Thomas Merton the Forester

Looking out on the cemetery at Gethsemani Trappist Monastery

During All Souls/All Saints Days this year, I was lucky enough to travel to Kentucky for the annual Society of American Foresters conference. I was attending in order to deliver a short talk on the short history of monastic forestry, a topic that was included in parts of my dissertation. On the first day, I attended a field trip with the History and Philosophy Working Group. We visited Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, and then went to Our Lady of Gethsemani Abbey, the place where contemplative writer Thomas Merton lived from 1941 to his death in 1968.

One interesting fact that we learned was that during his very productive writing career, Merton was also the Abbey forester. As Forester, Merton would take the Trappist novices out to prune trees, clear dead branches, and plant trees. In the late 1950s, the monastery had been gifted hundreds of loblolly pine seedlings from the state forestry agency. Unfortunately, this particular variety was not very cold tolerant, and the first winter killed most, if not all of them.

The county also worried about fire in the area, and suggested the Abbey build a fire lookout. Merton, who was seeking a deeper vocation of silence, seriously considered manning the lookout as a quasi-hermit. However, the lookout was rather far from the Abbey, and when a monk-mechanic tried to teach him to drive, he wrecked the jeep within a few minutes behind the wheel. Merton was eventually allowed to live as a hermit on the property, but not as a fire lookout.

Despite Merton’s short lived career as a forester, and failed tree planter, he nevertheless gleaned deep meaning from the Abbey’s landscape. His nature writing is filled with references to the flora and fauna of the Kentucky hardwood forests, pastures and knobs. Though I have been to Gethsemani before, it was a great honor to return to a favorite Holyscape, where the life of a writer I deeply admire lived out his ideas and crafted his bold poetry and prose.

The Political Ecology of Green Space in Vancouver

“Why is everything in the woods with you people?”

–Cruella Deville, Once Upon a Time, Season 5, Episode 19

For all the photographs I take and writing I do about trees, forests, theology and walking, I must admit that I also love watching movies. Netflix has been a regular guilty pleasure for me, one I eschew during Lent (a great sacrifice!). I have watched a lot of shows, and I find Netflix’s original series to be mostly very well done, interesting and timely. One thing that I keep noticing in many of the more recent shows, is that the scenery and cityscapes are very similar to my own. It is no secret that Vancouver, British Columbia has become “Hollywood North” and movies and TV producers flock here during all months of the year to set their stories in our futuristic skyline, our gritty downtown eastside and Chinatown, or, our majestic forests.

Sometimes Vancouver itself serves as a substitute city for where the film is supposed to be based. Other times, the vast forests of our Pacific home are the setting of post-apocalyptic or fantasy concept films. Interestingly enough, British Columbia’s official tourism slogan is ‘Super, Natural’ riffing on the Supernatural. Major films and TV shows have taken advantage of Vancouver’s diverse settings: The X-Files, Battlestar Galactica, Twilight, various X-Men franchises, Dirk Gently, Deadpool, Supernatural, Jumanji, have all been filmed in or around the Vancouver area. For a full list see this very long Wikipedia page.

I grew up in Southern California, a place that is also steeped in Hollywood imaginaries. Even my own neighborhood growing up even gave a nod to fantasy. The architecture and landscaping were mostly done according to the taste of the owner, not necessarily according to the region. We had country style homes with wrap around porches and horse corrals, sleek modern glass boxes, New Mexico style adobe and cactus gardens, and Spanish colonial style with evergreen pine trees or tropical ficus. Our backyard pool gave the impression of an alpine oasis, in the middle of a Mediterranean desert. Pine, palm or eucalyptus trees lined many of the streets so that we felt like we were in a land of eternal green and eternal summer.

And of course we kept our lawns pristine year round. Nature was malleable because we had the climatic flexibility and the water resources to adapt the place to our preferences and imaginations. And don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining! My neighborhood was a lush arboretum of vastly more tree and plant biodiversity than ever existed before settlers arrived. There were also many fruit trees as well: Pomegranate, kumquat, fig, loquat, persimmon, orange, lemon, apple and nectarine trees, all of which we enjoyed as roving bands of pre-teens.

Three shows that I have watched in the last few years have really got me thinking about the way our imaginations shape nature in a place like Vancouver which has world class natural beauty. Once Upon a Time, a clever mashup of just about every classic European and Disney fairy tale with a modern and overtly feminist spin. The 100, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series where the last humans fight to survive on a toxic planet among hostile rivals; and The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime), a fascinating historical sci-fi drama that imagines a North America where Japan and Germany won WWII. However, an alternative reality which shows a different outcome to the war has been captured by a series of 16mm films which a small but dedicated resistance must gather at any cost.

Each of these series makes use of the urban and forested landscapes here in BC. But what is it about this landscape and our modern understanding of nature that makes British Columbia such a hotspot for sci-fi and post-apocalyptic themed shows? I propose that our modern understanding of nature as ‘greenspace’ is the imaginative descendent of our more overtly colonial-era notion of Terra Nullius, or, nobody’s land. The only way we could be convinced of a landscape’s authenticity in a film is if it holds a cultural significance that is stripped of its previously rich cultural meanings. During colonization and conflict between European powers, if land was understood to be unoccupied, it was annexable by the state. Roman law applied a similar concept to abandoned building or recovered slaves. It was basically a legalized version of finders-keepers.

Joseph Trutch was the first Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. He believed that First Nations peoples did not actually own the land, because they didn’t have the concept of private property, so it was fair game for settlers. Governor General James Douglas characterized indigenous people as “mere wandering denizens of the forest.” Douglas like virtually all settlers who arrived here, could not see just how lush with food production zones the place actually was. What they saw was unkempt, untidy and un-owned wilderness. This is why much of British Columbia territory remains ‘unceded’ today, because no treaties were seen as necessary in lands where no one lived.

As is commonly known, many indigenous communities were decimated by diseases even before settlers arrived in BC, but during their pre-colonial civilization, which had been more or less intact for 10,000 years. First Peoples held clan and kin-based usufruct rights to land as berry, salmon, hunting or other food gathering territories. These were for the most part demarcated and understood by First Peoples.

In fact, what the Europeans mistook for vacant wilderness, for Terra Nullius, were the neglected remains of deeply human-influenced food forests, pharmacies, woodshops and shore gardens. As disease swept over the region, traditional food production methods and zones became neglected. Before disease hit, massive old growth Western Red Cedars were used for cordage, canoes, and long house planks. Fire was used to keep trees out of hereditary berry patches and camas bulb gardens. Herring and salmon spawning sites were enhanced with tree branches, which created more surface area for fish to lay their eggs on. The local breed of Salish Wooly Dogs (now extinct) were bred for their hair, and packs of the adorable creatures sometimes occupied entire islands. In addition, Coast Salish and inland peoples actively cultivated groves of crabapple and hazelnut trees which were traded north to south making their way as far as what is now the Yukon Territory. And lastly, thousands of kilometers of coastline were modified to enhance clam productivity by carrying large rocks to the low tide mark so that steeper shorelines would eventually level out, creating more surface area for clams to breed.

In addition to their pervasive agro-ecological influence, for all First Peoples, the features, creatures and places of the land were alive with personhood, significance and story. These are not my stories to tell, but I can say that for example, many creatures such as orcas, wolves, frogs, ravens and bears were totems of family lineages, and were thus often portrayed on long house, shaman and village poles.

Prominent geological features, rocks and peaks were often understood as ‘transformer sites’, or sites where legendary people and creatures were either punished or rewarded by supernatural beings and consequently converted into the feature as it appears today. This is widely understood to be the origin of Skalsh rock (called Siwash rock in signage), located off the shore of Stanley Park. For geologists, the rock is a basaltic obtrusion of volcanic origin, which resisted erosion in the mostly sandstone foundations of the rest of the park. A large Squamish village was located in Stanley Park, and for Coast Salish peoples, the site commemorates the transformation of Skalsh by Xaays, a supernatural being, to memorialize the ideal of Fatherhood and the warrior. However, various nations have their own stories associated with this rock.https://0f3ff9c4e74044c30b05afb65c644e24.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Other places such as obsidian deposits are places where Thunderbird shot lightning from its eyes. Other sites are the very places where humans emerged from the watery chaos of their respective creation stories. The land was not the background of the human story, it was itself an actor bursting with uses, meaning and stories of its own.

This is what I mean when I marvel at how easy it is for us to see the forest as a kind of neutral space. Vancouver has maps with detailed streets and addresses, but forested areas are often blocks of monochromatic ‘green space.’ This simplified representation renders these rich places as essentially culturally neutral, primordially natural where we stressed out urbanites can come to relax, hike, run or walk our dogs.

If Once Upon a Time had shown a scene of Mount Rushmore, and claimed it was an ancient pagan shrine to unknown deities, Euro-North Americans would understandably balk unconvinced. That is simply not believable given what we know about the presidential persons whose likenesses are carved into the living rock of that monument. Yet, if Once Upon a Time flashes a scene with a Musqueam or Squamish Transformer site that is clearly identifiable within those worlds, we settlers see beautiful scenery. This goes for The 100 and Man in the High Castle as well. A post-apocalyptic landscape and an imaginary Nazi regime are just as believable in these forests to eyes that see only green space.

