Praying for Rain in the California Drought

“As an American Indian, all my life I have been cursed with the myth of the ‘Indian rain dance,’” Johnny P. Flynn wrote in Religion Dispatches in 2012 when the United States Agricultural Secretary, Tom Vilsack, suggested a rain dance to end a drought. “I am here to say there is no such thing. Not in my Potawatomi tribe or in any other tribe across the Americas.” Weather-related rituals, Flynn wearily pointed out—including the Hopi’s famous late summer dances—recognize the season rather than bring on the rain.

That hasn’t stopped some from trying.

On a hot September day, while wildfires raged two hundred miles to the north, a motley crew of rain dancers gathered on the lawn outside of the San Juan Bautista Mission in Central California. A few of the dozen participants claimed Native American ancestry, but most did not. They wore everything from long floral dresses to athletic shorts. Each carried a bottle of water.

Sonne Reyna, who said he grew up participating in ceremonies as part of the Lipan Apache and Yaqui tribes, instructed the group to line up facing west. They took a bit of tobacco—the messenger to the Creator, Reyna said—and tossed it into the wind. Standing at the center of the line, Reyna beat his drum and led the group in song. With laughter, each tossed water from their bottles as an offering, and then turned to the south, repeating the process in each cardinal direction. The group started holding rain dances in 2014 and promised to keep on going until California’s drought ended.

In California’s fourth year of drought, people of all types of faith are returning to their roots, adapting them, and sometimes inventing new ways to seek relief in the form of rain. “There’s something very natural about praying for good weather,” said Father Mark Morozowich, dean of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America. “It’s part of our world; we’re immersed in it. It affects us, and it impinges upon us.”

Rain dances, though, are controversial. While some native peoples, particularly in what is now Arizona and New Mexico, do have traditions around the seasons, it’s not unusual to find “New Age appropriation” of native traditions, said John Barry Ryan, emeritus professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in New York. Based on a Los Angeles Times article on the San Juan Bautista “rain dance,” Ryan thought this is what happened in California. “What became interesting to the outsiders is this whole notion of dance that’s going to make rain,” Ryan said. “I don’t think it respects Native American traditions . . . . Some Native people say, ‘They took our land. Now they want to take our rituals.’”

Native or not, weather-related rituals can raise questions about God, the world, and our place in it. Indeed, a tension exists across traditions in the way people understand what it means to pray for—and sometimes receive—rain. Some see it as a magical solution or an exercise in trusting God, while a modern understanding of climate colors others’ approach to such traditions.

The Jewish people also have an ancient connection to the land, although their homeland is far from California. Reform Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles agrees with Reyna that Jewish traditions come out of indigenous cultures. “As modern scholarship understands it, [Jewish holidays] are originally days that pagans recognized as holidays associated with the rain fall, and Judaism layered meaning on top of it,” Stern said.

Not long after the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur comes Sukkot, a seven-day holiday commemorating the forty years during which the Jewish people wandered in the desert. It also marks the time of harvest in Israel. The holiday of Shemini Atzeret concludes Sukkot and includes a lengthy, poetic prayer asking God to remember the ancestors and “not keep back water.” It concludes with a phrase that is added to the Amidah, the central prayer of Jewish liturgy, every day until Passover in the spring: “You are Adonai, our God, the one who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

This line is optional in the Reform tradition. “The ancient notions of God as kind of a superhuman, supernatural being that maneuvers the world are just not tenable in our day and age,” said Stern, who gave a sermon in February 2014 about why modern Jews don’t pray for the rain.

Still, if this Jewish tradition fits anywhere outside of Israel, it’s California, where a Mediterranean-like climate mirrors that of Israel, with dry, hot summers and mild, wetter winters.

The Talmud lays out a plan if the rains do not come, starting with fasts by the leaders and progressing to fasts by the community. The process became optional after the fall of the temple in Jerusalem. A few Oakland rabbis, including Rabbi Mark Bloom of the Conservative Temple Beth Abraham, decided to give fasting a try anyway, in January 2014.

