My Spiritual Director Helps Me Listen to the Earth
by Nancy Flinchbaugh
Spiritual directors help me listen for God and reflect on my spiritual life. When I began a class with the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation on leading contemplative small groups and retreats, the instructors recommended we participate in regular spiritual direction. I interviewed several graduates of the program and visited with one for two years. When she retired, I felt myself drawn to Loretta Farmer, another spiritual director trained by Shalem. From the beginning, I discovered her voice to be life-giving and affirming for me on my path. When we talked, my life seemed to glow deeply. She encouraged me in my writing and service while helping me navigate the challenges on my spiritual path. In this article, I would like to explain how she gave me courage to listen for God and to the Earth in a new way. With her blessing, I want to tell you our story, hoping it might inspire other spiritual directors in their important work of love.
Like many people in this time, I am very concerned about our changing climate. The mass extinction events happening with increasing frequency on the planet and the effects of global warming weigh heavily on my soul. When my contemplative path deepened, I felt drawn to connection and concern for the Earth. I began reading a variety of books that were speaking to the issues of spirituality and the Earth, including Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. In this book, I learned that people in many world religion traditions believe that the Earth is speaking words of warning to us in this time.
Then, I picked up a book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone called Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. They recommend writing a letter to yourself from the Earth (117). At the time, my husband and I were visiting my son and his friend in Seattle, Washington, USA. I suggested we do it, and they agreed. But when we came back together after writing, my son said he could not do it. His friend said it was too depressing. My husband read a stern letter, calling us to task for the way we are treating the Earth. And then I read my quite delightful letter. One line still speaks to me, several years later: “I didn’t evolve you into existence over 4.7 billion years to have you sit around like lumps on a log. This is a huge experiment and a wonderful dance. Take joy.”
Wow! Could I really be receiving such a letter from the Earth? I decided to continue to listen. During my morning meditation time, I began to receive more of these letters, and I shared them with my spiritual director, Loretta Farmer.
“Do you think I’m crazy?” I asked her.
She answered, “No, you’re not crazy. Who else will speak for the Earth?”
I smiled and listened as she told me, “I think the Earth is speaking through many people at this time, Nancy. Don’t you see that we are a part of the Earth? The Earth can’t talk, so she needs us to speak for her.”
“Well, I know the Bible tells us to listen to the Earth,” I told her. “We often quote that passage from Job when we practice lectio divina with the Earth.” Later, I looked up the passage in my Bible and read it over: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?” (Jb 12:7–10).
“Yes, this is so important,” she told me. Then she asked, “How do you receive these letters, Nancy?”
“Well, you know I meditate first thing every morning, and then I journal. I always feel God speaks to me as I journal, giving me direction for my day. So then, sometimes, I also listen for a letter from the Earth during this time,” I explained.
With Loretta’s support, I continued to listen for God in my early morning time and to listen for more letters from the Earth. When we met, I often would read her one of the letters, and she would exclaim with joy, helping affirm my experience. Her gentle encouragement helped me to continue to trust and listen to the voice in these letters I received.
The voice in the letters usually calls herself Gaia. As a feminist, I have been an advocate for many years for a variety of names for God, especially encouraging gender-neutral language or using both feminine and masculine language. So, I enjoyed the name she picked for herself. I know it is often used within the Earth-based religions, focusing on the Earth. Although I come to God through the Christian tradition, I learn much from other traditions. This name helped me begin to believe, with Loretta’s guidance, that the letters were written from the deep wisdom in the heart of creation, from that Spirit whom I call God. Now, my husband says that I write the letters. Of course I do, but they always feel like they come from beyond me and take me to new places with new ways of thinking about things. I believe the hand of Gaia God guides me into hope as I write.
Left to myself, I could become very depressed and immobilized when considering the dynamics of our changing climate and the difficulty of taking effective action. But these letters call me not only to continue to speak up and take action but also to live as fully as possible. Gaia calls me to get outdoors and explore nature, to live in the moment, to savor the food, to enjoy my friends, and always to dance.
Loretta helped me sense the importance of the letters both for me and for others. When Gaia asked me to share the letters with others, Loretta also encouraged me to do so. I began to post them on my website as I received them and shared them on Facebook.
Now as I think back to when I first became aware of our growing climate crisis, I remember that I did not think I could do anything to help. I felt overwhelmed and insignificant. Then, in an ecospirituality class offered by the Columbus Spirituality Network and taught by another spiritual director, Barb Davis, we made prayer beads for a bracelet to help us remember to pray for the Earth. As I fingered the beads each day, asking God what I could do, I began to realize that there is much that I can do. Loretta challenged me: “Nancy, who else will act for the Earth, unless we do?”
As I began my contemplative leadership, I focused on leading experiences with the Earth. I joined my husband in his work to start and lead a Citizens’ Climate Lobby chapter in our town. In my writing, I focused on the Earth, writing a novel with an Earth theme and naming my main character after Thomas Berry, the amazing Catholic priest who wrote prophetically about the Earth as early as the 1980s. Berry coined the term “Ecozoic Age” for our current era, during which we must come to terms with our relationship with the Earth. He wrote, “We must come together in sacred community, or we will perish in the desert” (Berry, 7–8).
My spiritual director mentored me through this time, helping me to sense God’s guiding hand in this work and helping me to feel that my writing was inspired by God.
Ever since I was a child, I have enjoyed visiting Lakeside, Ohio, USA, a United Methodist–affiliated Chautauqua on Lake Erie. The beauty of the lake, the spiritual and educational offerings, and evening entertainment bless my life when I go there on vacation. But when I went to Lakeside a few years ago, the lakefront was closed due to algal blooms. I cried and stayed away until the last day. Here, climate change and agricultural pollution had affected my favorite summer getaway.