Clearly I too enjoy spending time in these beautiful places, and I have gotten to know their contours and inhabits to some degree during my 6 years in Vancouver. I have done this largely within my own Western scientific and religious paradigms, both of which have served me quite well. I am not seeking to fully enter into the worlds of indigenous peoples, or assume their significance. However, I would like to be better equipped to respect the rich cultural history of this landscape, just as I would if I entered a cathedral for the first time. While some sites should not be publicly known because of their sacredness, others could be more widely popularized through interpretive signs, greater cultural and historical awareness campaigns and bi-cultural place naming initiatives. And perhaps some of these shows could begin with territorial acknowledgements of the traditional territories where their heroes are winning hearts and minds.

Resources

Mass Grave

[In June, I started working part time at a Funeral Home. One of my tasks was to arrange all the cremated remains that have been left behind over time. It was baffling. Over 500 since the 1950s. I wrote this poem shortly after a long shift working in the Home.]

I’m standing in a mass grave.

Not one dug in the dubious cloak of night by the shovel of a tyrant.

A grave that is tucked away in the fluorescent catacombs of a funeral home.

I have been appointed to order these lonely parcels into chronological and alphabetical order—due diligence to finally put them into the ground en masse.

Shelf after shelf of neatly packaged cremated human remains—boxes just wide enough to grasp with one hand, but too heavy to carry for long.

I pick up one that feels empty and quickly realize that the box contains the remains of a baby.

There are many babies.

Weathered masking tape holds serial numbers that verify an identity, some with instructions—

Nephew will pick up. Brother in Germany. Hold for six months. Will pick up on April 11. Call family.

Most have names: Maude, Clive, Edna, Dorothy, Daisy, Stan, Bertha.

Some do not have names—Unidentified male, Vancouver. Unidentified Male, Burnaby. Unidentified Male, New Westminster.

This cubical congregation spans many decades—1955, 1958, 1972, 1978, 1986, 1998, 2004.

A weathered box from the 1970s leaks gritty ash from a corner,

It piles like an hour glass on an empty pine coffin I am using as a workstation.

Ash like any ash, dust like any dust;

And yet, attach a name and a big bang of images, ideas and personality expand outward like a tiny universe.https://39b423c66ac7a65eda56522bd404a654.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

I tape the box shut and put it in its new niche.

Silver fish swim among the disintegrating brown paper and masking taped cardboard coffins.

I scratch my arm and dead skin cells slough off, a slow cremation.

I breath in the trace dust of 500 lives lived and cough them out again.

I want to take them all home and adopt them as my own ancestors and friends.

Build them cathedrals and mausoleums.

Make biopics about their lives, extraordinary and ordinary alike.

Write biographies that will scandalize, or end up in free bins in the foyers of public libraries.

But my arms give out,

A fuse mysteriously blows,

I leave the boxes where they lay for another night alone together.

The Seeds of Grace

[Homily delivered on June 30, 2019]

Readings:

1 Kgs 19:15–16, 19–21, Psalms 16, Gal 5:1, 13–25, Lk 9:51–62

One of my favorite things to witness is a seed sprouting. As a sometimes hobby, I have sprouted many seeds and acorns over the years, oaks and maples and even oranges. Sometimes I will save my apple and avocado seeds from the grocery store and sprout them in the window just to watch the miracle of life unfold. It is truly a wonder how something that seems dead can become a flourishing, striving and beautiful creature.https://d8cd9a86bf315c7362fdf88055adb73a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Every time I watch a seed sprout, or see a tree leafing out for first time in spring, I am reminded of grace. Growing up, I did not understand grace very well. It wasn’t until much later in my life as a Christian that the wonder of grace really sunk in. In our readings today, I think we find an abundance of God’s grace, and can see how grace, like a seed, is always patiently waiting for the right conditions to germinate.

In the first reading, from 1 Kings, we read about the call of the Prophet Elisha, who was chosen by God to be the successor of Elijah. Elijah as you may recall, was suffering from deep loneliness and depression over his encounter with Ahab and Jezebel and the Priests of Baal. So God invited him into friendship. As far as we know, Elisha didn’t do anything special to deserve God’s call. He also appeared to be quite well off (he had 12 oxen to slaughter). But Elisha gave everything away to follow God (after an enormous BBQ.) Each of us is called into relationship with God, through the scripture, through prayer, through the sacraments and through service.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul insists that the fledgling churches follow the Gospel as he has preached it, and not capitulate with those early branches preaching adherence to the Law of Moses as a pre-requisite to accepting Jesus as the Messiah. It is in this letter that we get Paul at his most fierce. Paul even recounts calling the Apostle Peter out to his face for hypocrisy.

Believe it or not, I would say that Paul’s fierceness comes from his experience of grace. This grace is what prompted Paul to preach a Kingdom which was germinated by Jesus through his death on the cross and resurrection, included both Jews and Gentiles. The comfortable, enclosed seed coating of law and tradition had been broken wide open, and something new was growing.

Paul is a master of paradox. So in his letter, he is insisting on Gentile inclusion, but he is not saying that the rules no longer apply to Christians. Rather than pointing toward a new purity code, Paul’s ‘Works of the Flesh’ in Galatians 5 are a way of calling out the Christian community from the world and into God’s Kingdom. These Works are the ways in which we routinely block out the light of Christ from shining into our lives.

In my own life as a Christian, for many years I looked to the Works of the Flesh as ‘the rules.’ Do not misuse sex, keep your thoughts pure, be honest, don’t abuse substances, do not manipulate people to get what you want, control your anger, do not fight, resolve conflict. Knowing the rules and attempting to keep them meant that God would love me and bless me. I assumed grace was like a reward for good behavior, or a band aid to be applied to the wound of sin after it had been committed. In this mindset, it was all too easy for me to start to believe that if I sinned too much, I didn’t deserve God’s love. That my wounds were too deep for a band aid to heal.https://d8cd9a86bf315c7362fdf88055adb73a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

That was a lie I have believed far too often in my life.

In Dante’s portrayal of Satan in the Divine Comedy, he is a massive, winged demon. But he is not surrounded by fire, rather, he is completely immobilized, frozen to the waist in ice. He is so self-absorbed that he no longer even notices the world around him. This is where Paul’s Works of the Flesh lead. They are how we get in our own way on our inevitable path toward the New World of God’s loving Kingdom. They are things that we try to substitute for God.

Paul insists that Christians are called to freedom. But how can a letter about freedom include a list of rules? This is where, as always, Paul returns to the Cross. Saint Thomas Aquinas mused that the beatitudes and the noblest human virtues were embodied on the Cross. The crucified Jesus was the icon of a free and happy man. But how can that be? Look at this cross. That is anything but freedom, he cannot move. That is anything but happiness, he is filled with sorrow. That is anything but pleasure, he is in excruciating pain. And yet, that is what fully surrendering to God looks like.[1]

The Works of the Flesh are not just broke rules, they are great obstacles that shade out the light of Christ. This is why Paul then goes on to name one by one, the green shoots that inevitably emerge from letting go of our sin, vice and self-absorption. The Fruits of the Spirit: Love, kindness, peace, goodness, self-control. These are the inevitable fruits when we allow grace to germinate in our lives. These are the harvest when we give our whole selves over to God. These are the fruits, and the seed is grace.

In the Gospel reading, we hear some very good excuses for not following the way of Jesus, for keeping the seeds of grace from touching the soil of our hearts. The Samaritans reject him based on past ethnic strife, others have more pressing matters to attend to, even very important matters such as attending to a funeral. We all have our own “well, first let me…”

One of those pithy one-liners of Jesus captures the pervasiveness of how sin gets in the way of our relationship with God. He says to the man who asks permission to bury his father before he would follows Jesus: “Let the dead bury their dead.” This curious phrase resonates well with what I think Paul is getting at in Galatians with his contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit. Like Satan in Dante’s hell, sin is a kind of spiritual death, stagnation and complete self-absorption.

Like the motif of the sudden call in scripture, there is no better time to follow Christ into deeper communion than right now. But like any seed, grace needs favorable soil to grow in, it needs light from the sun, and it needs nourishment. A life of daily prayer, attending to the sacraments are not merits we are saving up. Avoiding sin is not just ‘keeping the rules.’ The Christian life is the life of a humble gardener, preparing the soil of our hearts for the seed of grace. We cannot germinate the seed ourselves; but grace patiently waits. Like Elisha, like the Apostles, like the disciples who left everything to follow Jesus, all we can do is say yes to God’s call in each moment, and then watch in wonder as grace transforms the rocky soil of our hearts into the garden of God.

[1] I am indebted to Bishop Robert Barron’s work for this analysis of Paul and Aquinas.

Easter Desert

The soft patter of cool drops,

Christen forehead, neck and hands.

The earthy incense of the desert’s thirsty breath

As He opens his sandy mouth to drink.

Processions of Palo Verde and Mesquite still clad in their golden Easter vestments

Shout Alleluia! from the valley’s hillsides

And throw their spent petals into the Pentecostal winds.

Even the cacti are clad in their Sunday best.

Like my own spiny succulent heart—

Prickly and defensive most of the time

With seasons of extravagant

Openness and beauty.

April 29, 2019

A Dying Grebe

At the bottom of a steep flight

Of stairs that lead into the ocean,

Between a sandy cliff and the lapping tide,

I caught a red eye among the logs and silent stones.

Silent until the tide teaches them to speak.

I walked to the end of a small jetty and

Looked back at the amphitheater of the eroding cliffs.

The eye belonged to a small bird we call Grebe

In drab plumage. He struggled out of the rising edge of the sea

He knows so well.