Bloom understands his Reform peers’ objections—that they don’t want people thinking it’s magic—but “Sometimes you just have to let it go and realize . . . not everything is in our control,” he said. “In the end, it can’t hurt, right?”

After his fast, it poured rain, Bloom said.

His congregation was energized by the experience. “The mystically oriented people like that we’re actually confronting prayer head on and trying to talk openly about our relationship with God. Rationalists like it also because it talks about resources, the environment and helps us concentrate on that,” Bloom said.

The Talmud says that, once it rains, the fast should end. Last winter, a group of youth skipped over the rabbis and fasted by themselves. December was rainy, but it didn’t continue. In 2015, Bloom said, the congregation plans to adapt the ancient rules and continue its fasts throughout the rainy season.

The Islamic Society of Orange County also tied fasting and prayer into their overall response to the drought, promoting a “green” Ramadan this year. “I told the people, ask God for rain, pray for it, but don’t waste water,” said Muzammil Siddiqi, the center’s religious director.

Siddiqi led 20,000 Muslims in prayers for Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, at the Anaheim Convention Center. After the gathered faithful bowed and prostrated themselves before God, Siddiqi stood up, raised his hands to heaven and prayed out loud for rain. He summed up the lengthy prayer in a few words: “Allah, give us the rain, give us the water, good rain, beneficial rain, plenty of rain, the rain that will bring benefit to us, and will not bring any harm to us.”

The tradition comes from the Hadith, or sayings of the Prophet. During the Prophet Muhammad’s Friday sermon, somebody told him that people and their animals were suffering and dying from the lack of water. He asked the Prophet to pray for rain. The sky did not have even a speck of clouds, but after the Prophet prayed, clouds immediately appeared and it started to rain, the story goes.

As it did for rabbis, it poured for the Muslims, following the Eid prayers, setting records for July, when rain is typically nonexistent in Southern California.

Imam Mohammed Zafarullah of the Ahmadiyya mosque in Chino Hills, east of Los Angeles, saw the same storm system as a result of his mosque’s interfaith prayer event a few weeks earlier. An extension of their long-standing interfaith relationships, the mosque invited Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Mormon and Christian Scientists to perform and explain their rain prayers with them.

But when it didn’t rain right away after that service, members questioned what it meant. Zafarullah counseled humility. Muslims prostate themselves in prayer, he explained, because “you are making yourself so humble to God: ‘We are nothing and, O God, you are everything.’”

Siddiqi agrees. “Our understanding is that God is in control of the whole world. We should always turn to God,” he said. “Whatever happens, it happens by his own wisdom, his own power and his own will. Sometimes we understand, sometimes we don’t understand.”

But if God brings rain, did God also bring the drought?

Brian Malison, a pastor at Christ Lutheran Church in Visalia, California, simply isn’t sure. “I don’t know anyone who can really truly answer that question,” he said.

His church is in the Central Valley, an agricultural area dependent on snow pack from the Sierras and groundwater from wells. In two weeks this summer, fourteen wells ran dry in Tulare County. One of his member spent $40,000 to drill a 300-foot well. Some have talked about moving to the city water grid for relief.

People may not voice their uncertainty in religious language, but the subtext is “Where’s God in the midst of all of this?” Malison said.

For Stern, that’s not a concern; the weather is the weather. Bloom, on the other hand, emphasizes our insignificant place in a huge universe. Like Zafarullah, he counsels humility.

Still another approach, grounded in biblical texts, is to explain the lack of water as a consequence of sin. “If you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today—to love the Lord your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul—then I will send rain on your land in its season,” reads Deuteronomy 11:13–14.

The Fountain of Love Christian Center in Pomona, California turned to this text in their prayers for the rain. “We remind him of his word,” Pastor Jarron O’Neal explained. “We go to scriptures and say, ‘Father you promised that if we repented of our sins, turned from our wicked ways, humbled ourselves and prayed, you would heal our land.’”

The passage from Deuteronomy is also in the Jewish liturgy, but it has been removed from the readings in the Reform tradition, Stern noted. Nevertheless, despite his skepticism about praying for rain, there is a sense in which he agrees with the biblical account.

