The Blessing of Being Down to Earth
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, May 29, 2005
There are lots of places we all start yearning to be at this time of year, as May verges on June, and as the sun (on occasion, at least) starts shining a little more warmly. With the approach of summer, our spirits might shine just a little more brightly, too. Even the most deskbound of us start wanting to be outside more, for one thing, in the yard, or on the water, by the edge of a favorite lake or pond. Down to earth and back to the earth—that’s where we want to be—outside, in the woods, or in the garden perhaps…
As I was growing up, I didn’t spend a lot of time out of doors, and I’ve always felt the poorer for it. I’ve always felt kind of deprived in that way. I was a city boy, and I spent my free time in movie theaters and libraries—which were good, as far as they went. But they weren’t outside. Whatever images of nature I had tended to come from the flickering black and white picture of the television screen.
But I do remember my grandmother’s flower garden…
It would have been a lovely spot anywhere, but it was especially glorious, I think, situated there, in that rather non-descript, somewhat rundown, working class neighborhood in Woonsocket, Rhode Island where I grew up:
The colors—lavenders and golds and deep violet blues—and lots and lots of pink, I seem to remember—all upheld by a sturdy, resilient foundation of life-giving green. And the smell—the scent of it all—jasmine and lilac; the aristocratic perfume of roses; and the almost overpowering aroma of the long, continuous carpets of chamomile, which my grandmother would grow, and harvest, and hang to dry, and from which she would make her own teas.
A truly amazing garden of an amazing flower of a woman! With what ease she could make the soil yield such treasures! With what care she tended the blessing of the earth!
My grandmother was not an educated woman. I don’t think she attended school for a day in her life. She never did master English completely, in spite of almost seventy years in this country, and she spoke, till her dying day, with a deep and unmistakable Ukrainian accent.
But she was a wise old soul—so very hard working—a success at whatever she attempted, it seemed. The people around her knew that she was wise. Other members of the Ukrainian community in our city would come to her for advice and counsel, to find out how she felt about some matter they were facing. She wore well the wisdom that comes, not from books and schooling, but rather the deep inner wisdom that comes from being down to earth.
But even my grandmother wasn’t perfect.
I remember sitting with her one evening, watching the news on television. I don’t remember what the particular news story was, but it wasn’t good news. I remember her turning to me at the end of it, and with her thick Eastern European accent at its thickest and most Eastern European, she said: “Jeffrey, do you know what dee problem eez vit dees country?”
“No, babchu,” I answered, “what do you think the problem is?”
And she looked right at me, her eyes steely gray and cold, and she replied: “Too many foreigners!”
She was down to earth. She was wise. But there were connections she didn’t make. She didn’t make the connection between her experience as a foreigner in a strange land at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the experience of refugees and immigrants in our own day. She was so narrow-minded sometimes; so alarmingly prejudiced, and stubborn—as hard as the frozen ground in winter. She failed, too, to make the connection between the marvelous diversity of her garden—with its myriad colors and patterns and shapes—and the very same diversity which our human race exhibits. She did not tolerate differences in people well.
Sometimes, being down to earth just is not enough.
Just before his martyrdom, the fourth century Christian saint Jerome wrote: “I have revered always not crude verbosity, but sancta simplicitas-- holy simplicity.”
A thousand years after St. Jerome, the Bohemian radical Jan Huss, the great precursor of the Protestant Reformation, stood condemned for refusing to countenance the greed and degeneracy of the Church of his own day. As he stood tied to the stake in Prague, Huss saw a simple old peasant approach, emerging out of the crowd, holding high another torch to throw upon the fire, one more piece of timber to keep lit the fires of superstition and hypocrisy. Huss looked at the old peasant, then repeated sadly those words of St. Jerome: “O sancta simplicitas!” Sancta simplicitas—holy simplicity.
Holy simplicity can sometimes be very unholy, indeed…
It may be tempting, sometimes, to want to jettison all of our intellectual sophistication; get rid of all of our book knowledge, our learning, and our theories; to jettison all of this and to return, somehow, to simpler and more primal and direct ways of knowing. Especially when the world seems to have grown too complex for us to handle, and when the complexity of the world puts us in chains and fetters; when it turns us all into vacillating Hamlets, unable to decide what to do, unable to act—then we may well yearn for those seemingly simpler ways.
