the 70 acres of land at Prairiewoods. The humans here treat all animals and each other with extreme kindness. While many people who come here only get a glimpse of us, we are always watching. The deer, for example, come out to meet some of the humans whom they have come to trust and love, while the red fox stays deep in her den.

When I watch the humans from my perch as they drive their vehicles, I see a very different side of these fellow creatures—much unlike the residents of my small forest. They appear to drive past our enclave and not even notice what a special place it is! I have learned from other squirrels that some humans are rapidly converting land and trees into structures that are barren and lifeless. I am saddened to see our habitat slowly disappear!

Our cousins, the prairie dogs, identify two groups of people: those we should flee from and those we can ignore since they mean no harm. They communicate this information to us, and we follow their lead. Some of the prairie dogs, it is rumored, have been poisoned or shot because they somehow make exploiting their homeland more difficult for humans. This makes all of us feel deep sadness.

Otis close up

a close-up taken by my friend and favorite photographer, Joni Reed Cooley

Our great-great-grandparents passed down to us stories of another type of human who once inhabited a very large part of the land in which our homes now reside. They understood the importance of treating Earth as a sacred place and learned how to use the many plants and herbs for beneficial purposes.

Some of the new humans see Earth as something to exploit for their own benefit. They don’t understand that Earth is alive and must be treated with respect for all of us to survive. They don’t realize that there is much to learn from this menagerie of animals. Even you, perhaps, could learn something from us. I hope you will check back each Friday to hear from me and my friends. (Did you know that I even have some human friends?) Let’s use this year to learn from each other!

—Otis (as dictated to Bill Cooley, friend of Prairiewoods)

Coming Soon: Otis & Friends!

Otis & Friends 5

Throughout 2016, Otis (Prairiewoods’ favorite squirrel resident) will be writing a weekly blog. Check back each Friday beginning Jan. 1 for insights from Otis and his friends!

The Ultimate Holiday Shopping Weekend at Prairiewoods

2015 Holiday Bazaar & Alternative Gift Market

Celebrate the Feast of Saint Nicholas with two unique holiday shopping opportunities at Prairiewoods! On the weekend of Dec. 5 and 6, you can get in the giving spirit when you buy your loved ones charitable gifts to local and global nonprofits or handcrafted gifts from local artists.

Alternative Gift Market at Prairiewoods
Saturday, Dec. 5, 9 a.m.–2 p.m.
For the first time ever, Cedar Rapids’ Alternative Gift Market is coming to Prairiewoods! Get ready for the holiday season with unique gift solutions when you shop the eighteenth annual market in Cedar Rapids. Instead of buying yet another tie for Uncle Mike, give a donation in his honor that will purchase a wheelchair for a disabled person in Ecuador or provide food for a family right here in Cedar Rapids. Uncle Mike will receive an attractive card describing the gift given in his honor, and you can rest assured that your gift has made a difference rather than collecting dust in a closet. This is a great opportunity to solve your gift-giving problems, help those in need, and learn about organizations making a difference in your community and around the world! The market has been held in Cedar Rapids since 1998. More than 45 local and global nonprofit organizations will be represented in this year’s event, which the whole family can enjoy. It is perfect for kids who want to share with needy children worldwide, for grandparents who enjoy socially-conscious gifts and for anyone who wants to improve the global society. (And it is ideal for those on your list who are hard to shop for!) Join us for this fun opportunity to give back to your loved ones and to the community. Admittance is free, and credit cards are accepted. Lunch will be available for purchase. For more information, visit

