spirituality

In which naming the bees is like worship

nasturtiums

vinegar

It’s the season for hot colours. I am making nasturtium vinegar and it sits on the windowsill as lurid as Lucozade. In the garden, the helenium is out, a variety called ‘Moerheim Beauty’. I have read that helenium is commonly called ‘sneezeweed’ because its leaves used to be dried for snuff.

helenium

It’s the season for exam papers too and I have spent entire days marking scripts, but with the sun so bright outside it’s impossible not to wander out from time to time, and sometimes to linger over lunch in the garden. That’s when I realise that the helenium is a magnet for bees.

honeybee

honeybee on yellow

Last week I was watching the honeybees come and go; it’s like a form of hypnosis. Then a bumblebee arrived and began to crawl over the flower centres. It was my daughter who said: ‘Look at the pollen sacs.’

cropped bumblebee

They are huge in proportion to the pin-thin legs, like growths, or the saddlebags of an overloaded packhorse.

bumblebee cropped

Something happens when you pay attention to the natural world. You find your curiosity awakened. It’s like recovering the endlessly wondering mindset of childhood. One question predominates: what’s it called?

Trying to answer that is a humbling thing. I dive into Google, wanting to identify the bees that have come to our helenium. I am fairly sure about the honeybee: there is only one species of honeybee in the UK, and although I may have confused it with a solitary bee (225 species).

The bumblebee is more challenging. I discover that it’s definitely a female because only they have the pollen sacs. Beyond that, it could be one of 250 different species found in this country, but the Bumblebee Conservation Trust recommends starting with the eight most common ones. I used their excellent, free chart here to decide it was either a buff-tailed or a white-tailed bumblebee. I’m not sure how you could be more certain without having the two species side by side.

climbing bumblebee with sacs

I planted this garden eight years ago. A succession of blindsiding life events had left me paralysed with depression: forget trying to take one day at a time; my target was to navigate the next ten minutes. Most everyday tasks became impossible but I found that if I could only get myself outside, I could garden for a couple of hours and not think about the time at all. Gradually, with help from all kinds of sources, but always against the backdrop of planting and growing, the depression receded

Depression kills your prayer life, or at least it did mine. I am recovering it slowly, along with the sense of wonder that is necessary for worship. I did not expect learning about nature to help but sometimes it feels almost sacramental, a resonance with the story of Adam in the first garden, naming the animals in response to God’s invitation to intimacy and co-operation.(Genesis 2:19).

Staying still long enough to really observe the bee, then taking the time to work on identification works a bit like contemplation for me. It opens up stillness and silence; it decentres my anxieties, my selfish preoccupations; it is a repeated, necessary reminder that humans are not the only creatures that matter on this planet.

wild, free and not very safe

‘The future is given to those who are experienced in groaning. The future is denied to those who have been cynical and calloused and self-deceiving enough to rejoice in the present ordering and are unable to grieve about the ruin toward which the royal community is headed.’

Walter Brueggemann The Prophetic Imagination

 

I should have known from Kelley Nikondeha’s challenging and profoundly thoughtful blog that joining her reading group would be something that shook me up.

But I just wasn’t prepared to be affected as deeply as I have been by this month’s read: The Prophetic Imagination by Walter Brueggemann.

I have been a Christian for more than twenty years but by the end of chapter two I felt like the disciples who, when they caught a glimpse of the radical reversal that Jesus had brought into the world, cried out: ‘But who then can be saved?’

With ruthless clarity, Brueggemann lays bare the hypocrisy, the smugness and the numbness of our dominant culture. And here’s the thing: for me he also laid bare my own complicity in that culture.

Brueggemann gives us a portrait of a God who is wild and free, who stands opposed to the dominant powers, which need us to be numb consumers if they are to continue to control us.

As much as I hate the consumer culture, a wild and free God scares me if I’m honest. I like order; I like to know where the limits are; I like to keep things well contained.

What’s more, as a white middle class woman in the rich west I have a pretty strong interest in things continuing as they are. As crazy as it seems, I hadn’t understood that before, not like I do now.

In reading Brueggemann I saw there is a choice to be made. People like me who are comfortable and powerful can cling stubbornly to the status quo, even as we claim to want it to change. We can keep ourselves at one remove from the real suffering there is in the world. We are so affluent and so satiated that we can, literally, eat our way around pain.

But this choice comes at a terrible price. It’s the price of being only half alive. It’s the price of dulling our emotions, narrowing our vision and drastically limiting our entire conception of what it means to be a human being.

It means settling for optimism instead of finding real hope; being content with superficial relationships instead of finding true community; worshipping a tame and benign deity instead of daring to engage with a wild God of furious love.

As I wrote this post I realised I had heard a version of this message about the need to choose hundreds of times. It usually goes something like this: you are a sinner and you need a saviour.

