The month of November marks the ending of one church year and the beginning of the next. This juxtaposition of beginnings and endings provides us with an opportunity to stop and reflect – to pay attention to ourselves as situated in a particular time and space.
Our aboriginal brothers and sisters would have been aware of the changing season as an invitation to focus on the north and the season of winter. The north direction is the place that offers a time for hibernation in the earth – for sleep and renewal, reflection and turning inward during the long, cold months and dark days of winter.
When we focus on the gift of this season and turn attention to the element of earth, we can begin to see the gift of the various forms of earth, of soil, rock, clay, sand, dust, mud, mineral and stone. Joyce Valters Paintner, in her book Water, Wind, Earth & Fire, explains that earth symbolizes the necessities and commitments of our lives, our limitations as well as our possibilities. The word humility, Paintner says, comes from the root humus, which means earth. Holding an attitude of humility allows us to be in touch with our own earthiness, our need to be rooted and grounded in order to be fruitful in our lives.
There are images of earth throughout Holy Scripture. Jesus used many metaphors of earth in his teachings. He told stories of farmers, vineyard owners, of planting and harvesting, of trees and fields. The image of the tree being life-giving is a dominant motif in Scripture, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden. The tree symbolizes the interconnectedness of all creation. In Genesis God creates human beings from the dust of the ground and places them in the Garden of Eden. God supplied Adam and Eve with trees of every kind, pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden, God set the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Eve learned, from her tasting of the forbidden fruit, the consequences of disturbing the natural order of the beautiful garden.
Gardens are also significant images in Scripture. We read of vineyards and vineyard owners, and fig trees that wither and don’t produce fruit. At the end of Jesus’ life, he goes to the garden of Gethsemane. This garden was the site of his deepest prayers. Gardens can be places of meticulously planned and manicured beauty or wild and unkempt places that seem to call to birds and rabbits and squirrels to gather and feast.
The image of mountain is another earthy image from Scripture. Noah’s ark came to rest on a mountain. Moses encountered God and received the Ten Commandments atop a mountain. Mountains, as Paintner suggests, cause us to stretch our imaginations upward in celebration of a transcendent God who creates with such glory and majesty. We may speak of “mountaintop experiences” as those times when our experiences lead us to look beyond our ordinary perception to a new grasp of some truth or a new experience of a transcendent God.
The element of earth also reminds us of our own “earthiness” and our mortality.
The element of earth also reminds us of our own “earthiness” and our mortality. When we stop to reflect on this earthiness, we begin to see that our attempts to fill our lives with things and busyness and power will all come to an end at some point and these things will fade away. This movement from the preoccupation of filling our lives to the desert of letting go is part of our ongoing conversion. Conversion, Paintner reminds us, is the process of discovering that God is always much bigger than we imagined and that our own attempts at filling our lives with things and busyness and power look very small in comparison.
This changing of seasons and movement towards winter helps us to focus on the death and limitation that are necessary elements of earth. But there is always more, Paintner assures us. From this death, from the dark soil, will spring forth new shoots, flowers, trees, birds, the return of the sun and the days that grow longer. In the meantime, this time before us offers us an opportunity to set our busyness aside and be present to the God of all creation and keeper of our hearts.
You may wish to take some contemplative walks to experience the element of earth. As you walk notice what is capturing your attention in the world around you – what lies in the path before you. Notice what is inviting you to spend more time and accept the invitation. Paintner offers the following suggestions for a meditative walk:
Focus on what you are noticing in your body and in nature. Ask yourself, “I wonder why this captures my imagination? I wonder what this thing I have noticed has to do with my life?” As you return think about what has happened to you on this journey. What are the questions and stirrings that linger with you? Then share a meal with friends, which celebrates the goodness of earth’s bounty.
Taste and see that the Lord is good. Ps. 34:8