Lost in Lent

5-Moss on sleeping oak
About a week before Lent began, I took a retreat to a Benedictine monastery in central Washington. Unlike several of the other monasteries I have visited, this particular monastery was located in a more suburban setting, and, founded as a small college, the monastery is now a bustling university.

I went hoping for some silence, writing time and immersion in the familiar rhythms of the monastic liturgy. When I arrived, however, the first thing I noticed when I got out of the car, was how loud it was. I could hear I-5 rushing and hushing in the background. In addition, the liturgy was not chanted but spoken, which made it feel less vibrant, and the space of the chapel was one of those ill conceived modernist boxes. Nonetheless, the monks were kind, and I enjoyed talking with them, and learning about the monastery’s history.

The monastery started with close to 600 acres, but now retained only about 350, most of which was devoted to the campus and student housing. They had a small farm operation in the 1930s-1950s but it ended by the 1960s. Even with a smaller footprint, the monastery had taken good care of the remaining second or third growth forests, which had a number of walking trails. And even with the white noise of the freeway in the background, I enjoyed walking them.

Despite the loveliness of the forest, I ended up having a difficult time writing, felt restless during the spoken Divine Office, and everywhere I went, the freeway was audible. I ended up leaving early, so I could get home and regroup.

On the way, feeling the weight of dissertation anxiety and something of the distance that opens between us and the Divine at times, I decided to go for a hike at my favorite protected area in Bellingham, Washington, Stimpson Family Nature Preserve. It was late in the afternoon, and a friend and I headed around the wet, still snowy in places, trail.

It is one of the few older growth forests in the area, and I often feel God’s presence there as I breathe the clean cool air, and marvel at the riot of colors. But this time, riding the wave of restlessness from my retreat, I felt a very strong sense of God’s absence. It hit me like a wave, a sudden pang of nihilistic agnosticism, and the darkening forest, still silent and deadened to winter, felt cold, indifferent and lifeless.

For several days after this, I pondered the dark mood that had descended. I stopped praying, and considered skipping Church for a few weeks. My usual excitement for Lent turned into a smoldering dread.

I recently decided to join an Anglo-Catholic Parish in Vancouver because of its wonderful liturgy, and I had signed up to be part of the altar party as a torch bearer on Ash Wednesday. So, despite the darkness that had descended onto my spiritual life, I decided to go.

At first I felt sad, and distant, but as the liturgy proceeded, my attention sharpened, and I began to feel lighter. During the consecration of the Eucharist, which like Traditionalist Catholic Mass is said with the Priest facing the altar, as torch bearer, I knelt with the candle behind the priest. As the bells rang and the priest lifted the bread and then the wine, a subtle shift occurred in my chest. The utter strangeness and beauty of the liturgy penetrated my dark mood, and lifted me back into a place of openness and receptivity. It was nothing profound, or revelatory, but a perceptible change. I was again, ready to enter into simplicity and silence of Lent, in anticipation of Easter.

Reflecting on this ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, I began to understand the gift that God’s absence can sometimes be. I remembered the scene in 1 Kings 19, where Elijah is called out of his hiding place in a cave by God:

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (NIV) 

Of course God is present to all things, but She cannot be confined to any one of the elements. Having experienced God’s presence so deeply in forests over the years, it was alarming to feel such a sense of despair, and emptiness. But it is true, just as the forest is a place of beauty and life; it is also a place of suffering and death. If God were wholly present to the forest, there would be no distance to cross between us.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si:

“Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence” (Laudato Si, 119).

I am most certainly guilty of romanticism, but this phrase, “stifling immanence” keeps coming back to me. God is everywhere present, and hold all things in existence at each moment. But there remains an infinite gap between us.

As I deepen my Lenten journey with prayer, fasting and silence, I am grateful for this lesson, and it has served as rich food in the Desert of Lent this year.

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Sacred Groves

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Prelude

Imagine the most common of trees, the Christmas (or Solstice) tree, decorated with globes, lights and a star on top. Allow that tree to grow in your mind so that it fills the sky.

