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Spring 2020 · Vol. 49 No. 1 · pp. 63–70 

Reflections on Cultivating a Grounded Spirituality

Audrey Hindes

It’s an open secret that many people feel most connected to God when they’re in the mountains, on the beach, or in the desert—in wild, expansive places. They’re places where we’re able to gain a sense of perspective, of things in their right place. Something similar often happens for gardeners in their own backyards and for cooks in their kitchens. For someone like me who identifies as a contemplative, these three spaces of wilderness, garden, and kitchen (table), continually prompt a deeper awareness of God’s presence and develop a deeper capacity to accept God’s radical love, ultimately cultivating a fuller communion with God and with all of creation.

Cultivating a grounded spirituality helps us become more aware of God’s presence and activity, and prepares us to participate with God in caring for the earth.

In Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster identifies contemplative spirituality as one of the six great traditions of Christian spirituality, each of which represent a different mode or expression of the human spirit in seeking to understand and relate to God. 1 Contemplative spirituality is ancient, with roots in the fourth century tradition of the Desert Mothers and Fathers. This stream of spirituality focuses on cultivating an awareness {64} of God’s presence and an acceptance of God’s radical love, bringing us into a fuller and deeper communion with God and with all of creation as we learn to see God’s presence at all times and places, in all people and in all of creation.

My hope is that cultivating a grounded spirituality will deepen our love for God and one another, as well as deepen our enthusiasm and willingness to prioritize stewardship of the earth and all creation.


On this journey along the stream of contemplative spirituality, I have found something on which all the great spiritual masters seem to agree: at the root of all human pain is an illusion that we are separate from God. However, perhaps even more than being separate from God, which may imply a simple recognition that I am not God, is a sense of isolation and disconnection. By extension, the experience of feeling disconnected from God leads to feeling disconnected from God’s creation. Everything outside myself then becomes viewed as an object for my use (or abuse). To cultivate a grounded spirituality is to wake up from the illusion of separation, to see that we are never separate from God whose presence can be observed throughout creation. As created beings, we belong to creation itself and we belong to God. 2

A significant barrier to cultivating a spirituality of groundedness is dualistic thinking. We engage in dualistic thinking when we say that things are either/or: either black or white, either this or that. It’s a binary way of viewing the world, with only two options. This isn’t wholly bad. We need this way of thinking to interface with a world that is full of categories and labels, comparisons and contrasts. But a problem arises when we introduce this way of thinking into our way of understanding God and each other. When God is either this or that with nothing in between, it reduces the expansiveness of God. As we begin to think about cultivating a grounded spirituality, an awareness of this kind of dualistic thinking helps us see that we often put things like the earth, flesh, or matter, into a category that we consider lower than the spiritual life. Anything that is spiritual is considered higher. This can lead us to thinking that those “lower” things don’t matter as much, which can then lead to abuse of every kind. It is critically important to become aware of our tendency toward a dualistic mindset. Cultivating this awareness is the first step in reclaiming a more positive view of God’s radical love for humanity and creation. It is also the first step toward truly experiencing communion on a deeper level. A grounded spirituality can remind us daily and practically that it is detrimental to both creation (“lower” things) as well as to our own spirituality (“higher” things) to continue with dualistic attitudes and behaviors. {65}

An antidote to our dualism may be reclaiming a sacramental spirituality, becoming aware of and embracing the physical presence of God in every part of creation. A strong emphasis on sacraments has not been part of the Anabaptist faith tradition. Indeed, discussion of sacraments is often met with suspicion. I suspect that one reason we resist sacramental language is that we Anabaptists don’t like political or social hierarchies. We distrust top-down authority and prefer consensus-style decisionmaking. We don’t acknowledge any one person or thing as more sacred than others. By saying we don’t want these hierarchical structures, we also say that nothing and no one is holy. This reinforces a dualistic attitude of people and “things” as lower, lesser, and there to be used. However, what I want to suggest is that when we become aware of God’s presence in all people and in all “things,” suddenly everything and everyone is holy.