He stopped below a beached and weathered

Log and sat silently, awkwardly and alone

On the cobbled, clacking shore.

That incessant

syncopated

chatter

Between sea and stone.

Two of my kind walked past

Without even noticing

That he was there.

I moved closer,

An arm’s length away.

I looked into that fierce red eye

And watched as his back

Rose and fell

In short resigned breaths.

I noticed broken flesh below his wing

Though I was too timid to touch

Him, worried that my

Touch would only make things worse.

I sit and watch water that is

Endlessly rising and receding,

Chattering with rocks that do not care

If they live or die

Because they will always be

Alive in the tiny flecks of body

That make up plankton

And shell fish

And seals

And herring

And clams

And eagles

And grebes’ red eyes.

This grebe, on the edge

Of the ocean he knows so well,

An ocean that incessantly

Speaks with the rocks

Beneath his wounded wings,

Stares at the coming fog of that dark ocean

Death he may not fully grasp.

And I, I sit stone still at the edge of the world and just listen.

Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul

Introduction

What do Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul have in common? From the Latin Adventus, Advent refers to the arrival, the coming of the Incarnation as a child. During Advent, we also reflect on the coming of Christ at the end of time and in our hearts.

Christians are an Advent people, but human beings are a now species. We want the light right away. Advent teaches us about the holiness of waiting. St. Augustine’s famous refrain that ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, oh God’ is echoed by the Advent call: Come, Lord Jesus!

Yet, there is another, perhaps deeper, meaning to Advent, the Latin verb Advenio means to develop. Thus Advent is also the slow ripening of God in each of our lives, even during times of apparent absence. For some time now, especially since my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, I have wondered how a spirituality of darkness can contribute to our spiritual development. Our ability to trust times of spiritual dryness, or even trials to open us to God’s mysterious grace at work within our lives.

Darkness in the Liturgy

Darkness and light are also important aspects of the Daily Office, or Liturgy of the Hours. The prayers we say in the morning, afternoon and evening all mark time. The daily office plays with the hinges of the day, and the interplay between light and darkness. Physical darkness can be unnerving, or make it difficult to read, but it can have profound effects on our prayer life if we let it.

Another example from the liturgy of the Eucharist, why do many traditional churches orient along an east west axis? We face eastward during mass to anticipate God’s coming, Adventus. Mini-Advents each day, mini-Easters each week. The rising of the sun and its setting are essential sacramental signs of Gods promises. God comes to us in the Eucharist, and we anticipate Christ’s coming at the end of time. When we adore the Eucharist, we bask in the sun of Christ’s presence, and when we reserve the host, we dwell on his mysterious but hidden presence among us.

In the Northern Hemisphere, Advent is the liturgical season of darkness. But during Easter too, we play with light and dark as we enact the death and resurrection of Christ on Holy Saturday, light candles and stand vigil at the tomb of Christ awaiting his resurrection. The liturgy of the church is like a deep breath. Advent is an in breath. We are holding our breath for the coming of Christ. The Hero of the story arrives at the darkest hour of the year.

Darkness in the Scriptures

Darkness is commonly and clearly a symbol for folly and sin, and I do not dispute this. 1 Thessalonians 5:5 states, “For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.” In the Canticle of Zechariah, or Benedictus prayer said during Morning Prayer, (Luke 1:68-79) we read:

In the tender compassion of our God

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Yes, light is a powerful metaphor for knowledge, understanding, presence, grace, wisdom and spiritual growth. And darkness can represent ignorance, sin, helplessness, evil and vice. So how can we possibly develop a spirituality of darkness? First, it is important to remember that metaphors are just that. And metaphors or whiteness and lightness have been used to devalue people of color. So there’s that. But there is also a deeper meaning to darkness than meets the eye.

Darkness and Knowing God

Because God is beyond human understanding, it can be said that God dwells in darkness. This will become very much evident when we look to the mystics, but it is also present in the scriptures. In Psalm 97:1-2 we read:

The Lord reigns, let the earth be glad;

let the distant shores rejoice.

Clouds and thick darkness surround him;

righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.

Yahweh was often imagined as a cloud rider, and he dwelt among the clouds, enshrouded in mist. On Mount Sinai, Moses encounters God in a thick cloud. In Deuteronomy 5:22 Moses is speaking after he has recited the Ten Commandments. He says:

These are the commandments the Lord proclaimed in a loud voice to your whole assembly there on the mountain from out of the fire, the cloud and the deep darkness; and he added nothing more. Then he wrote them on two stone tablets and gave them to me.

God delivered the law to the people of Israel shrouded in a cloud on top of a mountain. Of course, the mystics got a hold of these references and began to notice how they gave words to their experience of God as mystery beyond human knowing. Both clouds and mountains are powerful analogies for mystical encounter, contemplation and the spiritual life as a whole.

Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (5th or 6th century) was a major proponent for what we call Negative Theology. When all names are negated, “divine silence, darkness, and unknowing” will follow. Walter Hilton (14th Century) a British Augustinian monk, spoke of entering the ‘spiritual night’ on one’s path to God. And of course, the author of the Cloud of Unknowing (14th Century, Anonymous monk) developed his method of Christian meditation with the cloud of darkness at the center of his paradoxical understanding of what it meant to encounter God.

For when I say darkness I mean a lack of knowing: as all that thing that you know not, or else that you have forgotten, it is dark to you; for you see it not with your spiritual eye. And for this reason it is not called a cloud of the air, but a cloud of unknowing, that is between you and your God. (The end of Ch. 4.)

Nicholas of Cusa (15th Century), a German theologian spoke of mysticism as a learned ignorance. In his book The Vision of God, he often uses the metaphor of Divine sight and wrote that “Thou in Thy goodness dost let the blind speak of Thy Light” (XV).

The Dark Night of the Soul

When you hear the term Dark Night of the Soul, what comes to mind? In the popular idiom, a Dark Night of the Soul is a hard time, a trial period. But it’s so much more than that. The spiritual life is about light, it’s about loving God, and deepening our awareness of God’s presence in our lives. Along the way we get encouragement through graces, blessings and charity. These are what we might call consolations, signs of God’s presence. But we will inevitably pass through times where we also feel God’s apparent absence. These are called periods of desolation. It is what we decide to do with these times of spiritual dryness or darkness that determines whether or not the Dark Night of the Soul will benefit us spiritually or not. However, to be clear, I am not talking about God putting us through endurance trials, causing suffering, or punishing us for our sins.

The term dark night (noche oscura) comes to us from the exquisite poetry of San Juan de la Cruz, Saint John of the Cross (16th century). Juan was a reformer of the Carmelite Order who was enlisted by the brilliant Teresa of Avila. His fellow friars didn’t like the reforms, and tried to suppress them. Juan was brutally imprisoned and tortured by his confreres and kept in solitude in a dark room for many months. It was during this time of imprisonment that he penned the words his famous mystical poem, The Dark Night, which makes no mention of God of Jesus Christ, yet is packed with theological significance.

Juan has a reputation for being obtuse and austere. But Juan’s poetry is packed with sensuality and love for creation. He can also come across as dualistic, seeing the body as less than the soul. However, read in its proper anthropology, Juan sees the body and the soul deeply connected with God. He wrote: “The center of the soul is God.” And before we go on, let me quote the poem in full through John Frederick Nims’ translation.

 Once in the dark of night

when love burned bright with yearning, I arose

(O windfall of delight!)

and how I left none knows—

dead to the world my house in deep repose;

in the dark, where all goes right,

thanks to the ladder, other clothes,

(O windfall of delight!)

in the dark, enwrapped in those—

dead to the world my house in deep repose.

There in the lucky dark,

none to observe me, darkness far and wide;

no sign for me to mark,

no other light, no guide

except for my heart—the fire, the fire inside!

That led me on

true as the very noon is—truer too!—

to where there waited one

I knew—how well I knew!—

in a place where no one was in view.

O dark of night, my guide!

night dearer than anything all your dawns discover!

O night drawing side to side

the loved and the lover—

she that the lover loves, lost in the lover!

Upon my flowering breast,

kept for his pleasure garden, his alone,

the lover was sunk in rest;

I cherished him—my own!—

there in air from the plumes of the cedar blown.

In air from the castle wall

as my hand in his hair moved lovingly at play,

he let cool fingers fall

–and the fire there where they lay!—

all senses in oblivion drift away.

I stayed, not minding me;

my forehead on the lover I reclined.

Earth ending, I went free,

Left all my care behind

among the lilies falling and out of mind.

The Poems of Saint John of the Cross, 1989, Translated by John Frederick Nims.

For Juan and so many others, we were created from love for love, and created with a longing for God. But we get bogged down by addition, distraction, habits, vice, sin and ignorance. Or, we become attached to our consolations, our ideas about God. The Noche Oscura is then the process by which we are reunited with God through our progression along the spiritual path.

There are two stops on the way to union with God: Purgation and Illumination. They are not necessarily definitive, or final. It is a process of deepening. The Dark Night is the inflow of God into the soul. In the active mode we strive to purify our hearts, and detach ourselves from the vices and passions. In the Illuminative phase we receive wisdom, insight, consolations. As we advance in virtue, we might even get attached to our own rightness. Even our attachment to ideas about God, cane become idols.

Thus, during the Illuminative phase, we also see two kinds of ‘Dark Nights:’ the dark night of the senses and the dark night of the soul. These dark nights are characterized by spiritual dryness or a sense of God’s absence in spiritual matters. They are not simply feeling depressed or sad, but reflect our attitude toward holy things.

