This is one of my most cherished posts, and I don’t think the ideas are heard often enough with this much clarity. Since I had a recent soulquest at Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph near the Jim Profit trail that honours Jim’s life, I feel the urge to post it here in the hopes that his teachings continue to reach more people. It was not a warm summer day that day I quested, but one in late fall. Still, beauty abounded everywhere on this sacred land.
Connecting With The Earth: Experiencing The Sacred
by James Profit
It was one of those warm days in early summer. Some of the staff of the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation, where I was working as a student for the summer, decided to join people at the Sacred Fire on a neighbouring reserve. We left our cars at the road and walked down a narrow path deep into the bush to a clearing by the lake side. In the centre of the clearing was a large fire that had been burning continuously for over a month. The reserves of Manitoulin Island (in Ontario) had been experiencing some tension, so the elders decided to begin a Sacred Fire as a way of praying for peace and harmony in and among the communities. The plan was to keep it going throughout the summer. This meant that someone needed to be present night and day throughout this time – present in a prayerful way.
Our group sat around the fire in silence. Indeed it was very peaceful. Eventually, the spiritual leader of the reserve led us in a pipe ceremony. After that, people mingled with each other, chatting, sharing food, returning to the fire, or simply looking out over the water.
It was a beautiful day. The sun was out. The lake was calm. The hardwood trees around us were majestic. No one was in a rush. Yet, it was not only this that made it so beautiful. Something else much more profound happened to me. Spiritually, it was a “coming home.” I had the feeling that in my communing with nature, I was communing with God! I was worshiping God. I experienced God. It seemed all of Creation was participating in this religious event. I experienced awe, peace, harmony because I felt at one with God and the Earth community.
No one had to explain to me the meaning of the Native symbols and rituals. These simply worked to facilitate and express this communion. Moreover, and this was perhaps the biggest insight, the rituals helped me to realize that my childhood experience of connecting with the natural surroundings of Prince Edward Island had all along been an unarticulated religious experience. It was through the land, bush and sea that a loving, nourishing God was revealed to me. My love for the outdoors was a love for the experience of God.
Much of my youth was spent outdoors. With my large family, I camped by the ocean throughout a good part of the summer, and skied in the winter. During the summers, when I was not camping, I would stay at the farms of my cousins. I lived in a small town located on part of the Island where the ocean was never more than 1.5 miles away. Everywhere we went, the ocean was always in the background. We “breathed” the ocean as much as we breathed the air! As a result, I developed a deep love for and attachment to the land and ocean.
The attachment to land and ocean is something I seem to share with most Islanders. There is the sense that the Island belongs to all of us, even those of us who “live away.” The Island’s shore is locally considered as public property, and is very much treated as such. There is a real pride and love for the rolling red hills.
Unfortunately, the particular version of Christian religion that I had experienced in my youth was not very helpful in enabling me to realize that this attachment to and love for the outdoors might have anything to do with God. I was not encouraged to seek God beyond the church. I was raised with an understanding that emphasized the “real presence” to be in the tabernacle or the “Word of God,” not outside the church. As a result I did not have the religious concepts to make explicit my religious experience in nature. The rituals and symbols used within the church did not speak to this experience. In fact, they often seemed quite empty.
The Native spiritual tradition explicitly expresses a spiritual relationship with nature. A relationship with the Earth is a relationship with an aspect of the Divine. As a result, the rituals of that July afternoon on Manitoulin Island spoke to my interior experience of nature. I came to understand nature not only as a good place to “leave the world” to be renewed, but as an experience of God. The experience broadened my understanding of God. Ironically, this very life-giving experience of Native ritual and symbol brought much life to my experience of Christian ritual and symbol.
I have often been struck by the relationship with the Earth that many rural people have, such as farmers, fishers and others who live and work close to the land. City people have this connection, too. Parks are usually an essential and well-used part of any city. The jam of traffic going north of Toronto on a summer Friday afternoon is another indication of a relationship to land. I suspect that for many, as it was for me, this relationship is of a religious nature though not spoken of as such, and divorced from any experience of church. This was the case for a group of university graduate students for which I gave a talk on Creation spirituality. The students were not particularly religious, or at least not connected to any church. I was trying to explain the meaning of spirituality. I asked them if they enjoy being outdoors. The majority indicated that they did. I then sought from them what it was about the outdoors that drew them there. What were the feelings that they had in nature? These were the feelings they expressed: peace, interconnectedness, harmony, reverence, quiet, beauty, awe, and just feeling that things are right when you are there. These were their words! I said to them, “Now have you not described to me a religious experience?!” For the first time, some of them realized that their experience in nature which they loved was an experience of God.