I offer three places—wilderness, garden, and kitchen—for consideration as places where we can experience the grace and presence of God. These three places in particular ground us in a spirituality that is concerned for the flourishing of all of God’s creation, to which humans belong. Traditionally, there are only seven sacraments that communicate the grace and presence of God. 3 Cultivating a grounded spirituality has the potential to open up an entire universe for us to encounter God in a sacramental way.


We begin with wilderness. When I’ve asked people how they feel when they’re in the wilderness—whether mountains, beach, or desert—they usually respond with words like peaceful, rejuvenated, loved, joyful, small. I would add that it gives me perspective. In this age of tremendous anxiety and depression, being in the wilderness has the capacity to help put things in perspective.

Our family loves the outdoors and we do a fair bit of camping. Last May, we went camping in four of Utah’s five national parks. I’ve also done a lot of backpacking and spent a lot of time in the wilderness on hiking trails. But something grabbed my attention in Zion and Arches National Parks that I had never noticed before. I’m accustomed to seeing signs about staying on the trail, packing out your garbage, not leaving anything behind, and so on. But in Utah, there were also signs about staying on the trail to protect the soil crusts.

As it turns out, soil crusts are entire microcosms of their own, holding the soil in place in the desert so it doesn’t wash away during torrential rainfalls. A single step in the wrong place can set back the growth of these organisms by 100 years. That was astounding to me. Staying on the trail and paying attention in these places is important.

So how is divine grace—the sacrament of wilderness—encountered? For me as a hiker, part of it happens through the act of walking. The regular, {66} rhythmic movement becomes the ritual that allows the critical part of my brain to rest. This is the part of my brain that is always analyzing, always critiquing, always planning. It allows another space to open up within me that can then be filled with awareness of the presence of God in a way that isn’t being analyzed and critiqued and evaluated.

An important part of creating a sacrament of the wilderness is cultivating a wild space within us. This wild space already exists in each of us even if we are unaware of it. It is the space where the Spirit of God moves within us, stirring up faith, hope, and love. But this wild space within us needs to be protected. Perhaps we need a sign like “Don’t Bust the Crust.” How can we protect this interior space and make it available for God? Again, it’s not that God isn’t already there; it’s our awareness of God that is missing.

In this first movement of cultivating a grounded spirituality the wilderness is a place of awakening. It is a place where we can hit the reset button and say, “Okay, I’m paying attention now.” Each of us is invited to consider our own interior landscapes in order to make space available for experiencing God. I, for example, crave silence. There are great podcasts that I would love to listen to, but if I have time for a podcast, I have time for silence. I choose silence. It’s part of what cultivates that interior spaciousness for me, that interior sense of wilderness. Activities that allow the parts of our brains that are always evaluating, planning, and critiquing to rest are especially helpful. “Don’t Bust the Crust” was a sign particular to the landscape of Utah. What sign might be particular to your interior life, that fragile place where you cultivate awakening to the presence and grace of God?


The garden is another location where a sacramental experience can take place. Whereas the wilderness prompts the creation of interior space and the physical wilderness itself is wild, when we enter the garden there is a sense that the wildness has been domesticated. Far from being a totally uncontrolled, untouched kind of place, the garden is a place where we become participants and therefore co-creators.

In the wilderness, some distance must be kept in order to protect the wilderness itself. But the garden invites us to enter into it more intimately, to become involved in what’s happening there. In a positive sense, we can manipulate the soil and the plants we are growing as we work in partnership with God. To be sure, there is much that we can’t control. We can’t make the sun shine. We can’t tell a plant, “Okay, it’s time to photosynthesize now.” Despite our best efforts to control water by building dams and create irrigation systems, we can’t make it rain. We are participants, but we still very much need God’s partnership to bring {67} food into being. Most of us don’t live off the land; we don’t depend on it as we might in a true wilderness experience. Instead, we live with the land as participants and co-creators.

I myself love to garden. I love getting my hands in the dirt. I love the physical labor of gardening. I think that love is correlated to those rhythms of walking in the wilderness that allows my critical brain to rest so that other space can open up within me. Even as I pull weeds, I often feel like God is speaking to me through the experience of weeding. I recognize that’s not true for everyone. I also recognize that not everyone has access to land in which to garden.

