The Universe Story in Us

I wrote the reflection below in January of this year. I am bringing it back now in light of Pope Francis’ new encyclical Laudato Si. When new insight or conversion cuts deep into our hearts, there is one question that spontaneously jumps from our enlightened spirit and that is, ‘What then must we do?’ It is the question that sprung from the hearts of those who heard John the Baptist preach (Luke 3:10). And so, for those whose hearts are moved with this renewed desire, the Pope’s encyclical contains many practical tips on how to adjust and simplify our lifestyle. Check this article: The Pope’s Practical Tips for helping the environment.

The reason for this re-posting is not to position myself as having “all the answers” and as in any way superior to others. Please do not draw that conclusion. What I want most is to show in a small way that lifestyle choices can be made responsibly without succumbing to almighty consumer pressures. While I may have been choosing simplicity for most of my adult life, I am a pilgrim on the journey like everyone else. Part of being human is to accept there are many times where I stumble and fall, give in to temptation and damage the earth with foolish living. May this re-posting be a reminder of our common ecological vocation and an encouragement for us all:

Moving from the densely populated country of the Netherlands, from a home above a store surrounded by bricks and cement, to a farm on the Canadian prairies at the end of a dirt road, 6 km from the nearest school, church and store had an earth-shattering effect on me. I knew the theory well – living off the land in harmony with nature, following the rhythm of the seasons. At the time of my pioneering on the Canadian prairies I had the fledgling spiritual underpinnings of a cosmic worldview, arising directly from my Christian/Catholic faith and Scripture itself. The very notion of God as Trinity, God’s incarnation in Jesus and the Church’s sacramental theology, worldview and practices helped me to expect everything in creation to bear not only God’s imprint (image and likeness) but also as capable of communicating God’s holy and loving presence. I gave myself completely to what Gerald Manley Hopkins captures so eloquently in his famous poem:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings. (1877)

The plants and animals, the seasons and tides of creation have been spiritual muse, emotional compass and daily mentor for much of my life, affecting every detail both practical and spiritual. From my teenage bike rides in the forest to today’s baking of bread, I have always felt that my place in the universe and my responsibility in it necessitated careful discernment in life choices. Fostering freedom from a consumer mentality was grounded in a commitment to care for the earth. Choosing a natural method of family planning was grounded in a profound respect for the gift of life, the refusal to pollute our bodies with artificial hormones (as well as the land with chemicals) and the need to live in harmony with our human capacity to co-create with God. Living without modern conveniences was motivated by a desire to let nature mold and guide our daily family rhythms with the accompanying tasks of freezing, canning and storing the winter supply of food. Literary companions, such as Sharon Butala’s The Perfection of the Morning and Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Geography played pivotal roles in my ability to place our little individual lives tucked away at the end of a dirt road firmly and deeply into the Saskatchewan prairie soil and against a wider cosmic backdrop (greatly aided by the stunning beauty of the natural setting with bush and fields, hills and lake, blue herons and pelicans …).

I give a lot of credit to Jim, my gardening and seed-growing husband, who has lived an intimate connection to the earth all his life; he taught me so much about the wonder of nature and the need to reverence all living things (even when seeds seem to take forever to germinate – don’t ever give up!). Yes, he does talk to all his plants with profound love and respect … Even now as we have moved into a more urban setting and our three children have been launched into their own cosmic orbit, creation continues to help us navigate life choices respectful of the earth’s well-being and remains a source of profound spiritual nourishment and guidance. It’s simply a deep part of my/our identity.

My first book entitled Finding the Treasure Within – A Woman’s Journey into Preaching (2002, Novalis) includes the following words as I share about the choices Jim and I made from the day we married:

        We were not comfortable in adopting unquestioned middle class, materialistic values in our self-identity and lifestyle, nor did we think of farming as agribusiness. The rebel in us both pushed us into counter-cultural choices, so as not to enslave ourselves. The prison of modern living looked more suffocating than the time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of hauling water from the lake, growing and preserving our own food, and chopping wood for cooking and heating. William McNamara’s spirituality became real for us: I share the secret of the child, of the saints and sages, as well as of clowns and fools when I realize how wondrous and marvelous it is to carry fuel and draw water. Once the spiritual significance of such ordinary earthy acts dawns on me, I can skip the yoga and the koans, the mantras and the novenas. (p. 56, Mystical Passion, William McNamara OCD, Element Books Ltd., Rockport, MA, 1991)

As I reflect on the extent that creation/nature and an evolving cosmic consciousness have been an integral part of my living and growing for the better part of my adult life, two things stand out. First of all, the cosmic story touted today as “new” cosmology is really not that “new.” All of it is present in the Biblical writings in both Old and New Testaments, in the life-teaching-suffering-death-resurrection of Jesus, as well as in our own Church’s understanding of the Incarnation and its sacramental life. I saw, heard and tasted it there, I was captivated by it in those sacred words, understandings and practices many years ago already, before I knew much  about the great scientific discoveries of the universe as we now understand it.

