A talk given at “Pilgrimage (Liberal/Feminist Mormon Women’s Gathering),” Alta Lodge, Utah, June 2011
Thank you for the invitation to speak with you today, and in particular, for the gift of the topic, “Embracing Wholeness in the World.” I have really enjoyed the opportunity to walk with the topic as I have prepared over the last few months. What I want to share falls into three different themes: holding and imaging patterns of wholeness; patterns of wholeness in the Scriptures; and patterns of wholeness in the world. Under each of the themes are three examples.
Images of wholeness
The first theme is images of wholeness. I believe that each of us can play a role in creating and increasing wholeness, and that holding images of wholeness is one place to start.
The first image I want to share comes from my own practice as I seek to hear and know the wholeness in myself. Quakers sometimes use the term ‘grounding’ to refer to a spiritual sense of rootedness. The term alludes to an intangible experience of feeling that your Spirit is anchored deep within the earth, or deep within the Divine. When I sit in worship by myself, in whatever location, it often starts with attention to the image of being deeply rooted. This is a metaphorical practice of feeling my own roots go through the earth and feeling them extend and reach. Holding this image gives me a personal sense of keeping my center of gravity low enough that I won’t topple over or get stuck in my head.
The second image comes from a time when we were living in West Virginia. We were members of the Charleston Friends Meeting, and I was asked to be clerk. In a Quaker meeting, particularly those without pastors, the clerk of the meeting is the administrative head, and responsible for listening for the spiritual sense of the business meetings. It was a small meeting, with 10-15 people on a Sunday. As clerk, I felt some responsibility for making an effort to deepen worship, and the image that came to mind was of a maypole of light in the center of the room. Each Sunday as we settled into worship I would image the light pillar in the center of the room, and then take strands of that light and wrap them one at a time around each person in the room until I’d gone all the way around the circle. I felt that the image was a way of holding up the wholeness that we could be as a meeting gathered in worship.
The third image comes from a time when I had made a set of prayer beads that I used while sitting in prayer in the mornings. There were 16 beads – four large ones, each separated from the others by three small ones. I assigned people and responsibilities to the small beads, and for each of the large ones I held the earth, imagining that amazing view from space. How do we each hold the wholeness and health of the earth?
These examples are offered as encouragement for you to think about how you might need or want to imagine and hold a sense of wholeness in your own life and in the world around you.
Images of wholeness in scripture
The next set of images I want to examine come from the Bible. Other scriptures from other traditions also carry invitations to wholeness, but this is the tradition I know best. Again, I want to explore three different images, the parable of the Good Samaritan, the Law of Moses, and the story of Job.
The Good Samaritan. Jesus provides a hint of how we may need to act as individuals to fully embrace and create wholeness in the world, in the parable of the Good Samaritan. While this is often presented as a guide for how we should behave to those in need, Ivan Illich (The River North of the Future) offers a somewhat different interpretation. Jesus’ message over and over again, is about the importance of being present to the uniqueness of each individual. And in this parable, the Samaritan feels called, across ethnic lines, to help another. And his pity was a gift from God. When we read this story as an invitation to listen for when God is called us to the person in the ditch, or in need, it may be a more welcome invitation than believing that it’s our job to help everyone in need. Illich suggests that the story offers an invitation to listen for when our hearts are moved to pity, and to be open to the experience of meeting that of God in another across racial, ethnic, class and other boundaries in those moments. And in our openness to listening and responding when so moved, we play our part in building and embracing wholeness in the world.
The Law of Moses. The Book of Deuteronomy speaks to a different kind of wholeness, offering a vision of the social contracts needed among human beings to live together in peace. The rules are quite interesting, and I’m just going to highlight a few: Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 4 “At the end of every seventh year you shall make a remission of debts. This is how the remission shall be made: everyone who holds a pledge shall remit the pledge of anyone indebted to him. He shall not press a fellow-countryman for repayment, for the Lord’s year of remission has been declared. … There will never be any poor among you if only you obey the Lord your God by carefully keeping these commandments which I lay upon you this day.” Here the authors speak to the importance of forgiving debt, with a rule that every 7 years there be a blanket Chapter 11 for all debtors. Deuteronomy 23:15-16 speaks to the importance of not returning fugitive slaves and not oppressing the slaves that live among them. “You shall not surrender to his master a slave who has taken refuge with you. Let him stay with you anywhere he chooses in any one of your settlements, wherever suits him best; you shall not force him.” Later in the same chapter the Israelites are told that they are not to charge interest to their brother Israelites, although they can charge foreigners interest. “You shall not charge interest on anything you lend to a fellow-countryman, money or food or anything else on which interest can be charged. You may charge interest on a loan to a foreigner but not on a loan to a fellow-countryman, for then the Lord your God will bless you in all you undertake in the land which you are entering to occupy.” That’s a particularly interesting rule today when interest is expected for so many transactions. In the next chapter there is more on the theme of loans, and the Israelites are given detailed guidelines for when they provide a secured loan to another Israelite. They are to wait patiently to receive the security, without going into the home of the debtor. If the person receiving the loan is poor, they are not to keep the pledged item overnight. “When you make a loan to another man, do not enter his house to take a pledge from him. Wait outside, and the man whose creditor you are shall bring the pledge out to you. If he is a poor man, you shall not sleep in the cloak he has pledged. Give it back to him at sunset so that he may sleep in it and bless you; then it will be counted to your credit in the sight of the Lord your God.” (Deut. 24:10-13) All of these detailed rules can be seen as excessive nitpicking and arcane minutiae, but they can also be seen as guidelines to create a more fair and just society; as the next step in limiting oppression of others. What are the detailed guidelines that we need today, at the individual level, and how should each of us behave to others so as to create a more whole community?