Prairiewoods Holiday Bazaar (Rescheduled from Nov. 21)
Sunday, Dec. 6, 10 a.m.–3 p.m.
The holiday season is about love and kindness, generosity and gratitude. But sometimes the quest to find the perfect gift or host the best party leads to more stress than serenity. This year, kick off the Christmas season in festive style at the annual Holiday Bazaar at Prairiewoods (120 East Boyson Road in Hiawatha), which was rescheduled from Nov. 21. Find the perfect gifts for everyone on your list and stock up on baked goods for parties or last-minute house guests. Jump start your holiday season by visiting some of your old favorite vendors, as well as several new ones from the local community. The wide range of gifts you can choose from include pottery, assorted jewelry, scarves, fun socks, children’s books, Trappistine caramels, gourmet chocolate pecans and a variety of beautiful hand-crafted items. When you need a break from shopping for friends and family, enjoy a fresh baked good or sloppy joe in our Coffee Corner. This will be a great opportunity to cross items off your shopping list and get into the holiday spirit! Admittance is free and gift prices are unbeatable. For more information, contact Prairiewoods at 319-395-6700.

Are you willing to help us spread the word? Please click here to download a poster to hang at your church or other organization.

Make it the ultimate holiday shopping weekend by attending both of these unique shopping opportunities that allow you to give personal, meaningful gifts to your loved ones this season!

Papal Encyclical Aims to Strengthen Relationship between Humans and Nature

Katie Gerhartby Katie Gerhart


Catholics realize that the Pope is a man who is capable of wearing many hats other than the miter. He can be a peacemaker, a listener, a preacher. However, I never really thought of the Pope as being an environmentalist. Pope Francis’ Praise be to You: Laudato Si’ showed me that the Pope can be a figure of post-modernity whose goals stretch far beyond gathering spiritual followers to hear the Word of God. Indeed, Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ is an interreligious encyclical aimed at strengthening the relationship between humans and nature. My environmental studies coursework in college has taught me a lot about the essence of environmentalism, but never before in my curriculum have I come across a text that offers a solution to our environmental distress based on the principles of social justice.

In addressing global inequality, Pope Francis states that “The human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together; we cannot adequately combat environmental degradation unless we attend to causes related to human and social degradation” (1.V.48). He regards humans and the environment as equal, yet separate. That is, humans and the environment have a symbiotic relationship in which the environment suffers the consequences of our “throwaway culture,” and we as a society suffer from environmental decay. Before we can begin to formulate an ultimate solution to our environmental problems, though, we need to change our societal mindset. Pope Francis states that society has succumbed to a “throwaway culture” and is the subject of a “technocratic paradigm,” which forces us to ignore our environmental reality. Plenty of people agree that our technological obsession, which lends itself to a “out with the old, in with the new” mentality, is detrimental to our progress as a society, but not enough environmentalists see this as the underlying problem of our earth’s ailments. Technology can be a great alternative to old, wasteful methods (like using email to send a letter instead of paper); however, it is not enough to simply follow the cultural trend without thinking of the implications of an individual action. In choosing to be constantly “connected” via social media, we miss intimate connections with the people physically in front of us. New York Times journalist Sherry Turkle cites that the growing use of technology has caused an overall decrease in empathy since 2000 (“Stop Googling. Let’s Talk,” NYT, 9-26-15). This means that the more people care about the screen in front of them, the less they care for each other. This is a crucial aspect of Pope Francis’ encyclical: we cannot begin to solve global environmental issues without first recognizing our societal decline and making an effort to create a socially just world.

How do our actions affect the environment and our society? Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’ aims to instill this question in our minds as we continue our daily activities. It is important to note that the encyclical is not a manual demanding drastic and immediate social change; rather, it is a text that offers suggestions for people of all faiths to foster a lasting, meaningful relationship with their neighbors, both natural and human. I recommend Laudato Si’ to any environmentalist who has lost even an ounce of faith in the environmental movement. Pope Francis is a champion of environmentalism who addresses our global environmental crisis honestly and accurately. Pope Francis gives hope for the solution to our environmental problems by reminding us of the impact we can make as a society. If we focus our attention away from the screen and toward each other and the environment, we can work together to better our lives.



Francis. Encyclical Letter Praise be to You Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2015. Print.

Turkle, Sherry. “Stop Googling. Let’s Talk.” The New York Times. 26 Sept. 2015. Web. 4 Oct. 2015.


Katie Gerhart is a student at Coe College double majoring in Environmental Studies and English. During the 2015–2016 academic year, she is working at Prairiewoods as an AmeriCorps intern.