Having said that, I know all too well the struggles and challenges of living thoughtfully in cosmic consciousness while failing miserably — often.  And even in living the fullness of a cosmic consciousness, human tendencies of rigidity and deceit, judgment and clinging, laziness and sloth remain alive and well, reminiscent of Thomas Merton’s astute observation that upon entering the monastery he wasn’t any holier than anyone else: ‘All my bad habits…had sneaked into the monastery with me and had received the religious vesture along with me: spiritual gluttony, spiritual sensuality, spiritual pride.’  (The Seven Storey Mountain)

I am merely questioning the “newness” claimed by those now doing theology from a renewed cosmic awareness informed and formed by present scientific insights and discoveries. Mystics in all religious traditions have always and everywhere accessed this cosmic consciousness throughout history. Maybe a better way to describe the newness is that the unitive consciousness that was once considered the purview of a select few is now the fundamental reality out of which we all must operate if human life on the planet is to continue. This reminds me very much of many of our friends who would admire the life choices we made, ending their praise with: “When the world is going to end, we’ll all move in with you!” In other words, we admire what you do and how you do it, but not me unless I’m forced to. Well, if we care to leave our children’s children a beautiful and sustainable planet, the time has come that we are all forced to …

The Paschal Mystery and the divine Trinitarian community are THE relational and generative paradigm, patterns of Love in both the universe and deep in our soul, making the most deeply personal the most widely universal: life—death—life. Every living thing dies to itself in order to renew life & love.

In periods of painful spiritual dryness, I strive to emulate prairie plants who grow deep roots in order to find water. My spirit sings praise and thanks along with the morning song of birds and joined the pelicans as they soar on the wind currents over my house. Cloudbursts of tears in my heart resemble prairie storms on hot summer days. The labour-intensive and time-consuming tasks of daily living (hauling water, chopping wood and preserving food) indicate efforts needed to feed both body and soul. On days when my spirit matches the cold and dark of winter days, the simple task of gathering wood in the bush and sitting by a warm fire later on soothes my soul, like a child drawn on its mother’s lap after a stressful day. Times of spiritual stagnation find consolation in seeds that take forever to have God’s Life Force crack them open. When newness of life and the pulsating energy of spring leaps into my being, I smile from head to toe like the crocus or cactus blooming on a meadow barely awake from its winter sleep, eagerly waiting to be noticed and bring joy to someone’s heart.  Many a time dancing northern lights in a winter sky help keep the flame of hope and promise alive in my drooping spirit.  And on and on and on …

It is thus that I continue to grow still today into an ever-deeper and sacred intimacy with all living things, learning to surrender to Life itself in the moment – sometimes an easy, colourful and joyful dance, other times merely an intense yet unfulfilled and aching desire – unified by a loving and merciful Creator and by the stardust which makes us all part of all.

By means of all created things, without exception, the divine assails us, penetrates us, and molds us. We imagine it as distant and inaccessible, whereas in fact we live steeped in its burning layers. – Teilhard de Chardin

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I was a rather plump child in elementary and high schools, awkward in this mass of flesh and organs called my body. I endured relentless teasing about my obvious un-sporty physical shape. Having only a few friends, being picked last on sports teams in Phys. Ed. and never wearing trendy clothes resulted in physical, social and emotional shyness and withdrawal. It was thanks to generous parental affection and care, and some very positive, enjoyable social experiences in the ballroom dance community and formative youth events in church circles, that the scars of these demeaning treatments remained surprisingly minimal.

It was not until I met my husband Jim that I entered a more comprehensive and intentional exploration of the connections between the physical and the spiritual. I was drawn to Jim’s profoundly earthy spirituality, deeply rooted in prairie soil and in working the land with nature’s gifts instead of industrial manipulation. I learnt quickly about the socio-political implications of such a connection when lived out radically and publicly.

Our Cochin Farm , home for 25 years.
Our Cochin Farm , home for 25 years.

We were not comfortable in adopting unquestioned middle class, materialistic values in our self-identity and lifestyle, nor did we think of farming as agribusiness. The rebel in us both pushed us into counter-cultural choices, so as not to enslave ourselves. The prison of modern living looked more suffocating than the time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of hauling water from the lake, growing and preserving our own food, and chopping wood for cooking and heating – all very earthy, bodily activities. We gardened organically and sold vegetables at the local farmer’s market. I learned all about preserving our winter supply of food and about baking bread in the wood stove, things that were not part of my upbringing. Taking charge of our own health through lifestyle choices paid off in more ways than economically. We shared a deep underlying freedom and a sense of creative accomplishment at knowing that we did not “need” the electrical gadgets and ready-made foods of a fast-paced consumer society. Our home became a nest with rich, wholesome food for body and soul in which grew three beautiful children which God entrusted to us. I never felt so alive in my body as in those years of hauling water, chopping wood, making fire, growing and preserving food.

