The Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands

You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands (Isaiah 55:12).

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What’s in a Name? Ecological Literacy as Spiritual Practice

IMG_8754Back in 2011, toward the end of my master of forestry program, I began to wonder whether my newly-found knowledge of the forest was getting in the way of experiencing it. Memorizing Latin names for family, genus and species; describing the intricate details of the physiology of tree growth; categorizing the phases of forest succession; or, learning to identify diseases and invasive species. Together, these skills were allowing me to see the forest through fresh eyes. But what I found myself lacking, was those simple encounters with the raw and transformative beauty of trees and forests that go beyond our ability to name, categorize and catalogue.

What I am exploring in this paper is the notion that a balance between naming and experiencing are complementary aspects of any spiritual ecology. Understanding, identifying and naming are powerful ways to experience the world, its utility to us and its sacramental depths. Words are symbols used to point to objects, persons, relationships and ideas. The Traditional Ecological Knowledges of any culture develops to organize life around necessary categories: food, medicine, season, friend, foe, real, hidden, etc. Our languages develop in relation to the web of life around us, to describe the properties and uses of the world. In a time of mass disconnection from ecological processes, re-learning these words, uses and processes are a powerful cultural transformation strategy.

The phrase Ecological Literacy was coined by sustainability educators David Orr and Fritjof Capra and can be paraphrased as a basic understanding of the ecological cycles and functions of the earth. Developing a sense of place, and a basic understanding of the processes, elements and organisms in our bioregions is a crucial component of ecological sustainability. In addition, as scholar Douglas Christie has written, there is a deeply rewarding complementarity between spirituality and ecological literacy. He writes:

[S]piritual thought and practice is immeasurably enriched through being situated within the natural world, and…ecological understanding is given added depth and meaning by extending the ecological field to include traditions of spiritual thought and practice.[1]

Language forms a crucial element of Christian theological spirituality. God is said to have spoken the world into being, and thus, in turn, the world speaks of God’s being. In the Gospel of John, the author affirms Jesus not just as a wise teacher, but as the Logos, or Word of God made flesh.

Naming is also an element of Biblical theology. In the Book of Genesis, Adam is charged by God to name the animals. And the very name of God is sacred to the Jewish writers.

These logo-centric analogies have often led theologians to see the world itself as a text referred to as the Book of Creation. Natural Theology proceeds from the assumption that if we are able to learn to read this Book, we will better come to know its Author. Saint Augustine (354-430) writes:

Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a greater book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: ‘God made me!’[2]

Creation speaks of God through its existence, beauty and diversity. This analogy continued into the enlightenment. In a letter, Galileo (1564-1642) wrote, “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”[3]

During the enlightenment and reformation, religion and science took divergent institutional paths, which included their respective approaches to the uses of language to understand the world. In the academy today we have two schools of knowledge rooted in this political dispute between Western epistemological categories. Scientific knowledge has focused on the analytical, observable and measurable. Religious and poetic knowledge is assumed to express the realm of the subjective, the speculative, the qualitative and the mystical. For early atheist David Hume, for example, the poet expresses nothing but fabrication. He wrote, “Poets themselves, though liars by profession, always endeavor to give an air of truth to their fictions.” For Hume and the more contemporary atheist writer Richard Dawkins religion is simply outdated and bad science.[4] On the other side, for the Romantic poet Jon Keats (1795-1821), dissecting the beauty of a rainbow, as Isaac Newton’s laws of optics did, risks losing the mystery, beauty and enchantment of the world to a “cold philosophy.”

Thus the experience of a forest has often required one to take sides, the pragmatic and the economic on the one side, and the poetic and the intrinsic on the other. This is the epistemological divide we have inherited, and which we seek to overcome. In his book The Reenchantment of Nature, Alistair McGrath, a scientist and Anglican priest, insists that science is not the only valid source of knowledge about the world. For McGrath there is a balance to be struck between the two ways of knowing that are complementary:

Our appreciation of a rainbow is enhanced through an understanding of the Newtonian laws of optics. This does not detract or distract from the immediate spine-tingling sense of delight at a rainbow, or from the potential of a rainbow to point beyond itself to a realm for which we can only long in our present situation, but which we believe we shall one day enter.[5]

For McGrath, what we call the cataphatic (according to words) and the apophatic (without, or beyond words) need each other. Words and beyond words are complementary. God in the liturgy and God in silence feed each other.