These two dark nights are not necessarily a type of test, but a type of purification of the heart. After receiving the consolations of a pure heart, and an active prayer life, we need to learn how to love God for God’s sake, not for heaven, or warm fuzziness, or blessings. Loving God without reward is a way of purification that deepens our sense of God’s presence, love and grace. Both nights are about purification; both are about God’s grace.

But the tricky thing is that a dark night might not feel like grace. We often feel the apparent withdrawal of God’s presence. This is where we often give up, lose interest or grow bitter. But if we push through the darkness, we will feel more deeply his presence and grow into new ways of being. We are guided by God, even in times of apparent absence. We realize that we cannot do it alone. That we are in God’s hands.

Surrendering to the dark night of the soul, the dark night of faith, allows God’s grace to work in us, regardless of how well we think we are doing in the spiritual life. Desolation in and of itself doesn’t do anything. It’s choosing to love God in that desolation.

As Gerald G. May, a psychologist and spiritual writer argues in The Dark Night of the Soul, the process of our slow transformation happens in the dark because we are so adept at sabotaging our own growth and development. May writes, “Sometimes the only way we can enter the deeper dimensions of the journey is by being unable to see where we’re going” (72).

Again, I am not talking about indulging our sin, or ignorance or romanticizing depression, which many people struggle with. John and Teresa make a helpful distinction between oscuridad and tinieblas (both mean darkness). The noche oscura seeks to liberate us from spiritual tinieblas, the darkness associated with our rejection of God’s will and grace.

In many periods of my life I have simply given in to the tinieblas, to attachment, to stories about myself, to depression, to what Sue Monk Kidd calls our neurotic suffering rather than creative suffering. As I have recounted elsewhere, my Pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago was among other things, a sort of dark night of the soul.

This is why I think Advent and the Dark Night of the Soul have such resonance. We really do feel something different between God’s absence and presence and we make it felt during the liturgy, but even the darkness God is present. One of the monks of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey spoke eloquently on the liturgical seasons and the dark night of the soul during my dissertation research; he said:

And that’s the lovely part of when you experience the cycle of the seasons, because you get to experience that, and you begin to more deeply understand when you talk about the ‘dark night of the soul’ what we’re talking about is appearance; because, see it appears that everything is so dark, it appears that Jesus is not with us, but he is. So the seasons to me are so representative, not just of life but of spiritual life, not just of bodily life but of the spiritual life, because in the spirit we’re never static. You go up or down that ladder you don’t stand on the rung. You have your spring, everything is so absolutely beautiful, and you come to your summer which is nice and it starts kind of drying out, but then you have the aging beauty of the autumn, and then you have the death of winter. But it’s not over, it’s not over, that’s not the end, there’s a spring that comes after.

In the Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the Lion, is not always easily seen by the characters. And some characters are too self-absorbed to see him at all. In A Horse and His Boy Shasta walking up hill alone after warning the king of an impending invasion of the Calormenes. Adam Walker paraphrases this scene well:

And being very tired and having nothing inside him, (Shasta) felt so sorry for himself that the tears rolled down his cheeks.

What put a stop to all of this was a sudden fright. Shasta discovered that someone or somebody was walking beside him. It was pitch dark and he could see nothing. And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls….

…The Thing (unless it was a person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope that he had only imagined it….

…So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him. At last he could bear it no longer.

“Who are you?” he said, barely above a whisper.

“One who has waited long for you to speak,” said the Thing. Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep… (Paraphrased by Adam Walker)

In what felt like Shasta’s darkest hour, Aslan was felt before he was seen.

Lastly, we must of course mention Saint Teresa of Calcutta who has been called the Saint of Darkness because of her experience with an intense dark night of the soul. Thérèse of Lisieux, Teresa namesake, called her experiences of the dark night ‘nights of nothingness.’ However, Teresa of Calcutta’s dark night was extreme in that it lasted for nearly 50 years with only brief periods of respite. She wrote of this experience in her letters to her spiritual director, which only came to light after her death:

The longing for God is terribly painful and yet the darkness is becoming greater. What contradiction there is in my soul.—The pain within is so great…Please ask Our Lady to be my Mother in this darkness. The place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me. In the darkness…Lord, my God, who am I that You should forsake me?… The one You have thrown away as unwanted—unloved. I call, I cling, I want—and there is no One to answer—no One on Whom I can cling—no, No One. Alone. The darkness is so dark—and I am alone. Before I used to get such help & consolation from spiritual direction—from the time the work has started— nothing.

The Fecundity of Darkness

As I stated at the opening, another image that is quite appropriate to Advent, is the Advenio, the root of Adventus, to develop. In her book When the Heart Waits (1990) novelist and spiritual writer Sue Monk Kidd suggests that in addition to purification or preparation of our hearts to love God, the dark night can be likened to a kind of incubation. In fact, as she points out, most living things incubate, or gestate in darkness.

In the New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes of our impulse for impatience: “[we] will run away from the darkness, and do the best [we] can to dope [ourselves] with the first light that comes along” (New Seeds, 37, Kidd, 146).

Passing through a particularly harrowing dark night of the soul, Kidd suggests that we need to learn to live the questions and hold the tensions a little better. Learning to settle into the darkness just a bit more. Not as a kind of masochism, but as a kind of spiritual gestation.

This image of gestation is also evident in the scriptures. John 1:18 says that Christ was in the bosom of God from all eternity. This has also been read as the womb of the Father by many eastern Christians. In John 3 Jesus speaks of how must be born again:

3 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

4 “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

5 Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.

All our lives we are called to give birth to our true selves, to realize our true nature, to accomplish our purpose in life. The dark night of waiting, is also the dark night of gestation. Romans 8:22-23 speaks of the whole of creation gestating Christ.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.

Eckhart von Hochheim, OP (13th Century) or Meister Eckhart spoke of becoming mothers of God ourselves.

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us” (Original source uncertain).

The French Jesuit Jean-Pierre De Caussade, SJ (17th Century) writes of allowing ourselves to sink into what he calls the “sacrament of the present moment.” And he has one of the most powerful images of the fecundity of darkness (because it’s about trees). He writes:

Do You not give fecundity to the root hidden underground, and can You not, if You so will, make this darkness in which You are pleased to keep me, fruitful? Live then, little root of my heart, in the deep invisible heart of God; and by its power send forth branches, leaves, flowers and fruits, which, although invisible to yourself, are a pure joy and nourishment to others (54).

Darkness and Resurrection

Darkness is not the end of spirituality, but the process by which God enters the soul. Desolations in itself is not good. It is when we chose to love God through our spiritual desolations, through our dark nights of the soul that we are able to make progress. This process of birth, growth, death and resurrection is at the heart of the dark night of the soul, and it is at the heart of the Pascal Mystery. In Gerard Manley Hopkins poem ‘Wreck of the Deutschland’ he writes of the death of some Franciscan Sisters in a shipwreck, and uses Easter as a verb. He writes: “Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-crested east.” Christ is coming; Resurrection is coming. Advent is about the three-fold arrival of Christ: As a child, at the end of time, and into our lives. The Sign of Jonah, who spent three dark days in the belly of a whale, was the sign of Christ’s resurrection and points to our own every day resurrections. (Matthew 12:38–41). Kelly Postle McLellan a Christian Yogi blogger wrote this Advent that “Our God does not look past, or avoid, dark and messy places. It is in those exact circumstances that God chooses for his Love to be born in the world.”

Lastly, I want to end with this hopeful yet challenging quote from Thomas Merton, in a Letter to Czeslaw Milosz. Merton was deeply concerned about the Viet Nam war, about nuclear weapons, and about the surge in racism and violence in the United States. In our own days, as we pass through what feels like a Dark Night of Civilization, A Dark Age, we can look to Advent and Easter for the long arc of history toward justice and life.

Life is on our side.

The silence and the Cross of which we know are forces that cannot be defeated.

In silence and suffering,

In the heartbreaking effort to be honest

In the midst of dishonesty (most of all our own dishonesty),

In all these is victory.

It is Christ in us who drives us through darkness

To a light of which we have no conception

And which can only be found by passing through apparent despair.

Everything has to be tested.

All relationships have to be tried.

All loyalties have to pass through the fire.

Much as to be lost.

Much in us has to be killed,

Even much that is best in us.

But Victory is certain.

The resurrection is the only light,

And with that light there is no error.

(Thomas Merton: Essential Writings, Pg. 187).

Advent and Easter of deeply interconnected. They are the same Feast. Incarnation is Salvation. The Dark Night of the Soul is ultimately about light.

A Night for All Souls at Mountain View Cemetery

A tryptic panel for writing the names of loved ones we have lost

“And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.”

–Kahlil Gibran

“When you see my corpse is being carried
Don’t cry for my leaving
I’m not leaving
I’m arriving at eternal love.”

–Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.

Introduction

I am always up for visiting a new church or religious service. So when I read the syllabus for a class I taking on liturgy at the Vancouver School of Theology, the assignment I was most excited about was the opportunity to visit an unfamiliar tradition’s worship service. As a professor of religious studies and world religions in Salt Lake City from 2011-2013, I have visited many churches, meeting houses, temples and synagogues. I have even studied the Vedas in a custom pyramid[1] with a front door that opens like the DeLorean from Back to the Future. (At the end of the service, I was casually handed a glossy illustrated manual about giving your partner the perfect orgasm).