Water: Inspiration for Creation, Poetry and Prayer

Planets form in the presence of abundant interstellar water inherited as ices from the parent molecular cloud.   (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech)/ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA/Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit)

Planets form in the presence of abundant interstellar water inherited as ices from the parent molecular cloud.
(Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech)/ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA/Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit)

This is our time in history. We are the people on stage. Do we know our lines? Do we even have the right vocabulary?

We’ll need to learn quickly, creating awareness of the dangers that lie in the future and forming the collective human response that will be needed to carry the story forward.

An example of one crisis of our time: we are quickly running out of clean, plentiful water. Water, which covers about 70 percent of Earth’s surface and composes 80 percent of the human body, is essential for all life on this planet. Water not only keeps us alive physically, it nourishes us spiritually and psychologically.

Yet, in our world today, waterways that were once clean are now polluted with rubbish, chemicals and harmful bacteria. About one sixth of the world’s population does not have fresh drinking water.

What can be done about this growing problem? How can we—those of us making decisions today—help to ensure the possibility of a sustainable and viable future? Thomas Berry, a well-known prophetic voice for the entire Earth community, suggests that at the root of our present situation is our alienation from the natural world. In other words, our most basic need is to develop an intimate relationship with nature, a personal relationship with lakes and rivers, with fields and forests, and with the astounding creatures of this world. Berry urges parents to spend time with their children exploring the wonders of nature: “Let’s go out into the sunshine, let’s go wade in the creek, let’s go meet the trees.”

On a similar note, Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz once remarked, “I spent the summer traveling. I got halfway across my backyard.”

Both men speak of coming to know the sacredness of creation through experience, through forming a spiritual connection to Earth. They suggest that this is the way in which the decision-makers of tomorrow will acquire the knowledge, learn the values and mature within a cosmology of care.

Most of us can remember times in our own lives when we felt transfixed by nature’s beauty. Who of us has not, standing in our own back yard at night gazing upward into a starlit sky, experienced an encounter with mystery? This is a basic religious experience. This is meeting the “Holy.”

Water, too, invites us into prayerful space. Its beauty can be mesmerizing, inspiring poetry as well as prayer. Wendell Berry, in his poem Water, speaks of how sweet it is to hear rain on the roof after days of dry heat. Carl Sandburg writes about how old stones remember past rains and how willows sleep on the shoulders of running water. Saint Francis spoke to Sister Water, so useful, humble, precious and chaste.

But in our crisis today, we, who need the rain to soak into dry ground, who rejoice in the small streams that sing their way down a mountain side, who rely on reservoirs that are full as we cry out for clean water to quench our thirst, we are the ones to move our vision forward. What is it that connects such a common element as water to all that is sacred.

We might begin with the deep realization that everything that supports life, including water, was birthed in the original fireball that exploded in a great burst of energy about fifteen billion years ago. In the same explosion of dust and gas out of which the stars and planets eventually emerged, water also was made possible. Scientists speculate that water molecules were part of the same dusty swirl from which our own solar system was formed. Water—sacred water—is part of the original gift that is the universe.

Now, some 4.5 billion years after Earth itself came into being with all that was needed for life, we are in great need of treasuring the gifts our Creator has given to us out of Great Love. We need to expand our awareness of the “big picture,” to see that the way in which each of us lives our lives is truly significant. The natural world is the location for sacred communion.

Fortunately, people are responding as individuals and as members of a variety of organizations. Here are some basic facts to consider, some discouraging and some hopeful:
• 20% of water pollution comes from the runoff of toxic products used in lawn care, and over 8,000,000,000 gallons of water are used to water those lawns.
• Americans use 70,000,000 pounds of pesticides on their gardens each year. These chemicals find their way into our water source.
• However, the number of people responding to the challenge of protecting water is growing rapidly. New organizations are rising up across the world devoted to this issue. A few of these are: Green Faith, Food and Water Watch, Catholic Climate Covenant and Water without Borders.

What are YOU doing for water in this time of history? What more can you do?


