In my last post, I started to explore something of the legacy of “wildness” in American culture (specifically American environmentalist literature). I suggested, against Thoreau and with Berry, that the well-cultivated farm is a proper locus of wildness and, even further, that any activity of proper cultivation can be considered a “wild” activity.
When wildness is not opposed to cultivation, this confirms a fairly consistent trend in Christian spiritual literature: spirituality is involves a great deal of conscious effort on the part of the practitioner. In her autobiography, Teresa of Avila (the 16th century Spanish mystic and saint) likens the effort experienced in the beginning stages of prayer to that involved in retrieving water from a well, whereas the most advanced stages of prayer no effort is required from the practitioner at all. She receives the grace of God as the ground receives rain in a heavy storm. Similarly, Sarah Coakley (a contemporary Anglican theologian, influenced highly by Carmelite spiritualty) describes the beginning stages of prayer as involving great personal commitment, patience, and “spiritual endurance” practiced over the course of a lifetime (Coakley 83). As one progresses in the stages of prayer, however, Coakley describes that an ever deepening reliance is revealed to the practitioner such that one recognizes the agency of grace from the very beginning. Human efforts in prayer are geared toward an active receptivity of the divine. The divine rises to meet the human activity and fill it with wild, gratuitous love. Yet just as we seem to recognize the transformation of the human into the divine, we notice perhaps that wild and free grace of the divine cannot be confined by our initiating efforts. As Coakley puts it, one comes to understand that “grace propels the whole” (80). Grace has given birth to our desire for union as well as sustained us in our search for union.
For both Teresa and Coakley, this understanding of the cooperation of the human and the divine in the work of prayer reveals a fundamental “compatibilist” theology of grace: i.e., divine freedom nurtures and sustains human freedom. This view of grace as neither requiring our efforts in order to be initiated, nor threatened by human effort if it should rise to meet divine effort is truly a portrait of grace as wild. Grace is free. It births us and it sustains us as one piece of the world in which we have been created to live. Our full activity does not pen in this wild grace. To the extent that our efforts in developing spiritual practices are awake to the wildness of grace, we can be prepared to find it within the quotidian nature of our daily domesticities. Practitioners of prayer, i.e. those who return daily to the hard work making themselves available to the divine, conserve the wildness of the world within them.