Sacrificial Gathering in the Long Covid Desert by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee

I am a fairly private person; but I do like nice hugs. I grew up in a home that involved so much intentional love and affection that I came to see it as a normal part of any loving relationship. I’m pretty sure I startle my friends sometimes by saying such affectionate things; but they endure, and many of them claim to appreciate a nice hug, too.

I know there are plenty of people who have experienced unhealthy or abusive touch; in fact, I’m one of them. I also know that the way to heal those wounds is usually through healthy touch, in relationships of trust.

Tragic findings from orphanages years ago showed that in addition to smaller brains and delayed development, up to 40% of infants will die if not held lovingly and often. And we never outgrow this need; study after study shows the benefits of loving hugs, from positive sense of self to conflict resilience to stronger immune systems. Women apparently benefit even more from daily loving hugs, which reduce stress and improve heart health and longevity.

But these days… well, here we are: in order to keep one another safe – to save lives – we cannot give a hug, squeeze a shoulder, or even shake a hand. It’s… awful.

Sometimes this Covid journey – begun so many months ago, and stretching out so much longer than we’d expected or hoped – makes me think of the Hebrews wandering in the desert. Forty days, forty years – how long?, we cry. Jobs lost. Evictions. Family businesses closed. Healthcare lost. Savings gone. Sexual predator landlords. Lives – more lives – lost. How long?

A friend recently asked me to write a prayer to offer my faith community; part of a prayer series specifically for solace during this long wilderness journey. One of the lectionary scriptures for the week describes a sacrifice – the blood of a precious lamb – to save lives. Another talks of gathering; that we never have to wonder if a Spirit of Love dwells in our midst: whether we can clasp hands or not – whether we can hug or not – when we gather in loving purpose, a powerful force is present.

The power of gathering. Can you feel it? Love is not limited by our ability to touch. Or by time, or species, or absence. Even spending a few minutes remembering loving touch can change our brains, our body chemistry, and renew our sense of joy and connection. Even looking at images of loving touch has a similar effect – although we may need to grieve, too. My sister has written elsewhere about the healing power of loving self-touch. Pets, too – many precious animals’ lives have been saved by the boom in pet adoptions these past few months. They’ve saved our lives, too. For I am convinced, writes Paul, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all Creation, will be able to separate us from Love [Rom 8:38-9].

I am convinced, too. And if we don’t have a partner or a puppy – sometimes we can also turn to other precious kindred. Apparently, hugging a tree for five minutes a day is a powerful practice. This kind of ‘forest bathing’ is so effective that more and more countries around the world are incorporating it into their national health programs, particularly since Covid.

What if the trees have been there all along – just… waiting? Waiting for the moment when we finally realize how much we need them – really need them? Streams of tears flow from my eyes, weeps the psalmist; yet you are near. Because what if – whenever we gather, with ancestors, with memories, with the sacred, sacrificial cross alive within each tree – healing Love is there?

A Gathering
by Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee
[Lectionary: Ex 12:1-14; Ps 119; Mt 18:15-20]

Is it true?
that whenever we gather
a Spirit of Love dwells?

My heart aches to gather
to clasp hands
to hug

So I rest my hand against a Rock
I kneel down and touch the Soil
I lean against a Tree
A Gathering
in a Spirit of Love

O Spirit that dwells deep within and all around
we offer this sacrifice
not to clasp hands
not to hug

We paint it on our doorposts
as we weep
for the suffering
the oppressed
the slain

Gather our tears, we pray
Weave them with the stars and seeds and songbirds
a Mighty Quilt of comfort
to cradle us in our Covenant
that binds us and sets us free

Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee does Climate Resilience Chaplaincy in the Boston area. She recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology and she is an adjunct professor for Wesley Theological Seminary. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in metrowest Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.

Categories: Earth-based spirituality, Eco-systems, Ecofeminism, Embodiment, General, Nature, Women's Spirituality

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14 replies

  1. “What if the trees have been there all along – just… waiting? Waiting for the moment when we finally realize how much we need them – really need them? Streams of tears flow from my eyes, weeps the psalmist; yet you are near. Because what if – whenever we gather, with ancestors, with memories, with the sacred, sacrificial cross alive within each tree – healing Love is there?”