This lesson is precisely what I have learned in my experiences as an amateur naturalist and more recently as a researcher working with Catholic monks. For my dissertation research, I interviewed 50 monks from four Roman Catholic monastic communities located in the American West from Benedictine and Trappist lineages. Most monks have a deep sense of place that emerges from their vow of Stability, and a rich symbolic literacy of the landscape rooted in tradition and scripture. Yet, generally, they were not interested in knowing the scientific or common names of more than a dozen common plant and animal species. They seemed to value the landscape as a spiritual resource, one that pointed sacramentally to God and as a consequence, names were of little importance. Rather, it was color, size, niche, and the qualities of an organism that interested them most.

For example, during a walk with a monk of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California; after he bent down to look at a small flower he said that it reminded him of the Saint Therese of Lisieux. I asked what it was. He stated unequivocally, that he didn’t know names, he just enjoyed noticing each particular thing. Saint Therese had compared herself to a little flower, and thus little flowers pointed to the teachings of this important saint, and to God’s tender care for all creatures, even the smallest of plants.

Similarly, a monk at Christ in the Desert Abbey in Abiquiu, New Mexico told me that he cultivated an intimate attention to the particularities of the land and would counsel younger monks to really look at the land when they were out walking. He would sit on a bench and contemplate small creatures, birds and plants for hours, but again, was uninterested in their common or scientific names.

Somewhat frustrated by this finding, I asked another monk at Christ in the Desert why the monks were not interested in the names of plants and animals. He said:

The important [thing] I guess for the monk, you might ask, what’s more important, to know and spend time with a flower and to know its origin which is God or to know what we’ve named it?

The assumption of course was that one activity detracts or takes time away from the other, in the classic epistemological divide between sciences and the humanities. Being a good humored man, he then began to make up the names of plants and wildflowers as we walked along: “That’s the Fred Oak” he said; or, “The Lusitania Trumpet.” The important thing was to be present to it in all its mystery, changes and seasons; the world speaks of God, and to move through the landscape is to be reminded of God through the symbolic and spiritual lessons that the landscape provides. That was the key to the monastic sense of place that I encountered.

And yet, whether scientific or theological, framing the world only through our ideas of it can be just as instrumental or exploitative as a logger or miner might be. Sacramental theology can turn the land into yet another kind of resource for human use, even if that use is spiritual. Theologian of place Belden Lane raised this criticism best when he wrote:

The challenge is to honor the thing itself, as well as the thing as metaphor. When [Ralph Waldo] Emerson declared in 1836 that ‘every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,’ he sent people racing to the woods, anticipating the voice of God in the call of every thrush. But too often they paid scant attention to the songbird in their anxiousness to hear some transcendent message. They returned home full of nothing but themselves, their pockets stuffed with metaphors. As the imagination reaches relentlessly for a timeless, interior soulscape, it is easy to sail over the specificity of particular landscapes.[6]

For all of our scientific and theological complexity and precision, naming can often look past the world to our own ideas and uses of and for it. Wallace Stevens gets it right when he wrote that “we live in the description of the place and not the place itself.”[7]

It would seem then that while scientists can become obsessed with naming, analyzing and categorizing; western spirituality can become equally enamored with symbol and metaphor. But, for all this naming, literacy and ‘reading’ of the landscape, it is also essential go beyond words and concepts. This apophatic approach, beyond words, can lead to a deeper encounter that upholds the intrinsic rather than instrumental value of creation and our mysterious union with it through God.

Walking with another monk along the Chama River in New Mexico, without any kind of prompt on my part, he said:

The truth is in the thing itself and not in thinking about it…it’s letting go of that, and being here in the presence…there has to be a point where we’re just in silence before God, and in silence before the beauty that he’s created without trying to put things on it. That’s what contemplative life is supposed to be about, learning to be in silence before mystery and nothing further.

Certainly many of the monks gleaned spiritual lesson and theological symbol from the landscape, but they were also cultivating the ability to pay attention, to sink into God through silence, and with the things themselves. [Strange Stranger]

Douglas Christie suggests that this apophatic spirituality is an openness to unknowing: “There is a further, more encompassing, more mysterious knowledge that one comes to only through unknowing.”[8]He continues, “The Word (Logos) speaks through the world and it is necessary to learn this language. But there is also the rich ground of silence in which the contemplative listens, the physical silence of solitude…or stillness in which the Word can be apprehended and absorbed.”[9] Words are punctuated by silence, and the theology of the Word points to the silence of God that underlies reality.

