The Spiritual Direction Animals and Forests Offer Us

The Spiritual Direction Animals and Forests Offer Us

Glynn Cardy

Sun 02 Oct

For many years my life was significantly influenced by a dog.  I didn’t go looking for a dog, he found me. 

At the time I was a 23 year old community worker living in what was regarded as the worst state housing area in Auckland.  While my day job was reading theology my night and weekend job was working with local people to try to make their lives better.  We organized a food bank, a youth group, a school holiday programme, and the like.  It was practical theology.

The dog was christened “Butch” by the local kids.  They wanted him to be tough – because tough was how you survived.  You were ‘staunch’.

The problem was Butch wasn’t tough or staunch.  Not in the ‘I-love-to-fight’ way.  He liked to socialize, make friends and playmates, and eat.  Especially eat.  He also figured out that if he adopted me then his life goals would probably be met. 

As for me I had no experience with dogs.  Cats yes, dogs no.  And, given that I walked most places back then, he just trailed along.  So he went to lectures, came to church, visited my parents, enjoyed the beach, and went protesting [as you did in the 80s!].

Matthew Fox, well known for his books about Creation Spirituality, referred to his dog as his spiritual director.  That makes sense to me.  When I walked I was either lost in the thoughts of my own head, or in quiet prayer [that was back in the day when I thought prayer was primarily an activity of the mind].  Which was kind of the point, for around about then Butch would politely but firmly bring me back to earth, and suggest I attend to the here and now.  Like calling him back from terrorizing a cat.

Spiritual reflection then, as now, is a dynamic dialectic between listening for the haunting and hopeful whisper of G-o-d, God, and being tugged or badgered into playing, belly scratching, and the like.  A dog, like children, has a wonderful way of earthing us.  The need for daily attentiveness, being awake and awakened, these are the things which make for life.  And while most people are fine doing these things on their own, I guess I needed a dog to help me with that at the time.  Nowadays it’s a cat’s job.

Thomas Aquinas once said, “Revelation comes in two volumes; the Bible and Nature.”  We’ve ignored nature as a revelation of Christianity for centuries, which includes our human nature and the nature of the universe.  It’s just as important as the Bible. 

In Boston I was privileged to read most days from books connected to the Bible and from the ‘books’ of nature round about.  Where we lived was close to Walden Pond made famous by Henry David Thoreau, who lived there in a very basic hut for four years in the mid-1800s. 

Henry graduated from Harvard in 1837 and took a job at a public school – but soon left due to his revulsion at having to cane children.  He then founded his own school with his brother.  Unfortunately his brother died in 1841, and Henry was taken in by Ralph Waldo Emerson.  In 1845 he went to live at Walden Pond, and listened, thought, and wrote.

Henry neither rejected civilization nor fully embraced wilderness.  Instead he sought a middle ground that integrates both nature and culture.  His philosophy required that he be a didactic arbitrator between the wilderness he based so much on and the spreading mass of North American humanity.  He decried the latter endlessly but wanted to be close to people so they could hear his message.  The wilderness he enjoyed was the nearby swamp or forest that I walked through many times.

Thoreau’s careful observations and devastating conclusions about the relationship between humanity and nature, passive resistance and political vision, have rippled into time, becoming stronger as the weaknesses Thoreau noted have become more pronounced.  Events that seem to be completely unrelated to his stay at Walden Pond have been influenced by it, including the American National Park system, the British Labour movement, the creation of India, the civil rights movement, and the environmental movement.  Such is the power of thought, words, and a life devoted to making a difference.

In Boston we lived in an old house that pre-dated Thoreau by a century.  Like most houses roundabout it had plenty of land and no fences.  We had a cylindrical bird feeder that was replenished each second day.  We tried to learn who was who among the birds.  There were three different types of woodpeckers, including a red-headed fellow that stood about one foot tall.  There were tufted titmice little grey birds with a tuft of feathers in their head; robins (big blue birds that stole all of the food); chickadees (the Massachusetts State bird – grey and black); cardinals (the males are bright red), Orioles (orange breasted with beautiful songs), little goldfinches, purple finches, an occasional bluebird, swallows, mourning doves and humming birds.