Every time I visit the Evergreen Nursery Center in Clovis, one of the nurserymen there almost always makes the same comment to me about houseplants and how houseplants have become all the rage, especially among millennials. I find this remarkable. There is a growing awareness that the millennial generation is now the poorest generation in recent American history. 4 As a result, many millennials are stuck in apartment life. Unable to afford houses, they have created virtual jungles in their apartments. 5 They’ve created spaces of garden inside apartment living. That says something significant about the human drive to be co-creators and co-participants in bringing about and caring for life. Brian Buchheim of Gazebo Gardens in Fresno agrees and goes one step further. The millennial craving for houseplants, he says, is the same as the desire for children: they’re “something to nurture, love, and watch grow.” 6

How does working in the garden become a sacramental experience and an invitation to participate, to belong, to co-create? A significant aspect of accepting the invitation is to pay close attention to what is happening right in front of us in ways that we can’t when we’re out in the wilderness. We can’t keep track of every single inch of growth in all the trees and plants in the wilderness, but we can if it’s contained in a smaller space.

This often happens to me when I’m caring for my succulents. One summer my aeoniums got an infestation of mealybugs. Aeoniums have tightly spaced leaves in the shape of rosettes, providing the perfect environment for mealybugs to wedge themselves in and hide. I found that spraying rubbing alcohol on the aeoniums to treat mealybugs was effective, but I had to do it every day. So, every day I went out onto my patio and investigated every single crevice of each my aeoniums. Mealybugs feed on the juices of plants, draining them of life and nutrients. But I also kept an eye out for ants, which farm mealybugs for food. Watching for the fluffy white mealybugs themselves wasn’t enough; I also had to watch for other signs of health and unhealth in the ecosystem.

Caring for these aeoniums became a sacramental experience, prompting me to gratitude for God’s presence and close attention to my life, my {68} community, and our world. It increased my faith, hope, and love, imagining God watching for signs of unhealth and every day showing up, providing the most life-giving treatment. This is just one example of how paying close attention to something right on my own patio became a sacramental experience and opened me up to gratitude and appreciation for how God also cares for all of creation. In this way, the garden can become a place to experience deeper intimacy with God.

There other ways of paying close attention in the garden. Many vegetable farmers and home gardeners are aware of an Indigenous American practice of planting a trio of plants together: corn, squash, and beans. Known as the Three Sisters, each provides what the others need. The climbing bean can grow up the corn stalk of corn. The bean adds nitrogen to the soil. The squash leaves provide shade and keep the soil moist. This feels strange to those of us accustomed to a monocultural system of planting crops in straight rows. But when we consider what kind of plants are best situated for life together, that each can help the other thrive, this is a beautiful model for how we can help one another to thrive, even with our differences—and perhaps even because of our differences. How might the image of the Three Sisters help us to reframe our understanding of relationships with each other in the church, community, and with all of creation?

Gardening as a sacramental experience opens us up to the idea of being participants and co-creators of all that is possible in our life with God. Perhaps you don’t consider yourself a “plant person.” If that’s the case, I encourage you to think about why you feel that way. Do you forget to water plants, causing them to shrivel up and die? Consider a cactus! Do you overwater plants, causing them to drown and rot? A fern might be for you! Think of it as an experiment to see how God might to speak through that kind of experience and what kind of partnership with God might develop.


The final movement in cultivating a grounded spirituality takes places in the kitchen. According to the reality show, Chopped, it’s only “cooking” when the ingredients you use are transformed. Contestants are reprimanded if they don’t somehow transform the ingredients they have been given into something new. It’s incredible to see the transformation of a handful of mismatched ingredients into some new, harmonious whole. For viewers who have awakened to the presence of the Creator, additional layers of meaning unfold and deepen.

My own experience of transformation arose from a challenge of a different kind. A number of years ago I volunteered to be the cook for a week-long silent retreat. At that time, I was in a process of discernment {69} about the next season of my life and career. I had already taught in the Biblical Studies department at Fresno Pacific for a handful of years. I loved teaching, but something was missing in my life and I couldn’t figure out what it was. It turned out that cooking at this silent retreat was one of the most worshipful experiences of my life.

