No shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no herb of the field had yet sprung up; for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a man to till the ground; but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground. Then the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul. And the Lord God planted a garden eastward, in Eden; and there He put the man whom He had formed.
Genesis 2: 5-8
We live in a violent time. Force and violence seemingly pervade every aspect of our lives: the personal, the relational, the economic, and the political. My father used to say that life is a struggle, a battle. I remember strongly resisting his interpretation of life. Yet, increasingly his perspective seems to be born out in my own experience.
Reading once again the two creation accounts from the Book of Genesis, I find myself moved by a sense of their tenderness and intimacy. There is life, hope, and promise in them. “. . . for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was not a human to till the ground; but there went up a mist from the earth, and watered the whole face of the ground.” The love and care of the Creator is evident, both in what has already been made and in the promise of what is to come. The present and the future are intimately linked. There were not yet shrubs or herbs, but there would be once God brought down the promised rain and created the humans who would tend and till the earth.
The world of Genesis is a deeply inter-related one. Everything depends on everything and everyone else. The promise of creation will unfold, according to the mind of the creator, in such a way that each aspect of creation depends on all others. The earth itself, as well as all its creatures, human and non-human, is an appeal to all else to play its part in its unfolding. As the earth sources our lives as animals and humans, so we are to respond by caring for it, and for each other with tenderness.
Pope Francis says that it is a misreading of Genesis to hear it as a call to dominate the earth. Yet, from the beginning this “misreading” has informed human actions. Adam and Eve are free to eat of all of the fruit that God provides but are not to take that fruit of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” It is of the divinely established order of life that all we need is given to us; to be truly human is to willingly and gratefully receive what we need from “the hand” of its source. Yet, when we do not remain in our true place, when we violently take what is not ours to have, we create chaos and havoc. We begin to deplete and destroy a creation that is not of our making. We initiate a cycle of greed and violence that perpetuates itself and strengthens over time. We forget who we really are and what our actual place is in the universe. It is at this point that life becomes a struggle and a battle.
Recently I was reading from a book of the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips entitled Going Sane. In a chapter on the place of money in our lives, he comments on a passage from the economist John Maynard Keynes in which Keynes discusses the deformation of human consciousness that occurs when money becomes a primary value. Keynes wrote that “When the accumulation of wealth is no longer of high social importance . . . We shall be able to rid ourselves of many of the pseudo-moral principles that have hagridden us for two hundred years, by which we have exalted some of the most distasteful human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.” Keynes raises a very vital psychological and spiritual question. What has our unbridled sense of the virtue of wealth accumulation done to our human consciousness? Is such a “virtue,” an inherently violent act that separates us from the caring and tender relationship with each other and creation to which we are called by Reality itself?
Adam and Eve sin by violating the nature of things. The earth provides for each of us and for us all. Yet when we take, and even worse begin to accumulate, what is not ours then we violate the earth and the natural order. There is all that is necessary to support all of life, but at the point we demand to have more than our share, we introduce the “most distasteful human qualities’: greed, anger, resentment, xenophobia, and violence.
The creation accounts of Genesis describe the world according to the mind of its Creator. It is a place of bounty, of promise, of gift, of tenderness and care. it is, in its essence, a call to human creatures with free will to will to care tenderly for the earth and all that is in it. From the moment of our birth we are in need of connection. We desire to be held and to be cared for. We need to evoke the tenderness and care of the adults around us. When Jesus says we are to be as children, does he perhaps mean that we are to keep alive that desire in us as we mature? Perhaps that desire tells us who we are called to be for the earth and for all others. Are we not called to be tillers of nature, of the possibility inherent in every person we meet and the world that we live in?
The forces of culture and nature can and do over time distance us, make us forgetful of our true place in the world. As Keynes pointed out, our desire to accumulate wealth has deformed and contorted our very sense of virtue. We have become the rich man, Dives, who builds a wall to defend his way of life and so that he cannot have to see the poor man, Lazarus, at his gate. By making the securing of our own possessions paramount, we have “exalted some of the most distasteful human qualities into the position of the highest virtues.”
One way back to finding our place in the world is to “tear down that wall.” It is step by small step to move back toward the natural world and the human other from whom we have distanced ourselves. It is to dare to re-experience the desire and longing for connection, closeness, and tenderness that we knew as children. How today, in some small way, can we till and cultivate the earth and the world? Can we take a moment to till hope, peace, life in another who needs us? Can we quiet ourselves for a moment to hear a bird sing or the wind blow through the trees or to feel the earth under our feet that we might recover, for an instant, our connection to the physical universe? Can we practice a simple act of detachment and letting go of something we want but don’t need for the sake of those whose needs are unmet? Perhaps we can begin, in such small but real steps, to remember who we really are and our true place in creation. We can become the human persons to till the earth that lies in wait for our care, so that God’s future for our earth can be fulfilled.
Late in May as the light lengthens
toward summer the young goldfinches
flutter down through the day for the first time
to find themselves among fallen petals
cradling their day’s colors in the day’s shadows
of the garden beside the old house
after a cold spring with no rain
not a sound comes from the empty village
as I stand eating the black cherries
from the loaded branches above me
saying to myself Remember this
W. S. Merwin, Garden Time