Weekly Edgework #98 - June 12, 2006
It is sad that in our day we no longer believe in the ministry of nature to us. We so easily limit ministry to work for people by people. But we could do an immense service to our world if we would let nature heal, counsel, and teach again. (Clowning in Rome, Henri Nouwen, p. 93.)
Some of my friends think that I am obsessed with flowers. For more than two decades now flowers have been my friends. This relationship is so obvious that on occasion my wife, Ruth, breaks all social norms and buys the man in her life a bouquet of flowers for his birthday or some other special occasion. Usually I begin the process of growing plants from seeds indoors in March. By the beginning of April they are developing steadily under the lights in my workshop. By late May they spill into my yard and the park behind our place. “Why do you do it,” some say. “I would never have the patience to go through that whole process. It takes so much time before you see the results.”
What such people don’t understand is that as I nurse those tender seedlings I am also nursing my soul. The mystery of tiny sprouts popping up through the soil still leaves me in awe. And as those sprouts become tender plants, each showing unique characteristics – according to its own kind – they become windows through which I see the larger world of God’s green earth. And the flowers speak to me. First there are only faint whispers coming from under the grow lights. But by the August long weekend their voice is loud and clear as they sing lustily along the borders and in the nooks and crannies of our property.
It all started innocently enough. Shortly after we moved to our present home in 1983, our neighbor, Jacob Hiebert – already well into his seventies at the time – patiently drew me into this form of worship. You could pretty well count on it that when you passed his place between May 1st and September 30th he would be in his garden. When I stopped to chat for a while his eyes would sparkle as he showed me what was growing all around him. Every volunteer seedling was noticed, transplanted and nurtured until it reached its full potential.
Whenever I would turn to leave he always told me to wait a minute while he dug up a plant for me to take home. When I tried to thank him for it he would respond briskly and decisively with a statement in his native Low German: Say daut nich; dan voust daut nich! (Don’t say that because then it won’t grow!) I always thought that he was a bit quirky when he said such ridiculous things. But on further reflection, Old Man Hiebert may have been on to something profound, although it might have been based more on intuition than serious reflection. Perhaps what he was saying was that no one can “own” the wonders of nature. They belong to all of us and are meant to be shared. In any case, I gradually began to warm up to the notion that flowers could in fact nourish my soul.
A few weeks ago Ruth and I were sharing an authentic Paraguayan “Giso” supper with our neighbors across the park. That family has had its share of struggles, many of them related to a bi-polar disorder the mother of the household battles. She was feeling quite well that day and shared about how she had learned to see beauty around her, even if only for a few moments at a time. As she waved her hand toward our yard and our corner of the park, she exclaimed, “When I look over your way in summer time when your yard and the park next to you is awash with color I can hardly contain myself for the joy that it brings!” Thank you Lord, I thought. It’s not just me!
At the beginning of the 21st century many of us are waking up to the reality that we have been quite cruel to the natural world around us for the past few centuries at least. We have seen nature largely as property to be manipulated to meet our real or fabricated needs. When we see the natural world this way, it remains opaque. We see nothing but material to be used up and discarded, which is of course the real cause of the massive pollution problems we face today. However when nature is seen as it was meant to be seen it becomes transparent – pointing beyond itself to even greater wonder and mystery.
My early spiritual training was ambivalent on the role of nature in one’s life. We were reminded to think of the Creator when we saw something of beauty in the natural world. But we were also warned not to see God in nature itself. Especially when environmentalists began to appear on the horizons of our consciousness, we were warned not to become “tree-huggers” who worship the creation instead of the Creator. While such concerns may have been well-founded, I think we were in the end left with a less than adequate understanding of the natural world and how to relate to it.
Since that time I have become more open to allowing the world of nature to heal, counsel and teach me. After all, if it is God’s world, surely its very presence can be a source of greater wholeness of life for those who see it for what it is. But that reality is only there for those who place at least some value on the contemplative life. Unfortunately our busy, techno-laden lives militate against most forms of authentic contemplation. But when we slow down long enough to see the natural world as a gift to be received joyfully we begin to hear it speaking to us. It is speaking the language of the soul that many of us have all but forgotten. Maybe this summer would be the right time to take a refresher course in soul-language.