Lastly, English nature writer Robert Macfarlane is emphatic about recovering a vocabulary of the landscape. Words matter. In our urban and suburban existences, we have left the working land behind, and with it an entire vocabulary of the richness of the textures, contours, events, life phases and diurnal and seasons cycles. Macfarlane argues passionately for a kind of place-literacy, a literacy that is being lost as we lose our connection and relationship to the land. For example the peat-dictionary of the Hebrides in Scotland lists hundreds of Gaelic words for the various aspects of the Moorlands. He laments that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had recently deleted words such as: “Acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow”; and had included words such as “block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.” For Macfarlane, words are not just ways of describing the world as it is, but rites of passage that embody and “enchant our relations with nature and place.” And yet despite his insistence on reclaiming a cataphatic ecological literacy, he also writes,

Of course there are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo—or to which silence is by far the best response. Nature does not name itself. Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say, ‘Wow.’”[10]

Spending time in the presence of other creatures, learning their names and habits and life histories, is not necessarily getting any closer to understanding their essence, but it does put us in practice of acknowledging and understanding the world on its own terms, which then carries us into its ultimate mystery. This has at least been my humble experience of taking the time to learn the names and habits of a particular tree, moss, bird or lichen. Walking into the woods without a particular thing in mind, our sense filter out the overabundance of stimuli.

And yet, it is apophatic encounters, beyond words, that remain the ground from which awe and wonder emerge, whether experienced by the scientist or the theologian. Additionally, an apophatic stance, might be understood as one of remaining open to new ways that the world might speak through us; leaving open the very real possibility that our paradigms, metaphors and motifs are not serving anyone but ourselves. Even with all our knowledge, humility would acknowledge that there will always be something deeper calling us into new ideas, new relationships and new meanings. That to be alive means both exploring the depths of the human heart, and the unfathomable depth of mystery at the heart of the world.

[1] Christie, Douglas (2012). The Blue Sapphire of the Mind (New York: Oxford University Press), 5.

[2] Saint Augustine (1998) The City of God Against the Pagans (New York: Cambridge University Press), 695.

[3] Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615, Verses 272-279 cited IN Harrison, Peter (2001). The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. (New York: Cambridge University Press), 197.

[4] McGrath, Alasdair (2002). The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis. (New York: Image), 171.

[5] McGrath, Alasdair, Reenchantment of Nature, 25.

[6] Lane, Belden, Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 17.

[7] Wallace Stevens, IN Lane, Belden, Solace of Fierce Landscapes…

[8] Christie, Douglas, Blue Sapphire of the Mind, 204.

[9] Christie, Douglas, Blue Sapphire of the Mind, 191.

[10] Macfarlane, Robert (2015). Landmarks. (New York: Penguin Publishers).

Wilderness and Wild, Wild Country

Osho.jpg

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho the founder of the Rajneeshee movement that temporarily took over a small town in Oregon

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931–1990) began teaching publically in the 1960s.  Bhagwan criticized socialism and Gandhian politics and challenged many traditional Hindu values. His talks seemed to synthesize and illuminate the teachings of various religious traditions. He was an advocate of free love, he blended psychotherapy and meditation, and held civilizational aspirations that framed his movement as the catalyst for a global transformation that would end war, violence, sectarianism and hunger. Many of his talks are available on YouTube.

Despite being fascinated by religion, and having even taught a course on New Religious Movements, I had never heard of Rajneesh, or Osho, as he was later affectionately called. With the release of a six-part Netflix documentary series Wild, Wild Country directed by Maclain and Chapman Way, we are given a whirlwind tour of one of the US’s most fascinating and explosive religious experiments.

In terms of production quality, Wild, Wild Country may be the best documentary series I have ever seen! The visual storytelling is masterful. The cinematography seamlessly blends historic footage and colour-saturated contemporary footage of the people and places associated with the movement’s heyday. The soundtrack isn’t bad either! The narrative is at times alarmist but overall sympathetic to both those who opposed Osho’s movement, and those who are still loyal to him and his teachings. Wild, Wild Country confronts us with yet another case of religious outsiders seeking acceptance on the margins of American society, and like most new religious movements, they were met with intense resistance.

The 40 residents of the town of Antelope, state and federal officials were almost immediately worried when an obscure Guru from India purchased a large ranch in central Oregon. Baghwan’s first commune in Pune, India, established in the early 1970s, ran into trouble with the national government. In 1981 Rajneesh and many of his followers relocated to the United States.

Several things did not sit right with the local towns peoples. The Rajneeshees practised an ecstatic form of meditation called ‘Dynamic Meditation’ that resembled, in some footage, a kind of psychotic break. They embraced free-love. They re-incorporated the town of Antelope and renamed it Rajneeshpurum, occupying almost the entire City Council. Rajneeshees or, Sannyasins as they were also called, wore mostly maroon or pink colours as a sign of group cohesion. Feeling somewhat unwelcomed, they became heavily armed as a measure of “self-defence.” And, it seemed that Rajneesh lived in lavish luxury, while his followers lived simple communal lives, suggesting a disparity between teacher and student. Many followers also cut off ties with family and friends and donated their assets to the movement, a red flag for many. This combination of factors, and the recent mass-suicide at Jonestown in Guyana meant that what may have felt like utopia to some, was being framed by locals and the media as a capital ‘C’ cult.

