Canterbury’s Church of the Woods to connect with higher power through nature
Episcopal Deacon Steve Blackmer stands on a trail near an opening where logging operations once were conducted. Now, Blackmer has a vision of making the 106 acres into a Church of the Woods off of Foster road in Canterbury.
(GEOFF FORESTER/ Monitor staff)
Episcopal Deacon Steve Blackmer sits in a tent on the site of where the structure he hopes will be built in Canterbury for his vision of the Church in the Woods off of Foster Road.
(GEOFF FORESTER/ Monitor staff)
For Canterbury’s Steve Blackmer, religion has always been a grassy meadow, a bend in the river or a mountain path.
“Six years ago, I had never been to church. I was one of those people who said, ‘I don’t go to church. My church is in the woods. I’ll go to the mountains, or I’ll take my canoe on the river,’ ” Blackmer said. A man whose life was dedicated to land conservation and nature had never needed a traditional church, but Blackmer felt a change in 2008. He longed for a place to complement and fill out his experience of the divine he often found in nature.
“A lot of people find their most direct connection with God or the greater powers of the universe in nature. That’s a very common thing,” he said.
The idea of religion and nature are at the heart of Blackmer’s Church of the Woods: 106 acres of beech trees and eastern white pine, winding paths and trickling brooks. Blackmer will spend the summer preparing the property before welcoming visitors in September to connect with a higher power through their natural surroundings.
“This is just the world in it’s most natural state. It’s a place with the explicit purpose of providing an opportunity to come face to face with this, and to do it consciously,” Blackmer said. “By making it a church, it brings this forward into the consciousness. I am going there for, in a sense, a holy experience or sacred experience.”
Growing up without going to church never kept Blackmer from exploring his spiritual side. He always felt a deep connection with nature, which led to a career dedicated to land and forest conservation. A need to find his purpose in life tugged at Blackmer as he considered leaving his job in 2008.
The voices first spoke to him on an airplane. They often returned and always carried the same message: “You’re to be a priest.”
The voices continued until they led him to St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Concord. A Sunday service was too daunting, so Blackmer showed up on a Tuesday.
“As soon as I walked into St. Paul’s and sat down, I knew I was supposed to be there,” Blackmer said. He shared his story with St. Paul’s interim rector, Bruce Jacobson.
“I was really quite sure he had a vocation to the priesthood, that he had somehow been touched by God,” Jacobson said. “There was a depth to him that was apparent.”
He enrolled at Yale Divinity School, where he studied scripture for the first time and thought deeply about the meaning of his new calling.
“What am I supposed to do with this? Why am I here, and how does this connect with my conservation work?” Blackmer wondered.
He found answers in the Gospels. Passages such as Matthew 14:23 resonated, as Jesus “went up to the mountain by himself to pray.” A pattern emerged as Blackmer immersed himself in the scriptures. Jesus’s most direct experience with God happened in nature, he said.
This led to the revelation he had sought. “It wasn’t about stopping conservation work. It was about doing it in a completely different way,” Blackmer said.
Before he bought it two years ago, the wooded Foster Road property had been used for logging. The work had left downed trees and a seemingly different piece of property than the one Blackmer and his wife, Kelly, had eyed for years. Limitations included no town water, no sewer and no electricity. Still, the Blackmers would build a small house where they would occasionally welcome guests.
“Literally the first time I came and walked on it after we bought it, I said, ‘Oh, wait. No. This was given to us for something else.’ I just felt it. Building a house was a nice idea, but it wasn’t what we were here for,” Blackmer said.
A conservation easement prevents development on 90 of the 106 acres. Where building is allowed, Blackmer will construct a small meeting house and a barn for visitors. This summer, Blackmer and volunteers will clear trials and make the site as accessible as possible. The network of trails he plans to build will give space for contemplative walking, he said.
“There are a lot of little ups and downs, with little knolls and high and low spots. It’s a little bit of a mysterious piece of land,” Blackmer said.
Beginning Sept. 14, Blackmer plans to host two Sunday afternoon gatherings every month. The form will change, but all of the gatherings will include a connection to the land – either through walking or sitting in warmer months or snowshoeing and cross-country skiing during the winter. He doesn’t anticipate offering full sermons, but he will read scripture, and visitors can talk and reflect on the readings. Eucharistic services will be offered for those who are interested. Parishioners will also be encouraged to help shape the church, by clearing and helping to maintain the property.
The Church is located in Canterbury but can exist anywhere in nature where people can think about their relationship with the Earth and God, Blackmer said.
The questions Blackmer encourages visitors to consider have developed since he first talked with Jacobson five years ago.
“He seems really to have grasped this, and is taking and attempting to give a spiritual aspect to something that most people don’t realize has a spiritual aspect,” Jacobson said.
Blackmer was the first deacon ordained by the Rev. A. Robert Hirschfield, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire.
“He has spent his life as an advocate for Earth and the healing of the planet. He has encountered and made relationships with people who have been a part of God’s mission,” Hirschfield said.
The diocese has offered moral support and seed money to the Church of the Woods.
“His congregation is made up of people who may or may not have been baptized into the name of Jesus, but who I believe are doing Jesus’s work,” Hirschfield said. Many people who claim to be religiously unaffiliated often believe in something, he added.
Hirschfield’s goal “is not to convert them but to listen to what they are saying about God so I myself can be converted. That is the essence of the church,” he said.
(Iain Wilson can be reached at 369-3313 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)