Desert Spirituality in the Rainforest: A Lenten Retreat

 

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Lookout at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah

Introduction

 

On March 17, I led a short ‘Quiet Day’ at Saint James Anglican Church. Quiet Days are topical mini-retreats that include several sessions of silence and time to wander about Saint James’ church. Having just finished my PhD dissertation on Catholic monasticism, I was eager to do something along the lines of monastic spirituality. However, looking out my window into the grey drip of a January day, I decided I wanted to, at least in spirit, travel to the deserts of monasticism’s ancient past. This short post is a summary of the major points I covered over three sessions of the Quiet Day. I hope to eventually develop this into a longer multi-day retreat and/or book of essays. Enjoy!

The Call to the Desert

In world mythology and Jungian psychology, the desert can be imagined as an archetypal image of the call to adventure; of primordial chaos in need of ordering. An archetypal image is a symbol that is deeply ingrained in the human experience and shared among most or all human societies. They bubble up from our evolutionary past and occupy the collective consciousness. The tension between the desert and the garden; between chaos and order, are deeply ingrained in peoples who make claims to civilizations ancient and modern.

The desert was the foundation of the experience of the Hebrew people. The nation was later named Israel, which means ‘one who wrestles with God.’ From Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, the people of Israel were trying to get back to the garden. The prophets spoke of a promised paradise-garden if the people would simply keep Yahweh’s commandments. John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth himself spent long stretches of time alone in the desert.

It was perhaps this long history of engagement with the desert that allured the early hermits and monks, who we call the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They were the beginnings of the monastic tradition. They were drawn to the desert because of its theological past, and because it was apart from the Roman Empire yes, because also because the harsh, remote and silent ecology was a perfect container for contemplative prayer, and facing one’s demons. One fourth century Desert Father, Evagrius of Pontus, taught that the contemplative must overcome vice and sin in order to reach a state of Apatheia, literally without passion, and enter fully into union with God. Our cravings, desires and tendency to sin prevent us from being fully present to God’s already deep presence within.

In contemplative spirituality, Purgation is often referred to as the first phase of spiritual development toward union with God. The desert was the perfect purgative so to speak; as Saint Jerome writes, “the desert loves to strip bare.” This process can also be imagined through what Saint Paul calls Kenosis, or self-emptying. What areas of our lives are calling us to adventure? What chaos needs ordering? What passions, desires or sins are getting in the way of our union with God?

The Book of Creation

The second phase of spiritual development is often referred to as Illumination. As we begin to master our desires, sin and passions, we are filled with confidence, spiritual insight and light. It feels like we are making progress. In contemplative spirituality, we can speak of Cataphatic Prayer, or, prayer that claims to say something about God. Liturgical, intercessory and Ignatian prayers are examples. In addition to our liturgical prayers, which speak words about God, Christians believe that the world says something about God. We often feel comfortable with claiming that Bible is the word of God; however, throughout our history teachers have often spoken of the Book of Creation. Just as Christ is the Logos of God, the Word made flesh, creatures are words of God because they speak of God’s love, attributes and purposes.

Within Christian Spirituality, the desert is certainly a place of kenosis, trial and deprivation; but it is also a place of encounter and revelation. In Saint Athanasius’s Life of Saint Anthony, he writes of the Desert Father:

“A certain Philosopher asked Saint Anthony (of Egypt): Father, how can you be so happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books? Anthony replied: My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and anytime I want to read the words of God, the book is before me.”

Saint Anthony was known for his austerity and severity. He was a powerful teacher and often reported violent encounters with demons. However, he also came to deeply love his desert hermitage. Once the desert hermit had reached a certain level of spiritual maturity, they began to abound in charity and compassion for their fellow beings. They were not just anti-social recluses. As one monk told me, the hermit is running toward God, not away from people. However, the desert hermits also developed a deep love for the desert. Thus while the hagiographies of the desert hermits are filled with tales of their heroic charity, radical hospitality and communal worship; they are also often described as building close friendships with animals, including large predators.