After two weeks of trying to attend various Pentecostal and Evangelical churches that did not conflict with my current Sunday obligations at Saint James Anglican Church, I decided to write about my experiences at this year’s Night for All Souls[2], a thoroughly secular community art project put on by resident artists at the Mountain View Cemetery, Vancouver proper’s only cemetery. The grounds buried their first European immigrant in 1886, and encompasses 106 acres, with approximately 92,000 grave sites and 145,000 buried remains.[3] It is a lovely place with views of the mountains, and gorgeous Victorian headstones among various elderly trees. In North American culture generally, there seems to be a difficulty talking about and dealing with death, and a lack of significant rituals within or outside traditional religious institutions. The artists of Mountain View Cemetery hope to change that. In the following I will reflect on my own experience at the multi-day event, its liturgical elements, and its potential for greater engagement with the religions.

Night for All Souls

The purpose of the Night for All Souls event is to engage the ancient holy days of All Saints and All Souls. The atmosphere is essentially post-religious, but the general public is invited to bring their own ideas and beliefs to the event and interact with several shrines and stations, where they can make art, candles, or write notes to their beloved dead. The website for the event explains:

“In many cultures around the world, the days at the end of October and beginning of November are considered an important time for honoring the dead in our lives. In our modern, urban, and relatively transient culture, traditional “village” customs have been left behind, though not the human impulses that led to these traditions. All Souls at the Mountain View Cemetery is a non-denominational sacred event, and an opportunity for people to share their own customs and experiences.”[4]

‘Many cultures’ and ‘non-denominational’ scrubs the event of any hint of an endorsement of the holy-days Pagan and Christian origins. Yet despite the inherent fear of mentioning the R-word, the residents are confident that the role of the artist is to create a safe container for people to bring what traditions they may have left to the space.

Samhain and Allhallowtide

In Europe, indigenous traditions developed with the cycles of the Northern hemisphere’s seasons. The festival of Samhain (pronounced Saw-win), marks the Gaelic transition from the harvest to winter darkness. It was a time when the veil between the worlds was thinnest, and the ancestors and faeries could move between worlds more easily. James Frazer, in The Golden Bough suggests that the date is less important to farmers than to herds’ people.[5] Some important tombs in Ireland are also aligned with the date of Samhain, which falls between the Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.

In Neo-Pagan and Neo-Shamanic practices, Samhain is the day for connecting with the ancestors, and visiting the land of the dead through trance. I am fascinated with this time of year, and European traditions around marking the passing of time. That is why, though I am not planning to attend this year, for the last several years I have attended Reclaim Vancouver’s[6] annual Samhain celebration which includes a circle casting, guided meditation, and a circle dance.

Of course in secular North America, Halloween (All Hallows Eve) is the most popular equivalent to this day of transgressive world bending. During Samhain and many other fall festival rituals that honored the dead, people would dress up as spirits or ancestors or saints or gods and go house to house in exchange for food, offerings, fuel for bone-fires or presents.

While today the Christian Triduum of All-Hallows-Tide, the Christian feasts of All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day and All Souls Day, correspond with these feasts, they did not emerge directly out of their earlier Pagan equivalents. It was not until 609 that All Saints Day was designated to honor all the martyrs of the church and her Saints. Originally celebrated on May, or in April by the Irish, All Souls Day was not celebrated until the 11th century.

In North America, while Halloween is a popular secular holiday, the religious significance has faded. And while Neo-Pagan circles are reviving the pre-Christian traditions, North American Christians do not have a strong tradition of honoring and remembering the dead with festive celebrations. We often look to syncretic practices like Dia De Muertos in Mexico, Day of the Dead, as morbid, cult-like and strange.

My Experience at Night for All Souls

In order to get a close up look at the event I decided to volunteer. The opening night was on Saturday October 27. I was a tea runner, so I helped out cleaning and stocking tea cups for the Celebration Hall where there were tables to sit, and stations to make crafts, or weave small messages into a community tapestry. I also ran hot water out to the Chinese Pavilion where there was a shrine and bonfire.

It was quite beautiful to see families and people of all ages coming in from the rain for tea, sitting at tables and talking about death, dying, and the ancestors. They could look up ancestors buried in the cemetery at one station, or write notes to the dead that were later woven into a tapestry on the wall.

Out in the cemetery, there were station dedicated to missing indigenous women, those who had died by suicide and overdose, one to pets and one to infants and children; but as one of the organizers said, most of the shrines are not themed, because people are not defined by their death. There was also a large tryptic with candles, incense and a marker so that people could leave pictures and write the names of the dead. The event spanned over a week.

On Tuesday, October 30, 2018, I attended a choral performance by the Little Chamber Orchestra that Could, a Vancouver fixture that often performs at Cemetery cultural and seasonal events. The performance was “The First Stage” by Joelysa Pankanea, a piece that grapples with the sudden death of her mother to cancer. During the song, the choir elevated into heavenly harmonies, and breathy pauses signifying life’s last gasps of air. They were accompanied by a quiet marimba and upright bass cello. It was a beautiful performance, bare bones harmonies and poignant dialogue pointing to the tragic end of the composer’s mother. No matter how we dress it up, in art, or theology, death is the gritty, breath taking, sweat inducing price of knowing that we are alive. The event wrapped up on Thursday night with a closing procession, where a contemporary big band ensemble visits each of the shrines, each heavy laden with custom candles, messages and notes written to the beloved dead.

Secular Liturgy

What struck me about this event was how its form, structure and content were all referring to various religious and cultural markers surrounding honoring the dead and the saints, but all of the obvious religious symbols or references were nowhere to be seen. The event was “non-denominational” and thus participants could hold their own private views of death, but nothing in the art or setting or programming suggested what to believe about its finality or the continuity of life beyond. There was no Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. The event was an open container for participants to fill however they saw fit. Many had abandoned religion, were immigrants from other countries now living in Canada. The sometimes trite, even trivial assurances of organized religion were absent.

Each of the familiar elements of a religious service were present: Music, procession, fire, candles, images, notes and messages hung from string and trees, incense, prayer flags, and of course shrines/altars. The one shrine that did feel vaguely religious, was, far from the main shrine, at the Chinese Pagoda in the North section, a bon fire for burning rice paper silver and gold bars to bless the ancestors with wealth and riches in the afterlife and ask for their favor in return. This practice, of offering the dead life like and practical items, cuts across Chinese folk religions, Confucianism and Taoism. Otherwise, participants were on their own.

I am very grateful for this event. I think all of us, religious and non-religious need more and better rituals and practices around death and dying. We need more frank conversations about the pain of loss, and more engagement with our grief, regardless of our theologies of an afterlife. Death needs to be brought out of the shadows. It is liturgy, even in this most stripped down and symbolically sterile examples, that can help us through this process.

However, despite my enthusiastic endorsement of Night for All Souls, I feel off about its overall lack of religious voices. I wonder how many people coming to the space would like to hear what actual religious traditions have to say about dealing with life’s most difficult truth. I applaud the effort and the art and the interest, but I want to see more religious people involved. Precisely because religious people, despite having rich theological and ritual traditions, still need help working through death, we all do, every generation does. I want to know how religious and non-religious people grapple with death and dying, what poets and scriptures they look to for solace, what networks they rely on when the grief is too much to bear; what communities bring them food when they are too sad to cook.

[1] https://www.summum.us/

[2] https://nightforallsouls.com/

[3] https://vancouver.ca/your-government/mountain-view-cemetery.aspx

[4] https://nightforallsouls.com/

[5] Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion. Forgotten Books, 2008. p.644

[6] http://vancouverreclaiming.org/

In the Presence of Absence: A Spiritual Ecology of the Transcendent

Holding a Candle to the Darkness

We have all heard the story. Christianity, with its embrace of Greek metaphysics and its longing for the Kingdom of God, drove a wedge between humanity and the earth, between Creator and creation. A wedge that became a full-fledged dualism under Enlightenment and Protestant iterations that emphasized rationality and nature’s objectivity. What had once been an enchanted cosmos, was now a vast and mostly empty universe.

Yet, despite this ambiguous lineage, Christianity is having something of an ecological renaissance, with theologians, ministries and parishes responding to the call to ‘re-enchant’ the earth, and to lend our weight to reversing course. The ecological crisis is thus necessarily being framed as a moral crisis, and it is generally agreed that a perception of the world as sacred, a perception that was intentionally dismantled under modernism and capitalism, should be reclaimed. The favored model of God as transcendent, distant, removed and patriarchal, is giving way to an experience of God as immanent, sacramental, and feminine.

In my own life, I have boomeranged between these models; from Christianity to a sort of pantheistic nature spirituality and back again over the last several years. However, it was something Pope Francis wrote in his recent encyclical letter Laudato Si, and an experience I recently had in a cherished forest that got me thinking about the value of the transcendent in our approach to the sacred in the age that is increasingly being christened the ‘Anthropocene,’ the age of human domination.

It was partly because of Christianity’s complicity in the ecological crisis, and a host of other reasons, that I had broken with the faith of my upbringing. While I was in graduate school, an inner tumult developed into a full scale crisis of faith. I became depressed and nihilistic. Perhaps, I thought, the world and our existence were meaningless, that there was no value, beauty or purpose outside of our tiny little human minds. It seems part of the human vocation to grapple with questions of meaning and purpose at some level, and I didn’t necessarily expect a resolution. But as I tried to put the pieces of a broken faith back together, I somehow knew that God would still be among them or between them.