Two Prairiewoods friends offered to write poems inspired by water for this article. Below are their beautiful works of art …

Vidi Aquam

by Nina Shepard, FSPA

He sat on a boulder
in the middle of a flowing stream,
and sang the entire Vidi Aquam.
“I saw water…”
I, too, have seen water in its many forms,
as glacier, icicle, snow, hoarfrost,
dew, drizzle, downpour
dripping, running, gushing,
thundering, trickling, seeping.
It speaks to us with many voices,
singing, humming, gurgling,
proclaiming, shouting, laughing.
And if we listen carefully, we can hear
the voice of the One who pours out
torrents of love and mercy.
We are bathed in love forever.

Vidi Aquam, part of Psalm 117, is used in the rite of sprinkling the congregation with holy water during Easter-tide. Translated it reads: “I saw water flowing from the right side of the temple, alleluia; and all they to whom that water came were saved, and they shall say, alleluia, alleluia.”


Quenching Our Thirst

by Jean Elliott Junis

Spring rains are back,
The woods are awakening
in all shades of green,
some we’ve never seen.

The plain peony bush out back
silently sips moisture. Until,
a tight round belly bursts open.
Then another, and another!
Magenta flower-puffs sway,
Feeding us fragrance.

Meanwhile, the waterfall is showing off again,
Like a bride, dressed in flowing white veils.
guests push forward
To feel her beauty,
Mist upon them like holy water.

Evening baths on warm nights
are swirling, calling out
to tired workers and giggly children,
Rinse off today’s field sweat and fallen sand castles,
Tonight, it’s just you!

Rain drops of liquid life-force
Know well what we need, even if we don’t.
Oh, the waters of the earth are constantly begging us,
Come! Quench your thirst!

What can YOU do to care for Earth, our home?

Earth as Our HomeDo you struggle with the question of what one individual or family can do to care for Earth? What do you tell the children in your life about the planet and the damage it is suffering? How do you deepen your own understanding of your responsibility to Mother Earth?

Just in time for Earth Day on April 22, 2015, Catholic Sisters for a Healthy Earth released a prayer service to be used with their Earth as Our Home reflection booklet. Together, these pieces can help you and your family honor Earth and deepen your commitment to caring for it.

The Earth as Our Home booklet, released last year, helps you connect each room of your home with the broader context of your Earth-home. The newly-released A Pilgrimage of Blessing prayer service takes the reflection booklet a step further by guiding you through a physical pilgrimage from one room of your home to the next. (Both pieces can be downloaded for free by clicking on their titles above.)

“After a journey, how many of us say, ‘It is so good to be home!’ What if we could say that every day?” reflects Sister Michelle Balek, author of the prayer service. “And not only about returning to the building we inhabit and the relationships there, but the entire environment, the entire Earth Community in which we move every day. It IS good to be here in this home we call Earth.”

The Prairiewoods staff recently used this prayer service to bless the spaces at Prairiewoods, which serves as a home of sorts for many staff, volunteers, guests and creatures. Now it’s your turn: What will you do to care for Earth, our home?

Action Alert

Our Prayers Will Bring Hope. Our Lights Will Guide the Way.
December 2014/January 2015

December 1 to 12, world leaders will try to agree on the fundamentals of a climate change treaty in Lima that will guide the 2015 Paris climate talks. If we are to stop climate change we need a strong meaningful agreement that everyone can commit to. Lima is where our leaders have to “nail down” the fundamentals of the agreement, giving a year to work on the details so that they can agree and sign a climate treaty in December 2015. Thus, success in Lima would be one giant step forward for a robust climate treaty that protects our planet and our future.

When world leaders come together, they need to know that we are holding them in our thoughts, meditations and prayers. Each evening from December 1 to 7, households and communities around the world are invited to light a candle, or solar lamp, and pray, meditate, or offer an invocation for a climate agreement. On Sunday, December 7, from 8 to 8:30 p.m. worldwide, people from diverse faith and spiritual communities will gather for public vigils.