    Beautiful – just beautiful!

    We can hug all sorts of things, the grass, a daisy (gently of course), a rock, my adults kids and I have been doing masked hugging outside. So important that skin to skin!

    Thank you for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. beautiful poem! because I live ‘alone’ I depend upon the love from my animals who are my family. I rarely feel diminished or hungry for touch because I am surrounded by it. Unless, it’s a person I really care about and then there is that pull that draws one in which is hard to resist…. its so natural to lean into love.

    As for trees – well I have been touching and hugging them for a long long time… since I was a child. Touch is Love manifesting and these Beings know it… I would like to suggest that those folks that are trying out tree hugs remember that trees need hugs too! Nature thrives on reciprocity.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this heart-opening post. Your prayers and hymns bring me to tears of sorrow, joy, and release!. Such a gift!


  4. “Covid desert.” That’s for sure. Some gatherings I don’t miss at all, but I do miss public rituals and just getting together with friends I don’t see in person now. We’re crossing a desert. I hope we come to the other side pretty soon.

    Thanks for writing this post. Bright blessings to everyone in the desert. Bring us to love.


    • Barbara, I’m always grateful for your thoughts and understanding. My Dad used to say, all change involves loss. I wonder what we will miss from this time? Sending love and blessings to you.


  5. I moved a week ago – the same week my semester started – while trying to keep up with all the rest of life and starting a new life…during it, I have turned to the trees to help me stay upright. I go to them to release the tension – I go out for a walk, rest against a tree, and let myself weep, to just let it out. I have been ever grateful for the groundedness and sturdiness of the trees. But I have wondered, do I burden them with my heaviness? It’s a sincere question…anyone know?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I believe the trees love you, Xochitl, as the rest of us do.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Xochitl, what an important question. First, I want to say that I think it takes great courage to allow the trees to help us. At least, it does for me. Like you, I just cry and cry. Second, more to your point, it may help you to know just how connected the trees are with each other. They are amazingly connected to each other, especially underground, in a fascinating and complex biochemical web. Check out this article:

      So your burden is not just to the one tree you are resting upon; that tree shares your burden with the others it is connected with. And so they all share your burden. It’s fascinating and inspiring to me, how amazing trees are. I personally believe that grief is something that is a kind of gift to trees and soil and everything that connects them, not truly a burden the way we see it sometimes as humans. Because sharing your lament with the tree actually builds a bond with the tree, that you infuse with gratitude and love, which gives the tree more strength. If you were directing rage at the tree, that would be different; but grief is a cleansing and healing process. We have to allow that process to happen – to accept that Love helps lament move to praise (as modeled in the psalms). If we can see the journey, the channel, the composting, the process of it, and embrace that, it will help the healing happen.

      Anyway, that is my opinion. I do know that some grief rituals, such as those taught by Sobonfu Some, recommend that people do things like shower and wash their clothes after a big lament/release of grief. There are ways we associate our grief with objects. I also think there are ways certain sacred objects – a cross, a tree – can represent both lament/pain and transcendence, healing. So maybe part of it is our intention. Thank you for this important question. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts. Blessings, friend.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Xochitl, I love and second the answers given by both Elizabeth and Tallessyn (so far I’m sure). I will chime in from the traditions that I come from. The first two principles of Hawaiian Huna (Hawaiian adventure shamanism are 1) the world is what you think it is and 2) there are no limits. Without limits, in other words with infinite love, the trees support us. And if you believe it, it is so.

      From my other shamanic traditions, I see the trees as our ancestors (I write about this in two blogposts which haven’t posted yet) – afterall we all have family trees with family roots and family branches. And there are the everpresent tree goddesses – Eve, Lilith and others – who have always freely given of their bounties.

      If you feel the need to give back to a tree, you can bless it, wash it with tears (that salty goodness that connects us all to the great grandmama ocean), gift it in other ways – I sometimes leave a bit of my hair behind, and/or honor the trees by sharing your story and thanking the tree for being there for you, us. So in short – gratitude, sharing and tears – amen you are golden!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Dear Tallessyn
    Thank you for your beautiful, inspiring post and words – which has=ve provided opportunity for such wonderful reflection and sharing in the comments.
    You are a gift of grace in this community and we are grateful


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