Clare McBrien, a sister of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary, was invited to the Our Common Ground program because of her close connection with the land in southwest Virginia, where she has made her home for the last 35 years. Clare is an artist and an avid gardener who has developed once-barren land around her home into a place when one can notice and contemplate the beauty of Earth.
We invited Clare to present her story on two evenings, after which participants were invited to reflect on any personal connections they made with what she had to say.
Clare, along with three other nuns, went to Appalachia as missionaries 35 years ago where they were to find out the needs of the people in the area and assist them however they could. Identifying needs meant going out into the countryside and meeting people. As they did this she was struck both by the beauty of the people and the mountains around them.
Her first realization was that the mountains had been raped for lumber and for mining. In particular, mountain-top removal had had devastating effects on the land, water and people, both economically and emotionally. Early on she was involved in a study at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee to document who owns Appalachia. She learned through studying deeds in the Bland County Court House that a whole bunch of mining companies held mineral rights to land underneath the homes and farms of local people. They could be dispossessed at any time by mining company claims.
The nuns settled in an old unfinished farm house where the land around it was desolate. Local people helped them fix up the house and brought plantings that would grow on the land around it. The more she listened to them, the more she became aware of their deep devotion to the land. She became curious: What was the basis for their love?
After some years, the colleagues who had come to Appalachia with her decided to move on to other callings. She was going to be living alone for the first time in her life, and she wasn't sure how she would handle this.
An opportunity arose for her to become an ecology educator and pursue her desire to learn more about humans' relationship to Earth. She went to Genesis Farm in New Jersey where she studied the new Universe Story with Miriam MacGillis at Genesis Farm.
A transformational moment for her occurred during a ritual for the first day of spring at the farm. The group built a snow circle and tapped maple trees. There was a fire in the center of the circle where the sap could be boiled down for syrup, but first the celebrants in the ritual drank sap from a cup. The ritual brought people closer together and closer to Earth. It also helped her decide that she wanted to live in a place with four seasons and mountains surrounding her. When she returned home, she realized she was not really alone despite the absence of her colleagues. There was a whole community of plants and animals she knew nothing about and she was part of the Earth community. Her spirituality grew during that time as she came to appreciate that we are more than sisters and brothers. In our culture we are schooled to believe we are separate from one another and from Earth but we are all Earth in the shape of humans. Everything is connected.
Many participants reflected on their relationship the land and especially to trees. One person acknowledged that she really never paid attention to them while others appreciated their importance. One told of an incident where on a blazing hot day in the Bronx, a tree adjacent to her house that her husband had saved from being cut down, shaded people from punishing heat. That is only one service that trees provide us.
There was some conversation about mountain-top removal and strip mining, leaving the land gray and lifeless. One recalled growing up in a place where she spent many hours as a child gazing at a mountain out of a window. It was a meditative experience that took her out of herself and formed the rudiments of prayer. Returning home years later, she looked out that window and discovered t her dismay that there was only a stump of a mountain left. It had been flattened by mining. She was incredulous – people got sustenance and water from that mountain and the damage, which was never repaired, affects everyone. All done for profit.
Clare told us that nowadays people in the area do not have much time for gardening. They work two or three low-paying jobs to survive. Fast food eateries and hotels are the basis of the economy. People in the group found this news almost as bad as mountain-top removal.
Clare made a theological point toward the end of the conversation. She cited the Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin's contention that everything in the universe is governed by four principles – attraction, connection, complexity and consciousness. Amid the diversity of the elements in the universe, relationship is everything, all is connected.
Dialogue participants were moved to remember the wonders of nature, the sunrise and sunset, the stars at night, breezes going through a tree. One said she was making a practice of noticing trees and thanking them and another admitted to being a tree hugger as a child.
The mountain-top removal and mining rights issues led people to talk about capitalism and the many industrial systems lined up to exploit the land. There were appreciations of indigenous people who have not lost their understanding of Earth to the extent most Western people have. One recalled an indigenous woman who pointed out that Europeans came here to take something away.
Our task is to become more conscious. We are all artists, endowed with imagination and creativity and art is one way we can expand consciousness.
Because of all the obstacles to a respectful relationship to Earth in the present day, we can be overwhelmed and feel helpless. Clare quoted theologian Sallie McFague to remind us that we don't need to take on everything that's amiss in the world. We are only called to do one piece of the quilt.
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