Job. The third image I want to share from the scriptures is from the Book of Job. I am fascinated by the Book of Job, and am particularly moved by the poetry given to God when Job finally gets a response to his complaints. Using the New English Bible, I want to share a bit of the poetry. Remember, Job has lost all of his possessions and his children, and eventually his entire body is covered with sores. His friends have come to comfort him, and in their desire to comfort they keep asking what he did to deserve this punishment, since God is just and it could only happen if he deserved it. In the face of those challenges, Job continues to maintain his innocence, and to call on God to explain. And finally God responds: Who do you think you are! “Who is this whose ignorant words cloud my design in darkness? Brace yourself and stand up like a man; I will ask questions, and you shall answer. Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” “In all your life have you ever called up the dawn or shown the morning its place?” “Have you descended to the springs of the sea or walked in the unfathomable deep?” “Do you know when the mountain goats are born or attend the wild doe when she is in labour?” These verses speak to the wholeness of creation, and challenge Job, and us, to be more humble about what we think we understand about how the world works.
Images of wholeness in the world
The final theme area I want to talk about is images of wholeness in the world. Again, I have three examples: permaculture, the L’Arche communities, and wolves.
Permaculture. I first heard about permaculture in 1993, when I met Rosemary Morrow in Vietnam. Rosemary was working for the Australian Quaker Service, and she was working with rural Vietnamese communities to change their approach to gardening. I remember her saying “everybody gardens.” And then she explained that the birds, worms, ants, and all other living things can be used to enhance the fertility of our food system if we think carefully and pay attention to the actions and needs of all the other players in the system. I didn’t really understand what she meant, and it took another 17 years for me to start looking in to permaculture. I started by reading Gaia’s Garden, by Toby Hemenway, and I was hooked. As Hemenway describes it,
“The order of a conventional row-crop garden is the order of the machine. This regimentation invites us to view plants as mechanical food factories. We fuel them with fertilizer, service them with rakes and hoes, and measure their production in bushels, bins and tons. We view the plants as part of our dominion. In a guild, we are but one living being among many others; and like all the other animals enfolded by this community, we nurture and are nurtured by an almost-wild place. We prune and cull, as do the deer and mice. The fruit we leave does not rot on the ground to breed disease; it is gladly devoured by our many companions. We turn over a bit of soil, and the worms turn over yet more. We participate rather than rule. With guilds, we can begin to shed the mantle of command and return to nature the many responsibilities we have unnecessarily assumed.”
Permaculture practitioners are looking for ways to mimic healthy ecosystems in our systems of food production; to learn from nature what plants work together and how we better fit our needs into functioning ecosystems. Guilds are the name given to a group of plants that become more than the sum of the parts when they are planted together, providing mutual support and enrichment. While we need to change our eating habits to better take advantage of the strengths of permaculture, decreasing consumption of grain and legumes, the trade off in terms of having gardens get stronger and more productive with time might be worth it. And in addition, we get to learn to better understand the relationships in a healthy ecosystem. What an opportunity to enhance and embrace wholeness in the world!
L’Arche. One of the most striking examples I have seen of wholeness in the world are the L’Arche communities. First founded in France in 1964, these communities “bear witness to the reality that persons with intellectual disabilities possess inherent qualities of welcome, wonderment, spirituality and friendship.” I first ran across these communities in the writings of Henri Nouwen, who wrote movingly of his experiences living in the Daybreak community outside of Toronto, Canada. Three of the key tenets of the L’Arche communities include
“People with intellectual disabilities are at the heart of L’Arche. They’re not clients, patients or recipients of services, but rather they are friends, teachers and companions.
“People without intellectual disabilities grow through their encounters in L’Arche. Through daily acts of care, trust and friendship, they develop into ambassadors of compassion and leaders of social change and the common good.