Bit by bit, my experience of God began to change, and I became more and more convicted of God’s immanence to the world. In theology and philosophy, immanence, from the Latin for ‘remaining with,’ specifically refers to God’s presence or expression within the created order. For example, in Greek philosophy the Logos was thought to be the logic, or rational pattern behind the stuff of the world. Philosophers such as Baruch Spinoza, and later Gilles Deleuze, postulated a metaphysical monism in which all things were one substance in various states or forms within the vast event of the cosmos. Rather than speak of essences, the cosmos was an unfolding event. Specifically for Spinoza, God and Nature were the same, Pan– all, –theism, God.

However, beginning with the monotheistic writers of second temple Judaism, and later affirmed by Christianity, it was argued that if God is all powerful and the creator, God cannot be encapsulated by the world, contained by it or synonymous with it. God is imagined to be the source and ground of being, within which the universe and being itself comes to be. Theologians such as Dominican Friar Thomas Aquinas postulated that God’s radical transcendence from creation could only be met with analogy, metaphor and iconography.

Growing up, I had been taught about God’s otherness or beyondness, a creator in stark contrast to creature. However, throughout my life, and particularly as I emerged from my short-lived faith crisis, it was encounters with silence, wild and urban nature, and the poor that drew me deeper into an experience of the sacredness of the world, especially through trees and forests, and the underlying divinity that shines through when I remember to look up from my philosophical musings and pay attention long enough to listen, watch, feel, wait. God ceased to exist as a being in a heavenly realm, or as a nebulous force acting on the world from a distance. I began to perceive, in a flitting crow, a soft breeze, a dangle of moss, a dapple of light, a configuration of bodies in a crosswalk, that God was the very fabric from which the world was made and that the sciences took on their own sacred dimension as a tool both for understanding as well as communing with an utterly pantheistic God-world. The world came alive in a way that it had never been before, and began to reclaim something of the magic of an enchanted world that was as Thomas Berry famously wrote, a communion of subjects rather than a collection of objects.

After I completed an eclectic mix of Master’s degrees in forestry and theology, I landed two adjunct teaching jobs back in Salt Lake City, and a seasonal summer position as a forester. I began to read more about pantheism, to meditate, and to consciously explore the city and mountain forests of my Utah home, the home of at least some of my ancestors. I began to regain hope in a this-worldly ecological spirituality that sought the divine in nature, and my purpose in the present moment, and for the most part, it was working. However, it was an experience I had while attending a Midnight Easter Vigil at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City that unexpectedly set me back onto the Christian path, and an encounter with the value of transcendence in my experience of God.

One of the courses I was teaching in Salt Lake was ‘World Religions’, and I had decided to attend Holy Week services at the Cathedral as a way of experiencing other branches of Christianity. I had heard they had beautiful music, and that the space was breathtaking. I arrived a few minutes late, and quietly pushed through the heavy wooden doors at the front of the towering sandstone gothic edifice. An usher immediately greeted me with a smile, and handed me a candle. I thanked him and found a spot to stand at the back of the nave.

The voluminous space was mostly dark, but the bodies of the reverent devotees were glowing in silhouette with the collective illumination of hundreds of tiny candles. Someone offered me a light, and I looked around in awe as the Gregorian chant of the choir filled the frescoed forest of stone columns and vaulted canopy arches. As I took in the beauty, I thought to myself, that it sort of felt like a funeral. Just as quickly it seemed, I realized, it was a funeral. On Good Friday, Jesus had been crucified and laid in the tomb, and throughout Holy Saturday, Christians waited in suspended, silent animation for the moment when life would once again triumph over death. As the readings proceeded, spanning the width of salvation history, we came closer to the moment of Christ’s resurrection, until finally, the Lenten poverty was broken by a string of cacophonous ALLELUIAS! Suddenly the lights of the cathedral came on in a sudden flash. Christ was risen, and something beyond me stirred my soul.

Going to Mass for Easter will sound familiar, even mundane to many, but for me on that evening, having grown up in a different tradition, for the first time, a familiar story took on a deeply cosmic dimension, and that I was participating in it with others. That my life was somehow embedded within that story, and that I was wedded in one way or another to its outcome. We were ritually celebrating, not just sermonizing the hope that suffering and pain are not meaningless, that death is not the end; that creation, birth, life and death are the archetypal structures that pervade the universe. That somehow, we will come out the other side. Standing at the back of the cathedral with a tiny candle, the hope and power of the Christian story hit me all at once like an unexpected wave. The world really was filled with mystery, beauty and holiness. While it would seem that the universe is headed for a cold extinction, Christianity insists on celebrating life through death. Our gaze is fixed with unflinching hope on life, but squarely in the middle of that gaze is a tortured corpse hanging on a tree. Christianity’s hope is not a naïve or vapid one, but one rooted in the realities of pain and suffering both personal and evolutionary which are not threats, but the very seeds of continued hope and life. That inner landscape I had been trying to access and cultivate began to germinate with tiny fragile seedlings that I continue to clumsily nurture as I write these words. God’s presence in the world, which I had just learned to experience as a pantheist, began to once again trickle back into the sacraments especially the Eucharist, icons, choral music and sacred space.

In a Dark Wood

It was getting harder for me to discern the contours of the last few meters of a familiar forest trail. I was on my way home to Vancouver, British Columbia from Lacey, Washington after a short retreat with the Benedictine monks of Saint Martin’s Abbey. I stopped in Bellingham for food, and a quick hike through a favorite grove of trees to stretch my legs before I pressed northward. In my haste, I had slightly miscalculated the amount of remaining daylight, and how long it would take me to walk the 4.5 km trail before the closed canopy forest became thick with darkness.

I was already in a dark mood, and the cold, dead vegetation of muddled greens and plentiful browns, chilled me to the bone as I stumbled over the squish of decomposing leaves speckled along the path. The deciduous trees were naked, and the conifer branches loafed in their winter dormancy. As I reached a critical fork in the trail, I started in the wrong direction, and had to double back to find the trail again. As my feet finally touched down on the familiar gravel of the parking lot, I felt a small pang of relief and embarrassment for almost getting lost in such a familiar place.

Yet, despite my love for being in the forest, as I got into my truck, I finally acknowledged a sense of foreboding, sadness and longing that I had felt as I walked in the waning light of that winter day. As someone who loved to preach about God’s presence in the world, it was actually hard for me to admit that I didn’t feel anything but awe, wonder, amazement and gratitude in the forest. The place is as familiar and sacred to me as any church, or my prayer space, and I have spent many hours on the trail, staring with slacked jaw up into the canopy; or on hands and knees smiling into the stoic face of a rough skinned newt. But that night, I could not shake a feeling of deep unease.

As I sat tending to the wound in my heart, a wound with no particular source, I remembered something Pope Francis wrote in his 2015 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si. In an authoritative Encyclical Letter, Pope Francis had officially acknowledged the seriousness of climate change, the importance of caring for the earth not just as a gift to humans from God, but as a web of living creatures endowed with intrinsic value independent of their usefulness or beauty to human beings. Yet, he also affirms the traditional Christian understanding of God as not being coterminous with the world (I.e. not pantheistic) and Pope Francis warns against what he calls pantheism’s “stifling immanence.” When I first read this statement, the part of me that is still a pantheist took exception. Even as a new-ish revert to Christianity, God’s immanence in the world is crucial to my faith, and the foundation upon which I have built the bridge between my faith and my understanding of ecology. But as I turned the keys and began to back out of the small roadside parking lot, the meaning of this simple phrase began to come into focus.

Toward a Spiritual Ecology of the Transcendent

As is well known, in response to the excesses of early industrialism nurtured by the transcendent model of God, the Romantics and poets and later the Transcendentalists of the 19th century, took issue with the plunder of the natural world for profit, and the notion that God was a distant fatherly being. Writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that nature pointed to spiritual truths, and conservationists began to find God in Nature, a domain of reality held as opposition to Culture. Wilderness took on a new vibrancy and holiness and God became wholly immanent to creation. Preservationism then, became about protecting a sacred Nature from a ravenous Culture. For example, early American conservationist John Muir, in a letter to a friend written in 1868 proclaimed that Yosemite Valley was “by far the grandest of all the special temples of Nature I was ever permitted to enter.” And for Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau and many others of his generation, the wild places became the sacred sanctuaries held in opposition to the establishment Protestant Christianity with its emphasis on scripture, doctrine and getting to Heaven. Thoreau wrote in his essay ‘Walking’: “I enter a swamp as a sacred place –a sanctum sanctorum.”

Unfortunately, this dualistic approach to the natural world has led to an impoverished ethic with respect to our relationship to those areas that fall outside of the more charismatic protected areas. As William Cronon controversially wrote in his 1996 essay ‘The Trouble with Wilderness’, the so-called wilderness ethic that the preservationist movement has promoted not only failed to prevent our most serious ecological crises, it has tended to de-valued places closer to home that do not fit a narrow aesthetic of wilderness. Certainly there is value in places of transcendent beauty; but there is also an immanent sacredness to places more familiar, rich with memory and closer to home.

My experience in the Cathedral had been of God’s unexpected presence; and my experience in a grove revered as sacred had been one of God’s unexpected absence. It would seem that God is something of a Trickster; not always present to the world in the ways we expect. We cannot just go to church, pray, meditate or go even to our favorite spot in the forest and expect a holy moment to be waiting. As theologian Belden Lane reminds us in his book Landscapes of the Sacred, the sacred (God) often choses before is chosen. God’s immanence to the world may be real, but it is not a vending machine to which we can keep coming back for the same encounter, experience or fix.

