Being with God in nature

Sue Martin, the Assistant Coordinator for Reconciliation with Creation, discusses what has been taking place with the Australian Jesuits’ Being with God in Nature (BwGiN) ministry this financial year.


In 2002, the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference established Catholic Earthcare Australia with a mandate to assist in the ecological conversion of the Australian Church. Fr Denis Edwards, a respected eco-theologian, gave his support, and some green shoots were seen across the church. The Australian Jesuits’ Being with God in Nature (BwGiN) ministry germinated within this ecological conversion journey occurring in the wider Australian Church. Catholic Earthcare Australia offered immersion retreats in nature, and Dr Peter Saunders, spiritual director at the Jesuit Campion Spirituality Centre in Melbourne, participated in one in 2014. While in the Flinders Rangers in South Australia, Dr Saunders had an “aha!” moment, which became the seed of the BwGiN ministry.

The offerings from the blossoming BwGiN ministry started in 2015 with Dr Saunders, Fr Iain Radvan SJ and Helen Lucas running nature retreats and walking pilgrimages across Melbourne. I was fortunate to undertake the 2016 Wilson’s Promontory five-day retreat in nature. It was a truly transformative experience that connected me to the BwGiN ministry and, eventually, led me to take over as the BwGiN ministry coordinator when Dr Saunders stepped down as coordinator.

Today, Being with God in Nature is a key ministry of Jesuit and Ignatian Spirituality Australia (JISA). Br Ian Cribb SJ, JISA Director, fully supports the work with the help of Robyn Wunder and Frances Tilley. The ministry provides various opportunities to experience Ignatian Spirituality in nature, spending time in a group, sometimes in silence, listening to God’s presence in nature. The team takes people out into the Australian wilderness while also allowing them to experience nature in urban settings. There are opportunities to spend contemplative time in nature and enter into that contemplative place in their hearts to encounter the Presence that is God in Nature, leading to “ecological conversation” and reconciliation with Creation.

Since its inception, the BwGiN ministry continues to grow and influence the ecological conversion journey of other Jesuit ministries in Australia. In 2021, it auspiced a series of lectures from Kathleen Duffy, President of the US Teilhard Association, with the WA Ignatian Spirituality Centre. A year later, influenced by the BwGiN ministry, the Australian Mercy ministry, Earthkin, engaged Kathleen to speak on eco-spirituality.

Sue Martin. Photo: Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific (JCAP).

The year 2022 saw our BwGiN ministry thrive, thanks to Dr Saunders and Fr Iain with Helen, who were the key convenors of the International Ignatian Ecological Conference (IIEC) in May. IIEC celebrated the 500th anniversary of St Ignatius’ ecological conversion and was one of the Ignatius 500 events. It focused on providing an ecological conversion experience for all participants with Spiritual Exercises in nature and contemplative walks undertaken each day, no matter where the participants were based.

The BwGiN ministry also blossomed with a collaboration with Catholic Earthcare to hold online movie events, one of which was “My Octopus Teacher” and Fr Gabby Lamug-Nañawa SJ giving a reflection on ecological conversion.

Another fruit of the ministry is the Australian Ignatian Trails (AIT), a pilgrimage in the footsteps of the first Jesuits in Australia leading to Sevenhill. Sevenhill is a 25-bed retreat and function centre nestled in the idyllic scenery of the historic Sevenhill Cellars and vineyard, the oldest winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley, and the birthplace of the Jesuits in Australia.

So far there have been two AIT pilgrimages: one for the Jesuit Schools Ignatian Coordinators, the other for a more diverse group, which included some Christian Church leaders. Both had a strong impact on the walkers, as much in the gentle periods of rest as in the hours of walking. Plans are underway to train up leaders to enable more pilgrims to experience the beautiful countryside.

The Australian Ignatian Trail. Photo: Michael Todd.

Recently, BwGiN started programmes in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, while newly forming in South Australia and Western Australia.

In Queensland, the highlight has been the Laudato Sí walks on Mt Coot-Tha and the staff eco-spirituality professional development opportunities with various schools in Brisbane. In New South Wales, we have begun a contemplative walks programme with Mark and Mary Diggins to the beautiful Ku-ring-gai National Park. While in Victoria, the ministry collaborates with Jesuit Social Services, using The Hut on the Yarra River for monthly contemplation in nature quiet retreats.

As I write this from the lands of the Darug Indigenous Peoples influenced by our river Deerubbin, it is interesting to reflect that our Jesuit BwGiN ministry has been influenced and tended by the ecological conversion journey occurring in other Congregations in Australia.

The Brigidine Congregation auspiced Earthsong in Melbourne for many years, the Christian Brothers auspiced Glenbourne ecological retreat centre, the Sisters of Mercy auspiced Earthkin, the Columbans auspiced the Faith and Ecology Network, which produced the Grace of Place series, and many other Congregational ecological initiatives that are still flourishing today. In 2023 a small legacy from the IIEC will fund a Jesuit place in the Integral Ecology Fellowship.

The journey to shift hearts in the wider community has also had many green shoots in Melbourne, where the environmental conversion journey has been occurring for many years. Thirty years ago, there was a push to have Landcare as a way to care for country and practise deep ecology. Today Landcare is a thriving community organisation throughout Australia helping people connect with like-minded individuals, enabling the green shoots of ecological conversion to take place.

The BwGiN ministry has ensured a deeper understanding of the Society’s Universal Apostolic Preference on “Care for our Common Home” both within Australia and more widely across the Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific. In 2023, there will be a continuation of this blossoming with pilgrimages, walks, and events in collaboration with the Australian Jesuit Care for our Common Home committee and many others in the eco-spirituality community. The invitation to be a part of this unfolding deep connection with the Creator Spirit is always open. Our dream is to have a BwGiN ministry across Asia Pacific. The planned Flagship Youth Retreat offers such an opportunity to explore future possibilities.

Sue Martin, Assistant Coordinator, Reconciliation with Creation.

This publication was originally published in the 2023 Annual Report from Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific (JCAP).

Feature photo by Damon Hall on Pexels.