“A divided society is mended through inclusivity where people with many differences – socio-economic status, race, religion, and intellectual capacity – live and work together.”
This is a very different approach, seeking to live out the act of honoring and meeting that of God in another human being on a daily basis in an environment of love and respect for those with disabilities. Assistants play an important role in the communities, serving the core residents. Heather Bixler shared her reflections from her time in one of the L’Arche communities, “[Names], along with other core members in our house, are born counter-cultural. Their bodies and minds don’t fit neatly into the mainstream understanding of what it means to be a person of worth. But through their daily acts of love and acceptance, my housemates have become my guides, pointing me towards the joy and promise of the Kingdom.” These communities are living experiments of how to live together with a deep concern for giving and receiving love. They stand as an example and a challenge to all of us. How do we give and receive love across differences of all kinds.
Wolves. When I think about wholeness in the natural world, for some years I’ve been following a thread of wolves. It started some years ago when I read Wolf Totem, by Jiang Rong, in translation from the Chinese. In this story a teenage Han Chinese boy is sent to Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution. There he learns about the system and the way of life of the Mongolian herders from a Mongolian elder. He also watches the slaughter of the wolves by the Chinese, and with the slaughter comes the destruction of the grassland ecosystem. The reverse of that story has been demonstrated in Yellowstone National Park, with the reintroduction of wolves in 2001. The wolves had all been killed in the 1930s, but with a growing understanding of the importance of key predator species for the health of an ecosystem, they were brought back in 2001. Since then the park has gone from one beaver colony to nine, and springs are flowing that had not flowed for decades (check). Piecing together the chain of events, biologists found that elk do not graze on willows on open riverbanks when there are wolves, seeking less exposed places to graze. So the young willows became available as food for beavers. This is just one example, but encourages us to reflect deeply on what wholeness in an ecosystem might look like.
Conclusion – Garden of Eden. The last image I want to bring up is the Garden of Eden. This is a foundational myth in western civilization, held by the three main monotheistic traditions. In this story we begin with a man and a woman living in a beautiful garden full of plants and animals. They lived in the garden, feeding themselves on all of the plants in the garden. They watched the animals and plants, learning by watching all the different ways the plants and animals worked together to make the garden fruitful and beautiful. They ate from the different fruits, nuts, greens and other plants. Maybe they ate eggs and meat, no one really knows, and the story is vague on this point. But what they didn’t eat was the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden – the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The Gods had told them to avoid the tree, saying that if they ate it they would surely die.
One day a serpent in the garden approached the woman, ‘Woman, have you seen the fragrant and beautiful fruit on the big tree in the center of the garden?’
‘Oh yes, but if we eat it we will die,’ she replied.
‘Oh woman,’ said the serpent, ‘that is only a story. The fruit of the tree will make you wise, like the Gods, knowing good and evil. You won’t die. Come, look at how ripe the fruit is.’
The woman looked again at the fruit, at how succulent it looked, and also thought about the wisdom that would come from eating the fruit, and finally decided to eat it. She ate a piece of fruit and then took it to the man to share, and he also ate. And their eyes were opened. All around them they saw new potential. Previously their days had been filled with laughter, games, exploration and observation as they watched and learned from the plants and animals. But now they could see all the ways the garden could be improved, starting with getting themselves some clothes. When God came that evening to join them in the cool of the garden, they hid. And when God called to them – “man, woman, where are you?’ The man replied ‘Lord, we have hidden to hide our nakedness.’
With that statement he revealed that their eyes had been opened, that they were now judging things as bad they had previously accepted without question. They also had decided that they needed some protection from the world – clothes – a barrier to put between them and the rest of life. And so God sent them out of the garden and cursed the serpent to go forever on its belly. For the man and the woman, the promise was that now they would till the ground in sorrow and give birth in pain for all of their days. With the eating of the fruit, this story has shaped western civilization. It provided a foundational myth that man and woman have ‘fallen’ and that all the brokenness of the human structures in the world around us inevitably grow out of that fall. It also carries in it the idea that we know good and evil, having eaten of that tree.
Through the centuries the story has been told as an actual account of real events, as a true myth, and many gradations in between. Recent authors, including Daniel Quinn, have proposed interpreting the story as a clash of civilizations with the origins of agriculture. Hunter gatherers lived (and still live) in a garden that they know intimately – numerous uses for each animal and plant, seasons of availability, taste, and relationships. And while the argument over the time budgets of hunger gatherers are extensive, the most recent evidence suggests that the work load was less and that their health was better than the early generations of agriculturalists. How do we open our eyes to see more deeply the image of wholeness embedded in this story? What can we learn from seeing it differently? Can we walk back into the garden of we stop thinking we know good and evil?
I pray that we can all walk in ways that embrace the wholeness that is, and create more opportunities for wholeness in the world around us.