Week 1

Cultivating Spirit

by Meg Riley, Senior Minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship

“I love seeing that you’re entertaining earth spirits in the yard,” the man said to me, bending his head so that his tall frame could fit through my front door. He was a friend of a friend, someone I hadn’t met before, and with his unusually tall presence and bright pink face, I felt as if he might be from another world—a magical world.

Feeling every bit a muggle (non-magical person), I responded, puzzled. “Entertaining earth spirits?”  

“Well, what do you call what you’re doing out there?” he asked, waving his hand out the window at the flowers and herbs and vegetables that were flourishing where a lawn had once been.

“Um…gardening?” I responded, again feeling the chasm between our worlds. And our conversation went on from there to other things.

It took me, literally, years to understand what he had said to me, and why he had said it. It came clear gradually in other conversations. “You’re such an extrovert,” a friend said. “It amazes me that you are happy for hours at a time, alone in your garden.” I responded with shock. “Alone? Are you kidding? I’m surrounded by thousands of little green friends out there!”

Or, another day, I said to a friend, “The plants told me they are really upset by the violence of the machines doing the roadwork.” With a look bordering on fear, perhaps wondering how grounded I was in reality, my friend responded, “The plants don’t really talk to you, do they?” “Not with words,” I said. “But they make themselves very clear.”

And then I realized: maybe some people who are also gardeners don’t engage with plants in mutual relationship in the way that I do. Maybe not everyone experiences friendship and spiritual communion with plants. Maybe my kind of relatedness could indeed be called “entertaining earth spirits.”

I have always, from my youngest days, felt a deep kinship with the earth; I have known the earth and the natural world as living companions. I think most kids do, given proximity. When a big tree in our front yard had to be cut down because of heart rot, my three-year-old self sobbed and sobbed, sputtering out between spasms of wracking pain, “But she’s my sister!” And for most of the existence of humankind, entire cultures have known our interrelatedness, have honored the living earth.

Nowadays, in modern cultures, it is easy to feel as if we humans inhabit a mostly inanimate world. Even something as completely animate as the meat that some of us eat comes to us in neatly wrapped packages, in no way resembling the living animal it was cut from. In the U.S., farmers whose survival used to depend on knowing the earth intimately now sit atop giant machines and drive over fields with air conditioning and music, distanced from their crops. The oil that we put in our cars so that we can speed on cement highways is dredged up from under the earth in places far from us, and many of the foods that we eat come from places we’ll never see.

It delights me to know that many indigenous languages conceptualize the world not in relentlessly categorized boxes of male and female, but by whether any particular piece of it is animate or inanimate. Once I started trying to do that myself, I realized how much I label “things.” English is 70% nouns, I hear, while many indigenous languages are predominantly verbs. Verbs describe motion, action, life. Nouns so often put things in boxes.

I’ve been in many rooms where people are trying to put words like soul and spirit in a box, and the words simply won’t stay put. Once, in a seminary class on spirituality, we had a weekly assignment of finding three new definitions of spirituality. Twelve weeks, thirty-six definitions. None of the definitions were completely adequate, and the process freed me from trying to define words, per se, and opened me more in a commitment to experience them.

How do we stay connected to the essence of life that runs through the animate world? That’s the gist of spiritual practice, I think. For me, spiritual practice is any activity that opens me up to life’s vast web of animacy, done in a deliberate and steady way. (There are many other experiences that are spiritual, but come upon me without planning or warning.)  For half the year, gardening is my primary spiritual practice, and I’m out there at dawn for a few hours daily.

For the other half, I patch in various practices with less consistency: improv classes, certain kinds of movement, spiritually grounded activism, singing with other people, sitting quietly in candlelight each morning reading a meditation. These activities, at least some of the time, open me up to eternity, show me life’s vast horizon, connect me to all that is living.

Entertain earth spirits? You bet I do! And every other kind of spirit that comes to the door!