“God of sense and sensibility” in the Church Times

This is the full text of an article that appeared in the Church Times on 22 September 2023

For Creationtide, Sister Joanna Hollins makes the case for ecology as prayer

I HAVE a confession. Like St Thérèse of Lisieux, I am prone to falling asleep during silent prayer. I arrive with good intentions: perhaps today will be a rosary day, an intercessory prayer day, a day of trying simply to keep silence. And then the clock strikes, and I discover that, instead, I have been lightly dozing. At other times, I find myself miles away, distracted by a hundred busy thoughts and ideas.

Mercifully, for those who share my difficulty in staying focused, our spiritual life is not something that happens exclusively in our times of designated prayer: it permeates everything we live. And, for me, the place where I am able to pray when my mind cannot be still (or my body is physically tired) is outside in the natural world — and, in particular, our vegetable garden.

Sometimes, it is a conscious effort, praying the Jesus prayer as I plait garlic, or trek brimming watering cans to thirsty beds on a summer evening. But the garden seems to resist the over-application of language. To taste the ripening blackberries, or breathe in the heady clouds of lavender, I have to stop speaking. In the language of the Church, we often speak of hearing God; in the herb bed, I can smell him, instead.

IF THIS sounds fanciful, I’d add that encountering God in ecological work is far more than just a sensory experience. The engagement between faith and nature also has to go far deeper than simply seeing the natural world as a source of metaphorical language, useful as this may be. When I walk across our meadows, I understand that, in some way, I am encountering God as directly as I do in the formal sacraments of the Church. This is not a theology of a nature-God — an accusation often levelled at ecologically concerned Christians — but of creation as transubstantial, holy, and loved by God.

Attentiveness to our environment can also be a catalyst to break us out of our need to control and create our own spiritual environment. My work as a gardener may be to tend and nurture, with real effect; but I don’t create the life of the garden. The garden keeps growing when I’m not watching anxiously over it, and often surprises me with self-seeded produce. In contrast, our spiritual progress is often marked by an anxious need to measure and monitor, to constantly check on whether we are sufficiently acceptable to God.

But, while we struggle to cope with perceived failure in our spiritual lives, the natural world tends insistently towards life. Last summer, I watched rocket spring up in the dry gravel path where I had sat to pod salad seeds the year before, and marvelled at the seeming will to live in these tiny plants, growing in such non-ideal conditions.

I found myself re-encountering the parable of the sower. When I am most anxious about the state of my spiritual life, the fragility of the plants sown in this parable terrifies me: they seem so vulnerable, as if the smallest slip of the sower’s hand might cast the living Word aside to die. But, in these tenacious seedlings, I see how strong is the life of the Word within us. Even in the poorest soil of our hearts, God persists.

YET, if we are to live a faith deeply engaged in the natural world, it must be one that engages not just with the beautiful, but also with what is broken and ugly. As the prevalence of wildfires this summer has brutally demonstrated, the climate crisis is already causing immense suffering. And so we are challenged to translate what we understand about a sacramental God into the physicality of our suffering siblings around the world.

I have come to consider our striving to negate the impact of the climate crisis as something fundamentally, deeply Christian. In the memorable words of Matthew 25: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Therefore, our work to try to negate the impact of climate disaster can be more than acts of self-preservation: they are acts of devotion and service to a loving God, embodied in particular in the poorest and most vulnerable.

It is also an opportunity to be reminded of how real a thing it is to be the body of Christ. Experiencing our interconnectedness with each other and our entire planet returns us to the eucharist, where we take that body, recognise each other’s place in the body, and receive it into ourselves. Broken for you: the breaking that makes us all whole.

THE need to recognise one another as part of the body of Christ may drive our environmental work, but this isn’t what draws me back to prayer as I work outside. My time in the garden is full — filled with the lament of climate change, the motion of my hands in the soil, the motion of the life of the Spirit moving in each and every part of Creation — but it isn’t me filling it: I pray, because here I can feel that the world around me prays, too.

As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in God’s Grandeur:

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things […]
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.