With a husband committed to the land, who refrained from manipulating its fertility and polluting it with chemicals, it was evident that we would adopt the same approach to our combined human fertility.  Roman Catholic Church teaching regarding family planning fitted with our choice, but this was not our primary motivating force, and the validity of that teaching became clear only over time.

Incidentally, three Ottawa doctors were recently in the news because they are refusing to prescribe the pill because of medical concerns. The doctors are asking: is pregnancy a sign of illness or health? They point to the negative effects of hormonal contraceptives as listed with the product information: increased risk of cardiovascular disease, headaches, breast tenderness, breakthrough bleeding, decreased libido and mood swings.They contend that pregnancy is a sign that a woman’s reproductive system is working as it should. So why, they ask, should they assign medication carrying such health risks to someone who is in fact healthy? (Prairie Messenger, Feb. 12, 2014)

Even without being completely swayed by the contraceptive culture, I was embarrassingly ignorant about the inner workings of my reproductive system until I learned to observe my body symptoms with the help of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Curiosity replaced embarrassment as I became greatly intrigued with the realization that so much of my bodily functions occur completely without my interference or knowledge. I developed a sense of awe as I grew into an intimate relationship with my body through observing the signs of its cycles. I regarded my fertility as a gift to cherish and work with, rather than a liability and a burden to manipulate artificially or to get rid of.  Already back in 1977, in  her small book entitled Women`s Challenge: Ministry in the Flesh Sr. Timothy Prokes, SSND, echoed both these insights:

For a woman who is attuned to her basic rhythms, the menstrual cycle is not an infirmity or “curse” but a gift, enabling her to participate in the vital intercourse of daily life with greater understanding. (p. 31, Prokes, 1977)

Living in harmony with our natural body rhythms reaped its own rewards. With every conception I joyfully claimed my bodily role as co-creating with God ababy-in-hands beautiful new human being. The challenge to discipline our sexual activity according to our combined fertility — wishing to achieve or to avoid pregnancy — brought deep, long-lasting experiences of mutual respect, commitment and maturing marital love, forcing us to communicate and collaborate as we shared the times of sexual avail-ability and the times of abstinence. In turn, developing communication skills and fostering mutual respect of our bodies regarding family planning helped to weather relational storms over the years. The relational demands of Natural Family Planning deepened our personal and couple development: demands in the areas of communication, self-esteem, self and mutual respect and freedom, confidence in our ability to learn and grow. Besides, our choice for a chemical-free method of family planning mirrored the non-chemical, organic, approach to working the land. Jim always said: “I don’t believe in putting chemicals on the land; why would we chemical our bodies to render them infertile?”  We experienced a growing into one’s body as mystery and as the place of God’s own Holy Spirit: “Surely you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is in you and is a gift from God. You are no longer your own. God paid a great price for you. So use your body to honour God” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

It is of vital importance to realize that emotions and unresolved issues get stored in our bodies, and if left un-transformed can play havoc with our physical health. Equally important is the fact that our health is further jeopardized by sedentary lifestyles, material comforts and poor eating habits – all ironically encouraged by a money-hungry, industry-driven consumer culture, making us blindly drift away from the responsibility to care for our God-given bodies because God’s Holy Spirit dwells there.

With my friend ivan.
With my friend ivan.

I am still on the plump side, downright fat according to fashion standards and dieting plans. But such standards have little bearing on my self-image anymore. Besides, my solid physique is a desirable one in many developing countries as it represents wealth and abundance. I make sincere efforts to keep my spiritual and emotional health firmly connected to my physical health. I`d like to think of my solid body build as reflecting a solid spiritual build, and the extra fat helps me tolerate more cold than Jim can who is downright skinny. I have been the same body weight for over 20 years and even now with a less labour-intensive lifestyle, remain physically active. The Dutch genes still make me prefer the bicycle to go grocery shopping!

Every day I am grateful to feel at home in this body which has enjoyed an amazingly steady green light for overall health and fitness even though some aging signs are beginning to appear. From intimate involvements with others, I also know that not everyone is gifted with the kind of health I have taken for granted but no longer dare to. I am truly fearfully and wonderfully made, praising God that I can honour this gift of my body through healthy living. I pray for the grace to live my remaining, and possibly declining, days in the same gratitude that flooded my being as I wrote this reflection.

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