“Human behavior has resulted in a failure of the rains now,” Stern said. The Bible didn’t know it in terms of global climate change; but . . . now we realize we actually can affect the climate through our behavior.”

The Catholic Church has long been vocal on the consequences of climate change. Pope Francis elevated the issue as a priority with his encyclical Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home, which agrees with the scientific consensus that human activity affects the climate.

In 2014, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, on behalf of the California Catholic Conference, released a set of sample prayers for rain to end the drought. Although all the prayers acknowledge human need, some also include notes of wonder and confidence:

We realize now, looking up into the clear, blue sky, what a marvel even the least drop of rain really is. . . . Look to our dry hills and fields, dear God, and bless them with the living blessing of soft rain.

In presenting the prayers, the California bishops drew from The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, a document of the Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace, to explain their perspective. Water is a gift from God, the document affirms, and a resource we are morally obligated to protect and share with all people, especially those who are poor. The Catholic approach balances “our dependence on the Creator” with our call “to be good stewards,” Soto said when he released the prayers.

Prayer reinforces stewardship, said Sister Anna Keim. At Ramona Convent Secondary School in Alhambra, California, just outside Los Angeles, Keim teaches water conservation to her freshman students. On World Water Day on March 19, the students gather to pray about water.

“Our language that we use is that our sister water should not be bought or sold . . . . It’s a gift from God for everyone,” Keim said. Cultivating gratitude for God’s gift helps motivate action, she added. “As far as uniting Christian communities and also people of others faiths, it’s great to have that spiritual component.”

But prayers around weather also can be egocentric, as Malison noted. We ask for a sunny day for a wedding or church picnic, for example. “It’s sometimes a little capricious of us to think that God is sending us rain or sunshine in such a way as to be responsive to [our] prayers,” he said. “Plus,” he added, “I don’t know what we’d do if God all of a sudden said, ‘OK, fine. I’m going to send you four feet of water continually for the next thirty days.’”

This fear—of a strong El Niño winter bringing too much rain to California—contributes to his congregation’s uncertainty. Although another year of drought would devastate the Central Valley, flooding also could hurt farmlands, washing away nutrient-rich topsoil. The last strong El Niño, in 1997, caused 17 deaths and more than half a billion dollars in damage in California.

A day after the first rain dance of the fall 2015 season in San Juan Bautista, it poured—but not over the dry fields of Central California or the burning valleys of Northern California. The remnants of a tropical storm dumped 2.39 inches of water on downtown Los Angeles in a month when the city typically receives 0.24 inches of rain.

Scientists predict that climate change will bring more extreme weather. In California that means less snowpack, longer droughts and heavier storms. “Sometimes the answer . . . is not that we ask God for more of something, but that we’d ask God in wisdom to use what we have in order to be sustainable,” Malison said.

The Hadith presents another solution to the prospect of a destructive El Niño. A week after Muhammad asked God for rain, a follower came to him and asked him to ask God to make it stop. “Make it around us, not on us,” the Prophet prayed. Just as quickly as the clouds came, they dispersed.


Megan Sweas

Megan Sweas is a freelance journalist based in Los Angeles and the editor at the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture. She is the author of Putting Education to Work: How Cristo Rey High Schools are Transforming Urban Education. She writes about social and economic justice issues and world religions for a variety of publications, including GlobalPost, National Catholic Reporter, Religion Dispatches, Religion News Service, and The Washington Post. You can follow her on Twitter: @msweas


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Recommended Citation: Sweas, Megan. (2015) “Praying for Rain in the California Drought,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 2, Article 5. Available at:

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The Water Worlds of John Muir

Water is humanity’s cradle; it was our first home deep in our mothers’ wombs. Water is all things to all of life; it is as close to us as the tear in our eye and as distant as the cloud hovering over the open sea. As the Tao reminds us, “Water benefits ten thousand things,” though today we surely would not stop at ten thousand.

