Prior to the feast of Pentecost our international SHCJ prayer group - Society of the Holy Child Jesus - zoomed together greeting those from Africa and America and Ireland with extra pleasure as we marvelled at the way distance has vanished through this new technology. We reflected together on Pope Francis' musings on the Holy Spirit from 'Let us Dream':
"The Spirit shows us new things through what the Church calls the signs of the times. Discerning the signs of the times allows us to make sense of change……In every age people experience "hunger and thirst for righteousness", a cry that goes up from the margins of society. If we discern in such a yearning a movement of God's Spirit, it allows us to open up to that movement in thought and action, and so to create a new future ……allowing us to respond with the depth that only the Holy Spirit can give us.' (#57)
Reflecting, we considered the current 'signs of the times': war in Ukraine, increasing poverty amid the cost of living crisis, climate change and, more hopefully, the way communities had come together during the pandemic. But the cry of the Poor and the cry of the Earth were the dominant themes. How are we to respond to problems of this magnitude?
The next day a book, ordered by our younger son, was delivered to our house. It was George Monbiot's latest book entitled, 'Regenesis: feeding the world without devouring the planet'. Still looking for the Holy Spirit to show me the signs of the times I seized on it and it did not fail.
It comes with great acclaim. Greta Thunberg says Monbiot is one of the most important and fearless voices in the global climate movement today. Kate Raworth says: "Regenesis calls for nothing less than a revolution in the future of food - one that will quite literally transform the face of the Earth. This is Monbiot's masterpiece." Former Government Chief Scientific Adviser, David King, says, "it is, in my view, one of the two or three most important books this century."
'Regenesis' describes Monbiot's research journey, in a very readable way, from examining a 'spit' of soil to a complete reversal of farming as a way of food production. The spit contains a microcosm of the richest ecosystem on earth which is 'hitched to everything else in the universe'. He says the soil might be the most complex of all living systems but we treat it like dirt through farming processes like ploughing. From the impoverished soil he moves on to the ways food production destroys rivers, wildlife, ecosystems and forests. It is also adversely affecting the climate. As we consume more meat and grow cereals using ploughing and annual planting we are laying waste vast stretches of land. The soil is deficient, fertilisers pollute and chicken factories desecrate rivers with their waste. We slaughter and kill, often brutally, to eat protein from meat.
Monbiot looks at the alternatives which are being tried out experimentally on a small scale by visionaries like Tolly, like Ian, like Tim. They become real people to us as they discuss the pros and cons of their experimental 'farming' with George. Nothing provides the perfect answer - nothing ever will be - but there is a growing urgency for the world to move away from farming as we know it. This means the Big Farmer, and for governments to understand that the huge financial subsidies they sink into farming are creating some of the very problems they need to resolve.
The book is funny, personal and meticulously researched. The index of references takes up nearly a third of the book, but, in spite of this, Monbiot writes in an easily readable style with word pictures which remain in the memory underlining the serious point he is making. A parcel arrives, part of which is for his nine-year-old daughter. It contains flour samples made from grass seeds, perennials not annuals, called Kernza. Even a nine-year-old catches his excitement about its potential both in food production and in protection of the land. But will it taste as good? Again, we share in graphic detail his baking of a loaf and his first tentative taste. What a relief! It passes the taste test as well.
As a Christian, I found his discussion of shepherd and lamb narratives in the Bible and other classical pastoral texts, interesting and thought provoking. For Monbiot, they belong to a golden age, 'root metaphors' from which we draw comfort and safety. Like the childrens' books full of talking animals on idealised farms they hide the harsh reality and grinding poverty of a farm labourer's or shepherd's life. The last chapter entitled 'The Ice Saints' is typically funny, personal and forward looking. Frost has demolished George's apple orchard. Stewart says it's because they forgot to pray to the Ice Saints. 11th, 12, and 13th of May are traditionally the feasts of Saints Mamertus, Pancras and Servatius and also days when winter can strike with its final heavy frost. Farmers beware!
But hope springs eternal and next month finds George back preparing for the next crop. There comes a moment in human history as ideas are coming to fruition, he says, when seismic change can happen, and we can reshape our relationship with the living planet. No prayers required if we on Earth are prepared enough. My prayer group would pray with Pope Francis: Come Holy Spirit and renew the face of the Earth and thank God for the Monbiots for sharing their vision. An essential and enjoyable read for all of us.
Celia Capstick is co- convener of the Social Responsibility Committee of the National Board of Catholic Women (NBCW).
NBCW - www.nbcw.co.uk/
CAFOD's 'Fix the Food System' food campaign plus a Leader's Guide for workshops