Nature Theology

Lectio divina, translated as “divine reading,” is an ancient practice of reading and hearing a sacred text in which the words are received as a source for reflection, letting the words speak to you and deepen your awareness of their many meanings. Another practice exists called visio divina or “divine seeing” where images, such as icons, stained glass, and the material arts, are received visually as a source of reflection instead of words. With lectio divina you listen with the ear of your heart, with visio divina you see with the eyes of your soul. On this Earth Day, another way to practice visio divina is by going outside, viewing what you see as a reflection of the sacred.

In my work in hospice and palliative care, I meet patients who are in nursing facilities or homebound and can no longer go outside. Many can only go up or down stairs with great difficulty, if at all. Some patients remain entirely in bed for the day. Family caregivers are often elderly or physically limited and cannot move about easily. Being able to open the door, go outside, and encounter the world is a pleasure and a freedom that we may not always have.

In Buddhism there is a term, “sympathetic joy,” this is the joy you feel when someone else experiences joy. It’s a good, good feeling. When you hear someone laugh, it makes you laugh. When you see people reunite after being apart for a long time, hugging each other, beaming, and just radiating love, you get that warm feeling, too. I don’t think you can experience this on the internet in quite the same way. You need to be around people or you need to be outside. Time online involves the eyes and the brain. Time between people is alive, holy, and unpredictable. Time outside is spacious, inwardly and outwardly. The experience involves all of your senses—you feel the wind around you, smell the earthy smells. You see new things, or familiar things noticed in a new way. You hear the birds and other creatures engaged in the activity of life. Ideas, memories, and possibilities appear. When you’re out on a walk, your body is in motion; you’re not sitting still in front of a screen, all eyes and amygdala.

Also, it just feels good to go outside. Taking a walk outside, you are likely to experience sympathetic joy, especially if you walk by a park where children are playing. Children play, and they are just glorying in this play. They make up games and imagine stories that they live out, right in front of you, usually oblivious to you. What freedom. They climb random things & jump from them, shriek in delight, and run around berserk for the pure pleasure of it. Being around this activity, just walking by, makes you feel that playfulness and delight. You share in their experience. As the saying goes, “shared sorrow is half sorrow; shared joy is twice joy.”

As part of Maria’s Earth Day celebration, the Mercy and Justice Committee created a map so that you can explore campus, especially the new green space, and just be outside and wander around, making discoveries. The campus garden, created by members of the Occupational Therapy program, is on the map. The Honest Weight Kitchen is also on the map if you haven’t gone there yet. Like going to a library or a park, coffeeshops are solo/social environments where you can go by yourself and at the same time be in the company of others. You might see someone studying for a class you’re in and this can be an opportunity to commiserate and make friends. You can just watch people if you want. You’re likely to see someone happy to receive a coffee or a treat. You can share in their delight when you see it, sympathetic joy.

Until writing this, I’ve never used the word joy so much in my life. My sister said I would name my first child “Joy” if that says anything about my usual worldview. In one of Flannery O’ Connor’s short stories, works not known for their sentimentality, one of the characters changes her name from “Joy” (last name “Hopewell”) to “Hulga,” and I’ve always thought of this person as someone I would like to know in real life. Nevertheless, joy is available to us, usually when we are with other people, and especially when we go outside. There is just something about spring that connotes joy, especially a spring that comes after a long winter.

Tara Flanagan, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Maria College


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