The bright star at the very top of the tree merges with the North Star, Polaris.

Now imagine that the gold and silver globes become the sun, the phases of the moon, and the other planets moving through the sky, appearing to pivot around the North Star.

Imagine that the twinkling lights are billions and billions of stars.

The Christmas tree is a microcosm of the macrocosm.

The Norse pagans placed the ash tree at the center of their cosmology.

Its sprawling roots descended into the underworld; its trunk and branches passed through the mortal realm, ascending to heavenly.

The Maya imaged the cosmos as a great Ceiba tree, which also descended to the underworld and ascended through thirteen levels of heaven, each level with its own god.

The sun and moon made their way along the Ceiba’s trunk, and the spirits of the dead moved along its rough bark.

The naturalist and pantheist John Muir used to climb to the top of large pine trees during rain storms. About trees and the universe he mused:

We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and [humans]; but it never occurred to me until th[at] stormy day, while swinging in the wind, that trees are travelers, in the ordinary sense. They make many journeys, not extensive ones, it is true; but our own little journeys, away and back again, are only little more than tree-wavings—many of them not so much.

The Tree of Life

In the beginning, the tree of life emerged as a tiny seedling.

Soon, it branched out into everything we call living: microbes, fungi, plants, trees, animals.

The seeds of humans germinated in the trees.

Our mammalian and primate ancestors made their homes in their bows.

Eventually, our curiosity compelled us down from the safety of their branches and out onto the savanna.

Yet, the trees never left us;

They continued to provision us with gifts on our long walks.

They gave food, fodder, shelter, tools, medicine and stories.

They appeared in our dreams.

It was here, in a forest, that Zoroaster in Persia saw the Saena Tree in a vision emerging from the primeval sea, a tree from whose seeds all other plants would grow.

It was here that Yahweh, Semitic sky god, came to earth and planted a garden of trees, pleasing to the eye and good for food.

It was here that Inanna, Babylonian goddess of beauty and love, nourished the Huluppu tree on the banks of the Euphrates River.

It was here that Kaang, creator god of the Batswana Bushmen, created the first mighty tree and led the first animals and people out from the underworld through its roots and branches.

It was here that the sacred tree gave light to the Iroquois’s island in the sky—before the sun was made, before Sky Woman fell through a hole in the island in the sky, and before the earth was formed on the back of a great turtle.

It was here that the Mayan Tree of Life lifted the sky out from the primordial sea, surrounded by four more trees that hold the sky in place and mark the cardinal directions.

First Visions

It was here, in a forest, that the first whispers of the divine spoke to human consciousness.

It was here that Jacob wrestled with angels and beheld visions.

It was here that Hindu seekers learned the wisdom of gurus.

It was here, seated beneath the Bodhi tree, that Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha.

It was here that Moses fasted, prayed, and received God’s Law.

It was here that Muhammad sought refuge in mountain caves and spoke the words of the holy Koran.

It was here that Guru Nanak experienced the Oneness of God.

It was here that Nephi of the Book of Mormon communed with angels and beheld the glorious fruit of the Tree of Life.

First Temples

It was here, in a forest, that we built our first temples and worshipped God without priesthoods.

It was here that Asherah, Canaanite goddess of all living things, was worshipped.

It was here, as Sycamore fig, that Isis of Egypt was lavished praise.

It was here, in grove of sacred oak, that the Druids passed on their knowledge, and sacrificed human flesh to the gods.

It was also here, in the forest, that, after civilization blossomed, we looked for inspiration—

Temples of stone with their pillars, columns, and cathedral arches were all made to resemble the trunks of trees, carrying the eye upward to God.

And yet, it would seem that these temples of stone confined God to one place, one people, one faith.

Fall

It was here that we fell from grace.

It was here that Adam and Eve ate the fruit of a misunderstood tree.

It was here that civilization bloomed.

It was here that we logged, burned, mined, clear-cut, developed.