It is sometimes easy to abstract desert spirituality to the point that we are no longer in need of the desert itself. Certainly, the desert teaches us powerful lessons about stripping life down to its bare necessities, and Lent is a great time to reflect on this. However, let us not lose sight of the specifics of desert ecology that contribute to these valuable lessons.

The desert speaks of God in unique ways. However, within our canon of nature writing, it took settlers in North America many decades to come to love the desert in itself. It was also a domain of demons and devils, and this is evident from the many place names settlers gave places that referred to the Devil or demons, or evil. Certainly, for Indigenous peoples, these places were simply home, with all the malevolent and benevolent forces that belonged to their cosmologies. However, for Europeans settlers, who had inherited an agrarian template for interpreting the world, the desert was hostile and a threat to life. Of course, now we know that many of the world’s deserts are complex and biodiverse biomes. Even the Arctic and Antarctic deserts, the world’s largest deserts, harbor microorganisms that are able to survive their harsh domain. Here are a few lessons we can extract from the desert:

  • The desert comes to life at night.
  • Much of the action happens underground.
  • Stillness and quiet help us listen to God.
  • Adversity is sometimes the key to spiritual growth.
  • We have to stick together to survive.
  • We have to learn to rely on God.
  • The desert teaches humility.
  • The desert doesn’t care what we think.
  • The desert draws us out of our comfort zone.

To comment briefly on these, in researching this section, I stumbled across the Velvet Mesquite tree, a seemingly humble tree. However, in order to survive, it is able to put down roots that go some 50 meters deep. This is as deep as an 11-story building is tall! This gorgeous allegory reminded me of a quote from Jean Pierre Caussade’s book Abandonment to the Divine Providence:

“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.”

Sometimes our most productive times come when all seems to be in dryness or darkness. What does the temperate rainforest say about God? How might we develop a more intimate relationship with the places and creatures in our bioregion?

The Garden in the Desert

The third phase of spiritual development is described as Union. To commune with God is not to cease to exist, but to come to a knowledge of our True Self, as Thomas Merton called it. The true self is the place deep inside where God is actively creating us at any given moment. It is the place the soul and God meet through the Holy Spirit. However, as we pick up speed in learning and feeling God’s presence, we should not turn these feelings into idols of their own. Union with God is, paradoxically, as much about unknowing as it is about knowing.

In Christian Spirituality, this phase is often associated with Apophatic Prayer, prayer that seeks to go beyond words, experience, and language, to rest in the being of God. This prayer seeks simply to rest in God. It as much about unknowing as Cataphatic Prayer is about knowing; both being important aspects of life and prayer and spiritual development, and neither necessarily better than the other, or antecedent one to the other.

Even in desert spirituality, if we head out into the desert in search of meaning or spiritual symbols, we run the risk of over-instrumentalizing the creatures and places we encounter. As theologian Belden Lane has written regarding land-based spirituality:

“The challenge is to honor the thing itself, as well as the thing as metaphor. When [Ralph Waldo] Emerson declared in 1836 that “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,” he sent people racing to the woods, anticipating the voice of God in the call of every thrush. But too often they paid scant attention to the songbird in their anxiousness to hear some transcendent message. They returned home full of nothing but themselves, their pockets stuffed with metaphors. As the imagination reaches relentlessly for a timeless, interior soulscape, it is easy to sail over the specificity of particular landscapes. The tendency to ‘reach through’ every concrete detail of the environment—looking for God under every bush and twig, ‘injecting one’s dream into what is, simply there’–is to fall into [John] Ruskin’s pathetic fallacy, betraying the ‘true appearance of things’ under the influence of emotion” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 17).

