The Human Vocation as Keepers of the Space
Talk given at Meditatio Sydney April 2016
In this talk I suggest that the human vocation as keepers of the space means that we are meant to live as conscious creatures collaborating with nature for whole earth flourishing. How? By growing in consciousness to become a nurturing human presence within the comprehensive earth community, recognising the earth and ourselves together as one bio-spiritual reality. I suggest that meditation is a spiritual practice that grows the contemplative consciousness that transforms our complex desires; that teaches us the necessity of limits such that we will secure spaces for other than human life to live unharmed by us.
And I’ll use story as way of exploring these ideas.
When I was a kid our house, down on the south coast, was one of only a few in the area. There was bush in front and behind us. To get to the beach we’d go down through the bush on the headland along a track that wound around various rocks and tree stumps. It was narrow. We would walk or run depending on how good the surf was and what was going on and do it many times a day; so much so that we could run bare foot knowing where every rock and tree root was located. And then at the end of the track we’d emerge onto the beach, to the open space of the ocean. And I remember once sitting on the beach, on my own and experiencing the whole place as my house; the sky as blanket and the beach as bed and a sense of the vastness but also the at home-ness. I guess children naturally experience this contemplative intimacy with creation.
I think I was filled with the sense that it was all so very precious in an unself-conscious way and in the naivety of the child that it was always going to be like this; it was perfect. And then when I was about 9 or so the ‘For Sale’ signs started to pop up in the bush and on the head land. Little did I realise as a young girl that this space of the bush was already broken up into what would become blocks of land for sale. For me it was a whole place, a whole space but of course for the real estate agent it was something to be divided up and sold off. And so I started pulling the signs out and pushing them over because I didn’t want the bush destroyed. I wanted to protect the bush, to keep it, I loved it. I guess I considered myself unconsciously or naively as a keeper of that space.
The human vocation as keepers of the space means that we are meant to live as part of the whole earth community in a way that secures spaces for both human and other-than-human life to flourish. It means that we are called to collaborate with the rest of creation, to be co-creative, to know ourselves not as consumers but rather as human beings who recognize our place within ‘the dynamics of the planet rather than placing the planet within the dynamics of the human.’ Our meaning is to be found not in our capacity to consume but rather in our potential to grow in conscious life-giving love.
It’s said that we are living in a time between stories, namely the religious story and the scientific story. Now we are in a time of the emerging Universe story.
One of the founding stories of our culture however is that of the creation narrative of Genesis. Story is an important way of discerning meaning. There is a significant and rich vein of meaning in the Genesis story for us today. This creation story is a primal poetic narrative of meaning rather than fact. It is the meaning that matters for us at this stage of our evolutionary journey.
So this evening I will use the story as the starting point for exploring our vocation as keepers of the space in the context of our present ecological reality and the ways in which the practice of meditation enables that vocation through the choice for simplicity and self-limiting.
The story begins with God opening up space for creation and various spaces for various types of creatures. Light or day and dark or night, give a rhythm and differentiation to the cycle of life, the ocean becomes inhabited by sea creatures, the solid ground by vegetation and land creatures, the air by sky creatures. The creation is born and becomes teeming with life evolving over great periods of time to produce a multitude of various forms of plants and creatures from the most microscopic microbe to dinosaurs and eventually us, the human being. And here we are today at this point in our evolutionary journey, our cosmic walk.
There is a beautiful kind of rhythmic, unfolding sense in this story. Punctuated by the fluidity, uncertainty and creativity of necessary chaos and at the same time suggesting a natural order and direction of life in all its vastness, we are reminded that we are but a small, albeit significant part of the journey of the universe. And here we are today confronted by our incredible power for good, but also for destruction. We are most certainly at a moment of crisis. We are at an ecological tipping point – a hugely dangerous time. Our task, this evening and every day, is to bring about a tipping point of consciousness; a major shift in the human psyche such that we will live differently, relate anew with the other-than-human creation, recognise our essential vocation to be keepers of the space, creatures who live out our responsibility to live in dynamic equilibrium within the sheltering agent of the earth. For, as Rowan Williams has said, the environmental crisis is a crisis of the human vocation.
What do I mean by space? Well we have the space inside this room, this city, the space of this country Australia. Or we speak in terms such as ‘head space’ or the space of the heart. We might also consider the space of various cultures. These are different spaces, but they are spaces within spaces, in the spiral of life where all is connected. Spaces consisting not of ‘nothing’ but of the warp and weft of relationships. Ecology is the study of these relationships. So this weekend we might say we are studying spiritual ecology.
The Genesis story makes this point. Space is not homogenous. The story tells, amongst other things, of creation as various ecosystems. Atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere and pedosphere.
Bearing in mind the reality of natural adaptation that generally occurs over long periods of time, fish can’t live on dry ground, kangaroos need solid earth, trees do not grow in the air. The story says that there are particular kinds of habitat for particular kinds of creatures. And they are different. There is great and complex diversity in creation.
For instance, down the coast from here there is a small, remnant area of a particular type of forest called Bangalay Sand Forest. This is the home of an ecologically endangered community and has recently been part of a bio certification, or kind of land swap, in order to allow a new housing development to take place. To many people it probably seems like just another bit of bush, but in fact it is a very particular kind of bush; a very particular kind of habitat. We however, homo sapiens, have evolved in a way that makes it possible for us to live anywhere. We have become creatures that no longer see any limits. The economic system that runs us is entirely constructed on the myth of endless capital growth. We identify ourselves as consumers. And so we encroach upon the space, the habitat of other life. We do this by either literally building on it, or by degrading it through pollution and other destructive activities. We also seem incapable of recognising the limits of human population growth. And so we are crowding out the life upon which we seem to have forgotten we are dependant. Remember our creation story - the conditions upon which our life is contingent must first be present for us to exist at all. And yet rather than living graciously and gratefully for this we live as dominators and controllers of the earth space. Its time now we recognize the habitat of all species as having inalienable rights.
