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Organic Prayer: A Spiritual Gardening Companion

Organic Prayer: A Spiritual Gardening Companion

by Nancy Roth

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Organic Prayer is a metaphor for a two-way process: we cultivate the earth around us, and the earth, in turn, cultivates our souls. Roth shares with us her experiences of working deeply in the red Ohio soil through meditations that help us enrich and care for our bonds with God, creation, and our neighbors on the planet. Short chapters lead us from the spiritual


Organic Prayer is a metaphor for a two-way process: we cultivate the earth around us, and the earth, in turn, cultivates our souls. Roth shares with us her experiences of working deeply in the red Ohio soil through meditations that help us enrich and care for our bonds with God, creation, and our neighbors on the planet. Short chapters lead us from the spiritual foundation of preparing the soil to planting seeds and fending off the "pests" of depression and impatience that hinder the growth of the spirit. Each chapter ends with "spadework,"distinctive prayer exercises that help each meditation sink in more deeply.

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Church Publishing Inc.
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A Spiritual Gardening Companion


Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2007 Nancy Roth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59627-181-4



When my brothers and I were young, our family spent a week each summer at a YMCA conference center on Lake George called Silver Bay. My father began each day with a pre-breakfast swim and then spent long days in meetings with business associates. The rest of us had the freedom to revel in the beauty of the Adirondack scenery and to amuse ourselves as we chose. Swimming was our favorite occupation, but swimming for us meant more than just kicking our legs and moving our arms. It meant exploring the water and the shoreline, venturing as far as we could under the watchful eyes of the lifeguard and our mother.

Near the edge of the swimming area, we discovered a marvelous secret. We found it first with our bare feet, wading near the edge of the swimming area. Suddenly, our toes felt sand no longer, but curled into something smooth and somewhat sticky. A vein of clay! This was clay you could dig out with your hands and make into Indian bowls or small animal figures, whatever your fancy desired. There, right there, for the asking, was a bounty we had previously known only in the covered bins of the elementary school art room. We were instant sculptors, real potters. It was our secret, as yet undiscovered by the other "conference children."

In my teens, we discontinued our annual visits to Silver Bay and the clay was forgotten, tucked into a corner of the brain as hidden as the wondrous underwater vein in which we had discovered it. One September, however, thirty- five years later, I myself was invited to a conference at Silver Bay. I slipped my swimsuit into my luggage, just in case the weather was balmy. Once I had unpacked, the lake drew me like a magnet, and the receptionist agreed to bend the no-swimming-without-a-lifeguard regulation if I agreed not to go in too deep. Bracing myself, I plunged into the cold water, swam the equivalent of a lap or two, and headed toward shore. When the water became too shallow for swimming, I put my feet down on what I expected would be the sandy bottom.

What was this substance I was stepping on? Memory flooded over me from the feet up. The vein of clay! Small child hands, shaping bowls. Our secret cache of art material! Reaching down, I gathered a fistful of the sticky substance and made a small bowl, which could not begin to contain my happy memories.

Of all our senses, it is probably the sense of touch that most helps us recognize our bond to the earth, inescapable as the pull of gravity. Recognizing this bond is like preparing the soil for the organic garden: it is the foundation upon which the rest depends. Although St. Paul may have said, "Our true citizenship is in heaven," he surely recognized earth's magnetic pull as he trudged along the dusty roads between Tarsus and Corinth. In this life, we are citizens of earth. Earth is our household; we belong here. And we are also guests: guests of the earth. We are dependent on the earth's hospitality to warm us, to feed us, to give us a safe lodging. We are also pilgrims who know that we are in holy territory, for God is both with us in the journey and at the journey's end. The soil we tread, as we both defy and befriend the pull of gravity by lifting one foot after another through all the events of our lives, is sacred earth.

Each of us has our own collection of "walking memories" like my memory of the clay in Silver Bay. Some of my memories are of hiking on a deep and resilient bed of pine needles in a New England forest in the fragrant summer heat; gliding on cross-country skis across the glistening snow that blanketed the same terrain in the winter; going barefoot on the sole-tickling grass of my backyard and being tough enough to make it across a gravel path; prancing over the burning white sand at Jones Beach on New York's Long Island toward the welcome relief of the cool surf; leaving giant footprints along the miniature undulations of wet sand ridged by the retreating tide; jumping into a mud puddle after a great storm, just for the fun of it, and discovering to my horror that it was full of earthworms up for a glimpse of the watery world; crackling autumn leaves under new school shoes; crunching snow under buckle-galoshes; bracing myself as I walked down the ramps sparkling with bits of mica in New York City's Grand Central Station; pacing slowly and silently on a concrete sidewalk in an affluent suburb during a prayer vigil to commemorate the victims of Hiroshima. I have walked in procession through the passages of life—down the sloped aisle of the high school auditorium, along the brick path under the memorial arch at the center of the college campus, upon the white runner rolled out upon the carpeted aisle of my parish church, on the terrazzo floors of the seminary chapel, over smooth grey stone toward the bishop standing at the far end of the world's longest Gothic cathedral.