Even desert spirituality is in danger of treating the desert as an exploitable resource. However, with the rise of the Deep Ecology wing of the environmental movement, we have begun to talk about appreciating the intrinsic value of creation. This means that creation has meaning and value in itself, apart from its potential use or exchange value to human beings. This point is reiterated by Pope Francis in Laudato Si (2015) when he wrote:

“The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action God in the soul but also to discover God in all things” (#233).

The world is not simply a resource for human consumption, but an expression and creature of God. Thus, as we learn the names and lessons of the desert and its creatures and features, we must also take time to sink deeply into the present moment and the things themselves as they exist within God. This apophatic approach is difficult to grasp but resembles something similar to what we often imagine Zen Buddhism to value in silence and solitude. The world is not just a symbol pointing to an inner world of experience, but a node in an unfolding, dynamic, changing cosmos.

What the monks, adventurers and settlers often found in the desert was a flawed, chaotic, dangerous, deserted, hostile place. When we look in the mirror we are often faced with our sin, flaws, and brokenness. But once we decide to sit in the desert and let its subtle energies work on us, rather than immediately go about trying to transform it, the desert blossoms as a rose before our very eyes and we see the beauty that is already there. The same goes for the human soul. We are fallen creatures, and much of our anxiety comes from the ways we beat ourselves up for not being perfect. But what the desert teaches us is that it is through our brokenness that the light is able to enter. Once we learn to sit still, to listen to the deserts of our own lives, we will find there a beautiful garden, where Christ himself is the gardener. We must ask ourselves, what riches lay unacknowledged in the gardens of our own hearts?

Closing Prayer

A Prayer for our Earth

All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures.

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

Pour out upon us the power of your love, that we may protect life and beauty.

Fill us with peace, that we may live as brothers and sisters, harming no one.

O God of the poor, help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this earth, so precious in your eyes.

Bring healing to our lives, that we may protect the world and not prey on it, that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.

Touch the hearts of those who look only for gain at the expense of the poor and the earth.

Teach us to discover the worth of each thing, to be filled with awe and contemplation, to recognize that we are profoundly united with every creature as we journey towards your infinite light.

We thank you for being with us each day.

Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle for justice, love and peace.

Pope Francis, Laudato Si (2015)

Resources on Desert Spirituality

  • Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
  • Henry L. Carrigan, The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
  • Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert
  • John Chryssavgis, In the Heart of the Desert: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
  • David Jaspers, The Sacred Desert
  • Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes
  • Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert
  • Gregory Mayers, Listen to the Desert: Secrets of Spiritual Maturity from the Desert Fathers and Mothers
  • Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart: The Spirituality of the Desert Fathers and Mothers
  • Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water
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Why we Need the Cursing Psalms

DSC_0925.jpgToday in my morning prayers I read Psalms 58. If you are not familiar, Psalms 58 is one of the more vicious “Cursing” Psalms, wherein the poet-author begs God for vengeance on his enemies. Some exceptionally gruesome lines read:

O God, break the teeth in their mouths;

tear out the fangs of these lions, O Lord!

Let them vanish like water that runs away;

Let them wither like grass that is trodden underfoot.

Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime,

like a woman’s miscarriage that never sees the sun.

This visceral desire for vengeance reminded me of the other infamous Psalm 137, which reads:

O daughter of Bablylon, destroyer,

blessed whoever repays you

the payment you paid us!

Blessed whoever grasps and shatters

your children on the rock!

Listening to mild mannered monks chant these lines is an interesting experience, but there is of course a theology behind it. The Psalms express and give voice to the entire range of human emotion, good and bad, and to chant the Psalms is to enter into those emotions on behalf of those who might be feeling them.

When I heard that a man known for past political activism killed two men on a train in Portland for confronting him over his harassment of two women, I felt angry. When I heard that Islamists had ambushed and killed over 20 Christians as they travelled to a monastery in Egypt, I was furious. When I heard about Manchester, Paris, Orlando, Charleston, the list goes on, I wanted justice. The cowardly acts of terrorists by these white supremacists and Islamist Extremists are cut from the same cloth.