John Muir, the great Scottish-born naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, America’s most ardent defender of the wilderness, cautioned against valuing one essential natural element apart from the others. In the account of his thousand-mile walk from his home in Wisconsin to the Gulf of Mexico, he said, “There is not a fragment in all nature, for every relative fragment of one thing is a full harmonious unit in itself. All together form one grand palimpsest of the world.”[1] Later, he observed during his first summer in the Sierra that, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”[2] Still, water in all its forms, was picked out by John Muir and it was to occupy him for most of his life.

Water was in his view from his earliest boyhood days on the North Sea coast of Dunbar, Scotland where he scoured the shore for crabs and shells, bringing home his treasures from the sea. When he was eleven years old, he and his father and two siblings were the family advance party seeking new opportunity in the New World. By sailing ship to New York, and then canal boats through the Great Lakes and finally by wagon, the Muirs arrived in Wisconsin and built their first home in America. It was a small cabin on a kettle pond named Fountain Lake, close to Portage. It was an attractive location overlooking the pond. Young John Muir and his siblings fished and swam in it, but the future naturalist paid about as much attention to water as he did to sleeping and breathing.

It took John Muir’s first summer in Yosemite for him to comprehend the full significance of water and especially frozen water in the form of glaciers. “In October, 1871 . . . I discovered the Black Mountain Glacier in a shadowy amphitheater between Black and Red Mountains, two of the peaks of the Merced group.”[3] Thus began Muir’s quest to learn all he could about these unique, colossal, moving masses of ice. A series of glaciations modified the region starting about two to three million years ago and ending sometime around 10,000 years ago. Glacial systems reached depths of up to 4,000 feet, and their slowly moving floes of ice sculpted the Yosemite Valley. The retreating glaciers left fertile moraines, glacial boulders, and magnificent upland lakes and ponds. The longest glacier in the Yosemite area ran down the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne River for sixty miles. The Merced Glacier flowed out of Yosemite Valley into the Merced River Gorge. Only Yosemite’s highest peaks were not covered by glaciers.

Glaciers are the indelible markers of the ages, and the eons of geological time never ceased to stir John Muir’s imagination. He said in his first published newspaper article in 1871, “There is a sublimity in the life of a glacier. Water rivers work openly, and so the rains and the gentle dews, and the great sea also grasping all the world; and even the universal ocean of breath, though invisible, yet speaks aloud in a thousand voices, and proclaims its modes of working and its power. But glaciers work apart from men, exerting their tremendous energies in silence and darkness, outspread, spirit-like, brooding above predestined rocks unknown to light, unborn, working on unwearied through unmeasured times, unhalting as the stars, until at length, their creations complete, their mountains brought forth, homes made for the meadows and the lakes, and fields for waiting forests, calm as when they came as crystals from the sky, they depart.”[4]

Yosemite’s lush valleys, moraines, waterfalls, verdant upland pastures were all sculptured by glaciers. Muir was so captivated by the effects of glacial action in Yosemite and how they fashioned the terrain that his sense of curiosity stoked his desire to seek what he described as “living glaciers,” glaciers that were still carving Earth’s landscape. Alaska would be the location where the action of living glaciers could be best observed. In his seven trips to the Land of the Midnight Sun, Muir never ceased to be energized by Alaska’s pristine land and seascapes—fresh air, tall trees, rushing rivers and waterfalls, abundant wildlife, and especially the glaciated landscape. Having spent the day canoeing between the head of the Wrangell Narrows and Cape Fanshaw, he recorded in his journal, “[One] learns that the world, though made, is being made; that this is still the morning of creation, that mountains and valleys long since conceived and now being born, channels traced for rivers, basins hollowed for lakes; that moraine soil is being ground and outspread for coming grasses . . . building particle on particle, cementing and crystallizing to make mountains, and valleys and plains . . . which like fluent pulsing water, rise in endless rhythm and beauty,”[5]

Water in all its forms not only shaped the landscape of the world, it was to engrave the naturalist’s inner landscape and impart a sense of well-being. Muir continuously wanted to be beside water or in it or on it. He had to taste it, feel it, hear it, smell its freshness. He camped by still lakes and the racing streams in Yosemite. He climbed trees in downpours to get the feel of water and wind against his body. He traversed rocky ledges to waterfalls where he silently sat while the mist soaked him through to the skin. Water to John Muir was life-force, source of inspiration, wonder, solace and beauty.

