For thousands of years most human beings drew their daily living from, and made sense of their lives in reference to, the land. Growing and finding food, along with the multiple practices of home maintenance and the cultivations of communities, were the abiding concerns that shaped what people understood about and expected from life. In Agrarian Spirit (August 2022), Norman Wirzba demonstrates how agrarianism is of vital and continuing significance for spiritual life today. Far from being the exclusive concern of a dwindling number of farmers, this book shows how agrarian practices are an important corrective to the political and economic policies that are doing so much harm to our society and habitats. It is an invitation to the personal transformation that equips all people to live peaceably and beautifully with each other and the land.
To admit to being a creature is to appreciate one’s finitude and need, and to know that we do not live from out of ourselves but must constantly receive from others the power and nurture that animate our being. It is to acknowledge that we are not self-possessed or in control of our lives but, as rooted beings, live by the mercies and blessings of what our neighborhoods make possible. It is to realize that our bodies are not self-contained and self-propelling entities, but sites of ongoing exposure to and vulnerability before others. This is a heartening discovery that introduces us to the kinship of life and to a realization of what we might call the fundamentally hospitable character of this world that is populated by so many beautiful sights, pleasing sounds, reassuring touches, fragrant aromas, and delectable flavors. But it can also be discomforting because one realizes that a habitat’s creatures and processes are not always or exclusively tailored to satisfy our specific pleasures and preferences.
The effort to plumb the depths of human existence is sometimes characterized as a mystical pursuit in which people seek to understand the mysterious source and ground of reality. It is, in certain respects, an uncommon pursuit because it requires of people a concerted effort to move beyond surface appearances of reality and their packaged and (increasingly) marketed forms. It requires that people not take themselves or their world for granted, but work to interrogate the difference between life as they want it to be and life as it is. This is a difficult pursuit insofar as people must learn to shed the ideas and attachments that prevent apprehension of the real, which is why mystics sometimes speak of entering a cloud of unknowing on the way to a more genuine “knowing” of the conditions for the possibility of any life at all.
Berry does not write as a self-professing mystic. Even so, I think we can develop Berry’s spiritual ambition to belong and be entirely at home in his place by putting it in conversation with mystical ways of understanding. How does his ambition and his affirmation that he grows out of his place challenge and potentially correct how we characterize a mystical path? Insofar as Berry’s aim is not up and away (into a cloud) but down and around (into the soil), his is not a mystical ascent but rather a descent into the literal ground that is the material and dynamic site of his livelihood. What we might call an agrarian mysticism introduces us to the dark night of the soil because it reframes and reorients the mind (and heart) as a root system that grows ever more deeply into the soil that is the source of life’s nurture. This is a journey that seeks an intimate knowledge of forests, fields, watersheds, and skies, but also regions, neighborhoods, and communities, and then sympathetic attunement to the human and non-human communities that live within them. If our aim is to plumb the enabling conditions of our embodied life, we must focus our attention down and around because it is among rhizomes and rivers, bees and butterflies, bakers and builders, and then also within the complex processes of germination, decomposition, making, and neighborliness (to name a few) that life’s nurturing contexts are prepared. If our aim is to encounter the grace and gratuity of life’s happening, and thereby come to the realization that this life is a sacred gift, then it is to this world and not some other that we must turn.
For some, casting a spiritual life as a descent into earthly neighborhoods will appear counterintuitive since so much spiritual writing charts the path to transcendence as an upward journey. This is a mistake. Scripture does not reveal a god who is distant and aloof. It presents God as the One who is constantly coming near and becoming involved in the lives of creatures as a nurturing, healing, and justice-working presence. Recall that Christian scripture begins with God kissing and breathing a divine breath into creatures, animating them from within, and then ends with God descending to earth to make a divine home among mortals. Insofar as our spiritual lives are to be patterned on God’s own life, our aim ought to be live with others in ways that make God’s creative and loving ways incarnate here and now. From a scriptural point of view, the thought that the destination of our spiritual ambition ought to be somewhere beyond earth is misguided because God’s orientation, especially as revealed in the becoming flesh and becoming practical in the life of Jesus, is down, around, and with creatures in their places. The “beyond” implied by transcendence, in other words, is not opposed to immanence, but refers us to the unfathomable and mysterious divine power moving within creation. If we seek to be with God, then creation ought to be our focus and destination.