Let me be more specific: washing a piece of lettuce was one of the most worshipful experiences of my life. As I washed it, I was absolutely awe-struck, paying close attention to the color variation in the leaf, knowing that all of those colors mean something in terms of the vitamins and minerals it contained. I looked more closely than I ever had at all the veins, where water would travel to all parts of this one leaf of lettuce. I gave thanks for the person who picked this lettuce, and for the driver who transported it to the grocery store. I gave thanks for the water that irrigated the head of lettuce from which this one leaf came. I gave thanks for the sun that enabled the process of photosynthesis to feed the plant. Washing this head of lettuce was truly a mystical experience! And as it happened, the preparation of all the retreat meals was like that—awakening to the presence of God and participating in the process of transformation.

I sat and ate every meal with the retreatants in silence. This was new and unnerving because my insecure mind was telling me, “They hate my food. They’re just thankful to be in silence so they don’t have to pretend to like it.” But when I was cooking for them, I felt wonderful: I was experiencing the grace and presence of God.

Imagine my surprise at the end of the week when everybody could talk again—and all they would talk about was the food. Participants in a silent retreat only speak for thirty minutes each day, during spiritual direction. The retreat director of thirty-five years said later that never in all her time of leading these retreats had everyone spent their entire thirty minutes, each day, talking about the food. As she and I talked and I told her about my own experience of cooking, it became obvious to both of us what had happened: retreatants experienced the grace and presence of God. Coming from a nonsacramental faith tradition, to say that grace was physically imparted to the food through my act of worship was quite outside my experience. But the same reports from all these different people were impossible for me to deny.

This experience caused me to reflect deeply about what happens when we cook. What happens when we share that food with others? And what happens at the dinner table? The Catholic Church has long held that communion—Mass, the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper—is a sacrament in which the elements of bread and wine are literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. Honestly, that’s still something I struggle to understand. But my own experience of cooking for the silent retreat opened me up to consider that maybe it’s not nothing after all, maybe something {70} is happening. Sharing food that is delicious, nutritious, and made with love—why can’t the presence of God literally be in that moment? Cooking for others and sharing a meal had become sacraments.


We’ve been considering this three-part basis for a grounded spirituality, for cultivating an awareness of God’s presence based on a sacramental understanding of these spaces as mediating the grace and presence of God to us. The wilderness is that place of awakening and opening, of a growing appreciation for all the wonders of God’s creation, as well as for cultivating a sense of preservation of our own interior spaces for encountering God. In the garden we become involved as co-creators, as co-participants. We study habits and habitats, the growth patterns of particular plants, and strive to maximize their wellbeing and their capacity to bear sumptuous fruit. Finally, in the kitchen and, by extension, at the table, the food from the garden is now transformed into a meal that nourishes and sustains us body, mind, and soul. But if the food we eat is to continue to nourish us, we need to care for the earth. Each of these three spaces and the actions within them have the power to create a culture that gets passed down to each generation. Cultivating a grounded spirituality helps us become more aware of God’s presence and activity, and prepares us to participate with God in caring for the earth so that all of creation can flourish.


  1. Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2001).
  2. This is not to deny the reality of sin but to assert that all that exists is because of the creating, redeeming, and sustaining presence of God, even as we await the fullness of this presence at the end of the age.
  3. The Catholic tradition recognizes Baptism, Confession/Reconciliation, Eucharist, Confirmation, Anointing of the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders as sacraments. — Ed.
  4. Irina Ivanova, “Millennials Are the Biggest—but Poorest—Generation,” CBS News, 26 November 2019,
  5. Caroline Biggs, “Plant-Loving Millennials at Home and at Work,” The New York Times, March 9, 2018,
  6. Brian Guerrero-Buchheim of Gazebo Gardens in Fresno, California, in conversation with the author.
Audrey Hindes is the pastor of Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Clovis, California. She loves teaching contemplative prayer practices and exploring faith through food, nature, and art. She has an MA in biblical languages from the Graduate Theological Union and is an alumna of Fresno Pacific University’s Biblical & Religious Studies and Classics programs.

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