While John Muir might have wished to remain in a state of wonder and profound praise for water, his love for it and for all that was natural and wild catapulted him into the politics of water in the legendary Hetch Hetchy controversy. In 1906, the State of California ceded the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to become Yosemite National Park. No sooner were papers signed establishing the park when the great San Francisco earthquake and fire occurred, fueling the city’s long-time desire to dam the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite for a new water supply. Muir, with the backing of the Sierra Club, presented strong opposition to the project. In 1908 he wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt, “There is not in all the wonderful Sierra, or indeed in the world, another so grand and wonderful a block in Nature’s handiwork[6] . . . These sacred mountain temples are the holiest ground that the heart of man has consecrated, and behooves us all faithfully to do our part in seeing that these wild mountain parks are passed on unspoiled to those who come after us.”[7] Muir and others believed that the sources for the city’s water were sufficient and that to flood and dam the breathtakingly beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley, said to be lovelier than the Yosemite Valley, would be a travesty.

Unfortunately the odds were against him. Roosevelt left office in 1909 and the powerful Chief United States Forester, Gifford Pinchot, along with the City Supervisors of the City of San Francisco, held sway. Muir said, “Their arguments are curiously like those of the devil . . . These temple destroyers, devotees of raging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy!”[8] In December 1913 the United States Senate passed the enabling bill granting San Francisco full rights to Hetch Hetchy, even though it lay within the National Park. Some said that the loss of this pristine river valley broke John Muir’s heart. He died one year later on Christmas Eve.

Like John Muir, we all live in water worlds. The water that courses through our bodies is the water that upholds and nourishes all that is created, every animal of the land, fish of the sea, bird of the air; every flower, every fern and great towering sequoia. Water created the mountains, plains and valleys of the earth; water is yet creating, never ceasing. Water refreshes the soul and feeds the imagination. Water is life. We need to defend and protect it with our lives. Just as John Muir did. Water. “It is blessed thing to go free in this world, to see God playing upon everything . . . His fingers upon the lightening and torrent, on every wave of sea and sky, and every living thing, making all together sing and shine in sweet accord, the one love-harmony of the Universe.”[9]


Anne Rowthorn

Anne Rowthorn, like many mothers and grandmothers of her generation, has worked in a number of venues—teacher at all levels from high school to graduate school, community organizer, professional interviewer at Yale, special-projects writer for the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A. She has a master’s degree from Columbia University and a PhD degree from New York University. She has written or compiled twelve books, of late specializing in the area of religion and ecology. Her most recent book is The Wisdom of John Muir: 100+ Selections from the Letters, Journals and Essays of the Great Naturalist.


[1] John Muir, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1966), 164.

[2] John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988), 110. Original publication, 1911, by Houghton Mifflin.

[3] John Muir, The Mountains of California (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1894), Chapter 2. Courtesy of the Sierra Club., accessed August 28, 2015.

[4] John Muir, “Yosemite Glaciers,” New York Tribune, December 5, 1871.

[5] John Muir, Journal entry for July 10, 1879, from Picturesque California and the Region West of the Rocky Mountains, from Alaska to Mexico (J. Dewling Publishing Co., 1888). Courtesy of the Sierra Club., accessed August 19, 2015.

[6] Note: Capitalization and punctuation throughout this article are from the original Muir texts.

[7] John Muir, Letter to Theodore Roosevelt [July 21, 1908], in William Frederic Badè, The Life and Letters of John Muir (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1924), vol. 2, Chapter 18.

[8] John Muir, The Yosemite, 1912, Chapter 16. Courtesy of the Sierra Club,, accessed August 24, 2015.

[9] John Muir, Letter to Janet Douglass Moores, February, 23, 1887, in The Life and Letters of John Muir, Vol. II, Ed. William Frederic Badè (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924), Chapter 15., accessed August 28, 2015.


