Multi-Faith and Belief Chaplaincy, For All Faiths and None

Deep Time and the New Year

This week's blog post has been written by Associate Chaplain, Ali Newell.

Photograph of 2.8 billion years old rock and is called Lewisian gneiss sitting on a table.

In this new year, we enter through a door opening to so much suffering. The grim news of the Covid crisis, the eco-crisis, and political instability in the world can make it feel hard to see the way forward.  

I wonder if standing back and taking a big perspective can make a difference to how we see things. Having just left 2020 and shifted into a new year we have an opportunity to look back reflectively as we look forward to the new. 

I have been thinking about Deep Time. I have a piece of rock in my living room. It is 2.8 billion years old and is called Lewisian gneiss. It comes from the island of Iona and is some of the oldest rock in the world. It is more than half the age of our planet earth, from a time before animals crept or crawled on the face of the earth. 

As I hold it, it reminds me of how mother earth has held us over billions of years through many crises and mass extinctions of life’s unfoldings on our planet. 

Near the rock in my house, I have a picture of a two-thousand-year-old baobab tree which I stood under in Botswana. It has a magnificent strength. What an abundance of life must have come and gone over the years, sheltered under its branches and fed by its fruit.  

Photograph of a Baobab Tree in Botswana. In the foreground are other small trees and bushes.

Joanna Macy, the 90 year old Buddhist environmental activist, includes an exercise called ‘Harvesting the evolutionary gifts of our ancestors’ in her book The Work that Reconnects. I have been using this in our eco-spirituality courses with the intention of reconnecting to Deep Time, evolution and the gifts our ancestors gave us. The whole practice takes 10 minutes and connects us to a deep shared strength.

Being aware of Deep Time we may begin to feel a strong sense of interconnectedness with all living beings, and to our past. We can feel how we are held and how we belong to this great planet earth in our bodies. We may sense gratitude and awe for what has slowly over billions of years brought us to this place and time. We have an opportunity to open ourselves in order to sense the gifts our ancestors, both human and non-human, have brought us, and which we can feel in our bodies here and now.   


Here is a taste of the exercise: 

“Close your eyes or lower your gaze so we can go inward into our imaginations. Take a few breaths and settle into the place in your body that feels most grounded. Bring your awareness to your body, the weight of your bones and your flesh as they sink into the floor or chair. You are the Earth aware of itself. You are made up of elements of the earth that have been recycled for over 4.5 billion years. All matter, atoms, molecules of hydrogen, carbon, iron of which we are made, were once in trees, rocks, oceans, dinosaurs, or coral reefs. Earth gave birth to us and all life. Earth is our oldest ancestor. We co-evolved together with all our siblings of other species. We are all related.

“Now take a moment to feel the pulse in your wrist……. The ability to pump fluids around your body was evolved in the first multi-celled creatures in the primordial ocean…. And the heart, the big muscle of your heart, was evolved by your ancestor great grandmother worm. Give thanks to the gifts of those ancestors who developed the many miraculous systems that make our bodies work. ………..The exercise continues with feeling the spine and connecting with fish and sensing the hard skull and connecting to the survival function in our reptilian brain and finally to our extraordinary hands which can grasp, eventually giving us the ability to hold tools. With hands we connect back to our forebears the apes.” 

The exercise, then finishes with gathering up the gifts our ancestors bring us and continues:  


“Walk with these ancestors. 

Gather the gifts they had to survive, grow food, and organize communities. The gift of strategic thinking and planning… The ability to use their heart, minds, and hands to nurture and heal as well as the ability to survive and protect family or tribe. 

Gather the gifts to bear great sorrow and loss and the gift of laughter and forgiveness, of storytelling, dancing and music-making, all so important for building community. 

Gather the gifts that allowed them all to carry on their line so you could be here today……gifts of responsibility, fortitude, resolve, creativity, daring, deep knowing of plants and animals, and spirit ways, ingenuity, and morality…… 

“Now step into your own life and your body and spirit which carry the gifts of your ancestors today. Take a moment to harvest the gifts of your own life, your resilience, your intelligence and creativity, your determination and your deep desire for the healing of our world. 

“Rest for a moment with your hands before you, holding all the gifts you gathered. Like our first ancestors standing looking out into the unknown, we today face a very uncertain future together. We face wars, extinction of species, climate disruption, oppression, and diseases. Yet we also face opportunities for great change and evolution, liberation, unity, and love.   We don’t know what lies ahead but we face it together and we go on bearing the gifts of our ancestors to pass on to future generations.” 


Many others over the past year have looked back in gratitude, in order to look forward with a call to collectively live more wisely. David Attenborough is one of these people. Now into his nineties in his excellent film ‘A Life on our Planet” 

Attenborough looks back through his career devoted to valuing and saving wildlife.  Trailer 

He speaks strongly of the call to turn the tide that causes countless species to be lost to climate change and environmental devastation while he also holds up hopeful signs of a way forward. 

This week has been extraordinary. We have seen terrifying scenes of political instability and violence on Capitol Hill and frightening escalating numbers of COVID cases. 

Yet we have seen hope in Rev Raphael Warnock being elected to the US Senate as the first black senator to represent Georgia. He stands on the shoulders of Martin Luther King, as a pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was a minister. Warnock draws on the strength of Martin Luther King’s moral fortitude.  We have also seen the COVID vaccines being rolled out at amazing speed which brings deep gratitude for the brilliant scientific minds who have drawn on the gifts and research of those who have gone before them to protect us and offer hope of survival to many.

May we hold an awareness of our deep interconnectedness. May we know the strength that comes from drawing on the gifts and wisdom of the planet’s past, held within us as we seek a way forward. There has been much trauma last year. Experts in trauma speak of 3 stages of recovery: seek safety and stability, remember and grieve and then be empowered to restoration.

I would like to end with the poet/author Susan Griffin who feels the gifts the earth brings and speaks empathically of how we are held by the earth and can be taught resilience from her:

This earth is my sister; I love her daily grace, her silent daring and how loved I am, how we admire this strength in each other, all that we have lost, all that we have suffered, all that we know: we are stunned by this beauty, and I do not forget what she is to me, what I am to her….. I feel her pain and my own pain comes into me...I taste, I know, and I know why she goes on.                                   

(Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (ed. Open Road Media, 2015) - ISBN: 9781504012188)