Situated on 600 acres of farmland in Guelph, Ontario, Canada is Loyola House, a Jesuit retreat house where I made an eight-day retreat. The expanse of land, agriculture, and miles of trails make it an ideal place for a retreat house. In fact, retreatants are encouraged to wander and pray with the land. A few days into my retreat, I assisted some farm interns in harvesting 120 pounds of carrots and beets. After a couple hours of digging and pulling, my hands were raw and dirty and I had a new appreciation for the origin of the food I take so much for granted at the supermarket.
These days most of us who live in developed nations and near large cities are separated from the land. We lose sight of our common call to harmony with nature, that is, living and praying with the land.
Living with the land
In his message on the World Day of Peace in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI called all people to cultivate peace through the protection of creation. He said that The Fall in the Genesis story made us deaf to our inherent call to be stewards and protectors of the earth. Humankind has become selfish and exploited creation. The harmony between human beings and the earth has been broken. God’s original command, he says, was a “summons to responsibility.” And what is our response? One-fifth of us consume 86 percent of the earth’s resources.
About 10,000 years ago, the development of agriculture brought nourishment more effectively to more people. But the feedlots, pesticides, and exploited laborers used in modern mass production has revealed again our sin and disharmony with the land. Thankfully, we see signs of hope in the stewardship of the earth. Today we are witnessing a new movement of greater stewardship through focus on local farming, intentional reduction of personal consumption, offsetting carbon emissions, continuing the cycle of natural renewal through composting, as well as the use of sustainable materials and production methods.
The US bishops, in their call for a more just agricultural system, encourage policies and laws that promote “environmentally sound and sustainable farming practices.” Rooted in God’s summon to communal responsibility for the environment, the bishops implore policy makers that “protecting God’s creation must be a central goal of agricultural policies.” And the Catholic Church has long upheld the dignity of the human person, including small family farmers who struggle to survive.
In Guelph, the Ignatius Farm leases land to local farmers, provides community garden plots for individuals, and has a Community Shared Agriculture program (CSA). Through the CSA, local businesses and individuals invest in a share of the farm and its operations. In return they receive weekly produce harvested from the land. The farm’s mission includes a greater focus on people through internship programs, training in organic growing, and the strength of local community.
Pope Benedict said, “When ‘human ecology’ is respected within society, environmental ecology also benefits.” Pope Francis echoed this during World Youth Day in Brazil when he told young people that the crisis of the environment is closely linked to the crisis of broken human relationships. This is why, in the context of a political society, focus on both the eater and the farmer is key. Catholic social teaching clearly expresses this need, calling for commutative justice that demands fairness in trade and wages. It also demands distributive justice so that all people have access to the food and fruits of the land. Social justice, too, must be examined in the context of global agriculture.
Daniel Groody, in his book, Globalization, Spirituality, and Justice: Navigating the Path to Peace, says, “When we forget our fundamental connection to the earth, we lose something of ourselves.” It’s no wonder that early religion was so closely tied to the land. The Indigenous Peoples of the Andes, for example, have profound respect for Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Their rituals involve the rich symbols of food, drink, plants, and other things from the earth. They “toast” Pachamama by giving back to the earth through the sprinkling or burying of food, in essence, “feeding the land.” This reverence and respect for the land resonates with the call to stewardship.
Indeed, Christianity, too, is tied to the earth. Saint Ignatius’ exhortation to use all material things (including the things of the earth) to the extent that they glorify God has always been part of God’s initial call to responsible stewardship. And, the Catholic sacramental nature brings bread and wine, both from the land, to the Eucharistic table, and water and oil to the body of the newly baptised.
Praying with the land
John Muir once wrote, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”
At Loyola House, I discovered a fresh respect for the land and the God of creation. For me, the land became like a scripture text, living and breathing its parables to me. Mulled over, relished, and contemplated, one discovers new understandings of the Kingdom. As I meditated on Jesus’ parables of farming and harvest (“The Kingdom is like…”), God became the teacher, using nature as the narrative. Jesuit Anthony de Mello shares Muir’s wisdom, that which every other nature-seeker has discovered: “When your body is too long withdrawn from the elements, it withers, it becomes flabby and fragile because it has been isolated from its life force. When you are too long separated from Nature, your spirit withers and dies because it has been wrenched from its roots.”
De Mello brings into tune what one might call the Liturgy of the Land: its cycles and patterns not only give rise to the plants and animals growing and dying, but the hidden plan of our very selves, as the psalmist feels in Psalm 8. “When I see your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you set in place – What is man that you are mindful of him, and a son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4-5) Just as the moon and the stars, we are part of the prayer of Creation, a liturgy ever unfolding.
Jesus says in the Gospel, the birds do not store up food, the flowers do not worry about clothes (Matthew 6:26). In the same way, we learn that the land lives only in present moment. In nature, nothing is forced. De Mello says that nature teaches us that our lives must progress without force. Is that not grace? The Liturgy of the Land is carried out by all of its actors: plants, the sun and moon, rain, wildlife, and the human person. Pope Benedict speaks of creation containing within it a “grammar” that determines how human beings interact with it. The farmer, the eater, and the trail-walker each play his or her given roles. It is this grammar that must let humanity flow with nature and the environment. It must remind us that we’re more than our possessions and ideas. In short, we are one with Creation and ought to live that way, letting go of the human attachments that tie us down.
On retreat, it wasn’t the words I prayed that unveiled this freedom and detachment from those things that have come to own me. It was the simple awareness of the lilies of the field, the birds of the air, and the food that came to my plate at each meal. Outside the retreat centre is the “Stations of the World Religions” consisting of panels representing each major world religion. On one of them was written this Native American Prayer: “Great Spirit, help us learn the lessons you have hidden in every leaf and rock.” The idea of God in all things is far from being new; it’s ancient. When we take note of God’s presence in all of creation we unveil the grace of freedom – void of attachment – a grace that comes not from our own efforts but from simple harmony with God’s creation.
“Many people experience peace and tranquillity, renewal and reinvigoration, when they come into close contact with the beauty and harmony of nature,” Pope Benedict said in 2010. “There exists a certain reciprocity: as we care for creation, we realize that God, through creation, cares for us.”
It begins with listening to the land. The Liturgy of the Land, like any liturgy, flows naturally and prayerfully. The sun rises and sets, seasons come and go, and each harvest has a new beginning the following year. Nature just runs its course. And the human person, who benefits from this magnificent liturgy, must be attentive to the ways nature speaks to him or her.
When we see the land and all creation as God’s gift to us, we can better understand our worth and vocation as human beings. Our response to this gift is our response to God and it begins, first and foremost, with the awareness of the Land, the cycles of nature, and the people who farm our food.
My time in Guelph helped open up this awareness, but what more? For many, their awareness leads to the small and slow steps of simple living, mindfulness, perhaps purchasing carbon offsets, shopping local farms, becoming a member of a CSA, composting, or buying fair- or direct-trade coffee. And perhaps most importantly, our response to God’s gift includes prayer in and with nature, on the street or in the park. Then, the land can be our teacher.
Andy Otto currently lives in Providence, Rhode Island, USA and is earning a Master’s degree in theology and ministry at the School of Theology and Ministry at Boston College. He blogs at God In All Things and can be reached at andy.otto(at)gmail.com.