In a touching scene in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s well-loved children’s novel The Secret Garden, the fiery tempered young orphan Mary Lennox begins to win the heart of grief-stricken Mr. Archibald Craven with her simple request for “a bit of earth” for a garden. In the course of bringing the long-neglected walled garden back to life, Mary and her cousin Colin discover healing for themselves and those around them. The miracle of green and growing things works a wild kind of magic on their bruised souls.
I thought of Mary’s “bit of earth” when I read the story of Naaman’s healing in today’s first reading. This foreign military general was persuaded to seek healing from the Hebrew prophet and man of God by a young serving girl. Once he’s healed, he wants to give Elijah a gift but his request is refused. Instead, Naaman asks for two mule-loads of earth, which he regards as sacred ground from the land of Israel, the promised land, the place where God can rightly be worshiped.
A superficial reading of this story might suggest that Naaman is some- thing of an oddball, a man with pagan roots who sees some sort of magical properties in this pile of dirt. But there is an unmistakably primal significance to this gesture.
We are rooted, grounded people. We tend to identify with places, with geographical locations, even with bits of earth or bottles of water from sacred places. This is partly because we’re a sacramental people. The “stuff,” the matter of the sacraments, is an important part of the rituals: water, bread, oil, touch. And so it was for the Hebrews of Elijah’s day.
At times we over-spiritualize our faith and our religious life. This is in part because of the strong influence of Greek philosophy on the early Christians. Centuries of theologians and scholastics have further intellectualized Christianity. It’s good to have reminders like today’s readings that our faith needs to be grounded in the everyday realities of life.
Families have something of an advantage here. Finding ways to make religion concrete for small children can open up new ways of seeing, even for jaded adults. Setting up a small prayer altar in the home, even the simple act of lighting candles before mealtime prayers, can be reminders that God is really present with us at all times.
I sometimes find myself remembering such rituals from my childhood with great fondness, and feeling a need to return to similar rituals today to get out of my head and into celebrating the great gift of faith with my whole being. It need not be anything elaborate: a bowl of holy water by the door, a candle on the table, a picture of someone who made a difference in your journey to God. I have my own bit of earth, a bowl of sand from a fam- ily vacation spot. These things are ways to remember the God who gave us life, who made us whole, who healed us of the separation that marred human creation from the beginning of time.
We’re moving into late fall in the northern hemisphere, a time when the ground itself lies fallow and waiting. It’s a good time to give thanks for the beauty of our bit of earth and recognize that God’s grace and the hospitality of loved ones has carried us through another year.
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