This year the IPCC (the United Nation’s International Panel of Climate Change experts) has released the most comprehensive report on climate change ever made. The conclusions are sobering – our climate is changing at a disastrous rate because of our carbon emissions. We must wake up during this Advent and act now. Humanity is facing the greatest challenge since evolution began.


• Earth is almost half way to the maximum amount of warming our living Earth can tolerate before its systems become unavailable to support life.

• The ideal amount of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere is 350 parts per million. The current level is 404 parts per million.

The fossil fuel industries have 2795 gigatons of carbon dioxide resources in supply and yet Earth and humanity can withstand only 560 gigatons of carbon dioxide before going over the 3.6 degree Fahrenheit temperature increase.

Reflections and Actions:

• “… this task entrusted to us by God the Creator requires us to grasp the rhythm and logic of creation. But we are often driven by pride of domination, of possessions, manipulation, of exploitation; we do not “care” for it, we do not respect it, we do not consider it as a gift that we must care for.” (Pope Francis, 6/5/13, Environment)

• Take a photo at a public vigil you attend; post it on Facebook or Twitter with #LightForLima along with your hopes for the future. Our digital vigils will tell politicians that people around the world are watching and praying for action.

• More information on “Light for Lima” is at and information regarding the gathering of world leaders is at

• Read the summaries or reports from the IPCC at

• A prayer is located at Other resources for organizing a vigil are at

• Sign the Our Voices petition urging global leaders to prevent devastating climate change as part of the vigil at

• U.S. citizens are invited to urge Secretary of State John Kerry to contribute to the Green Climate Fund that helps developing nations mitigate and adapt to the greatest impacts of climate change at

• For signs of hope, read the June 2014 article entitled, The Turning Point: New Hope for the Climate written by Al Gore at

• Reflect on what is possible – even if at first the challenges seem insurmountable. What urgent action must be taken in our mission to care for Earth?

“Pope Francis has called human trafficking “a crime against humanity” and “an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ.”

The 2015 World Peace Day will focus on human trafficking. The theme is, “Slaves no more, but brothers and sisters.” Do you recognize your brothers and sisters around the world as made in the image and likeness of God, and therefore having “equal dignity”?

Trafficking, which generates huge amounts of income for organized crime, threatens peace because it is based on a lack of recognition of the fundamental human dignity of its victims, the Vatican statement said. Information, resources, and the Pope’s message for the day are at

Copyright © 2014 Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, All rights reserved.

Active Peacemaking: My, How I Have Changed

Prairiewoods’ friend Chris Gaunt recently wrote an article for Prairiewoods about her extensive attempts to create peace in this world. Here are her thoughts …

Chris GauntMy Iowa friends and acquaintances from across the country are actively protesting armed drone warfare and going to jail for it. But I am not with them.

My history is one of activism. In 2003 and 2006 I endured jail sentences of three and six months for peacefully protesting the continued existence of the School of the Americas. Since 2002 I have protested war and torture in Des Moines and in Washington, D.C., and traveled with an international peace delegation to Afghanistan in 2011. I have spent almost a year in jail, those two longer stints plus too many one night stands to remember. I have no regrets about protesting or jail time. I learned that in time of war our government does not respect its citizens’ First Amendment right to peaceably assemble and speak out against the violence.

My most notable peace project covered a period of fifteen months in 2010–2011 when I protested with fifty-two weekly die-ins in the Des Moines offices of Senators Grassley and Harkin. I believed my elected officials had the power to end the wars so I lobbied with my body. After holding a NO MORE $$$ FOR WAR sign for hours, I ended the day by drawing a chalk outline of a dead body on the floor and laid down inside of it. Police or federal security often carried me out of the Senators’ offices at the end of the day.

I rarely protest or attend them anymore and haven’t seen the inside of a jail cell since 2012.

My friends across the country ask, “Where’s Chris?”

I laughingly reply, “I’m just sitting.”

I have shifted from total determination to make political changes through activism to disillusionment and a sense of futility. I believe our democratic system has been bought by corporate power and no longer serves the interests of Americans or of Mother Earth. I have changed. My focus is now on things I can change.

