Revolutionary carrots? Transformational potatoes? After a talk with Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis, the spiritual aspect of food seems less an esoteric abstraction than an everyday delight. Restoring the connection between earth, food and humans is not only Sister MacGillis’ personal mission, it’s her job (she’s the director of Genesis Farm, a 180-acre educational center and subscription organic garden in New Jersey). Inspired by the work of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme on a New Cosmology, Sister MacGillis is exploring the idea of a new creation story that can inspire a deep sense of human connection with both the earth and the entire universe. MacGillis visits Asheville May 9-11 to participate in Food As Sacred: A Weekend Exploration, sponsored by the Jubilee! Earth Team and local nonprofit Holy Ground (see box).
Mountain Xpress: What part does food play in our connection with earth and spirit?
Sister MacGillis: Food is our link to the mystery of existence. We literally eat ourselves into being. If we stop eating, drinking, taking in the whole gift of creation, we die. Photosynthesis is the basis of life on earth. And because every atomic structure in the universe has a quantum realm, that realm comes with it. It’s all one. So we are also eating the spiritual substance of food.
If food is vital and alive, then we feed our souls, minds and emotional life. Not only am I feeding my soul, but it tastes, smells and looks wonderful. When we eat dead food, there’s no connection. Whether the food is really dead or it’s the result of abusive ways of farming — forcing earth to do what it can’t do on its own, which is the whole basis of industrial agriculture — that grieves us.
Since we eat constantly, food is a way in, a way for people to experience connection. And connection can trigger a transformation or even a revolutionary stance toward the way the earth is being harmed by industrial agriculture — from genetic manipulation to animal abuse. How can we feed our souls eating that food?
MX: Is there a historical basis for Christians to view the earth as sacred? How do you respond to the “God gave us dominion over the earth” argument?
SM: There are many biblical references to the beauty and goodness of nature and the concept of stewardship. But there is nothing which questions the basic assumption of Western thought — that humans are fundamentally separate from nature, exclusively predestined to a transcendent afterlife. What I tend to feel is that when Christians try to find a scriptural basis or model for ecological ethics, they are putting an enormous amount of energy to find in the text what is more powerfully found in the original text, which is God’s creation. I mean, just look there. Why insist on finding it in the pages?
It isn’t that the biblical tradition doesn’t have imagery. What it doesn’t have is a sense of deep time — which is fundamentally different, and way more powerful, than any notion of stewardship. The greatest problem is when people of faith don’t have any real understanding of the evolution of the universe. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for literalist Christians to look at the story of evolution and say, “My God, this is the sacred text! It’s so holy; it’s revealing so much about the mind of God.” It may be they don’t understand evolution. They’ve never had an opportunity, because any talk of it has been wrapped in Darwinism as evil and outside the word of God. Yet they will sit down and operate computers and work in high-tech industries that are based on new understandings about how the world works. It’s a conundrum.
MX: How is the concept of “deep time” a greater motivation for you than the idea of earth stewardship?
SM: It’s the revelation of how things came to be and the interconnectedness and the beauty of that. I think of the original energy of the universe moving through changes and articulating itself in the galaxies and stars; like our first star as a supernova bringing forth all the elements which I have in my body. That is so powerful, so illuminating, so humbling, so energizing!
Before I studied this, I was steeped in the Scriptures. I read and prayed the Scriptures every day, was committed to God and a life in God, but I never questioned any of the ecological destruction that was going on as a lack of stewardship. Christian Scriptures are very human-oriented, and that motivated me to love my neighbor, care for the poor, live a life of service for people. But this deep, intuitive connection I’ve felt since childhood with the earth seemed strange, and it certainly wasn’t connected to my vocation as a Christian.
Then I heard a talk by Thomas Berry and realized that we are evolved out of earth and universe, that this was one sequential process, and humans are an expression of the earth in this long line of events that is the story of how the universe came to be. I remember when Berry said, “We are the beings in whom earth has become conscious of itself” and a sense of relief came over me, because I always had this strong sense of connection to the natural world, and I thought I was different or something was wrong with me. It confirmed my deepest intuitions.
MX: You have written that ecological harm is “driven by our abstract ideas of a perfect world.” Could you explain?
SM: This goes back into our biblical stories and traditional cosmology. Since a perfect being could not create an imperfect world, there’s the notion of the Garden [of Eden]. In the Garden, there wouldn’t be anything that is hard or difficult for the human; there would be no death, no pain.
Now, what we have is imperfect happiness: We die, we have sickness. What we have now has undergone some massive shift since life in the perfect Garden. This is implanted in the Western mind. And traditionally, the answer is: We caused it. So it’s going to take an enormous act of God to restore the perfect world, and that will be End Times. Then the perfect world returns with a new heaven and a new earth, no more weeping, no more death, sickness, etc. This is a deep theme in the biblical world view.
We live our Western history, as Thomas Berry points out, with this expectation of a perfect world being restored. And the desire, the yearning for liberation out of anything painful or difficult, drives everything we do in terms of science and technology. There is this abstract concept of putting perfection back into earth. Perfection is an abstraction! Who has seen perfect? Yet look how it drives us: the perfect car, the perfect body, the perfect house, the perfect food, the perfect job, the perfect cure for cancer…
MX: And what’s the antidote to perfect?
SM: The antidote to perfect is we have to let go of this childish fairy tale — of longing for freedom from life. We have to accept life as it has been granted to us, as gift. So the only real antidote I have is the story itself, that there can’t be a universe without struggle, without chaos, without pain and suffering. You can’t have consciousness without the process of it being embodied in a universe that is still becoming itself. As it is becoming itself, it is also leaving itself behind. So chaos, change, is the very process God is using to create an ever-more-complex and beautiful creation. Once you quit seeing the process as abnormal, as punishment or temporary, the universe opens up, and things like death, work, effort become mysteries to be lived instead of feared.
Food as Sacred: A Weekend Exploration
with Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis of Genesis Farm
Here’s the schedule for the weekend:
• Friday, May 9 Luncheon
11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
“Breaking Bread: Personal and Social Transformation”
(Jubilee! Community, $20)
• Saturday, May 10 Workshop
9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“Communities of Transformation: Growing Food, Health and Homeland Security”
(Groce United Methodist Church, $25 – includes lunch)
• Saturday, May 10 Evening Presentation
“The Story of Genesis Farm: A CSA and Learning Center for Healing Earth”
(Warren Wilson College, Canon Lounge – free)
• Sunday afternoon, May 11
Mother’s Day picnic
(Warren Wilson College gardens, box lunches available for $10)
For more information, call Holy Ground at 236-0222.