But I have only ever heard it communicated in such a privatised, individualistic way that it never sank deep inside me as it did this month while reading Brueggemann.

And very often I have heard it communicated from inside an institution that – like me – appears to have a lot more in common with the static, controlling, dominant culture than it does with what Brueggemann describes as an ‘alternative community’ – one that makes room for the freedom of God ‘to surface in the brickyards and manifest itself as justice and compassion’.

Brueggemann is clear that for people like me the alternative to the status quo is not easy. For him there is no real hope until we have faced the desperation of the world.  There is no new life until we have understood that the culture that brings us so many goodies and eases our path though life is nothing less than a culture of death. It is not possible to face these things without entering into grief.

And yet, and yet – beyond the grief there is true hope, the promise of a completely different future, a future characterised by amazement and joy, expressed in dancing and new songs, free from the weary hopelessness that characterises so much of human life.

I found Brueggemann’s writing about hope to be the most difficult part of this book and I need to return to it. But what I did understand is this: that it is rooted in the reality of a God who is making all things radically new and who wants to include everyone in that newness, no matter how complicit they have been in the cynicism and injustice of the dominant culture.

It’s the hope that rings out through the songs of the Bible, defiant songs that tell of God lifting up the humble, bringing down rulers from their thrones and filling the hungry with good things.

It’s wild and it’s scary and it doesn’t always look like good news to those of us who are rich and powerful.

But I want it.

 

 

shifting focus

Almost as soon as I arrive at my parents’ house I take a walk around the garden. Of all places on earth, this is the one I associate most with my mother. Gardening, and especially vegetable growing, has been her joy and passion for fifty years or more. Like many people, she had a brief fling with roses and herbaceous borders in the seventies, but with a growing family to feed she was always most focused on edible plants.

Ungrateful teenager that I was, I really did not appreciate the privilege of having fresh, seasonal food at every meal. I took it all for granted, the bowls of organic raspberries, the rhubarb crumbles, the apparently unlimited supply of French beans, salad and peas.

During the harvesting season, Mum hardly moved beyond the garden and the kitchen, sometimes falling into bed at one or two in the morning after hours of blanching veg for the freezer. I remember when she had three freezers in the garage and every one was full of square Tupperware containers packed with fruit and vegetables, neatly stacked and meticulously labelled. That was probably a legacy of the war and of growing up with rationing. She was like a squirrel who couldn’t rest until there was an abundant store of food.

Things are different now though and for the first time in my life I do not see my mother outside in the garden. Aged 77 and suffering from a horrible degeneration of her spine, she mostly sits in what we call her ‘nest’, a space on the sofa where she is surrounded by piles of gardening and cookery magazines, her glasses, her phone and her medicines all within reach.

In theory I know this must have affected the garden; in practice I am not fully prepared for what I find.

The sun shines and I take my camera into the garden again and again. After weeks of cloud and rain in Sheffield, I am fascinated by the way the light changes, how the shadows shift across the grass and how every few minutes a different plant is lit up by sunshine.

I take shot after shot of the roses growing around the arch by the shed. They have been there for years: deep pink ones beaded with dew in the early morning, and some velvety crimson ones that have flopped off their supporting arch towards some self-seeded foxgloves. You would think the colours would clash, but in fact they blend to give an impression of majestic, imperial purple. From the window my mum points out how they complement the reddish buds of the Belgian honeysuckle.

Someone is coming later to mow the grass but for now drifts of speedwell sweep across it. The bed Mum planted specifically for pollinators is a riot of ox-eye daisies; later in the day I watch the bees dance to and fro between them and the intensely blue borage flowers.

The arch into the vegetable garden is smothered with jasmine, literally hundreds of tiny pink flowers. I pass beneath it and catch my breath. I take in the raised beds choked with bindweed, the empty compost bins, the gooseberries that will rot on the bush if nobody picks them soon.

It seems wrong to linger here, like an intrusion. Instead I turn around and go back towards the house, taking more pictures of the roses, the foxgloves, the honeysuckle. I keep focusing on these, adjusting the lens of the camera over and over again as the light moves.

Later I sit with my mum and try to get her to talk about how life is with my dad in hospital and her problems with mobility. She doesn’t try to deny that it can be hard, but she focuses mainly on the good things: their many friends, the television programmes she enjoys, the pleasure of texting her grandchildren. She is a profoundly spiritual person; when we talk together she makes me think of deep rivers and of a steel blade, shining, strong and unbreakable.

We do not like to talk about ageing much in our culture and like most people I fear it, all the loss and the letting go. But sitting with my mum I realise that however much she has had to give up – and she has given up a lot – she is no way diminished as a person. It is a privilege to sit there, peaceful, with the sun streaming through the window and a song thrush calling noisily from the garden.