Spiritual journey includes love of the land

By  Robert White, Catholic Register Special
  • August 28, 2007
{mosimage}GUELPH, Ont. - In a recent Ignatius Loyola News newsletter, Fr. Jim Profit, S.J., wrote, “After working in the garden all day, I felt tired, stiff and sore, yet completely revived and bore my dirty fingernails with pride. Working with soil is an experience of the soul for me…. There is something about this land that invites the experience of community, life and God.”

Profit, director of Jesuit Collaborative for Ecology, Agriculture and Forestry (JCEAF) at the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, was writing about the annual blessing of the land celebration. The blessing, at the 275-hectare site on Guelph's northern boundary, is just one of the many ways in which the centre, and Profit, weave a love for creation and a devotion to God into a tapestry of Ignatian spirituality.

This love for the land and creation began when Profit was growing up on Prince Edward Island.

"When I look back, part of my spiritual journey was the sense of joy I felt any time I got outside," said Profit. "The church didn't help me articulate this spiritual experience – Greek dualism separates the body from the soul, the spiritual from the material.

"In Genesis 2, the external connection is good as man is told to care for the garden, to love husbandry."

In the article, "Experiencing the Divine in Creation," Profit expands on this recollection: "It was only years later, with an experience of native spirituality while studying theology, that I came to realize that roaming the field and beaches as a youth was a spiritual experience."

Profit's university studies in agriculture at the University of Guelph resulted in his first contact with the Jesuits and the centre which started in 1913 as a novitiate for English-speaking Jesuits. The centre's farm both supported the needs of and provided balance in the life of the novices until 1979, when it was turned over to a farm manager and the Ignatius Farm Community, until it closed in 2001.

{sidebar id=1}Now the former Ignatius College building houses rented offices. The Loyola House Retreat Centre still provides St. Ignatius' Spiritual Exercises retreats. Much of the rest of the centre is devoted to some sort of ecological, environmental or agricultural interest: the Community Shared Agriculture farm, an organic farming demonstration plot, rented land to area farmers, research on bio-remediation or organic pest management – all overseen by the JCEAF, which comprises the Ecology Project and the Ecology Project Working Group.

Through its various components, JCEA's aim is to promote the integration of ecological spiritually with the issues of eco-justice – often through an ecology retreat.

Writing in Promotio Iustitae, a social justice journal published by the Jesuits, Profit, who returned to Guelph in 1999 after ministry in Jamaica and on Manitoulin Island, explains how the Spiritual Exercises "can engender a contemplative experience of the Earth, fostering healing action for the Earth"¦

"We are reminded that Adam (human) was created from Adamah (topsoil) and so is permanently linked to God and the Earth."

Perhaps the best example of how Profit showed his love for creation came during the decade-long struggle to prevent a Wal-Mart from building on the southern edge of the Jesuits' property.

"We felt the big box store was a contradiction to good urban planning," said Profit.

Eventually the store was built, but not before making concessions – a 3.7-metre berm with trees and a living fence – to separate it from the Jesuits' property.

"We were never convinced that we were going to win this thing," said Profit in an article in Geez magazine. "We weren't doing it to win. We took on the fight simply because it was important to do. If we profess faith in the Gospel, we as people of faith have to be involved in these issues. To divorce the beauty of the Earth from the divine is unconscionable."

For now, Profit and the rest of the JCEAF team – including Fr. John McCarthy, S.J., (forest conservation and sustainable management research) and Marianne Karsh (education) – continue to promote a "holistic way of living, including spirituality" by teaching others and keeping the centre's green spaces green.

Along with the Loyola House retreats, Profit also leads retreats on ecology and "The God of the Outdoors" across the country. And the centre is beginning to liaise with local Roman Catholic high schools to provide day-long workshops to increase students' awareness of environmental and ecological issues.

And work will continue on the Old Growth Forest project, which Profit sees as a legacy for the future.

(White is a freelance writer in Guelph, Ont.)

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