I explain why I am no longer involved in protests and tell my friends what hasn’t changed. My core beliefs remain in following the footsteps of the nonviolent Jesus. What I do now is where my spiritual journey has taken me. Learning to meditate, becoming a vegan, joining two vision quests and reading Steps to Knowledge have encouraged my God to get bigger, my heart to open and my life to change. It hasn’t been a sudden shift but began in late 1999 when I became interested in meditation and followed the advice of author Eknath Easwaran. I memorized the words to St. Francis of Assisi’s well known peace prayer. Easwaran advised, “Don’t change the words, and just stick with it.” I thought about what that meant for my life on a daily basis and over a course of many years.

Following my first extended jail sentence, I did edit St. Francis’ prayer to more closely reflect my lived experiences. I dropped the last line ‘And it is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life’ and started adding lines of my own. By then I was pretty sure neither god nor St. Francis would mind my tampering with the words.

This is the version of St. Francis’ prayer that became my own:

Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.

 Oh Divine Maker,
Grant that I may seek
Not so much to be consoled, as to console.
To be understood, as to understand.
To be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.

 It is in surrendering to loving myself
that I have been, by god,
both empowered and transformed.

 It is in “coming alive” to self
that we are free to truly live
here and now.

 Then it is in letting go
of all this
that Spirit brings to us
Supreme Happiness.

 Some call it

Early in 2008 I learned zazen sitting meditation and began to practice sitting still each day. Later that year I read Will Tuttle’s book World Peace Diet: Eating for Spiritual Health and Social Harmony and realized vegan eating was for me. Tuttle made it clear that if anyone wanted to tap down violence in the world then looking at what is on our plates three times a day during the sacred act of eating would be a powerful way to contribute to that. Reading that my purchase of eggs, milk or meat causes the next animal to suffer spoke so directly to my heart that it scared me. I wanted to change, but I could not make that leap of faith. In fear, I put the book back up on the shelf.

Two years passed and I told my spiritual director that I was still just a want-to-be vegan. She said, “Chris, there are plenty of vegans out there,” and the sky opened up. I converted. Eating vegan makes me happy. Today I understand that many family members and friends have preferences for eating meat that are as strong as my preference for eating a colorful plate of raw vegetables has become. And that is ok.

In July 2010 I traveled to northern California for my first vision quest and finished with an understanding that I am a healer and a rule breaker. I returned from a second vision quest in 2012 with an overpowering thought: “Let it come to me.”

From April 2012 through May 2013 I read daily from Marshall Vian Summer’s Steps to Knowledge: The Book of Inner Knowing. Its readings spoke to my inner knowing and subtly converted my intense acting-out activism to a calmer, more centered and grounded sitting. I have come to accept being with myself and God, which are one and the same, really.

Now it is winter 2014. I am here, now. My daily mantra is this:

What I do
(I sit)
What I eat
(not meat)
does more for a peaceful world than any other thing

I may appear to be less active in my peacemaking; yet I rest in the knowing that the changes I have made in my life are enough, for now.

–by Chris Gaunt, friend of Prairiewoods

An Intern’s Reflection 11

by Pia Fritsch, Prairiewoods Intern

What Greater Cathedral?
Why are monuments to the
Living God
Made of stone?
I do not comprehend this
Holy Weight.
What greater cathedral could we build than an
Oak savannah?
What taller ceiling than the sky?
What greater columns than the
Trunks of old oak trees?
What purer communion of earth and heaven
Than root and leaf?
What more beautiful mural
Than illuminated foliage?
Once as a child, I perceived the world as a great oak tree
In space, Self-rooted, as the magnetic polar exchange.
As a young adult, I feel like an Ent,
A tree granted freedom to move.
With all my growing heart,
I wish for the old woman I will become,
And for my unconceived children that the churches
Of the future
Will be made of
A Living Wood.