However, by far the most compelling character in the series is Rajneesh’s personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela. Much of the militancy and controversy in the public eye came through her interviews as the mouthpiece of the movement. She was the Stalin to Rajneesh’s Lenin; an uncompromising and fierce protector of Osho and his movement. In the defence of the commune, Sheela would stop at nothing. She plotted assassinations, wiretapped the entire compound, and perpetuated one of the worst bioterrorism attacks in the history of the United States by contaminating Wasco County salad bars with E. coli bacteria.

You simply must see for yourself how it all comes unravelled, but in reviewing this excellent film, I wanted to focus on one aspect that caught my attention. Though not rooted in the Christian tradition, the decision of the religious commune to take refuge in a remote part of Oregon has a long lineage in monastic and religious movements. Religious scholar and theologian Belden Lands says this of the relationship between land and new religious movements:

“People seeking new vitality in the spiritual life continually retreat to wild and undeveloped landscapes, seeking new meaning along the outer margins of familiarity. There, in places of abandonment—the desert, the highlands—they establish community rooted in the spirit of wilderness saints before them. But after having made this new land habitable, beginning to look upon it with a pastoral eye, they sense the danger of losing the sharp edge and hardiness the original landscape had suggested. Subsequent movements of reform, therefore, set off in search of still other wild and remote regions to begin anew. Or they preserve within the present terrain an archetypal or metaphorical landscape symbolizing the wilderness enclave the community still aspires to become. Repeatedly, therefore, the “desert ideal” of fourth-century monasticism in Egypt, Syria, and the Wilderness of Judea served to inspire successive movements of spiritual renewal” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 47).

In some ways, I appreciate religious movements that see religion as something more than an after-work hobby, a social club, or a Sunday ritual. The Rajneeshees saw themselves as moving to the desert to begin the work of transforming the planet. Sound familiar? Many hundreds of utopian movements have had similar ambitions and claimed not to be a new religious sect.

In my research on medieval era monasticism, new orders would often emerge as an attempt to return to the spiritual roots of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They would write grand narratives about their fleeing to the dangerous and unforgiving wilderness to make the wildlands blossom as a rose and to spread the Gospel. And, if there were people there, they would either write them out of the story or in more rare cases, physically drive them out of the area.

The Rajneeshees often claimed that they simply wanted to live in peace. But as they set their sights on the Wasco County Commission election, it became clear that they had a more evangelical agenda. There is something absolutely revitalising about starting fresh. But, when you show up in someone’s ‘countryside’ and assume it to be a ‘desert wilderness’ there are bound to be problems.

The Crown of Thorns

You cannot walk far in Vancouver without seeing the remnants of the Pre-European forest. Silent tombstones, towering sentinels. Some take on the guise of faces from the notches cut in the bark to insert planks so that the faller could get above the swell of the base. Often, these unassuming stumps host their ecologies. Moss, lichen, liverworts, ferns. Sometimes their crowns grow what looks like a head of hair of salal or huckleberry. Walking near the Seymour River after church yesterday, during the season of Easter. This particular stump reminded me of the crown of thorns, one of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary prayer. And yet, despite the horrors of Good Friday, Easter Sunday brings new life. After a long winter, the crown of thorns is blossoming.

The Annunciation of Spring

Santa Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi by Sandro Botticelli completed in 1489.

Above the altar of the Blessed Sacrament Chapel of Saint James Anglican Church, where I serve, is a painting of Bottichelli’s Santa Maria Maddalena de’Pazzi. When I lead morning and evening prayer on Wednesdays and Sundays the painting speaks of the ‘Yes’ that Mary gave to God and the Holy Spirit during that encounter. The posture of deference that the angel holds, is always striking to me, as well as the European rather than Semitic setting.

This year, the Feast of the Annunciation was held on April 9th, because Palm Sunday fell on March 25th. I have nothing profound to report about this day, which is seldom celebrated amongst the fanfare of the Easter Season. But on that day, as I walked lazily toward my destination at the neighbourhood park, I noticed a hand full of tree swallows swooping and diving above me for the first time this year.

Just as the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mother Mary to announce the coming of a saviour, each year these tiny birds, little angels the size of a child’s palm, announce the arrival of spring. I smiled and continued my walk, grateful for the connection between a feast day of the church, and an ancient marker of the wheel of the year.