It was here that the old stories were forgotten and new ones were written;

Stories in which creation was no longer sacred, enchanted, animate, subjective.

Return

In an age of climate chaos and heart breaking extinction, it is here, to the forest, that we must return.

Not only as skiers, hikers, campers, birders, hunters, and foresters, but as devotees.

Because it is here that we see the universe in microcosm, where we get our bearings.

It is here that creation awes.

It is here that we experience the divine.

It is here that we can bring our questions.

It is here that we can dwell in mystical solitude.

It is here that we are now—The global forest.

Call

To return to the forest, we must become familiar with it.

I invite you to go to a mountain grove or a city park and take off your shoes.

When you are comfortable and alone, close your eyes.

Begin by focusing on feeling—as a tree might—the sun, the wind, the earth beneath your toes and on your skin.

If you wish, stretch your arms up and out like branches seeking the light.

Imagine drinking in the caramel rays of the sun as nourishment.

Focus on your breath by letting the air pass through your nostrils and fill the arboreal-patterned branches in your lungs.

Feel your lungs slowly fill with oxygen.

Feel them slowly empty as your body expels carbon dioxide.

Focus on the entire process of breathing and how each moment changes.

In and out.

As you breathe in, imagine that the oxygen, conceived in the leaves of trees, is gently birthed from the leaf’s stomata, wafting through space, and entering your lungs.

As you breathe out, imagine that the CO2, re-born in your lungs, is gently wafting through the air and entering the receptive stomata of the leaves.

In and out.

The air becomes us, becomes them.

It is a sacrament; we take it upon us, into us, and they upon themselves.

As we breathe in, the trees breathe out.

As the trees breathe out, we breathe in.

We are their lungs and they are ours.

In and out.

This is not a supernatural idea; it is an ecological reality.

May we dwell in this reality!

The mystic monk and (one time monastery forester) Thomas Merton said:

We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.

What we are is not all that different from trees.

And so I offer you this prayer for your walks and sits among the trees.

Forest, Trees. May we sustain you as you sustain us.

A night at the Park Butte Fire Lookout

4th of July.

I stumbled my way up and up the 3.5 mile trail to Park Butte historic Fire Lookout.

I arrive near dusk, not sure the time because I don’t have a watch or cell phone with me.

I find the place empty, how lucky to have it to myself for the night.

Up close, Mount Baker’s glaciers accordion down the southern slopes.

The sun is dipping toward the Salish Sea as I explore the nooks and crannies of the Lookout—pots, pans, water jugs, saws, axes, maps, log books from the 80s and 90s.

A few crumpled Gary Snyder poems in a tattered booklet: Patron saint of Washington Fire Lookouts.

I walk the creaky deck surrounding the Lookout.

The wind talks with long pauses between wordy gusts.

The thrushes sing, a bat flutters by eating bugs, the sky darkens.

Venus and Jupiter twinkle as a million tiny fireworks pop in the valley below.

A golden waning moon rises from the Cascade Mountains.

Sleep comes slowly, interrupted frequently by the wind rumbling and clattering through the leaky Lookout.

Smokey dawn, July 5.

Guadalupe Abbey Pond, Oregon

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Massive carp break the surface of the large retreatant pond from below, barn swallows nip at it from above.

Constellations of ripples expand like impermanent tree rings

Braid through each other like ghosts and then settle into stillness.

The tall trees and clouds quiver and waver upside down

and then settle into stillness.

Bullfrogs roar at the morning chill, cacophonous birds blare with gossip, and the Abbey bells ring with joy.

(written May 30, 2015)

My First Visit to Gethsemani Abbey

Statue greeting visitors to Gethsemani Abbey.

Statue greeting visitors to Gethsemani Abbey.

