One lesson many people learned during COVID was the small grace provided by overlooked miracles. Things once taken for granted became essential — like the joyful explosion of color in the leafing oaks, maples, lilacs and redbud trees, coinciding with the scientific wonder of a vaccine that allows us to move with greater ease through a world that beckons.
One such overlooked miracle locally is Prairiewoods, a catholic, Franciscan ecospirituality retreat and conference center located in Hiawatha. Founded by six nuns in 1996, Prairiewoods is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and its mission could not be more timely — or more worthy of celebration.
The space is home to the Center, which houses meeting and workshop spaces, retreats and holistic services. It is also open to the public, who are invited to enjoy the 2.5 miles of trails, indoor and outdoor labyrinths and gardens for both healing and eating (visitors are invited to pick their own produce).
Kicking off their year-long anniversary celebration is the Spirituality in the 21st Century conference, now in its 20th year. These events, which feature the musical accompaniment of Sara Thomsen, have introduced cutting edge interdisciplinary thinkers whose work centers on questions of spirituality, environmentalism and ethics. Rather than emphasizing tradition, the conferences are guided by and infused with an innovative spirit. The holistic and ecological focus offers a springboard for thinking about community in its most expansive sense.
Speakers — ranging from poets to theologians to ecoethicists — encourage participants to consider how to become a more active citizen of the more-than-human world—one surrounded by trees and animals, hills and rivers. The theme this year is the very fitting “Flaring Forth into Fullness of Life.”
Given the jubilee celebration, the conference features four speakers in addition to Thomsen’s music. Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim are coming from the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology. Known for their 2011 Emmy award winning film Journey of the Universe, the pair are also managing trustees of the Thomas Berry Foundation. Both are independently renowned scholars, whose work includes religion and ecology (following Berry and Teilhard), but also Indigenous (Grim) and Asian (Tucker) religious traditions. Both are also award winning teachers.
Kathleen Rude is the author of the ecomystical novel The Redemption of Red Fire Woman. As a facilitator for Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects program, she has conducted workshops on sustainability, environmental and social change and earth-based spirituality. With an MS in natural resources and as a shamanic practitioner, Rude is equally fluent in speaking of nature in terms of spirituality and science.
David Abram rounds out the group. He’s the founder of the Alliance for Wild Ethics and well-known for his two incredible books Spell of the Sensuous and Becoming Animal. Those interested in exploring the expansive and healing capacity of Abram’s work can read (or listen to) “In the Ground of Our Unknowing,” an essay he released just over a year ago, at the onset of the pandemic. In this essay, like his books, Abram’s prose (and voice) call us to sharpen our senses as we truly appreciate the marvel of the world around us.
One element that unites the featured presenters is the insight that truly perceiving our world in its wholeness endows a sense of what those in religious traditions call holiness. Appreciating the gift of our senses and making ourselves available to feeling the life around us provides an exceptionally clarifying mode of healing. After a year of anxiety and unwellness — even for those who were fortunate to avoid getting COVID — the speakers share a sense for how to breathe deep and move forward into a future that potentially could be better than anything we’d ever known.
The conference runs Friday, April 30 from 7-9 p.m. and Saturday, May 1 from 9 a.m. – 3 p.m. It is being featured on Zoom, with a cost of $75.
This conference is just the beginning of the yearlong jubilee celebration. The remainder of the year will feature other conferences and retreats in addition to Prairiewoods’ regular programming (which includes meditations, yoga, singing bowls and nonviolence education — largely held over Zoom). Prairiewoods is also planning to host an open house on Oct. 10 as a culminating celebration, with information forthcoming on their website.