In Psalm 137, the Psalmist is reeling from the recent leveling of Jerusalem by Babylonian forces. The carnage left the Jews feeling completely abandoned by God. And at times like this, with more and more senseless violence we can feel the same.

As a human being, my initial reaction is a desire for vengeance, justice and annihilation. But as someone who believes in the reality of the Christian story, I am also committed to reading the Psalms through the lens of Christ, who asks me to dash my vice, sin and hatred on the rock of his paschal mystery. The Psalms name the justifiable reaction, but Christ calls us to purify them, and to move toward a place of forgiveness, love and nonviolence.

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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Homily: Living Symbols

[Homily delivered Feb. 26, 2017 to Saint Margaret Cedar-Cottage Anglican Church.]

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At 4:13 AM I stumbled in the pale darkness to my choir stall. When I finally looked up through the west facing window of the chapel at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in northwestern Oregon, a glowing full moon was setting through a light haze. The monks began to chant the early morning Divine Office of Vigils, a ritual that unfolds day after day, month after month, and year after year in monasteries all over the world.

This month-long immersive retreat in 2014, inspired the questions that would become my PhD dissertation research, which I completed over a six month period in 2015 and 2016. I am now in writing the dissertation, and should be done in the next 2, 3, 4 or 5 months. I wanted to better understand the relationship between the 1,500 year old monastic tradition, contemporary environmental discourses and the land. And I wanted to better describe for the emerging Spiritual Ecology literature the ways that theological ideas and spiritual symbols populate monastic spirituality of place and creation.

Exodus 24:12-18

In the readings this morning, we are gifted several land-based symbols. God says to Moses in Exodus: “Come up to me on the mountain.” Liberated from Egypt, God is now eager to build a relationship with his people and Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai to receive the Law mirrors our own spiritual journeys. A thick cloud covered the mountain for six days before Moses was finally called into God’s presence, like so much of my own spiritual life, lived in darkness, with small rays of light.

Matthew 17:1-19

In the Gospel reading, Jesus too ascends a “high mountain.” There, his disciples witness one of the most perplexing scenes in the New Testament: The Transfiguration. Jesus’s face and garments shone like the sun. And then, certainly conscious of the Hebrew text, the writer says that a bright cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice say: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Christ, who was fully human and fully God, was revealing in his very person to Peter, James and John his fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. And presence of the symbols of mountain and cloud were bound up in the authenticity of Jesus’s claims to messianic authority.

2 Peter 1:16-21

Even though it’s not clear that the Apostle Peter is the author of our second reading, the message is clear: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Reading Exodus and Matthew, it might feel simple to slip into an easy allegorical hermeneutic, to see everything as a symbol; but the writer of 2 Peter is clear: Stop trying to turn everything into a myth! This reminds me of the quote from Catholic writer Flannery O’Conner who said of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”

img_6579With these texts in mind, especially questions of religious symbols and religious realities, I want to talk a little bit about my research with monastic communities, and then return to these texts at the end. Monasticism, like Christianity as a whole is steeped in symbols. For example, the Abbas and Ammas of the early monastic tradition experienced the desert as a symbol of purification and sanctification. Saint Anthony fled to the desert to live a life of solitude, spiritual warfare and strict asceticism. The silence and nakedness of the desert landscape was as it were a habitat for the silence and simplicity that led the Desert Fathers and Mothers through the wilderness of their own sin to the simplicity of God’s presence. As Saint Jerome wrote, “The desert loves to strip bare.”

The motifs of the Desert-wilderness and the Paradise-garden are like two poles in Biblical land-based motifs. Pulling the people of Israel between them. Adam and Eve were created in a garden, but driven to the wilderness. The people of Israel were enslaved in the lush Nile Delta, but liberated into a harsh desert. The prophets promised the return of the garden if Israel would flee the wilderness of their idolatry. Christ suffered and resurrected in a garden after spending 40 days in the wilderness. The cloister garden at the center of the medieval monastery embodied also this eschatological liminality between earth and heaven, wilderness and garden.