I arrived at Gethsemani in the first mega bus of three. The spire of the Abbey church rose suddenly behind a slight grassy hill. Several monks greeted us and led eager groups of about 20 through the cloister, Thomas Merton’s humble grave, and then up the short road to the hermitage where Merton started living full time in August of 1965. The pilgrim crowd, reverently snapping photos in silence, we converged in waves on the cinder block hermitage. It felt something like a flash mob-monastery—all of us interested to some degree in Merton’s spiritual writings, some of us scholars on Merton’s theology, but none willing to take the lead into the actual life of a monk or nun. We were a momentary cloister, a temporary community. Meanwhile the monastery’s average age climbs, and the monks announced this week that they would discontinue producing the cheese they have produced for many decades. Gethsemani Abbey remains a sacred site to many of us, but it is changing, and its long term future is uncertain.

I stood with the others outside the hermitage, drinking coke, listening to a monk tell us stories about Merton’s life here as fire ants, sent forth from their clay monasteries, silently tried to rip my toenails off my sandal-shod feet. We nodded, asked questions, paced through the small rooms, and then wandered outside toward the edges of the clearing to imagine what solitude would be like here. As we made our way back, another group eagerly approached.

At the end of our tour there was still about an hour before the monks were going to chant the mid-day hour, so I decided to head back out to the hermitage to see if I could steal a few moments alone. I passed chatting stragglers, and when I arrived, I went inside, snapped a few photos of the empty rooms, prayed in the small chapel, turned off the lights, picked up a few discarded refreshment cups from the floor, and then sat myself down on the now silent cement porch which had only a few minutes earlier been bustling with pacing pilgrims. A fat lizard scurried across the front of the cool cement porch into a small strip of sun near the edge. She stopped to eye me up and down, putting in a few push-ups before scurrying on. The breeze was cool and it lifted the green leaves of the tulip poplar, maple and oak trees that now surround the monastery. (At the time it was built, judging from some early photos, the area around the hermitage was much more open.)

Monks chanting the noon hour.

Monks chanting the noon hour.

I didn’t have any profound flashes of insight, or visions of Merton banging out drafts of his immortal prose, but I felt a glimmer of the wholeness of solitude, if only for a few precious minutes. I could hear my breath and the wind rising and falling together. I felt peace. I felt God. Then, a hunched figure appear on the meandering path up to the hermitage. My brief solitude at Merton’s hermitage was ended. As he approached I could see large cuffs in his pants, and a few patches. I could somehow tell he was a monk from Gethsemani, no doubt on his way to stay at the hermitage for a few days, as it is still in regular use. I greeted him, and in with a slightly annoyed but honest tone he said, “You must be a straggler?” I said, “Yes, I will get out of your hair” (he didn’t have very much of it). He introduced himself, and told me he had timed his annual week-long stay with the full moon, so as to be able to attend lauds and mass in the mornings without the use of a flash light. I wished him luck, hopped over a few anthills and was on my way down the road back to the cloister, the road that Merton and many other monks and retreatants have taken over the years. The bell rang, and I made it to the monastery chapel in time to hear the soft chant of the monks of Gethsemani. Later I gave a presentation at the Conference on Merton the hermit and the idea of wilderness. It was a beautiful day.

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Merton’s hermitage from the path.

This year I have been lucky enough to visit a couple of sites with sacred significance to me: Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker house in Manhattan and Aldo Leopold’s shack in Baraboo, Wisconsin. In past years I have also visited the site of the saw mill where John Muir worked in Yosemite Valley, the Sacred Grove where Mormon founder Joseph Smith had his visions, and Walden Pond. Each of these sites brings into full color the significance of place in our encounters with the Divine, with life. Each of us famous or not, inhabits a place. Our bodies know that place better than our minds. So, to inhabit the places where my mentors worked and wrote is like meeting them in person, or more awkwardly, meeting them in place. I think this desire is universal in humanity, based on the number of sacred sites, shrines, national historic sites, etc. that exist throughout the world. But just because we hold a particular cinder block hermitage in New Haven, Kentucky to be sacred, should not meant that everything outside that space is unsacred. As Wendell Berry has written, there are not sacred places and unsacred places in the world, there are only sacred places and desecrated places. May we continue to visit and protect the places that inspire us, and inspire the places we are at home in.