But sometimes, we need the gifts of reason and intellect and inspired thought to lift our view upward, heavenward; to lift it out toward the expanding universe. Sometime, we need the gifts of thought and reason (even of intellectualization) to envision and explore more human and humane ways of living here upon this Earth. Sometimes, the simple answers just don’t fit any more in a world that has grown so complex.
The “good old days” probably weren’t so good after all. And there’s just no way to go home again to simpler times. What are we to do, then, if we are to know who we are and where we stand?
In her delicate, beautiful masterwork, Gift from the Sea, Anne Morrow Lindbergh offers a few suggestions:
Perhaps this is what it means to be “down to earth” in a positive and healthy sense. It doesn’t mean being rude. It doesn’t mean stubbornly clinging to our prejudices. It doesn’t mean refusing to stray from the well worn path we’ve walked down before.
But it does mean ordering our lives so that we are “inwardly attentive”. It means endeavoring to live our lives so that we are attuned to the natural rhythms within ourselves, and within the Earth—the natural ebb and flow of life all around us. Truly to be “down to earth” is to be attuned to the natural rhythms and cycles of the Earth, and also to accept, welcome, and celebrate the mysterious, wonderful diversity of spiritual gifts which this Earth, and this universe, offers unto us.
Ideas are wonderful things. Learning is a magnificent thing. Books can be a real treasure, a storehouse of the excitement and wisdom of the ages, now made accessible for all of us.
But beware the clutter bugs, my friends. In our modern age, especially, where we are so overwhelmed by the sheer size and volume of everything before us, the tendency we have is to clutter things up. Sometimes, our lives, too, can become so cluttered by learning and ideas that it becomes very easy to lose sight of what we actually do think, and how we actually do feel. We can become so cluttered with ideas and intellectualization about life that we are no longer attuned to the living of life.
If we come to a fork in the road, and one path says “To life”, and the other says “To a discussion about life”, should there really be any doubt about down which path we would choose to go? But some of us might not be sure…
Then it becomes our calling to find some way—creative work, prayer, meditation, therapy, a change of vocation, an escape to a cabin in the woods, what have you—some way to get back into life, to get back in tune with the rhythm of life.
But listening for the rhythm of life is not the same as spinning the dial on the radio, hoping to hear that perfectly sweet love ditty one more time. No, it is a deeper and a more challenging rhythm that we are after here: a song of life that knows the joy at the heart of sorrow, and the sorrow that often lies at the heart of joy. Even when we catch that rhythm, and discern it (even vaguely) in our minds and in our souls, that doesn’t make the day to day living of this life necessarily any easier. Knowing the rhythm meant for us can help to make life meaningful; it doesn’t make it easier. Even the summers of our existences will have their torments, after all: rained out picnics; scorching heat (that’s the rumor, anyway); and worst of all, perhaps, mosquitoes. In one of his own more down to earth moments, Ralph Waldo Emerson himself once loosened up enough to warn us: “If we walk in the woods [in summer], we must feed the mosquitoes.”
If our summers have their torments and disasters, how much more difficult the inevitable Februarys or Novembers we must all face. One of the great lessons of the East (and of the Cross) is that pain and tragedy come with the territory of human existence. They are part of the rent we pay for being alive. Those of us living in this perpetually infantile culture of immediate gratification might find that hard to take sometimes. We want it to be easy.
But that is not how the Earth works, and it is not how life works, either. "Life is a lament in one ear and a song in the other", Sean O’Casey once said. But can we do anything other than sing that song at the top of our voices, with fullness of heart?
If life is short (as short it is, at least on this earthly field), then let us love it all the more for its shortness. If we must be worms, then, as Churchill once suggested, let us be glowworms—human glowworms, vibrant, living, loving creatures, a delight to all who witness our work here. Let us be human glowworms with faith and hope and creativity enough to set even the darkest corners of our own gardens ablaze with our passion for the gift of life, and our love for this Earth which has brought us to birth!