Mountains too were and continue to be powerful symbols of the spiritual life. From Mount Sinai to Mount Tabor, John of the Cross and the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing, each drawing on the metaphors of ascent and obscurity.

But do you need a desert to practice desert spirituality?

Do you need the fecundity of a spring time garden to understand the resurrection?

I would argue that we do.

For my PhD research, I conducted 50 interviews, some seated and some walking, with monks at four monasteries in the American West. My first stop was to New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. The community was established in 1958 by monks from Italy. The Hermitage is located on 880 acres in the Ventana Wilderness of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Coastal Live Oak dominate the erosive, fire adapted chaparral ecology, and the narrow steep canyons shelter the southernmost reaches of Coastal Redwood. The monks make their living by hosting retreatants and run a small fruitcake and granola business.

The second monastery I visited was New Clairvaux Trappist Abbey, which is located on 600 acres of prime farmland in California’s Central Valley and was founded in 1955. It is located in orchard country, and they grow walnuts and prunes, and recently started a vineyard. They are flanked on one side by Deer Creek, and enjoy a lush tree covered cloister that is shared with flocks of turkey vultures and wild turkeys that are more abundant than the monks themselves. They recently restored a 12th century Cistercian Chapter house as part of an attempt to draw more pilgrims to the site.

Thirdly, I stayed at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, which was also founded in 1955, in the foothills of the Coastal Range in Western Oregon. When they arrived, they found that the previous owner had clear cut the property and run. They replanted, and today the 1,300 acre property is covered by Douglas fir forests, mostly planted by the monks. Though they began as grain and sheep farmers, today the monastery makes its living through a wine storage warehouse, a bookbindery, a fruitcake business, and a sustainable forestry operation.

For my last stop, I headed to the high pinyon-juniper deserts of New Mexico. At the end of a 13 mile muddy dirt road, surrounded by the Chama River Wilderness, an adobe chapel stands in humble relief against steep painted cliffs. Founded in 1964, Christ in the Desert Abbey is the fastest growing in the Order, with over 40 monks in various stages of formation. The monks primarily live from their bookstore and hospitality, but also grow commercial hops which they sell to homebrewers.

In my interviews, the monastic values of Silence, Solitude and Beauty were consistently described as being upheld and populated by the land. The land was not just a setting for a way of life, but elements which participated in the spiritual practices of contemplative life. To use a monastic term, the land incarnates, gives flesh, to their prayer life.

Thus, the monks live in a world that is steeped in religious symbols through their daily practice of lectio divina, and the chanting of the Psalms. As one monk of Christ in the Desert put it:

“Any monk who has spent his life chanting the Divine Office cannot have any experience and not have it reflect, or give utterance in the Psalmody. The psalmody is a great template to place on the world for understanding it, and its language becomes your own.”

In this mode, the land becomes rich with symbol: a tree growing out of a rock teaches perseverance, a distant train whistle reminds one to pray, a little flower recalls Saint Therese of Lisieux, a swaying Douglas fir tree points to the wood of the cross, a gash in a tree symbolizes Christ’s wounds. In each case, the elements of the land act as symbol within a system of religious symbology. One monk of Christ in the Desert, who wore a cowboy hat most of the time related:

“When the moon rises over that mesa and you see this glowing light halo. It echoes what I read in the Psalms. In the Jewish tradition the Passover takes place at the full moon, their agricultural feasts are linked to the lunar calendar. When they sing their praises, ‘like the sunlight on the top of the temple,’ ‘like the moon at the Passover Feast.’ ‘Like the rising of incense at evening prayer.’ They’re all describing unbelievable beauty. I look up and I’m like that’s what they were talking about.”

The land populates familiar Psalms, scriptures and stories with its elements and thus enriches the monastic experience of both text and land.

