Advent Practices: Considering Our Earthiness

When despair for the world grows in me . . .
I come into the peace of wild things . . .
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
-Wendell Berry, excerpted from "The Peace of Wild Things"

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, / You are surely lost.
-David Wagoner, excerpted from "Lost"

In the scriptures for this fourth week of Advent we hear in the gospels that Joseph is told in a dream to care for Mary who will give birth to the holy presence. The story of Advent and Christmas is essentially about God becoming enfleshed in the earthiness of the world. God enters creation and blesses our embodied lives. We are called this fourth week to consider the element of earth as an invitation to greater intimacy with nature and to remember our own earthiness. In Cherokee tradition, earth is connected to the hour of midnight and the season of winter. We were created from clay and we will one return as dust and ash. My mother died in the season of autumn and I found my daily walks through fall and winter to offer me tremendous solace as I witnessed the world descend into her own place of stillness and rest. Winter embraces the land, and trees surrender their leaves in an act of holy supplication, extending their arms upward in prayer. I see in those bare branches, the beauty of things brought back to their essence.

I invite you to reconsider some of our traditional religious categories this week. What if we honored creation as the original icon revealing the face of the Holy One to us? What if the seasons could be a sacred text, as the poet William Stafford writes a "scripture of leaves"? How might tending to world's own rhythm of rising and falling reveal new dimensions to our own journeys?

What if we gave reverence to the forest as the original cathedrals?  In Muir Woods of Northern California, there is a grove of ancient redwoods called Cathedral Grove because of the awe their size and ancient presence inspire. And yet it is our sacred spaces which emulate the silence and luminosity of great gatherings of trees rather than the other way around. 

Last week I described a story from the Russian Orthodox tradition about a young man who comes to Fr. Seraphim to learn about prayer of the heart and what he learns from the ocean. He is also sent to meditate like a mountain, learning stability of posture and grounding, and the experience of calmness and stability. Then he was sent to meditate like a poppy taking his mountain wisdom with him. From the poppy he learned to turn himself toward the light and to orient his meditation practice from his inner depths toward radiance. The poppy also taught him both uprightness and the ability to bend with the wind. And while the mountain taught him about the eternal, the poppy taught him about the finitude of our days as the blossom began to wither. He learned that meditation means experiencing the eternal in each fleeting moment.

As we prepare to celebration God's birth into the world in a few days, and perhaps sing the words "Let Heaven and Nature Sing," let us respond to earth's song calling us back to intimate and loving mutuality. This year let our preparation for Christmas be one of wonder and delight in the ways we can foster earth's fruitfulness. Let us respond with open hearts to creation's invitation to radical care.

Practices for Advent:

  • If you have an altar for Advent, add some stone, leaves, pine cones, or flowers you have gathered on a walk to honor the element of earth.
  • Consider a meditation with clay on your own earthiness. Take a piece of clay (or even Play-Doh) and begin to shape it in your hands. Call to mind the story of creation when God lovingly molds the dust into human form and breathes life into this being. Then remember the story of God as Potter and we as the clay from the prophet Jeremiah. As you continue to work with the clay in your hands, notice the ways it both yields and resists your pressure. Reflect in your own life on the places where you experience yielding and where you encounter resistance. What might the clay have to teach you about these? Allow a shape to emerge and spend some time listening for its invitation to you. 
  • Exterior landscapes shape our interior landscapes and the ways we understand our spiritual journey. Think of the way the desert played a pivotal role in early Christianity with its harsh, barrenness as a call to radical simplicity of heart. What does the landscape you live in reveal to you about God's call in your life? How are you shaped by the geography of your world including hills, valleys, plains, rivers, oceans, gardens, or forests? What are the invitations of the earth to you?