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The Gift of Water: a retreat at the Villa St. Joseph

Updated: Apr 25, 2023

On March 23rd (the Day after World Water Day) our CSJ Blue Community coordinator (Paul Baines) facilitated a day-long retreat on the shores of Lake Ontario. Hosted by Sr. Mary Rowell and Sr. Donna Smith at the Villa St. Joseph in Cobourg, the day focused on the sacred gift of water and the role of ceremony to address our broken relationships with water.

Respecting COVID distances and the need for a smaller connected group, there were 9 participants who all lived within a hour of the Villa. They all identified as women and wanted to deepen their connection to water and participate in a shared experience of reflection, education, and service.

Led by Sr. Mary, the group was welcomed by an opening World Water Day prayer (already prepared by Sr. Nancy Wales (CSJ) and Sr. Kathy O’Keefe (CSJ)). We also took a few minutes to silently reflect on these questions:

  • How do I make use of water in my daily activities?

  • How aware am I of the blessing of my access to clean water?

  • How conscious am I of those persons who do not have access to clean water?

We moved from the Chapel to the lounge were Paul Baines did a one-hour presentation about the sacred gift of water, with a brief overview of the Blue Community program.

Cobourg used to be known as 'Salmon City' since for over 12,000 years, local waterways were bursting with Atlantic Salmon. After a few decades of intense settler impacts and the colonization of this salmon and Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg (Anishinaabe) territory, the waters could no longer support salmon and their gifts to the rest of creation. There is now a modest Bring Back the Salmon program in a few Lake Ontario waterways for anglers, but the Atlantic Salmon also have a lot to teach us about sacred gifts and exploited resources.

As an example of how fish are currently treated as a resource, Paul did a word search for the 2022 Fishing Ontario guide. While not an in-depth analysis by any means, looking at what words are mentioned (and equally important which words are not) gives us some idea about the guide's purpose, audience, and ethic. You can see the word counts below in this 144 page document.

For context, it should be noted that the one use of the word "Indigenous" was made in the opening remarks by the Minster of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources, and Forestry. Minister Greg Rickford states:

I acknowledge the close connection Indigenous communities have with Ontario's waters, and the vital role fishing has played in their culture, commerce and history.

Also for context, please note the name of this Ministry and the emphasis on the history of Indigenous connections, rather than their present or future. Not forests but forestry. Acknowledging a close connection, but not inherent, Treaty, Charter, or Internationally affirmed Indigenous human rights and responsibilities. This fishing guide is a clear example of:

  • Dominant water teachings, values, and ethics

  • Dominant water decision making processes and institutions

  • Dominant water leadership

This 'resource' and human-centric approach to conservation reaches far beyond fish. In fact, this is the same model that manages water locally and globally. One of the biggest water issues that is absent from most protection strategies is the compartmentalization of water into smaller control categories. Our current water rules divide waterbodies and water impacts into false categories and boundaries.

In Canada, depending on the type of human need, water is regulated Federally for fisheries and navigation, Provincially for resource management and drinking water quality, and Municipally for public health and water infrastructure. Our electoral zones and jurisdiction boundaries have little connection or alignment to the shape and needs of watersheds -- while it is these watersheds that are the very source, not just resource, of our wealth, wellbeing, and identity.

This approach is not by accident. It is congruent with a water ethic that puts human need and even human exceptionalism at the centre of decision making and even more so -- the centre of agency and the knowable world. The result is a long list of water issues that are guided by hidden (but not invisible) types of teachings, processes, and leadership. An illustration might help.

Contrasted to this western and colonial approach (worlding), we can look at the work of Indigenous water teachings and leadership (often led by women) when guiding how we interact with the living world. Adapted from Haudenosaunee teachings, Potawatomi writer and educator Robin Wall Kimmerer offers us the Honourable Harvest guide. Rather than having government departments of 'natural resources', Robin advocates for leaders and institutions for 'natural gifts'.