So, what to do? How to be human at such a time as this? We know we can’t keep on the same trajectory yet we are running out of time to change tack. The problem many suggest is one that can only be solved at the spiritual level. In other words, the necessary transformation must be at the deepest level of the human being. This takes intention and practice.
So let’s explore what this may look like.
The Genesis story has God allowing, opening up spaces for the forms of life that came before us. “Let there be” ...he or she says, and so it is. Eventually God says let us make humankind in our image. And here could go down another track by exploring this word ‘us’ in relation to God but that will have to be for another time. Suffice to say that it seems to reveal that the essential nature of God, of reality is that of relationship, of an ‘us’, a community, not a collection of individuals. Thomas Berry speaks in terms of a “communion of subjects.”
So God says let us make humankind, in our image. Here is the essential signification of the human being. All creation is good. Yet human beings are made in the very image of God. Our vocation as human being has a particular quality. It is said that the activity of God in creation is that of self-emptying. God gives up some space for creation. God limits God-self for others, for us, for life in all its forms. This is sacrificial love. It is this self-emptying love that we are called to live. We must recognize limits – to make or secure space for others such that the whole earth community may flourish together.
“The human task” says Rowan Williams, is “to draw out potential treasures in the powers of nature and so to realise the convergent process of humanity and nature discovering in collaboration what they can become. The 'redemption' of people and material life in general is not a matter of resigning from the business of labour and of transformation – as if we could – but the search for a form of action that will preserve and nourish an interconnected development of humanity and its environment. In some contexts, this will be the deliberate protection of the environment from harm: in a world where exploitative and aggressive behaviour is commonplace, one of the 'providential' tasks of human beings must be to limit damage and to secure space for the natural order to exist unharmed. “
In the Genesis story, humanity is given the task of tilling, keeping, the Garden of Eden, this magnificent, wondrous earth garden.
How then do we do we do this in a collaborative way? For this is at the heart of the human vocation; our collaboration with the Creator and all creation in the unfolding dynamic of life in its essential goodness in the direction of renewal and fulfilment.
What is a form of action that will help to preserve and nourish our interconnected life? How do we consciously choose to limit our damage of the space of the other?
I’d like now to turn to the practice of meditation as an underlying form of action; a form of activity or work in and of itself. And a contemplative practice that enables our practical action for the common good in a non-violent way, peaceful way. Meditation is a practice that heals our exploitative and aggressive behaviour.
It seems to me that one of the most direct relationships between our practice of meditation and effect on the environment is that meditation simplifies us, an essential teaching of John Main, and teaches us limits.
When we meditate we keep our attention on the mantra. We choose to limit, or keep our attention on the one thing. When we first begin we are confronted by the chaos of our thoughts. But over time that commitment to keep saying the mantra – to attend to that one thing begins to bear the fruit of simplicity.
We are complex creatures driven by desire, by competing desires. The practice of meditation simplifies or clarifies our desire such that we realize that the many things we want (with the consequent impact on the environment that supplies everything we have) are ultimately not the answer to a fulfilling life. The desire for many things is in part driven by an economic system that needs us to stay in this state of eternally unfillable desire so that we will keep going back to buy more stuff.
Meditation heals us through this simplifying process. It heals our vision, our dualism. We no longer see the creation as a commodity to be consumed but rather we see reality as it is.... we recognize that whole earth community of which we are a part. And we live as though the other matters. We live as though the other matters because through meditation we return to our own centre and, as John Main says, we ‘discover that being reconnected with our own centre reconnects us with every centre. ‘The truly spiritual person’, he says ‘learns first of all to live in harmony with themselves and then to live in harmony with the whole of creation’. The fundamental simplicity of the practice of meditation simplifies us, integrates us, by bringing us into our centre – the centre that is everywhere. John Main suggests that in fact this is the ‘first responsibility of every life that would be fully human – to return to our own centre and to live out of the depths of our own profound capacity for life.’
So, our human vocation is to first enter into those depths from where we may act as life-givers rather than death-dealers. This interior space, this depth, is the centre that is everywhere.
In meditation we keep the interior space by staying still and silent – and we discover that we are kept in being by the ultimate keeper of the space. We give ourselves to the one thing which by grace opens up the experience of that peace and rest for which the human heart longs. We become satisfied with simple things.
In this talk I’ve referred to story to help us understand the importance of the particular spaces for particular habitats that make up the great Global Commons, our role, to inhabit the earth spaces, ecosystems, according to the distinctive gift and responsibility of human consciousness, securing space for other life, the practice of meditation as a pathway of that simplicity and peace that may heal our aggressive and exploitative tendencies. I’ve spoken of meditation as a choice to self- limit.
We must act now. We don’t have the luxury of time. The earth is groaning, suffering under the weight of our exploitation of her. We must take significant meaningful action now. However, our action will be more truthful, sustainable and peaceful when it is supported by contemplative practice.
In the end to be a keeper of the space is to be a lover. To love the particular spaces and the whole space, to love it all; those microbes we can’t see, the gnarled old roots of a community of she-oaks that we walk or run through, a single needle of a she-oak, octopus and whales, the forests, oceans, rivers, the way slanted sunlight falls across grasslands in the evening, the sound of the laughter of children and kookaburras, all of it singing together in that harmony of Life of which we are a part – to love it all, and to keep it, it’s as simple and as difficult as that.