As I was looking out at the restoration of the oak savannah and prairie this weekend I saw the relatively small oak trees and wondered how it would feel to walk in a field of ancient trees. I had the thought that there is great majesty and awe in the presence of towering trees. I feel like that would be the best place to pray, where the earth communes with the sky. When I read the Bible I was confused when I read the phrase the “living God.” To me, I feel like religion has become encapsulated in a restrictive paradigm. It is as if people are ready for something new now, but the doctrinal powers of religion are resisting this change. I have read a lot of books here on this subject. I was attracted to Prairiewoods originally, because it is a place where people can merge their faith with an expanded awareness of spirituality beyond the usual topics in church. So I pondered the term “living God” and thought how that name could be best represented by a living environment. I feel like no building could ever be as expansive as a field or as tall as the oldest trees. When I thought this I imagined myself small in comparison to the trees and space. Then in my mind’s eye I looked up and saw the massive trunk of the closest tree recede into space. I had this feeling of expansion and joy in my chest when I imagined that. This poem is basically an ode to that moment, but as with anything for me there are more questions than answers in this poem. The truth of this moment in history is stranger than fiction. Even though the only reality I have ever known has been based on the logarithmic depletion of an already depleted earth, it still seems strange. There is something inherently wrong with destroying life, even if it’s non-human life.

This Wednesday I was walking through the woods and then came upon the prairie. I saw some Black-Eyed Susans in the field which reminded me of the seeds I had gotten from the dream retreat. It said on the package: “Help us plant the seeds of peace and transformation.” This then reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend when I was telling him that I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. He had replied that everyone is a seed. You may not know what seed you are, but the potential is always there. Then I thought about the restoration work on the prairie and I thought: “I just need to find the right environment for my ‘seed,’ and then I’ll be able to grow into whatever plant that is me.” All I need to do is go where I feel most nurtured, emotionally, mentally, physically, socially, spiritually, and that is enough to kick start the potential within myself. I don’t need to force an image of what I think I will do on my life. The ‘plan’ or events of my life will arise organically and in many ways unpredictably. Roger Housden says in ten poems to change your life that “instead of making ourselves, this more ancient tradition would say we ourselves are there in embryo from the start, and we unfurl as we go along, colored by circumstance and climate. Just as an oak tree is there already in the acorn, the baby carries on its brow and in its eyes the mark and signature of its later life” (98). This doesn’t mean that every detail is predetermined, but there is an essence to the “quality of engagement that is unique to him. It is as if our joys and trials are there in seed from the beginning” (Housden 98). Therefore, our essence and potential is within us. All we need to do is “discern that pattern, listen for it, and give room for it to emerge” (Housden 99).

I can feel reaffirmed then, because I do feel like I have listened to myself at least in the area of education. I have taken the route that has no security or even career path, but that I wanted to take for the sake of learning about it. I just need to keep listening to myself, and put myself in the right environment. Prairiewoods has been a great environment for me to continue to grow. I couldn’t have anticipated that I would find a place like this to intern at. I just need to take one step at a time and not get caught up in the need to plan everything, while not forsaking everything to chance.

I have really enjoyed my time here. I’ve met some really fun and amazing people. I’ve had a lot of time to reconnect myself to nature. I feel like I will be able to clearly articulate what this experience has done for me in retrospect, but for now I am just glad to have been here. I’ve more than doubled my list of good books to read. I’ve absorbed some great knowledge from books and activities that I’ve participated in here. I came here with the intention to see how Prairiewoods creates the space for personal transformation. I saw this the most in the Dream Retreat where lectures, group discussions and dancing helped build trust and insight. It was difficult that I don’t know people in the area, so I did get bored sometimes. However this created the time for me to just go outside. That time that I would normally spend with friends became nature time. I wouldn’t say I had any kind of mystical experiences, but I did get something out of that interaction. Mostly I enjoy nature, because it’s beautiful. It brings some balance to myself. I also got a taste for one version of how small organizations can run. Mostly, I think I will sit with this experience and put it into perspective as I go on. I still think it’s funny that I’ve worked with nuns, and even more so because they are basically hippie-Catholics. I think hippie-Catholicism is a great place to start personal and collective transformation.