When I think about placing one foot in front of the other across the various terrains that have formed my life's geography, I cannot help but be filled with wonder simply that there is a world through which to move and I am alive in it. I walk right into the mystery of creation. How can it be that this solidity underneath my feet once did not exist? How can it be that I at one time did not exist? I cannot comprehend it: all this once had no being.

This attitude of awe is a foundation for our love. Without awe, we are likely to take this earth for granted, just as we often take other people for granted until mortal illness strikes them or they move to the opposite coast. Like human friendships, our friendship with creation begins with attention. The fruit of such attention to the creation, as inevitable as the jack-in-the-pulpit springing up in our shady border each year, is amazement. When we truly allow ourselves to feel the pull of gravity and to notice the miracle of existence, what we experience is close kin to worship. Like Job, we stand rooted to the earth, lost in wonder.

Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: ... "Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements— surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?" (Job 38:1, 4–7)

* * *


What memories do you have of your own "walking history"? Do you remember going barefoot as a child, perhaps at a beach? Do you remember wading in water? Walking in mud, or snow, or leaves?

Have you walked in procession at graduations or other special ceremonies? Have you marched in demonstrations or vigils? When have you been footsore, and when has it been a pleasure to walk?

What did each of these walking memories contribute to your understanding of your life on earth?

Take off your shoes and stand up. Close your eyes and visualize the kind of footprint you would make, noting which parts of the feet make the strongest contact with the floor. You are experiencing the pull of gravity, a sign of your bond to the earth.

Now practice a "walking meditation." This is a way of walking quite slowly and deliberately, focusing the mind by remaining thoroughly aware of the action of walking.

First, prepare yourself by noticing your body's alignment: hipbones over the front part of the feet, shoulder joints over hipbones, head held straight as if a string were attached to the top of the head, and knees relaxed. Breathe through the nostrils, breathing as if the lungs filled the whole torso. Notice the centering effect of this "abdominal breathing."

Notice the pull of gravity. It is the body's way of reminding you, "I belong here." Now shift all your weight onto the left foot, not tilting the body but centering it over the foot in a perpendicular line. Now lift the right foot, which is free, and take a step forward. Place the foot down heel first, and shift the weight slowly and deliberately to the right foot.

You can take a step forward with the left foot, which is now free, in the same manner. The sensation of walking like this is feline, and the contact of the sole of the foot with the ground is like a repeated massage.

When you have become accustomed to the rhythm of walking at this pace, notice also the rhythm of your breathing while you are walking. If it seems natural for you, try to coordinate the rhythm of the walking and the breathing.

If it is helpful, you may further focus the mind through repeating silently a phrase that has meaning for you in relation to the exercise, such as "holy ground," or "pilgrimage."



The Rodin Museum at the Hotel Biron, 77 Rue de Varenne, is flooded with sunlight. During our visit to Paris, my husband and I decide to take our children to see the sculptures that fill its capacious rooms. We stroll in the manicured garden; I am scolded by a zealous curator for transgressing the admonition "Défense de marcher sur la pelouse" because I place one foot on the velveteen grass to balance myself while I lean over the rose garden to inhale. Our younger son, Michael, seats himself on the step below the massive, sculpture-covered Gates of Hell and strikes the pose of The Thinker, who gazes pensively down at the top of his head. Now we are inside the honey-colored building, and its tall windows are welcoming the sun.

Sculptures I recognize from art books are bathed in light: fauns, Danaids, nymphs, the prodigal son, studies for the monuments of Victor Hugo and of Balzac, studies for the tragic Burghers of Calais. We have just entered Gallery Four when a bright shaft of sunshine draws my attention to a dazzling white mass of marble on a low wooden table at the room's center. A hand, much larger than any human hand, emerges from the rough marble base like a plant from deep in the earth. The hand spirals around a great lump of stippled marble from which human limbs are beginning to emerge.

My guidebook tells me this is the Hand of God, created in 1898 and one of Rodin's most daring works. The catalog says that it breaks with tradition and speaks directly to the imagination, "conjuring up creatures emerging from primeval life substance." But I know that already—when I see the dazzling sculpture, I recognize in it my own understanding of humanity's origins.

Auguste Rodin has expressed in marble the spirit of the oldest creation story in the Hebrew tradition. When I ask the question "Where do human beings fit in?" I keep returning to that early biblical tradition, especially as it is expressed in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis. Like the sculpture in the center of Gallery Four, verse seven of that chapter can serve as the centerpiece of an understanding of the human condition. Taut as Rodin's sculpture, the story is only twenty-eight words long in my version of the Bible. The passage is not science, but art; not history, but mystery, brooding below the surface. Like its marble counterpart, Genesis 2:7 speaks directly to the imagination. It suggests the essence of what it means to be human through a metaphor that, as we chisel into it, reveals stratum after stratum of meaning.

