Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Ecology and Homekeeping: Gladdening our Hearts

Most Americans think of February 2 as Groundhog Day. Much is made of Pennsylvania’s Punxsutawney Phil and whether he sees his shadow. Here in Nebraska, where we are often blessed with some noticeably warm sunshine at the beginning of February, we have our own Unadilla Bill. Even if it leads to a prediction of six more weeks of winter, it’s hard to feel bad about a sunny Nebraska day at the beginning of February.

In the Church, February 2 is the Presentation of our Lord, when we remember Mary and Joseph presenting the baby Jesus at the temple forty days after his birth. Luke’s account of this event tells about Simeon and Anna recognizing the baby as the Savior, the Messiah. This day is also known as the Purification of Saint Mary the Virgin, and as Candlemas.

This point forty days after the Nativity is midway between the dates we use now for the beginning of winter and the beginning of spring. Some old calendars considered this to be the beginning of spring, and in places with milder winters, early February does seem like the beginning of spring. Even here in Nebraska, we begin to see the earliest signs of winter’s end. Flocks of geese were in the sky around Grand Island on Sunday, and we know the first migrating cranes will arrive soon. The days are noticeably longer, the sunlight feels warmer, and sunny days usually bring about some thawing of ice and snow.

The folk traditions around this time of year involve not only trying to predict exactly when winter will end and spring begin, but also have some elements of purification and preparation for new life. We think of spring cleaning as something to do when winter is definitely gone, but the tradition of spring cleaning probably shares it origins with the early February blessing of new candles and preparation for spring. Spring cleaning is something we no longer practice with the gusto of previous generations, but it wasn’t long ago that the work of thoroughly cleaning and airing everything in the home was essential after a long winter in close quarters heated by coal, wood, corn cobs, or dung. Good homekeeping was necessary for both survival and comfort.

The root ‘eco-‘, as in ‘ecology’, refers to an environment or habitat, and comes from the Greek root for house or household. The question of the relationship between human beings and our natural environment, God’s good creation, is in a way a question of housekeeping or homekeeping. A spirituality of how we live in our environment is a wider application of a spirituality of homekeeping.

I think about the women who were homesteaders in Nebraska, living initially in sodhouses that were very different from the sorts of homes they had known “back East” or in Europe. The winters must have seemed terribly long. What joy they must have felt when they saw the first signs of winter’s end! Our challenge in thinking about human beings and the environment is not really very different from the challenge of these homekeepers on the prairie: Given where we find ourselves, given what is, how do we maximize the beauty and comfort of our home so that we not only can survive, but also can nurture the total well-being and health of those living in our home?

Beyond sustainability
There is today a lot of talk of sustainability, of stopping and reversing the damage to our environment so that we can continue to survive. But good ecology, good planetary homekeeping, points beyond mere survival to supporting an environment in which we can thrive and flourish, living fully as God’s sons and daughters. One of the table graces in The Book of Common Prayer (p. 835) says “Blessed are you, O Lord God…for you give us food to sustain our lives and make our hearts glad.” God’s gifts are meant not only for our sustenance or survival, but to gladden our hearts, to give us joy. A well-prepared, nourishing meal shared with good company feeds more than our bodies!

What other sorts of practices in our homes, parishes, and communities lead us to care for creation and one another in ways that help us to go beyond mere survival to thriving and flourishing? What nourishes both body and soul, making our hearts glad? Please click on Comments and share something that sustains both body and soul.