When I return from working away from home, and I drive out of the city and into the countryside north of Adelaide, and see the cereal crops growing green and the cows and sheep feeding happily on lush grass, I feel all fatigue drop away. The land rejuvenates me. I have lived here only a short time, and am slowly becoming familiar with the wide landscape and its fauna and flora. I am becoming attached to it. I am feeling increasingly at home in it.
When we are called to love Earth and care for it, this is how we do it best. We live close to a certain small area of land or water, or visit such a place frequently, and we come to know it well. We recognise familiar trees and rocks and their inhabitants as friends. We notice the changes in seasons, growth and decay or damage. Perhaps we pull out some exotic plants or collect any litter. We give and we receive from it.
We understand that close and loving attention to another is a kind of prayer. Prayer is communion, usually considered between a human and God, but as an attitude and a stance towards the other, communion can be experienced with everything other. We can enter into communion with another, whether human or non-human, by ceasing to think, and simply applying all our senses to what is before us, allowing the other to have its place before us. We honour the other, and perhaps, sometimes, we can be relaxed and open enough to receive some enriching gift from the other.
In her marvellous book, ‘Church of the Wild’, Victoria Loorz unpacks the biblical meaning of being ‘in the wilderness’. The Scriptural authors distinguish between being in a location which is simply the geographical context of an event, and being in a place that contributes to the action. The Hebrew word for wilderness, ‘midbar’ also means ‘organ of speech’. With this understanding, ‘wilderness’ becomes the place where God communicates with God’s people. After a dramatic escape from Egypt, God holds the chosen people ‘in the wilderness’ for 40 years – not as a punishment for disobedience, but as a place that nurtures them, that gives them space to recover from their 400 years of oppression and to discover their identity as God’s own. Loorz refers to Jesus tempted ‘in the wilderness’ (Mk 1:13 NIV): this is not a barren and dangerous place – it is uninhabited by people, but full of non-human life. Jesus is tempted there but he is succoured by both angels and the animals (not to mention the stars, insects, and plants).
Like God, nature is both supportive of human life and at the same time dangerously powerful. As with God humans can ignore Earth or try to exploit her. We can also reverence her, praise her and serve her. In nature we can meet God. In our special place of communion with nature we can commune with God.
With thanks to Iain Radvan SJ for this story. Iain is a Jesuit, Spiritual Director, Giver of the Spiritual Exercises and facilitates contemplative walks and pilgrimages with JISA’s Being with God in Nature ministry.