An encounter with the sacred (God), can, paradoxically be experienced as absence. Religious life is not a kind of spiritual aerobics that makes us feel warm and fuzzy all the time, and the natural world is a place of both beauty and pain. The spiritual life is also about facing our failures, suffering and that of the world. To frame immanence as ‘stifling’ as Pope Francis does in Laudato Si, is not to argue that God is absent from the world, but, to say that unless we are sometimes faced with the feeling of God’s absence, we will never move, grow or seek change. This is what Saint Augustine meant when he wrote that “our hearts are restless Lord, until they rest in you.” God’s transcendence, or beyondness can teach us that we are not self-sufficient on our own. If everything is God, rather than everything being in God (pan-en-theism), the mystery of the other has nothing whatsoever to teach us about the Other that is God.

There is of course many more theological reasons to balance God’s immanence and transcendence. However, for those of us invested in the project of reenchanting the world as a moral response to the ecological crisis, the way we frame the sacred in relation to the world has consequences within the increasingly fragmented environmentalist landscape that we have inherited from the preservationists and conservationists which are being increasingly critiqued as ineffective or overly romantic.

We seem to be on the verge of something new. Though much contested, some have proposed that we are entering the ‘Anthropocene’, a term coined by climate chemist Paul Crutzen in 2003 to describe the increasingly pervasive impact human beings have on the planet. Currently being debated by geologists as to whether or not it makes up an actual new geologic epoch, there is no agreement about when it might have started. Do we date it to the advent of intensive farming? The peak of the so-called First Axial Age roughly 2,000 years ago? The dawn of the industrial revolution in the 1800s? Or, with the first nuclear explosion in the mid-20th century? What is clear, is that human beings are the culprit for much of the ecological changes being tracked by scientists across the board. What is not clear is how to respond.

What I have noticed in these ongoing debates about how to proceed, is that models of the immanent and transcendent aspects of the sacred have not been properly addressed by both sides of a hotly contested debate within the environmental movement between so-called Ecomodernists on the one hand, and Ecocentrists on the other. It would seem that a way forward will require a better balance between notions of immanence and transcendence, not necessarily of God per se but of the implications of to what extent we acknowledge the sacredness and transcendent value of the world in our strategies for lessening the destructiveness of the human presence on the planet.

With the recent publication of the Ecomodernist Manifesto, the authors align themselves with a growing number of environmentalists who think traditional conservation strategies have failed. These “new” environmentalists are confident that the Anthropocene will be a step forward not backward:

“As scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens, we write with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”

Human genius will save us, and we can expect, with the proper adjustments to institutions, economies and technologies, a Tony the Tiger-styled “grrrrreat!” Anthropocene.

Ecopragmatists, New Conservationists or Ecomodernists as they variously self-identify, have more confidence in human genius than human heart, and for many of them, solving the ecological crisis is not a moral imperative but a practical necessity. Thus for many, the language of the sacred is a human construct at best, and a romantic diversion at worst. For the writers of the Ecomodernist Manifest, environmentalism’s sacred cow, Nature has got to go, and we need to embrace technology, State-centered decision making, an emphasis on Ecosystem Services, and a human-values centered approach to ecological sustainability. This is because Ecomodernists, like classical Modernists, are confident in human rationality and genius as an effective tool for managing the planet as a whole wherein both social justice, biodiversity and ecological integrity can be achieved.

This approach has often dodged the possibility that anything is inherently sacred, or that biodiversity and ecosystem have transcendent value outside of human valuation. It is what we make it, what we value, what we desire. If we want wilderness we need to justify it through human values and priorities. As futurist Yuval Harari writes in Homo Deus, we are now gods, on the brink of immortality, and capable as ever to manage the planet for the good of all life (as seen through human eyes). Traditional conservationism, founded on a theology of beauty and the transcendent is deluded and impractical in its romantic attempts at preserving, as Ecomodernist Peter Kareiva suggested, “islands of the Holocene” in the midst of a rapidly evolving and advancing human race.

Opposed to Ecomodernism, and continuing the legacy of the great Romantics, are a growing number of environmentalists who claim to be either Ecocentrists, or Spiritual Ecologists. Rooted in the intuitions of the Deep Ecology movement of the 1970s and 80s, these folks insist that the totality of the earth-system, biotic and abiotic, carry intrinsic worth beyond human usefulness (even spiritual usefulness), and are therefore of primary ethical concern and imperative. Advocates of Ecocentrism, the idea that individuals should be subservient to the greater ecological whole, suggest that we need a new religious sensibility that will enshrine this ethic in its worldview. They insist that the earth has value apart from human perceptions. That biodiversity and intact ecosystem regardless of their value to human economies or aesthetics should be preserved as close to intact as possible, and that the only viable option for humanity is to radically downsize our population and footprint.

Ecocentrists often join forces with other strands of environmentalists, poets, nature writers and ecotheologians who have been calling for a “reenchantment” of the world; a world that is wholly sacred; a sacredness that is immanent to the world, and does not appeal to a distant Creator. Rather, its sacredness comes from its very existence, complexity and fecundity. In his edited volume Spiritual Ecology, the editor, Sufi teacher Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, writes that “The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong.” Lee’s book features voices from the world’s major religious and spiritual traditions, each singing in a different octave the song that the earth is sacred and that we must return to a meaningful commitment to this reality if we are going to overcome the daunting troubles we now face as a species. This intuition, that our bodies, and our very existence is part and parcel to the wider world, but not another world, is a core intuition of a pantheistic theology where the world’s sacredness is wholly immanent. In describing his connection to an island off Haida Gwaii, anthropologist Richard Nelson captures his own embeddedness to the earth and her processes:

“There is nothing in me that is not of earth, no split instant of separateness, no particle that disunites me from the surroundings. I am no less than the earth itself. The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. Where the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself…I am the island and the island is me.”

Human beings are the earth gazing back at itself, and to find ourselves embedded in her webs of life is to come face to face with the sacred. We must therefore protect life, protect ecosystems, and protect the earth from the savage assault of Homo industrialis by developing an entirely new approach to our relationship with the earth. We need a new approach. But the approach advocated by Ecocentrists seems to be simply an inversion of traditional binaries: Rather than the sacred space of church, we want the sacred space of the forest. Rather than a Transcendent God, a wholly Immanent Divine. Rather than a world filled with objects we wish to return to a world of interconnected subjects.

We seem to be endlessly caught pinging between opposites put in place by the Enlightenment and the Protestant reformation. It seems we are pressured to choose between either nature as god, or the human being as divine. And while I agree that we need a return to an immanent framing of the sacred, and a stronger sense of reverence for the world, we should not lose hold of the beautiful and productive aspects of the transcendent. Rather than swinging between the sentimentalism of Spiritual Ecology and the cold calculated pragmatism of the Ecomodernists, might there be a third way?

While journalist Emma Marris is often accused of being an Ecomodernist, in her book Rambunctious Garden, while she does take aim at traditional conservation strategies such as wilderness areas and invasive species, her approach in the final chapter of the book seems to strike a balance between values as being both transcendent and immanent, and the possibility that sacredness is as well. For example, while critical of ironclad definitions of nature and wilderness, she is not opposed to recognizing and managing landscapes for their sacred value to human beings, or the intrinsic value of ecosystems and species. However, what she insists is that it is human beings who will inevitably make decisions with respect to these values. If we are too focused on enhancing ecosystem services, which many Ecomodernists are, we may lose sight of the importance of protecting the intrinsic value of endangered species. If we are so focused on saving a species from extinction by preserving it in labs (such as is the case with some frog species in Central America being wiped out by an invasive fungus), then we may forget to protect the ecosystem it evolved to thrive in. If we affirm the rights of every species to thrive and flourish, we may tie our hands when a particularly aggressive species threatens an endangered species such as is the case with certain invasive trees, plants or mammals on island ecosystems. Marris, though she does not say so in these terms, seems to be suggesting a more balanced approach to the transcendence and immanence of the sacred with respect to the life of the world. There are values beyond human values; but we shouldn’t be afraid to participate in the world for fear of violating the sacred precincts of the domain of Nature we have shored up to alleviate our guilt for the desecrated places under the plow of human Culture.

Of course, these debates are complex and the stakes are high. In advocating a middle ground, one that balances transcendence and immanence in relation to value and the sacred, I am not claiming that the way forward is simple, straightforward or free of pain. But from where I stand, along with the movement to make the world sacred once more, we should not discard the sense of absence, longing, and transcendence at the heart of the world from which we emerged and to which we are wedded. As conservationist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “To be a good tinkerer you need to keep all the pieces.” As we enter the Anthropocene, we will need the language of the sacred and the profane, the language of presence and absence, the language of death and life. As we march into an unknown future, a future that often looks bleak and without hope, it is essential to celebrate big victories, to be present to small beauties, but also to mourn the losses great and small. Even in the midst of darkness, despair, of loneliness, pain and loss, life, the earth, and God have a way of turning shit into compost.

Are Religion and Spirituality Incompatible?

Antonio Paucar, Altar. Exhibit at the Museum of Latin American Art.