Earth is Spiritual
So what is this experience? How can we describe it? How can we put words to it?
Our relationship with the Earth is not merely physical. The Earth is alive; it is spiritual. All entities of the Earth express this spirit. The soil of the Earth, for example, is not merely physical matter, consisting of minerals and organic matter, holding the roots of plants. There is a mysterious, spiritual and alive quality to it. As Sr. Miriam MacGillis of Genesis Farm in New Jersey reminds us, ” Because we eat not only earth, air, fire and water when we eat a tomato, we are eating its inner mystery as well, which is spirit.”(1)
Traditional First Nation understanding is consistent with this view. All living trees, the animals and even some non-organic entities, such as rocks, stars and air are spiritual. Even whole ecosystems or land formations are considered as having a spirit. Basil Johnston explains:
Each valley or any other Earth form – a meadow, a bay, a grove or a hill – possesses a mood which reflects the state of being of that place. Whatever the mood, happy, peaceful, turbulent, or melancholy, it is the tone of that soul-spirit. As proof, destroy or alter or remove a portion of the plant beings, and the mood or tone of that valley will not be what it was before. (2)
When we connect with Creation, we experience this tone, this spirit, because it is alive; the relationship is mutual, not just one way.
The spirit within all entities of the Earth is of God; it is God’s presence within the Earth. Thus, our experience of the Earth brings us beyond ourselves to the source of all that is. We feel awe, respect and peace because we touch into the Divine. We experience the Creator’s beauty. The native elder, the late Art Solomon explains:
I am a craftsman and I know that the craftsman puts something of himself into everything he makes. … The Hopis say that the Creator was the first worker. And since he is perfect, what he has made expresses his perfection. He is in it… (3)
Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth century nun, expresses a similar understanding:
All living creatures are so to speak, sparks from the radiation of God’s brilliance, and these sparks emerge from God like the rays of the sun. How would God be known as life if not through the fact that the realm of the living which glorifies and praises God, also emerges from God? On this account God has established the living, burning sparks as a sign of the brilliance of the divine renown.(4)
All elements of the Earth community, therefore, reflect an aspect of the Divine. In my relationship to the land and ocean, I experienced the beauty of the Creator, as well as a loving Mother who nourished me, and Father who cared for me.
Spiritual Experience of Place
When we have a spiritual experience of place, we feel intimately connected to it; we have an experience of connectedness and communion. As the University College of Cape Breton professor, Silver Donald Cameron concludes, when we gaze at the surf from a beach we see God, and we receive the “assurance . . . that we are somehow connected with a unity too fundamental to name.”(5) An understanding that humans are somehow separate from the Earth just does not fit this experience. Indeed, it is also contrary to the Biblical understanding. The second creation story in Genesis 2 describes humans as created from “the dust of the ground” of the Earth (Gen. 2:7). The Hebrew word for ground is adamah while the word for human is adam. We come from the Earth!
First Nations people view themselves in continuity with and through the land. The land is where one centres human dwelling. Danny Blackgoat states:
I am a Navajo and I belong to Earth. The Earth is my mother, my provider, my caretaker. I am her child. She nourishes me from her body and her soul. I belong to the land. I am rooted in my Mother Earth. Her deserts, canyons and mesas encircle me. Her mountains, fields and forests are a part of me.(6)
The Christian “geologian,” Thomas Berry, argues that humans are indeed dimensions of the Earth and the universe itself. Like all of Creation we evolved from the Earth. Moreover all the variety of life manifested by the Earth’s evolutionary process influence who we are. He states, “If we lived on the moon, our mind and emotions, our speech, our imagination, our sense of the divine would all reflect the desolation of the lunar landscape.”(7) And, I might add, we are influenced by the particular bioregion, the particular piece of land that we grew up on. If I had grown up in Ontario, I would have the same genes, but I would be a different person. I am who I am, because I grew up on that particular island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Its ocean, red soil and rolling hills have formed me. That piece of Earth is a part of me; it is who I am.
