Last week I spent a couple of days at a beautiful farm in Grey County. There is a little cabin nestled in the woods at the edge of a pond that is open for personal retreat so I decided to take a few days away for some contemplation and prayer.
I spent a lot of time walking trails through the fields and woods but I always found myself drawn back to one particular wood. It was full of silver maples, ash, and black cherry trees and even though it is the end of August, the leaves and forest floor are flush with the fresh bright green we associate with spring.
On my way out, I was talking about the forest with one of my hosts and he grinned as I spoke about this section of trees and said: “Yes. When you walk into that forest, you just have a sense that the trees are taking care of you.”
He was spot on. There was a sense of being held in that bit of the woods.
I have been preparing for PiE’s Watershed Discipleship group to begin again by looking at a variety of books related to ecological theology and spirituality.
These books, and this experience, have gotten me pondering again the place of humanity in the world.
We have inherited a deeply problematic worldview that places humans above, and apart from, the rest of nature. It’s not news that we are deeply disconnected from our status as animals, as creatures that belong in nature.
A lot of ecological leaders believe that this human-nature divide is the spiritual crisis of our age.
That the only hope for healing our destructive way of living on this planet is if we humans can finally find some humility. That we might stop preaching the gospel of domination and take our place in the humus, the earth. That we might remember our identity as members of the Earth Community.
To be honest, I don’t have a lot of hope for the capacity of humanity (or more specifically Western European capitalist society) to change these days. I find despair is my most frequent companion when I think of the earth and our future in this place.
But as I listen to my despair for the world, I notice something interesting.
My despair tells me that I am alone in this desire for change, this desire for the world to be saved from the horrors of climate change.
And hidden in this false teaching, is a sense that the whole fate of the world rests on my shoulders, on the shoulders of my species.
Now, there is some appropriate responsibility taking here. We know that humans are the source of the ecological devastation facing the planet on so many levels.
But in this voice I also spot the spiritual heart of our trouble.
Thanks to the work of Thomas Berry, an ecological theologian, the lie at the heart of my despair has been exposed.
For to believe that we are alone in this, not only denies the power and presence of God in our world, but also continues to enact Western European culture’s greatest spiritual error, it ignores the power and presence of the rest of Creation.
My belief that we, as humans, are in this alone makes our larger Earth Community invisible.
Yes, we need to work our asses off on behalf of this Earth Community to which we belong.
But if we don’t challenge this assumption that we are alone, that we are separate, that we are a community of subjects relating to inanimate objects known as animals, trees, and rivers, then we will continue to replicate the mistakes of past generations.
Here is what Berry has to say about it in his book “The Great Work” (p.20):
“I would suggest that the work before us is the task not simply of ourselves but of the entire planet and all its component members.
While the damage that has been done is immediately the work of humans, the healing cannot be the work simply of humans any more than the illness of one organ of the body can be healed through the efforts of that one organ. Every member of the body must bring about the healing.
So now the entire universe is involved in the healing of the damaged Earth in the light and warmth of the sun.”
My despairing heart needs to take this in.
We are not alone.
When we long for a way of being that sustains life rather than destroys life, we take our place in a vibrant, expansive, and powerful community that always promotes life over death.
I think I am going to try and spend more time allowing the woods to take care of me. Listening closely for how I might respond in kind.
Maybe, with God and the trees, my despair will find its way into hope.
Tamara Shantz is one of PiE’s co-pastors. She helps facilitate the Watershed Discipleship group (meeting weekly on Tuesdays starting Sept.25th) and Queerly Christian.
You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org