When I was a child, my brother and I spent long summers with my grandparents on their retirement farm outside of Cornwall, Ontario. My grandparents were both immigrants from Latvia and often offered perspective or advice from their old country. Most of what I learned from them came in the form of storytelling. In 1944, my grandmother gave birth in a hospital with bombed-out windows and little heat in the December cold. After recovering from pneumonia with the assistance of a cousin and wrapping my mother in a multicolored wool blanket, she escaped the Russian and Nazi invaders and waited in Germany for my grandfather. My grandfather then escaped from a Russian POW camp and walked all the way to Germany to meet them.
My grandfather always reminded me that we were a family of survivors. No matter how much adversity life might offer up, he did not want me to forget that our family had made it, and that I could make it too. My grandfather died in 2008 at the age of 98, but he is always with me. At times in my own life when I have struggled with various difficulties, I have often thought back to these stories of courage and resilience.
Not all of my grandfather’s influence had to do with such serious matters, though. Much later in my life, shortly before my wedding, my grandfather offered up the following aphorism: “If you hold your nose too high up in the rain you’ll drown.” Although he did not explain this metaphor, I am pretty sure he was cautioning me against being too proud, good advice for any marriage.
One of the most influential aspects of my grandfather’s wisdom, however, was not what he said but how he modeled a way of relating to the natural world. My grandfather talked to animals. Out loud. For example, if a woodchuck was digging up some plant in his garden, he’d go talk with it, perhaps saying in a warm, yet chiding voice, “What are you doing in my garden? This is not for you. Go find yourself some other food to eat. There’s a nice bunch of blackberries on the rock wall for you to visit.” My grandfather kept chickens and geese and would talk with them as he walked them out to the pond and back. He had no illusions that the animals understood his words, but he treated animals with friendship rather than as objects to be used. All of the natural world was his friend.
I recently realized that my love of nature and my connection to God through contemplation of the natural world is rooted in my grandfather’s care for the same. For example, I often think of certain beloved trees at the local park or at my workplace as akin to “friends” that I witness change and grow over the years. My grandfather’s influence made this friendship with the natural world feel as natural as breathing air. Like him, I also chat with the animals and even my garden plants. Although, so far, they do not talk back, God does speak to me through the way they reflect the possibility of friendship with all of creation.
Editor’s Note: This week here at IgnatianSpirituality.com, we’re sharing stories of wisdom learned from our elders, in honor of Sharing the Wisdom of Time by Pope Francis and Friends. The book inspired the Netflix series Stories of a Generation with Pope Francis.