I remember a Native elder once telling me that when we are influenced by our environment in this manner, if we leave this place we always yearn to return. Yes, PEI is always home for me and draws me back. The late Angus MacLean, a former federal minister of fisheries and premier of PEI, explained his deep attachment to the land of his birth by noting the instinct within the humming bird which brings it back to his farm every spring after the winter sojourn to South America, and within the salmon which goes back up the same river to spawn every year. He states:
This homing instinct is not something that is merely imprinted, or learned, or just force of habit. It is deeper and more fundamental than that . . . It may well be that we still have in us the vestiges of some primeval instinct that we once shared with Pacific salmon and hummingbirds that, for each one of us, some particular spot is special.(8)
Lucy Maud Montgomery describes this same experience in a more poetic manner. After living for a time in Ontario, she describes the spiritual experience of her return back to the Island, to which she refers by its Mi’kmaq name, Abegweit:
Peace! You never know what peace is until you walk on the shores or in the fields along the winding red roads of Abegweit on a summer twilight when the dew is falling and the old, old stars are peeping out and the sea keeps its mighty tryst with the little land it loves. You find your soul then . . . you realize that youth is not a vanished thing but something that dwells forever in the heart. And you look around on the dimming landscape of haunted hill and long white sand-beach and murmuring ocean, on homestead lights and old fields tilled by dead and gone generations who loved them . . . you will say, “Why . . . I have come home!”(9)
The Passion of the Earth
The Earth is a revelation of the beauty, power and love of the Creator. We also live in a time of crisis for the Earth. For various reasons, many people grow up without any real connection with the Earth. Increasing numbers of refugees are never allowed to stay at a place long enough to feel at home with a place of the Earth. Poverty and oppression sometimes alienate people from the Earth. For many of the peasants with whom I worked in Jamaica, forced to carry out a living on marginal hillside land, the land became a means of their oppression, not spiritual connectedness. Often their hope lay in leaving the land for the bright lights of the city or the north.
It is also a time of great destruction of the Earth by the human community as we continue to pollute our waters, produce greenhouse gases, air pollution, and so on. Productive agricultural land is being consumed by our cities or the expanding desert. Forests are disappearing. Species of life have been eliminated and continue to be eliminated at a rate of three per hour. Clearly, the Earth is suffering.
The crisis of the Earth often stems from an attitude of opposition to and control of nature held by humans. What Wendell Berry says about the American experience, can be extended to our experience as well. He states:
… we are up against an American convention of simple opposition to nature that is deeply established in both our minds and ways. We have opposed the primeval forests of the East and the primeval prairies and deserts of the West, we have opposed man-eating beasts and crop-eating insects, sheep eating coyotes and chicken-eating hawks. In our lawns and gardens, we oppose what we call weeds. (10)
The Hau de no sau nee (the Six Nations) remind us of the destructiveness of this cultural attitude. They state:
The destruction of the native cultures and people is the same process which has destroyed and is destroying life on this planet. The technologies and sacred systems which have destroyed the animal and plant life are also destroying the native people. And that process is Western civilization.(11)
The First Nations of Canada are particularly affected by the dominant cultural bias because of their strong spiritual connection to the Earth. Frank T’Selie told the 1975 MacKenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry at Fort Good Hope:
Mr Blair [president of the Foothills Gas Co. and present at the inquiry], there is a life and death struggle going on between us, between you and me. Somehow in your carpeted boardrooms, in your panelled office, you are plotting to take away from me the very centre of my existence. You are stealing my soul. Deep in the glass and concrete of your world you are stealing my soul, my spirit. By scheming to torture my land you are invading me. If you ever dig a trench through my land, you are cutting through me.(12)
Part of the pain I experienced when I lived on a First Nation reserve was the pain of a people who were struggling with a loss of identity. The historic treaties, and treaty violations which resulted in something equivalent to land theft, also had something to do with the stealing of soul, the stealing of the centre of existence of a people. I suspect that some of the sentiment behind land claims and the fishing dispute in the Maritimes is a desire to regain this soul of a people. I suspect too, that this sentiment is held by some non-Native people as well. The tragedy of the collapse of the cod fishery is the collapse of “a way of life,” which includes a spiritual attachment to the sea, for the small fisherman. The fight to save the family farm in Canada, is partly a fight by farmers to save their soul – their attachment to their land.
As a people we have lost, or at the very least not valued, a spiritual relationship with the Earth. As a result we have severed an aspect of our relationship with God. All humans are affected by the resulting attitude that leads to the abuse of the Earth. As we destroy the Earth which physically and spiritually sustain us, we are destroying something of the very core of human life. Because we come from the Earth, we simply cannot destroy the Earth without destroying ourselves.
The Passion of the Earth is the Passion of Jesus
I felt the suffering of Jesus when I lived among people who suffered, people such as Aboriginals of Ontario and peasants in Jamaica. The cry of the people was the cry of Jesus – Jesus on the way to the cross, Jesus on the cross. It was also clear to me that many people experience this same closeness of Jesus in their suffering, in their passion. People identified with the passion of Jesus.