Then the Earth wrote: “You have heard my call. Thank you. Thank that husband of yours for his relentless efforts on my behalf. I know he has inspired you to do more. The best you can do is to affirm the Earth care actions in others. Notice. Praise. Take delight.” These words continue to teach me. When I shared them with Loretta, she smiled and said, “Yes, Nancy, that is so important.”
Now, when I am overwhelmed about environmental issues, I remember to celebrate the many people who are speaking up and taking action on the climate. I brag on my husband. I tell others about the amazing people in Citizens’ Climate Lobby who are working to build bipartisan political will to address climate change. I affirm my friend Karen Tracy, who has developed a Climate Science Roadshow and puts educating about the climate first in her life these days.
For our thirtieth wedding anniversary, my husband and I journeyed to Ireland. At a climate display at the Cliffs of Moher, I learned that 150 years from now, Galway, Dublin, and Cork may all be underwater due to the changing climate. I felt dismay. When I returned home, the Earth wrote me about how much she also loves the Emerald Isle. She acknowledges my fear, encouraging me to continue work on climate change. I shared the message from Gaia with Loretta, and she too felt sadness and concern. And she reminded me, “Who else will speak for the Earth, unless we do, Nancy?”
On Christmas Day that year, my daffodils started to come up, and someone was mowing the grass when I went for a walk. In Ohio, the changing climate now affects our wintertime and growing season. Once again, I felt fear and concern, and I decided to listen to Gaia. She wrote: “Don’t cry. Things are changing, always changing. This is life.… You are trying to raise awareness about climate change and what you humans are doing with fossil fuels. That’s good. Keep it up, but don’t give in to despair.… So dance, celebrate, be happy and share the Christmas daffodils.” When I next talked with Loretta, she smiled with me and once again said, “Yes!”
At a recent spiritual direction session, I talked with Loretta about writing an article to share our story with other spiritual directors, thinking it might help them in their work. She expressed excitement about this. “Yes, you should do this, Nancy,” she told me.
As we began to talk, I was amazed with her living words. “You’re preaching a sermon,” I told her. “You should write this!”
She said, “No, you’re the writer, not me. My job is one-on-one. I used to lead retreats, but it was so hard for me. I was too self-conscious in that role. I’m not called to write, either. We must each do what God calls us to do and to discern that. Spiritual direction fits with me and my gifts.”
I told her, “I still wonder at my audacity to think that God is actually writing me letters.”
She told me, “Nancy, I believe that God is still speaking, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I said. “In one of my promotions for my book, I call it ‘scripture for our time.’”
“Exactly,” she said. “I like that. This is what I find, that God is speaking to so many people these days. Especially the young people. Some people don’t like that. Back when I was young, only the priests would speak for God, but the Bible isn’t like that. God spoke to many different people. Yes, the Bible is divinely inspired, but why would God stop speaking?”
She continued: “I believe that we are living scripture. I believe that God is still talking to us,” she said. “This is my job, to help you listen to what God is saying to you. You must trust the God in you. God is speaking through you, Nancy.”
She told me, “I’ve been reading a book by Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ. In this book, he tells us that our job is to love everything, because everything is an expression of God. How should we treat ourselves and the Earth, if we truly believe that everything is an expression of God?” she asked me.
“My job, as a spiritual director,” she explained, “is to listen to Spirit and be attentive to what God is doing in your life. I’m honored to listen to you, to listen to God speaking with you, and to read what you write. This is bigger than just you, Nancy. Whenever people get together, I believe that we are God’s vessels. God doesn’t have an audible voice, unless we trust that we are God’s voice. Jesus told us, ‘I am within you.’ We need to have trust that God is speaking, Nancy.”
My spiritual director continues to give me this gift of trust. She has helped me recognize the miracle of God’s continuing revelation in my life. She affirmed the letters I receive from the Earth and challenges me to continue to listen. I am so thankful for this gift that she gives to me.
The last time I talked with Loretta, I talked to her about my hope of telling our story. Again, she talked about her work as a spiritual director, and her words danced into the space of the room, creating a holy fire of hope within me.
Loretta said, “When we come together, we are two people listening to the voice of God. I aim to listen as God listens. I find people are thirsting to be heard and to have sacred, safe space. The bottom line is to love and care. The Spirit tells us to love and care for each other. The Earth teaches us to love and care and to dance. We need to lean into this. It’s a gift.
“We need to be aware of Spirit, of this amazing presence of God. We often take it for granted. But every thought we have can be an expression of love from our Creator when we pay attention to God’s presence with us.”
I am grateful for the gift of spiritual direction in my life and for Loretta. She teaches me to continue to listen for God and be attentive to the movement of the Spirit in my life. In my writing, in my service, and in my everyday life, she teaches me to how to live.
Berry, Thomas. The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. New York: Harmony/Bell Tower, 1999.
Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. New York: Convergent Books, 2019.
Vaughan-Lee, Llewellyn. Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth. Point Reyes Station, CA: Golden Sufi Center, 2013.
Nancy Flinchbaugh writes as spiritual practice. She completed training in contemplative leadership from Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation and is a certified labyrinth facilitator with Veriditas. Her writing includes Revelation in a Cave (Spiritual Seedings, 2012), Revelation at the Labyrinth (eLectio Publishing, 2017), and Letters from the Earth (Higher Ground Books and Media, 2018). Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leah King is an artist, teacher assistant and paraprofessional at a public Waldorf school. She is also a full-time student in the ecopsychology program at Naropa University. She has self-published a book that blends environmental awareness, spirituality, and healing. Contact Leah at email@example.com.