The statue of St. Ignatius leans over the garden at the retreat centre in Guelph, Ont. Photo by Randy Greve/Flickr

Caring for the Earth and its people

  • September 16, 2020

The retreat master’s job is all about the big reveal — showing people what’s already there. For Jesuit spiritual director Fr. Greg Kennedy the job is a delight, a joy and at the same time a humbling experience.

“God is at work all the time, everywhere. We just have to kind of open our eyes to that and attune ourselves to that reality,” said Kennedy in a phone interview from the Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph, Ont. “Going on retreat is basically putting yourself in that state of mind, that state of heart… The spiritual director is there to facilitate that process. But it really is between the retreatant and God. Every good spiritual director knows that and basically tries to get out of the way.”

The Ignatius Jesuit Centre is a retreat house surrounded by more than 200 hectares of organic farm and land dedicated to re-establishing natural forest and wetlands. Kennedy spends about six hours a day working on the farm, then in the afternoons takes up the more sedentary, prayerful work of spiritual direction.

COVID-19 has closed the retreat house to the public until January, but Kennedy continues his work in spiritual direction online. His upcoming virtual retreat will be based on his recently published book, Reupholstered Psalms.

Kennedy’s spiritual practice includes writing a poem every day.

“Somehow I got onto the psalms. It was just here and there, until I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I should really get serious about this.’ I would pray with them and then see what kind of emotion they evoked in me. Then try to reinhabit that emotion in today’s environment.”

Eventually, Kennedy had all 150 psalms reinterpreted in light of his own prayer and experience. The current book out from Catholic publisher Novalis presents the first 50. Rather than retranslations, Kennedy’s versions reflect how each psalm resonates for him — a Jesuit, a philosopher, an environmentalist and an organic farmer.

Born in Hamilton, Kennedy grew up in Greensville, Ont., an idyllic, semi-rural community about 20 minutes drive from the Stelco steel mill that once drove Hamilton’s economy.

As an adolescent, he witnessed his dream-like existence threatened by the spectre of Toronto’s garbage. His childhood home backed on to a huge, mined-out limestone quarry that Toronto city council thought might make the ideal final resting place for the big city’s garbage.

The Kennedy family and its neighbours mobilized against the proposed landfill. Eventually the garbage ended up getting trucked across the border to Michigan. 

Young Greg finished high school and moved on to university, but was bothered by how protecting the environment could be reduced to protecting self-interest and property values. Living in an economy that inevitably produces tons of garbage raised questions of shared responsibility for Kennedy.

Eventually those questions drove Kennedy to earn a PhD in philosophy at the University of Ottawa. His doctoral thesis explored questions about our garbage — where it comes from and what it means.

“My informal conclusion of the thesis was that I need to go and care very carefully for the Earth and basically lead a very simple life of organic farming,” Kennedy said.

He headed east to the Maritimes. He took farming jobs where he could find them and for a while cooked in a vegetarian restaurant. He eventually made his way to the Trappist monastery in Rogersville, N.B., where he explored the idea of a monastic vocation. It was an experiment that told him he wasn’t meant to be a monk. But it also drove him to Guelph.

When a cousin told him about the Jesuit farm where she bought her organic vegetables, where Jesuits farmed and taught organic farming, he thought that might be a good fit. He spent a year in Guelph, working on the farm and discerning his vocation, before entering the Jesuits in 2006.

He earned his Master of Divinity from Regis College in Toronto, then went on to more advanced studies at the Pontifica Universidad Javeriana in Colombia from 2014 to 2017.

He came back to Toronto in 2015 for ordination and now finds himself back where he started — a poet, farmer, philosopher and spiritual director at Ignatius Jesuit Centre in Guelph.

“I see my philosophical training as enabling me to be a good spiritual director — to ask good questions, to be inquisitive, to be curious, to be open,” he said. 

The basic encounter between spiritual director and retreatant is precious to Kennedy.

“It’s very humbling and very life-giving to say, ‘I’m entering this, into this person’s life, and they are trusting me with that.’ This is a very sacred relationship, a very sacred bond that we’re creating.”

It’s a bond between God and each retreatant, but the relationship isn’t complete without the entire created world — the environment.

“We are incarnate beings. So, body and soul are very, very united and very intimate with each other. That’s why we believe in the resurrection of the body,” Kennedy said. “To think that somehow the Earth doesn’t matter, that we’re just going to fly away from it and we can do anything we want to it is certainly not Catholic theology.”

At the farm in Guelph, Kennedy finds himself in conversation with people looking to God for a better sense of how they fit into God’s creation.

“To see God at work in other people is just marvelous. It increases your faith, increases the spiritual director’s faith, just immensely.”

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