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Recommended Citation: Rowthorn, Anne. (2015) “The Water Worlds of John Muir,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 4. Available at:

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we steal water when we make rain, the way

everything I have is from somewhere else,

from someone else, what I am


the riverbed looks scalded

but the wound is full thickness

and elsewhere


in a variegated field or on a lawn

of grass named for a saint

or a saint once removed


we can’t walk on it

eventually it comes up

dry and tired


the way we wear everything out

especially each other

listening with heavy feet


unlike the river which never tires

whose pocket we pick

down to the lint


Martha Serpas

Martha Serpas has published three collections of poetry, Côte Blanche, The Dirty Side of the Storm, and, most recently, The Diener. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Image, and Southwest Review. A native of Southern Louisiana’s wetlands, she co-produced Veins in the Gulf, a documentary about coastal erosion. She teaches at the University of Houston and serves as a hospital trauma chaplain. More information about her work can be found at


©Martha Serpas, “Irrigation,” first appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, V14N2, Fall 2014.  Reprinted with permission of the author.

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Recommended Citation: Serpas, Martha. (2015) “Irrigation,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 9. Available at:

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Ten Fathom Ledge

All that’s visible

is a ribbon of coral,

briny phrasals above a ledge nearly


erased by silt and scalloped water,

ghostly and opaque.


Beyond is the dead outer shelf,

its tragic red surge of blossoms

bruising the abyss.


What to do?

The others have entered


the freighter’s wrenched hull,

their light beams sliding like opera gloves

along the awkward deck and sides.


I am left playing with goatfish

on Ten Fathom Ledge, like the forbidden

step off your grandmother’s porch,

the first plank as far as you will go

toward the long bright yard, the pitch

of children rippling from a swing.


Why not be content with spadefish and nurse sharks,

the confusion of gravity, the wise bezel

that grasps all our time as bottom time?

A gentle surge toward the wreck, lifts, pauses,

then sloshes me right back on the ledge.




Everything lasts forever: the jetties,

sand, sky, pipers, even the pebbles

of sea glass, cobalt, old as lace

doilies. Others can walk down the beach

toward thin shacks and driftwood shelters,

toward haze and mist. I’ll sit on an unclaimed

log, which has drifted here, for now,

and watch a midday sun crystal

on the waves. Don’t be fooled:


The Gulf is not a polished cruiser

or a V-hull on the dock.


The Gulf

is not a flatiron idling

between sets of bowing waves.


Its striated water lifts itself inch by inch

and closes in on the shore.

It is alive,

playing its chords, humming its undertow.


You will be welcomed on your back

as it slides its dress collar over

your thighs, runs its breezes and tensions

all over you. It will welcome your face floating down,

closed eyes or open, breathing

August’s strong sweat.

It will welcome you a thousand times.

It wants you to practice sinking

and feel how much you belong.


Others can walk the shore’s silver brocade

and pace back again.


Don’t be fooled: The sky is complicit.

There’s no discerning compass here.

The wings and water pull equally

toward the beauty of transparence—

cirri, sea fans, music, love


and the pans and stirrups of pelicans

which weigh that anything is possible,

but that nothing has to be.


Martha Serpas

Martha Serpas has published three collections of poetry, Côte Blanche, The Dirty Side of the Storm, and, most recently, The Diener. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Image, and Southwest Review. A native of Southern Louisiana’s wetlands, she co-produced Veins in the Gulf, a documentary about coastal erosion. She teaches at the University of Houston and serves as a hospital trauma chaplain. More information about her work can be found at


Martha Serpas, “Ten Fathom Ledge” from The Diener (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2015). Reprinted with kind permission of LSU Press.

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Recommended Citation: Serpas, Martha. (2015) “Ten Fathom Ledge,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 8. Available at:

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A Blessing Over Waters

This text originally appeared in an interactive multimedia CD-ROM entitled Ocean Psalms: Meditations, Stories, Prayers, Songs and Blessings from the Sea, co-produced by Teresa Berger and Lorna Collingridge (Durham, NC: MysticWaters Media, 2008).Text by Teresa Berger, melody adapted from the chant of the Exsultet by Lorna Collingridge; reproduced by kind permission of the authors.

