This story was prepared in response to the Durham University Colloquium/Workshop, Faith and Spirituality in the City: Towards a Post-Secular Urbanism?, in March, 2007. The event was convened by Philip Sheldrake.
As far as I know, no report has been made of that event. So I decided to write my own story, encapsulating what I learned from the event.
It forms chapter 14 of my book (with Dianna Hurford and Christine Wenman), Creative Community Planning: Transformative Engagement Practices for Working at the Edge (London, Earthscan, 2010).
Here’s the story:
So . . . here we are and there we were . . . once upon a time . . . or below a time, or under a time or beside a time. It doesn’t really matter — in a place far and not so far from here . . . in a time long ago . . . and not so long ago . . . our grandmother was calling us –to hear a story.
Gran’s story, as my story, was about the time of the Great Turning. My grandmother’s Nana was living in a large city like this one and she saw and heard all these things herself. And these changes were not just happening in the cities, though they started and spread from the cities to multitudes of communities all over the Earth.
The first time I heard this story, us children were sitting with my Gran around the campfire in a little community garden just like this one full of pea shoots and berry bushes. Old as the hills, my Gran leaned forward with that look I loved in her tanned, lined face. And she whispered the same words I say to you now. These things I am about to tell you…
My children. What a time it was!
In those days, people in the cities had lost touch with the living Earth and all the important things. Things like their place in the local and global community and even the inner scared parts of themselves. It sounds ridiculous, after all of us here and those before us have been through, but that’s how it was in those days. Cities were contradictory and confusing places, with really rich people and really poor people. Many people felt isolated, though they lived right next door to someone.
People were really separated from the land, too. They depended for their lives on the living Earth around them but gave nothing back. They had forgotten that the Earth was alive or where they came from or who and what they were connected to. They were frightened by the Earth Changes and many of them refused to believe they were happening. It took the Time of the Great Storms to convince some of them.
My Nan told me that part of the Great Turning was about bringing sacredness back to the city. Do you know what that word means? It’s a word they didn’t use enough in the Old Times but if you listen closely to my story, perhaps it will make more sense to you. To make that happen, the people did not have to learn anything new; they just had to learn how to remember. Like you remembering the story I am telling you right now — and passing it on to your children and grandchildren.
In the Old Times, cities were centres of advanced scientific, technical and intellectual development. They were also places where individuals, rather than the community, flourished. People who were concerned about that problem were writing books and articles about the ‘good city’. They wrote about the kinds of things: social justice, community identity, emancipation, the commons and the common good, justice and fairness, rules and responsibilities. Some put forward lists of the conditions that would support human flourishing, with ideas about housing, health care, creativity, work and social supports.
Sadly, they also got bogged down in their own words. They succumbed to despair and apathy. They told stories about cities riddled with anxiety and depression, full of people who were disconnected and excluded. It made some people feel fearful, guilty or hopeless about the problems in their own communities. Everyone was saying such bad things about the cities but my Nana felt that the cities could make a big difference — if people just looked at them in a different way.
People wanted their public spaces, their everyday public spaces, to be magical, beautiful, comfortable and creative places. Small, special places were essential to people’s everyday lives. They had special rituals attached to them. One of the new creative types described a process that he called ‘eco-revelatory design’: ways of making the life of a place manifest in the city. People could really understand what he said.
There was no time for delay at the time of the Great Turning, which was what they called that time when the Great Storms came and the people had finally lost their faith in the ways things were ‘supposed to be’ in the Old Times. In those days, there was a great yearning among people to be whole and to reconnect with everything that had been lost. This story is about how people went from being isolated from each other and the Earth, to reconnecting.
At that time, people grew to relearn skills they had forgotten: listening with the ears of others, even listening with their hearts. The chattering mind grew quieter so that the heart and spirit could flourish. Balance was really what was required. More and more people began questioning what was real and looking more carefully at what was already in their cities. They held lively and boisterous public meetings that overflowed local halls, school gymnasiums and all the online social networks. People were speaking their hearts.