But if it sounds idyllic [as it certainly looked], those knowledgeable about environmental science tell another story.  The forest is changing, and with it the animals, birds, and insects.  The American Chestnut is gone due to the chestnut blight, the Green Ash is disappearing quickly because of the emerald ash borer, Eastern Hemlocks are threatened by the wooly adelgid and the great fear is the spread of the Asian long-horned beetle which threatens many species, especially two kinds of Maple.  In addition Massachusetts is in the middle of the worst drought in its history and some say that this is the shape of things to come.

Thoreau’s fears about the imbalance between nature and humanity have been realized.  It is not only the absence of vigilant stewardship, but the absence of a deep spiritual understanding that the animals, birds, insects and trees are a part of us and we are a part of them.  What happens to them affects our soul.  We understand now some of the long-term economic ramifications of poor stewardship and blatant exploitation of the earth’s resources, but do we really understand the spiritual ramifications, the cost to our soul?

It is interesting to think again about the parable of the mustard ‘tree’ in this context.  As you may remember this clever parable is subversive.  On the one hand everyone knew about mustard – it was a weed; not to be introduced into a garden lest it got out of control.  And got out of control it frequently did!  It was never used in religious imagery.  It was a pest.

On the other hand, grand trees, like the Cedars of Lebanon, frequently featured in biblical passages.  These passages liken God and God’s kingdom to big and strong trees – trees with many branches that birds can nest in – useful trees for shade, for building, and the like.

The parable only works when you understand that mustard is both despised, and never will grow into a tree with many branches.  For in this parable Jesus is deliberately subverting the idea that God and God’s kingdom is about the big and strong, the grand and noble.  Rather he is saying the Kingdom is among the small, the weeds, the outsiders, and the despised.  And they will never as individual seeds/weeds amount to much.  They won’t grow into big trees.  But they will spread. 

For too long I would suggest we have looked at the forest and asked ‘What can it do for me?’ instead of asking ‘What is it telling/suggesting to us?’  Ecologically this parable points to the small things.  It invites us to attend to the rarely seen, or the unseen, to that which is vulnerable, to that which is of seemingly ‘no use’ or ‘a pest’.  It invites us to value the ecological whole – not just the parts we find beautiful, useful, or inspiring.

I think the chief spiritual quality the forest encourages in us is kindness and gentleness – just as animals teach us that if we are gentle they are often gentle in return.  Animals seem to have an antenna which picks up disturbance.  If I am disturbed they either avoid me or try to comfort me [usually the latter].  The gentleness can help build inner calm; and with inner calm can come inner courage.  The forest too, the more time we spend in it and listen to it, invites us to be kind and gentle; and build inner calm; and in time build inner courage.

Since I began this sermon talking about a dog, let me finish talking about a cat.  One of my companions in the 1970s was Jonathon.  He was black and white and playful all over.  Aerial gymnastics were his specialty.  When I first met him he was standing on two legs reaching up trying to snare a fly.  Suddenly, without warning, he propelled himself towards the windows, missed the fly, and was left hanging two metres off the ground, claws imbedded in the expensive drapes.  To put it mildly, the lady of the house was not impressed.  Jonathon and I became mates.  Anything was an opportunity for high jinks – Christmas trees, the laundry chute [think luge], chandeliers… Jonathon’s imagination was boundless.

Jonathon died.  I don’t know how.  Probably riding the long curved drainpipe once too often.  “Do cats go to heaven?” a child asked me one Sunday.  My thoughts turned to Jonathon. “Heaven is where God is,” I began, “and the God I believe in loves to play.  I think cats and God were made for each other.”

When we play with animals we nurture our soul.  Animals can help us to become more human and become more connected – both in ourselves, and with our world roundabout.