In the story in Genesis 2, God is a sculptor, forming a human shape from the adamah, or earth. At first the clay figure is inanimate. Then into its nostrils God breathes ruach, life-giving breath. The breath courses through the earth-sculpture, bringing it to life as adam—literally, an "earthling." Us. Rodin's sculpture includes both male and female bodies and that pleases me, but I also know I am included when both male and female are described as adam—earthling.

The story reminds me that once the adamah and ruach have intermingled, there is no longer the possibility of separation. The emotion of love releases endorphins into the bloodstream, imparting a sense of well-being and strengthening the immune system. The emotion of fear causes the arteries to narrow, the muscles to tense, the pupils to dilate, the heart to race. A sense of serenity raises the lactate level of the blood and anxiety causes it to fall, like a tension- barometer. What God has joined together, we have never adequately been able to put asunder, as long as we live and breathe. It is a physiological reality that our state of mind affects our body. Ruach—or that unseen aspect of the human person we most often describe as "spirit"—affects adamah, our physical selves.

Adamah affects ruach as well. We can swim away our anger, breathe deeply to calm our fear, and cultivate good health through loving and being loved. We can remember that a depressed state of mind and heart may sometimes be caused by fatigue or illness, and therefore become more attentive to our body's need for rest, exercise, or nourishment. It is amazing, for example, how quickly a five- mile spin on a bicycle can refresh my tired psyche and foggy brain when I have been sitting at the computer for several hours working on a manuscript.

While I am cycling, I rediscover the truth that the person is the sum of an indivisible "body-spirit" equation: adamah plus ruach equals adam. That is good Hebrew theology, it was Jesus' theology, and it is also common sense: the way we experience ourselves. It is a pity that Christianity's view of the body has often become distorted along the course of history. I counsel many people who were taught in the name of "religion" that the body is just a necessary burden and that the Christian journey is an attempt to become more and more "spiritual," in the narrowest sense of the word. One woman recently described her body as "merely a platform for my head"! Because life continues to prove otherwise, there is a disturbing gap between what she was once told she ought to feel and her new glimpses of the body-spirit unity.

Recognizing our origins in earth and in God prepares the ground for our understanding of our place on this planet. It saves us from the terrible hubris, or pride, which is the source of so much of our destructiveness. When we feel disconnected from our bodies, from our earthiness, we are also disconnected from the rest of creation. But once we fully experience our own creatureliness, we can discover new pleasure in God's other creatures—animal, mineral, and vegetable. We will care about them because they are our extended family, sharing with us the molecules that make up adamah.

When we feel disconnected from God, from ruach or "spirit," we are disconnected from the very source of our being. How often we let other kinds of breath fill us—the breath of selfishness, acquisitiveness, power, greed—so that we fall prey to a kind of spiritual and moral "breathlessness." Once we begin to allow God's breath to fill us, we will find we are more human, not less so. My favorite second-century theologian, Irenaeus of Lyons, who said, "The glory of God is the human being fully alive," would have enjoyed looking over his compatriot's shoulder as Rodin chiseled the Hand of God.

One of humanity's most destructive misconceptions is that, since we consider ourselves the apex of creation, we are therefore separated from nature. The Judeo-Christian tradition, in its attentiveness to another verse of Genesis—" have dominion ... over every living thing that moves upon the earth"—to the neglect of the wisdom contained in Genesis 2:7, has much to answer for.

We can no more be happy separated from nature than we can be happy separated from God. When we acknowledge our place on earth and celebrate our unity in God with the creation that surrounds us, we take our place in the community composed of all living things, and it feels like a homecoming.


Are you aware of yourself as adam: adamah plus ruach? Have there been times in your life when you have especially felt the "body-spirit" connection?

Is there a way of prayer in which you regularly encourage that integration? Do you feel especially in touch with yourself and with God while you are outdoors, perhaps working in a garden, or walking in a park? Do you notice that exercise renews both body and mind?

Have you ever taken a class in one of the ancient body-spirit disciplines such as Tai Chi or Yoga that can be adapted as Christian "body prayer"?

Set aside at least twenty minutes. Sit in a comfortable chair or lie down and close your eyes. Notice the tension in your muscles and gradually permit that tension to drain out of the body. In turn, relax the feet and legs, the torso, and then the shoulders, arms, neck, and face. Let each part of you, in turn, surrender to earth's gravity. Let go of the habitual tension of your muscles, and allow the earth to support you. Be aware of the heaviness of your body, a physical reminder that you are part of the earth, adamah.

Excerpted from ORGANIC PRAYER by NANCY ROTH. Copyright © 2007 Nancy Roth. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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