Leornardo Boff reminds us that the suffering of the poor is the suffering of the Earth in Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor.(13)The cry of the poor is indeed the voice of Earth who is suffering from death and destruction wrought by humans. The cry of the Earth is also the cry of Jesus. Jesus is suffering in the erratic weather systems caused by the heating of Earth’s atmosphere. Jesus is suffering in the crisis caused by the near extinction of the cod, not only because of the suffering of the fishers, but because one more revelation of God’s presence is being put to death. The passion of the Earth, including the passion of suffering people, is the passion of Jesus. The cry of the poor is the cry of the Earth is the cry of Jesus.
Paul’s conversion experience happened with the realization that in his persecution of Christians, he was persecuting Jesus. “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Is not our persecution of the Earth, the persecution of Jesus?
Hope in the Resurrection of Life
Jesus is suffering in the passion of the Earth. Yet we need not have the despair of the disciples that first Good Friday. Our hope comes from fostering our relation with the Earth and contemplating her teachings. A Native elder once told me that if you want to learn about the lessons of life, examine nature – spend time with a tree and allow it to teach you. We receive a similar teaching from the book of Job:
But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. … [In God’s] hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being. Job 12:7-10
The Earth teaches us that her story is about life. Death exists for life. As J. I. Rodale, one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement states, ” In the soft warm bosom of a decaying compost heap, a transformation from life to death, and back again, is taking place.”(14) I am consoled when I walk over the disused gravel pit on our farm and see that even though the land is scarred, cedars are now beginning to grow. Mother Earth has a tremendous power to heal herself. “Resurrection is the order of the Universe,”(15) insists Sr. Mary Southard.
I am consoled when I learn the history of the Earth’s creation. Times of great destruction of the past were also times of cosmological grace.(16) The death of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, for example, was a time of crisis for Earth. Yet life, and in particular, mammalian life, blossomed with its better developed strategies for reproduction and survival. We live in another potential moment of cosmological grace.
James Lovelock , a British scientist who developed the Gaia hypothesis, is confident that the Earth will evolve as a self-regulating system so that She continues to live.(17) He says that the evolution may only happen by the extinction of the human species, the species causing the most destruction. I have to admit that I find hope even in this thought. But we have reason for hope that the human species will also survive because we have experienced the resurrection of a human being, whose death resulted from the same type of deadly sin from which the Earth presently suffers. Our experience is that even this death is not the end. Because we are people who experience this life, we can trust that the earth will survive. We can trust in the covenant God made to Noah that never again will the Earth be destroyed:
Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal on the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” Genesis 9: 8-11
The Call of the Earth
This time of crisis is calling us to be people of the resurrection. Out of death, we are called to life. We are being called to conversion from our persecution of Jesus in the Earth. We are being called to shift our way of looking at the Earth, not as something to be conquered and controlled, but to be reverenced and respected as the primary revelation of God. We are being called to follow Jesus who gave us an example of his dominion when he washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, and called them friends not servants. We are being called to feel the pain of the Earth, the passion of Jesus in the Earth, and to cry out for the Earth, letting our voice join the voice of other suffering peoples among us. We are being called to heal our relationships so that we can heal ourselves and be a part of the healing life needed for the Earth. It is not a time for despair, but a time to become a part of the life of the earth, the life which comes from death. We can be participants in this cosmological grace.
We hear as the Jewish people heard, God calling us to Sabbath – to take time in our lives to rest and contemplate the Holy. More and more people are following this call as they find ways to foster their relationship with Sacred Earth. Only by touching into the centre of our existence can we renew our weary soul, strengthening our ability to act for the Earth.
We as a human community can prayerfully spend time with trees, with a compost heap, with the beauty of Creation in our own local environment. Even in an inner city, we can experience the life-giving beauty of God expressed by a weed in the crack of a sidewalk. When we experience the Earth as holy, as a revelation of God, our actions may change from control and destruction of the Earth, to living in respect for and communion with the Earth.
Perhaps when we treat ourselves by taking a Sabbath with the Earth, we may find ways to give the Earth the Sabbath that is needed.
Posted at http://orientations.jesuits.ca/earth.htm. Father James (Jim) Profit, S.J. (1957 – Jan. 11, 2014): “I feel that he lit a torch in the darkness of the world and he’s now asking me and others to keep it lit” (in a Sermon by Bill Clarke SJ).
6. Valerie Taliman. “Reading the Clouds. Native Perspectives on Southwestern Environments.” Fall, 1999. Native Americas. May 15, 2000 <http://nativeamericas.aip.cornell.edu/fall99/fall99taliman.html>.