Spiritual traditions celebrate the sacredness of water because it is this holy element that makes life possible, unites creation across boundaries and divisions, and acts as both a symbol and agent for renewal, initiation, and transformation. But in a secular world of water education, policy, and law, how does the sacredness of water become a personal and social practice?

Read through the Honourable Harvest and imagine how this could be applied to fishing, drinking water, forestry, mining, and the foods and lives that sustain us.

One of the most popular questions asked during talks, workshops, and even retreats is “what can we do?”

Before breaking for lunch, holding time for silent reflection, and participating in a creative activity led by Sr. Donna, the group was given a few more guides for celebrating the sacredness of water.

How we respond to a problem is often part of the problem. This is a key teaching from Bayo Akomolafe (Nigerian philosopher, writer, activist). When it comes to water protection, are we only focusing on what we can react to above the Iceberg's waterline or looking beneath the surface?

Kinship is as close as our next breath. I breathe because the plants breathe (Gavin Van Horn). We are mostly water and it is our porousness that makes us a human ecosystem of a larger ecosystem.

Celebrating water sacredness is a path towards honouring our own sacredness.

We haven’t lost our connection to the living earth, but sometimes we have lost our SENSE of connection.

Ceremony is a way for us to find our SENSE of connection.

Community makes ceremony and in turn, ceremony makes community (Robin Wall Kimmerer).

To close our retreat, participants were asked to consider what type of water ceremony would authentically guide their water connection, gratitude, and reciprocity. For many people and water programs, ceremony is a rare call to action. We are often asked to educate, advocate, build capacity, build power, and demand justice. While all of this is needed, how can ceremony compliment these efforts and also initiate change at the heart level (as Sr. Mary reminded us at the Villa). How can we 'be' into new ways of thinking, rather than 'think' our way into new ways of being?

Sr. Mary shared a handout with various teachings (quotes) about the sacredness of water. Just two examples:

Thomas Berry

"The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. We are talking only to ourselves. We are not talking to the rivers, we are not listening to the wind and stars. We have broken the great conversation. By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe."

Chief Dan George

The beauty of the trees,

the softness of the air,

the fragrance of the grass,

speaks to me.

The summit of the mountain,

the thunder of the sky,

the rhythm of the sea,

speaks to me.

The strength of fire,

the taste of salmon,

the trail of the sun,

and the life that never goes away,

they speak to me.

And my heart soars.

Participants were given time, the use of their creative project, and these four questions to consider what elements of a water ceremony would be special to each of them.

  • What do you know about the waters that sustain you?

  • How would you introduce yourself to this water?

  • What does the water give to you?

  • How would you give thanks or give back for what water has given?

We closed our retreat with our collective responses. While we didn't create a ceremony on the spot, we named some of the key elements that would make one meaningful. A common reflection was that these types of ceremonies are lacking in most people's lives and yet have the potential to feed our sense of connection and dedication. Parts of this process reminded us about our ignorance, our grief, and our lack of attention and reciprocity. These reminders also hold key insights toward a greater healing.

Some final words by Robin Wall Kimmerer.

“The ceremonies that persist—birthdays, weddings, funerals— focus only on ourselves, marking rites of personal transition.

We know how to carry out this rite for each other and we do it well. But imagine standing by the river, flooded with those same feelings as the Salmon march into the auditorium of their estuary. Rise in their honor, thank them for all the ways they have enriched our lives, sing to honor their hard work and accomplishments against all odds, tell them they are our hope for the future, encourage them to go off into the world to grow, and pray that they will come home. Then the feasting begins. Can we extend our bonds of celebration and support from our own species to the others who need us?

Many indigenous traditions still recognize the place of ceremony and often focus their celebrations on other species and events in the cycle of the seasons. In a colonist society the ceremonies that endure are not about land; they’re about family and culture, values that are transportable from the old country. Ceremonies for the land no doubt existed there, but it seems they did not survive emigration in any substantial way. I think there is wisdom in regenerating them here, as a means to form bonds with this land.”

― from Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

What personal or community water ceremonies have you participated in?

How would you design a ceremony with those four questions in mind?

Share your ideas and experiences in the comments.

By Paul Baines
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