Introduction

I increasingly come into contact with folks who have a difficult time understanding why anyone in their right mind would self-identify as religious—while I walked the Camino de Santiago this summer, when I meet people in activist circles, or even on dates—I hear a very similar line of argument: Religion and religious people are rigid, outdated, dogmatic, violent, and judgmental; whereas spiritual people are open, accepting, non-dogmatic, fluid, expansive and personally fulfilled.

While listening to a Podcast from Catholic Bishop Robert Barron, I came up with a pithy paraphrase for one of his common arguments for the necessity and beauty of religious life. I posted it on my Facebook page to generate some discussion, knowing that it is an increasingly unpopular position these days. I wrote: “Saying that one is spiritual but not religious is like saying that one is athletic but doesn’t play sports.”

For those of you who know me this might seem an unexpected analogy. As a child I was literally the worst member of every sports team I was part of from soccer, to T-ball, to junior high volleyball. I am not very athletic at all really, I like walking, and birding, but that’s about it. I don’t even like riding bikes!

But the more I thought about it the more this analogy seemed to express a frustration I have been feeling with the dominant secular and anti-religious zeitgeist. Spirituality has come to mean a state of being comfortable, fit, relaxed, and centered; while religion is a cultural hold out for pre-scientific, dogmatic zealots. Religion is a dinosaur going extinct, spirituality is an iphone app that keeps you connected, fit and hip.

The word religion has morphed into a dust bin for things we don’t like about the way religious institutions and religious individuals behave. It becomes part of a binary straw-person argument that pits spirituality against religion, with spirituality getting all the positive aspects and religion the negative ones. So, what is gained by insisting that religion and spirituality are inextricably connected as I often do?

It is a defensive stance against those who look down on anyone who would consider self-identifying as religious. This is not a calling out of those who have been hurt by religious institutions and religions people to rejoin their native folds. It is an explanation of what religiosity means in a rapidly changing world. It is an insistence that both religion and spirituality continue to mean something in our complex and messy lives.

A Few Conventional Definitions

The human phenomenon of religion is notoriously difficult to comprehensively define, but that doesn’t mean the term is useless. The European colonial roots of the concept initially measured religiosity through a Christian lens; but again, that doesn’t mean that we can’t talk about other cultural practices as religious in a broader sense.

As often happens in abbreviated forums like Facebook, several of the commenters simply dismissed the efficacy of words to grasp reality. ‘Religion can mean whatever we want!’ Or, ‘it depends on how you define it.’ What do you mean by religion? Spirituality?

To make my argument that religion and spirituality are inextricable, I am not going to gerrymander a super-inclusive and only positive definition of religion. Religion accounts for plenty of human good and evil. To begin, here is a narrow and clearly Euro-centric definition by Oxford English Dictionary: “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” The emphasis is on belief, and that belief is centered on a Supernatural being. Many of the world’s religions then do not qualify as religion under this narrow definition because it take as its cues Christianity’s central focus on Creed and God as a being. A definition that should rightly be abandoned.

However, to swing to the other pole is equally undesirable. I am not trying to trick you into thinking you are in fact religious; that even atheists can be religious (though I have said this). I think being religious includes certain criteria, and that spirituality are the means of seeking that criteria. Max Lynn Stackhouse defines religion as “A comprehensive worldview or metaphysical moral vision that is accepted as binding because it is held to be in itself basically true and just even if all dimensions of it cannot be either fully confirmed or refuted.” Under this definition, all human meaning making is religious. He is essentially equating religion with ontology, the bedrock assumptions of ‘what is’ to a give society. For my purposes here, I do not take this more expansive view, though I certainly sympathize with its intuition.

I think Emile Durkheim’s classical sociological definition gets closer to a universally relevant but still meaningful definition of religion: “A unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them.” There is an emphasis on the sacred, which doesn’t necessarily mean God; and there is an emphasis on praxis carried out in community. Merriam-Webster’s approach simplifies Durkheim’s as “A personal set or institutionalized system of attitudes, beliefs and practices.” And, I would add, in relation to the sacred or transcendent dimension of existence, which as Paul Tillich writes, are our “ultimate concerns.”

Oxford University Dictionary’s definition of spirituality is surprisingly dualistic: “The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.” This seems strange in a time when spirituality is earthier than ever, with Yoga, nature and energy work being popular spiritual activities. Conventionally defined as an interest in self-understanding, growth, connection to the world or cosmos, spirituality is often conceived as something that gives one a deep sense of meaning, satisfaction or physical wellbeing.

Now, when I compare religion and spirituality to sports and athleticism, here is what I mean. Oxford defines sports as: “An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.” So, yes there are competitive sports, but there are also lots of non-competitive sports that simply involve physical activity that requires some measure of skill. We engage in sports for a sense of wellbeing, but also to improve. Oxford defines athletic as someone who is “physically strong, fit, and active.”

Athletic is related to the word ascetic which comes from the Latinized form of Greek asketikos which means “rigorously self-disciplined, laborious, or skilled worker, one who practices an art or trade, especially “athlete, one in training for the arena, to exercise, train, especially to train for athletic competition, practice gymnastics, exercise.” An athlete is someone who practices a disciplined activity in order to improve upon it, often giving up certain pleasures and comforts, even suffering pain, in order to achieve a greater level of skill.

In other words, religion is an interest and a seeking for God and the Transcendent, and spirituality is the way we do that. Spirituality is not just feeling good, or connected, or happy; spirituality is a discipline that promises a payoff. To claim to be spiritual without having a spirituality seems meaningless if we keep with the analogy.

Objection 1

The first and most obvious objection to my analogy that religion is to spirituality as athleticism is to sports, is that one can be generally athletic without playing competitive sports. I concede this point, but would respond that in the above conventional definition of sports, competitive and non-competitive sports are included. Rock climbing is a sport that can be contemplative or competitive; running can be part of a race, or a personal practice. In fact a focus on winning in sports seems a great analogy for how religion goes wrong. My point being, that when I say sports I am talking about lineages of physical activities that have taken a particular form. I don’t know about you, but I don’t know anyone that gets exercise by periodically flailing around. Usually it takes a form: Weight training, aerobics, Zumba, running, walking, golf, tennis, football, rowing, kayaking, etc. Even Crossfit, which is a medley of physical activities has become itself a particular lineage of physical fitness with its own set of rules, techniques, gyms and culture. I am not however saying, using the sports analogy, that there is One True Sport; Christianity’s claim to Truth leaves the analogy, and is fodder for a different discussion.

The religions developed rules, practices, sacred spaces, organizations around a particular end: Union with God. By reclaiming the word religion, I am saying that to engage in a spiritual practice it is inevitable that it take a certain form, usually embedded in a certain tradition of practitioners who know something about how to ‘play.’ To take spiritual practice seriously is to behave religiously. To take the spiritual life seriously, you should probably listen to people who have done it before you. You wouldn’t show up to a football game with bat, or try to tackle a fellow marathon runner.

Objection 2

Another objection is that some religious people really aren’t that spiritual. I would whole heartedly agree with this criticism of religion. Sometimes we become so obsessed with the rules of the sport that we forget to have fun. In light of this, many have left formal religious affiliation opting instead for a generalized spirituality. I sympathize with those who have been bored by religion, and especially those who have been hurt by it. I am not making excuses for religious abuse. One friend who I deeply respect wrote: “Because I’m not religious, I’ve been trying to assert for years that I’m not spiritual, because I had this same dualistic conception. But now I’m just being honest with myself, that for better or worse, as ridiculous as it is, I am spiritual, even without a religion.”

I have no quarrel with this statement, or this very common journey. I understand that when one no longer identifies with a particular religious institution, we might therefore assume that we are no longer religious. Sure, I feel safe in Christian religion and spirituality, but what about those who do not have a tradition, or who have needed to leave one? This is an important and difficult question. I would simply ask, what do we mean by spiritual as a state of being? As I have defined it above, spirituality is a thing we do, not something we are or feel. To BE spiritual is like saying that I AM baseball. I would be interested to know what folks mean when they say that they ARE spiritual outside of what they DO that makes them feel that way. I am arguing analogically that religion is the sport of seeking union with God and that spirituality is suit of rules, spaces and techniques we engage in to achieve that state. I am calling religion to a deeper engagement with its spiritual practices, and spirituality to a deeper honoring of its own religiosity.

Done right, religion, as a universal human phenomenon, leads us into a deeper spirituality that transcends but does not render obsolete religious traditions and structures. Our most beloved spiritual leaders, poets, mystics, etc. have each been rooted, tethered, loyal to particular religious traditions. Rumi is a classic example, of a poet who has found an international and interfaith audience, but whose actual life was deeply rooted in his Muslim faith. The Sufi orders are Muslims first.

From where I stand, the danger of an untethered spiritual identity is twofold: First, it is easily assimilated into a capitalist framework of identity marketing, and second, it then reinforces rather than breaks down our obsession with self, body image, ego and pleasure. Spirituality is not a sensibility, a lifestyle or an identity; it is a practice in which one engages to deepen one’s awareness of God and the Transcendent dimension of existence. Like practicing sports, it can sometimes be difficult, painful and fraught with challenges.

For those of you who identify as spiritual but not religious I would simply say that I love you. I have so much to learn from you. If my analogy still doesn’t convince you then let’s keep talking. I think words like religion and spirituality should mean something, and I want to know what they mean to you. I continue to identify as both spiritual and religious, but this does not mean I am any better at playing the game than the rest of you. I am often very discouraged by just how bad I am at it! But I love this game, I want to know God. These days, the field is getting more and more sparse; please, come and play.