When we think about faith and the Earth the thinker and poet we most often go to for inspiration and ideas is Wendell Berry. He is after all the author of that beautiful piece of writing The Peace of Wild Things:
When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
But when I think of the Earth and faith my mind goes to the late Thomas Berry (no relation to Wendell). Berry is a theologian, though he jokes that he likes to be called a “geologian” given his belief that all created matter has Spirit. Berry talks explicitly about his vision of a type of spirituality that is not merely appreciation of the Earth; instead, he means that the Earth itself is endowed with an innate spirituality. For Berry, the primary problem facing humans today concerns the human attitude that we as a species are somehow essentially disengaged from the Earth on which we live and that our destiny is to bend nature to our purposes. Berry writes that western religious traditions "are also seriously deficient in not teaching more effectively that the natural world is our primary revelatory experience". Berry would like to recapture a sense of the immanence of the Sacred in the Earth. For Berry the Earth is the source of our spiritual energy, which needs to be expressed in nurture and healing.
Lately I have been experimenting with a new tradition around funerals that brings this notion of the Earth as a source of spiritual energy, an expression of nurture and healing. It all started one afternoon when I asked the funeral director on our drive to the cemetery where the vial of sand that lay beside me came from, the one he would empty as I said, “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. He didn’t know but promised to get back to me. Later I found out the sand was purchased in bulk from Mexico. Now Mexico is a very spiritual place but I doubt many of the people I buried would have a connection that sand. So I got to thinking, what if I asked the family to think of a part of the Earth that was deeply spiritual to the person they loved so much. And so I did.
The choices were fascinating and as varied as you might imagine. Some chose garden soil their loved one felt connected to. Some chose sand from a beach their loved one walked as often as he could. Some had relations from her birthplace, thousands of miles from Canada, bring bagged dirt from around the family homestead. And in each case when I said “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust” the family would take turns throwing the Earth into the ground that now held their loved one. It was a deeply nurturing and healing experience. If your loved ones had to choose parts of the Earth, pieces of God’s Creation, to honour you, what would they choose?
Of course we don’t need to wait till then to be nurtured and healed by the spiritual energy of the Earth. There is so much about the Earth that can provide wisdom, offer healing and share nurture. Let me give you three examples, all insights that come from Thomas Berry.
1) Beauty. Psalm 8:3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established
There is a quality to Earth’s beauty that not only takes our breath away, it also puts our own place in it in perspective. We simply cannot control this beauty, it is a mystery and its affect on us is obvious. Like visiting an art gallery walking through Creation and witnessing the “the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars” is captivating and soul refreshing. Some nights, after a long day, Lucy and I walk Nova. Before Lucy came into my life I never looked up at the night sky. Now Lucy reminds me and I look and I feel instantly restored. Can I explain this? I think not being able to control or manipulate this beauty reminds me that our beauty is neither controlled nor manipulated. It is just there. It gives us a whole new outlook on what is beauty and what beauty does.
2) Resiliency. Note the refrain in Genesis, And God saw that it was good. Note that there is a pattern to Creation, a flow to its order, a cycle to its goodness. I have had more than a few friends share with me that in their despair it was the four seasons of Creation, of the Earth, that began to bring them out of their shadows and into some form of clarity. More often than not, in our spirit of control and manipulation we get lost in the moment of despair. It’s not that time heals all wounds. It does not! The cycle of Creation will not take away the sting of death, the scar tissue of failure, the rupture of brokenness, but it does bring healing and nurture, it does bring some peace. And watching the Earth move from Spring-birth, to Summer-growth, to Autumn-weariness, to Winter-rest, not only gives perspective, it also gives hope.
3) Grace. Wendell Berry’s words, I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
The peace of wild things is a gift, it is free and it comes without our work, our merit or our entitlement. This letting go of our need to manipulate and instead to “rest in” the world God offers does indeed set us free. There can be no better source of grace, no better way to share the free gift of love from Creator to Creation than how our Earth came to be and how our lives are a gift. If we can “rest in” the “still water” we will glimpse a vision of grace.
The Earth is indeed a great gift. May we receive it with thanksgiving and learn its wisdom, take strength from its seasons, and be set free by its grace. Amen.