by Pippa Woodhams
It was a cold, grey, damp morning in June. A Wild City Retreat group had come together to enjoy summertime and discover new insights about ourselves, God and the natural world. The picnic didn’t happen, we stayed pretty much in our beautiful urban farm classroom, but we still managed to find Comma butterflies, burgeoning colour, and an answer to the question on an interpretation board in the garden: “Wasteland or Thriving Habitat?”
It is very difficult to get Christian communities outdoors. There are always very good reasons not to: hay fever; overheating; cold; uneven ground; rain; unacceptable risks, especially for the elderly or disabled; unpredictability. Mainly the weather. If we begin to realise that spiritual practice outdoors is not just like doing church in a different place, but actually is a different kind of experience, giving very different qualities of communication or insight, then perhaps we might work a little harder at finding ways round these barriers. I have a hunch that this other quality of insight may somehow be connected to the impasse we seem to be in as a species in looking after what Pope Francis calls, “Our Common Home”.
I have a hope that one retreat day we will meet and it will be torrential rain, not too cold or windy, and we will all take an umbrella and garden cushion, find a lonely spot outside, and sit for fifteen minutes listening. What would we share on our return? So far, we have not been blessed with these conditions. Our usual lot has been high wind, wonderful sunshine, or occasional damp drizzle, like in June.
However, acute and focussed listening have been part of our monthly practice. That June, someone discovered the sound of bees: not the poetic hum one would usually associate with bees, but the tiny sound of feet scrabbling in flower petals. Someone else was vividly reminded of a ritual witnessed in Lisbon as a child, of cooking fresh sardines on a fire outside, to celebrate the festival of John the Baptist and St Peter.
A highlight of our year was the month of April. Ancient tradition links this month with the blackthorn, which was in full blossom, matching its violent thorns to a true image of the joy and sorrow of Easter. A month later the hawthorn followed, and there were a staggering number of different white flowers around us. We took as a theme, “the white trail”, and wondered where our own white trails might lead. We threw white wool onto the ground, and imagined ourselves miniaturised in the landscape, looking for metaphors and the feelings they evoke.
May the courage of God go with us as we leave the fold of our security. May the guidance of God be our pilot when our old maps no longer work. May the love of God keep us when we feel danger of foe within and without. And may the Spirit of God lead our hearts all of our journey through until we reach our final home.
In July we did manage a picnic, and significant time outdoors, relaxing by Meanwood Beck, celebrating the power of water and the influence rivers have on our city, whether visible or channelled underground. Meanwood Beck is not particularly romantic. Over a year we watch its ebb and flow, often polluted, or blocked with plastic bags and other detritus, and it became a focus for us to create tiny sculptures out of sticky grass, symbols of blessings, to be thrown into the current and watch drift hesitantly downstream.
May the hand of God hold ours as we step from stone to stone across current. May the arm of God uphold us when rushing waters overwhelm us. May the feet of God lead us by the quiet stream of contentment. May the love of God keep us as we follow our life’s course this day.
On October 10th, Wild City Retreats launches a second year of monthly Saturday morning events, open to anyone to come and try, or to join the series. This autumn, we want to be a breathing space for the time running up to the Climate Change Summit in Paris in December. After stimulating talks and discussion, including those programmed by LCI, it could be a place to go to digest or develop a spiritual response. The environment will be very much in the media all around us, but is our reaction to feel overwhelmed and indifferent, or can each of us respond in some small way from the heart? Our practice this year has I think sensitised each of us in some small way to a heart more passionate and open to the natural world, tainted as the world is, from plastic bags in the beck choking wildlife to depletion of the ozone layer. This inspires me to find out more of the facts of the case, and learn from those making active and creative responses.
Pope Francis published an encyclical this spring, “Laudate Si – on the care of our common home.” It is worth seeking out a summary. Saint Francis is cited several times, as “the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically… a model of the inseparable bond between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace.” As we examine our consciences, we are asked to include a new dimension: to reflect seriously on how we have lived in communion, not only with God, with others and with oneself, but also with all creatures and with nature.
To me, the acute observation of nature, enabling us to hear the bees feet on the flower petal, is a way into thinking deeply about the broader issues that threaten our very existence. It is time for “ecological conversion” which enables us not just to listen to the bees, but listen to the laments of all those mistreated and abused, humankind and other creation companions.
Mary Oliver, in her poem “The Summer Day”, which can be found on Google, takes the reader from close observation of a grasshopper, a very particular grasshopper landing on her hand, to wonder who made it, who made the world, what prayer is, and ultimately offer a challenge:
“…tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Is our home, our city, and our world ultimately a “Wasteland or a Thriving Habitat?” It is worth a closer look to find out, and a deeper prayer of commitment to discover our part in its life and renewal.
Wild City Retreats take place at Meanwood Valley Urban Farm, on monthly Saturday mornings, from 9.45 to 1.00. Please book with LCI.
September 12th; October10th; November 7th; December 12th
Prayers used above are taken from “The Celtic Wheel of the Year: Celtic and Christian seasonal prayers” by Tess Ward. 2007 Orca Book Service.
Look up Operation Noah, for a range of Christian responses to the build up to the Paris Climate summit: www.operationnoah.org