Melody: A Blessing Over Waters


Living God,

we call you mother

because you are the source of all life.

At the very dawn of creation

you birthed the cosmos

and took it in your arms to nurture it.

Ever since then

mothers have known your creative energy

in the breaking of their waters

when giving birth.


Your Spirit breathed gently on the waters of creation

making them wellsprings of life.

You taught the waves

their words of wisdom

and the ocean depths

their silent song of praise.


The torrential waters of the great flood

became a sign of the waters of redemption

as they brought an end to worlds of violence

and a new beginning of life.

In the rainbow

you gave water

the color of hope.


You showed Hagar a well in the desert

to revive her dying child.

You inspired Hebrew midwives

to save the children of Israel

thus preparing a people

to walk through the waters of the Red Sea.

You moved a Levite woman

to hide her son in a basket

and entrust him to a river.

Miriam sang your praises

as you freed her people from slavery

and drowned Pharaoh’s chariots

in the waters of the sea.


Like a mother

you carried your people

through the desert,

providing water in the wilderness.


No wonder your prophets spoke of your grace

as morning dew

as overflowing torrent

as mother’s milk.


When the time had come,

your Word took human form

in the water of Mary’s womb.

Blessed, indeed, the fruit of this womb:


He was baptized in the waters of the Jordan.

At a well, he spoke truth to an outcast woman

and promised her living waters.

He calmed the storm over the Sea of Galilee

and the wind and waves recognized his voice.


Dying on a cross,

water and blood flowed from his side.

In them, you birthed your church.


Living God

you have made water a symbol of your life

ever since the dawn of creation.

Let your Spirit breathe gently on these waters

that they may become for us the waters of life,

the color of hope,

the sound of rain in the desert.

May you birth us

ever anew

in water and the Spirit

from now on until the very end of time

when the river of the water of life

will be all in all.



Teresa BergerTeresa Berger is Professor of Liturgical Studies and Thomas E. Golden Jr. Professor of Catholic Theology at the Yale Institute of Sacred Music and Yale Divinity School.  Her scholarly interests lie at the intersection of theological and liturgical studies with gender theory. Her publications include Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History; Dissident Daughters: Feminist Liturgies in Global Context; and Fragments of Real Presence: Liturgical Traditions in the Hands of Women.  She has also written on the hymns of Charles Wesley and on the nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholic revival. She was editor of Liturgy in Migration: From the Upper Room to Cyberspace, essays from the 2011 ISM Liturgy Conference.


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Recommended Citation: Berger, Teresa. (2015) “A Blessing Over Waters,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 2: No. 1, Article 7. Available at:

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Walking on Water-Azurite

from the Walking on Water series 

Walking on Water-Azurite
Walking on WaterAzurite, 2012. Mineral Pigments on polished gesso, 82 x 137 in.

Artist’s note: The Walking on Water images were painted in the new Princeton studio. They were meant as an elegy to victims of the 3/11 tsunami. As I attempted to finish the last of the three, Walking on Water – Banquo’s Dream, Superstorm Sandy hit, wiping out some fifty works of mine at Dillon Gallery. Thus, the process of painting has now become, literally, a way to “walk on water.”

Makoto Fujimura by Bjorn Amundsen (3)

Makoto Fujimura, recently appointed Director of Fuller’s Brehm Center, is an artist, writer, and speaker. He was a Presidential appointee to the National Council on the Arts from 2003 to 2009. Fujimura’s work is exhibited at galleries around the world, including Dillon Gallery in New York, Sato Museum in Tokyo, The Contemporary Museum of Tokyo, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts Museum, Bentley Gallery in Arizona, Gallery Exit and Oxford House at Taikoo Place in Hong Kong, and Vienna’s Belvedere Museum. In celebration of the 400th Anniversary of the King James Bible, Crossway Publishing commissioned and published The Four Holy Gospels, featuring Fujimura’s illuminations of the sacred texts. His most recent book, Culture Care, was published in 2014. Fujimura is a recipient of four Doctor of Arts Honorary Degrees and was awarded the American Academy of Religion’s 2014 Religion and the Arts Award.