This Franciscan Sister’s Memoir Takes Us to the Heart of the Earth

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“This Wheel of Rocks: An Unexpected Spiritual Journey”
By Sister Marya Grathwohl
Riverhead Books, 291 pages

Near the end of “This Wheel of Rocks,” Sister Marya Grathwohl’s urgent new memoir, she leads a group of young people on a pilgrimage through time to learn about the layers of rock that comprise the Bighorn Mountains in Wyoming. The book is full of insights gleaned from Grathwohl’s service as a Franciscan Sister, her lifelong attunement to the beauty of the natural world, and her “Earth Hope” ministry, not the least of which is her acute attention to what the Earth has to teach us about the nature of creation. “I gradually came to think of these layers as a kind of sacred scripture,” Grathwohl writes.

During rock formation, the first layers deposited are the oldest, but due to regional uplift and the pressure of faults, in this area of the Bighorns, the oldest level sits on top. Grathwohl invites her students to reflect on the top layer, 2.9 billion years old, formed in the Precambrian period when single-celled microorganisms called cyanobacteria changed the atmosphere from its composition of predominantly carbon dioxide. As the cyanobacteria used hydrogen and oxygen from the water in which they lived and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to create their food, they produced oxygen as a byproduct, gradually oxygenating the atmosphere. As Earth’s atmosphere became more oxygen rich, it provided the conditions under which more complex organisms, and eventually humans, could evolve.

Bighorn Mountains (John David Stutts, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

In doing so, however, this doomed the cyanobacteria. The majority of them died, as oxygen proved poisonous to them. “This is an example of life itself altering the planet in a way that was self-destructive,” she observes. “I think this is akin to what we’re doing now by burning fossil fuels.” In this scene, Grathwohl synthesizes for the next generation her reflections on a lifetime of study in which she has concluded that honoring God entails treading lightly on the Earth and caring for all its creatures.

As a child, natural beauty stirs Grathwohl into reverie. She writes about becoming overwhelmed by a field of snow-covered Queen Anne’s lace, and trying to explain it to her dad. He tells her, “Just go back out to Frey’s hillside and stand there in the middle of those snowy flowers. Stand there until you can feel them inside you, in your heart. Then you will never forget.” She follows his instructions, and realizes this was her “first lesson in contemplative prayer. It’s the same practice, whether in a mountain meadow, a hospital room, or a convent chapel. Show up, take time, feel the beauty in your heart.”

Grathwohl is a sweet, sheltered, beloved child who moves straight from middle school and living with her parents in Ohio to boarding at the Sisters of Saint Francis’ high school in Oldenburg, Indiana. She joins the order in 1964 while she is still a teenager. She yearns to move out West to see land she learned about in her father’s stories of his travels, but she is first assigned to teach in Indiana. Eventually she is transferred to a school in Kansas City in an impoverished, mostly Black neighborhood. She knows nothing of the Civil Rights Movement brewing around her. “Surrounded by asphalt and high-rise urban housing projects,” she writes, “I learned the daily challenges of families beset by racial prejudice, severe economic inequality, and substandard housing.”

Grathwohl knows then that she wants to serve the poor. Her heart has been speaking clearly her whole life, telling her to go West, and she continues to wait for her opportunity. When she’s next assigned to a wealthy suburban school, she knows this is “the wrong obedience” for her.

Finally she seizes the chance to become an educator in Montana, and her intuition proves correct — this seems to be her spiritual mother country. “I came to Crow homelands in 1974 calling it Montana,” she writes. “But I would slowly discover I had a lot to learn. And be forgiven for. At best, I could claim to have come with an open heart and a genuine desire to serve the people, and God.” She joins the lives of the Crow families whose children she teaches, attending sweat lodge ceremonies and learning how they honor nature. Eventually, one family adopts her as a member in an official ceremony.

Grathwohl alternates teaching with continuing her studies in many subjects, and although anthropology is not among them, she becomes something of an anthropologist. As she immerses herself in different communities through her role as an educator, she never assumes the primacy of her own culture. “Diversity is one of the strengths of our nation. Understanding and living within diverse communities is demanding. I lived among Crow and Northern Cheyenne for almost twenty years, and gradually made my ignorant way as a teacher: careening, stumbling, dancing, talking, listening, and praying. Learning.” She also studies the divine beauty of evolution, learning from environmental scientist Dr. Larry Edwards that the “self-emerging universe is God in action.”

As Grathwohl moves between living in Crow country and serving at a midwestern organic farm, she is inspired by the ideas of Sister Miriam MacGillis, who teaches that “Earth is primary,” and that “everything we do, what we eat, how we heat our homes … everything must be judged by whether it harms or enhances the whole Earth community.”

Sister Marya Grathwohl

Grathwohl pursues this notion and founds her Earth Hope ministry. For years she’d felt unclear about her direction, minimizing her “earthly God experiences,” as though there was something about her powerful instinct to honor the Earth that didn’t square with Catholic orthodoxy. However, as she keeps studying and searching, she is overjoyed to find her belief that the Earth and all its creatures are primary reflects the direct teachings of Jesus and St. Francis, as explained by Dr. Mary Beth Ingham: “The awareness that God is encountered in human experiences of Earth and beauty is so pervasive to the Franciscan spiritual tradition it is easy to miss.”

Grathwohl turns to making a practical difference in communities she serves and modeling how to respect the Earth, obtaining grants for a women’s center for the Northern Cheyenne, enabling them to use wind and solar energy and ground-source heating, and fostering the restoration of native prairie grass. “In these times of extreme destruction,” she writes, “I dare to offer this book as a word of hope and an invitation to transforming action.”

The relentless news about global warming, climate change-driven natural disasters, and species and habitat loss can overwhelm. How can one determined person make a difference in the face of the enormity of these forces? Grathwohl’s co-founder in the Earth Hope ministry is her friend Sister Helen Prejean. In 1982, when Prejean began her ministry in speaking out against the cruelty of the death penalty, the majority of Americans stood firmly in support of execution, peaking at 80% in 1994, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. That support has now declined to 55%. The death penalty is currently prohibited in 23 states and has become rare among those that still permit it, with 13 of those remaining states refraining from executing people for a decade or more. This is a marked change that occurred during Prejean’s ministry. Who’s to say that her clear, insistent voice didn’t contribute to bringing about this change? And so why shouldn’t a clear voice like Grathwohl’s become part of the new way of thinking that will turn the tide on our environmental destruction?

Humans are more complex creatures than the self-dooming cyanobacteria of the Precambrian era whose remains formed the rock that Grathwohl meditates on. We are equipped through evolution with the ability to observe, reflect and change our behavior. Our practices since the industrial revolution have been self-destructive to the maintenance of environmental conditions that humans need to thrive, but we are uniquely able to realize what’s happening, and a great many of us have the power to choose how to respond through our deliberate daily actions. We are all a part of this creation, this “self-emerging” system. The outlook is dire, but Grahwohl’s joyful, compassionate and informed optimism about our power to change, starting now, from wherever we are, is a welcome and heartening message.

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