Although it took a longer time for the universities to welcome the new ideas, planning students started learning about concepts like ‘right livelihood’ and ‘skilful means’ and about ‘working from the heart’ on practical and intelligent solutions to the most urgent challenges facing the cities and the Earth. New courses, some even on subjects like ‘heart politics’ were proposed. Local people started coming into university classrooms to help teach these important topics. Some of the more influential contributors challenged the students and their teachers to be part of the changes, not to resist them. They implored city planners to become actively engaged social change workers and told them that ‘teachers’ and ‘lessons’ were everywhere in the world. They argued that their planning work should express their interconnectedness.
And you can imagine … before long, the cities began to look different. And to feel different. More like what we have today. People came out of their houses and met in cafï¿½s and parks and held meetings and social events and gatherings to organise themselves to work together. As people spent more time with people they saw as different from their ‘own kind’, some of the tensions between different groups released.
The Indigenous people and the poets assumed new creative leadership roles in all city planning projects. Before too long, city-building processes began to change. Architects began to embrace spiritual principles that were becoming popular before the Turning, breathing new life into buildings and giving them what they called The Quality without a Name. People began to talk about ‘the timeless way of building’ and architects and builders became much more respected members of the community.
The wider community of all ages became deeply involved in the process of city imagining, city dreaming and city building. Visioning, they called it. Or creative visualization. In workshops in the community centres, people would sit together and decide how the cities should be planned. Their voices sounded like Tibetan bells: so many different languages, softly spoken at the same time. People dreaming together about their cities. The adults and children listened with their eyes closed.
There were great outpourings of love and reverence, as people flocked to public meetings, events and ceremonies to work out ways to save and repair and protect the Earth so it could be passed on to the future generations. There were gatherings and activities everywhere: vegetation and food planting events and days devoted just to collecting and saving seeds and others where people built small shade structures and benches so that they could sit alone or together in the parks. Other people made paths so you could stroll though these places and then sit and just reflect on things. In these places, they sensed spiritual inspiration, in feelings of peace, oneness and connectedness and a sense of freedom, reverence and humility. Gradually, people came to understand the restorative qualities of Nature — that it could restore mind, body and spirit.
There were places in the city that already had significance to people and, with the help of the planners and the artists, their stories were woven into the wider community story. The environment of stories changed, as well as the physical environment. People started talking differently about things like stigma and failure. They found brighter words to fit their new optimism. They talked about imagining, flourishing, strengthening, resilience, reclaiming and community partnerships.
Probably the most marvellous thing that happened during the Great Turning was that the distinctions between the separate and defended territories of the formal religions and alternative (often older) wisdom traditions began to melt away. It was not necessary to have one definition of ‘spiritual’. People spoke about spiritual ecology and spiritual geography. My Nan remembers that talk of the creative spirit was present and easily evoked in these new and rediscovered city places. Places that held special sacredness.
In the newly sacred places in the cities, groups of children and teenagers often gathered and played. They loved the vitality and aliveness of those places and preferred the wilder places. The adults slowly grew to accept that this was natural and tried not to be fearful when the children went there. These places were initially the undeveloped lots and places that had been flooded or bombed or damaged in other ways by earthquakes and cyclones. Many of these places, though spoiled, were once again yielding to the forces of Nature. Colonising plants rambled over old structures and pushed through the cracks in the old concrete below; colourful insects hid in humusy undergrowth or buzzed in the sharp hot stillness of desertified lands. And in the riverbeds there were fossils to find — and rocks of extraordinary shape and colour. This was the ecotone, the edgeplace of healing between the old way and the new.
All of these wild spaces were alive, but for many, the favourite wild places were the natural wooded areas left alone by development. The children gathered in these newly consecrated places and were at the forefront of the community activities to renew them. With so many children playing in places that were natural and wild, consecrated to the work of community building and spiritual development, a new breed of young people emerged. They came to love Nature with a great fierceness. These spiritual warriors gave birth to new children, who — as children and adults — reaffirmed the sacred place of Nature in the city and worked to preserve all aspects of the living Earth.
And so, today we have everywhere precious natural places — deeply nourishing and spiritual places — that were saved and cherished and handed down by those courageous people at the time of the Great Turning. In their quest for spiritual nourishment, they rediscovered something vitally important.
Everyday spirituality they called it.
Some just called it love.
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Hester, R. T. (2006) Design for Ecological Democracy, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
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Le Guin, U.K. (2001) Always Coming Home, University of California Press, Berkeley, California
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