Theologically speaking, God’s presence in the land is a kind of real presence that does not just point to, but participates in God. This gives an embodied or in their words, incarnational, quality to their experience of the land. As another example, one monk went for a long walk on a spring day, but a sudden snow storm picked up and he almost lost his way. He related that from then on Psalm 111 that states “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” took on a whole new meaning.

In addition, the monks often spoke of their experiences on the land in terms of flashes of insight, or moments of clarity that transcended any specific location or symbolic meaning. One monk called these experiences “charged moments” where a tree or vista one sees frequently, suddenly awakens to God’s presence.

The monks at each community, in their own ways, have sunken deep roots into the lands they live on and care for. Each, in the Benedictine tradition, strive to be “Lovers of the place” as the Trappist adage goes. When I asked one monk if this meant that the landscape was sacred, he paused and said, “I would only say that it is loved.”

I am arguing in my dissertation that monastic perception of landscape can be characterized as what an embodied semiotics. By this I simply mean that symbols and embodied experience reinforce each other in the landscape, and without embodied experience symbols are in danger of losing their meaning.

The motifs of desert and wilderness, the symbols of water, cloud, mountain, doves, bread and wine, the agricultural allegories of Jesus, and the garden, are in this reading, reinforced by consistent contact with these elements and activities in real life.

On the last Sunday before Lent, as we move into the pinnacle of the Christian calendar, it is no coincidence that the resurrection of the body of Jesus is celebrated during the resurrection of the body of the earth. But does this mean that Jesus’s resurrection can be read as just a symbol, an archetype, a metaphor for the undefeated message of Jesus? Certainly Peter and the other Apostles would say no. They did not give up their own lives as martyrs for a metaphor.

For a long time I struggled with believing in the resurrection as a historical reality. But when I began to realize the connection between the land and the paschal mystery, it was the symbols in the land itself that drew me to the possibility of Christ’s resurrection. And that in turn reinforced my ability to see Christ in the entire cosmic reality of death and rebirth active and continual in every part of the universe.

As Peter warns his readers: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” For how can we truly believe in the return of the Beloved Son, if we have never been up early enough to see the return of the star we call sun?

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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.

Queen of Peace Monastery

After three black bear sightings in one camping trip, we could use a little peace. After a wonderful camping, hiking trip to Levette and Hut Lakes outside of Squamish, we stopped by the 82 acres of mountain forest where the Dominican Sisters of Our Queen of Peace Monastery live. When we arrived a caretaker was staring fixed through his binoculars at a Western Tanager, and hardly looked up to greet us. We ascended a steep path to the monastery and sat quietly in the simple chapel. The monastery overlooks amazing mountains, forests and glaciers and the crucifix hung in mid air. A young woman in discernment introduced herself and we talked about monasticism and the land, comparing stories. Queen of Peace was only completed in 2012, and work continues on the driveway. The nuns sell arts and crafts to support themselves. We didn’t stay long, but the place left a deep impression on me. I will be back!

 

Chanting to the Moon

There are two days left in my month long Monastic Life Retreat. It is 4:13am and I am stumbling my way toward my choir stall. I look up, and past the Tabernacle through the large, dark window, May’s full moon is setting through a light haze. I entered the community on April 14, under the blessing of April’s nearly full moon. Though a coincidence of my arrival, my stay coincided with an entire lunar month. I love seeing the moon, and in my modern life try to keep track of whether or not it is waxing or waning. And yet I have never measured time using this most ancient of timepieces. Nor have I punctuated my day with six communal chantings of the Biblical Psalms, but this is life for the nearly 25 monks who call the Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey home.

My first chant was the hour of ‘Sext’ (12:30pm) on April 14. I was very nervous and Brother Richard helped me find my place in the five different Psalters and hymn books used by the monks. As we began chanting, then bowing for the doxology, my body slowly relaxed. Chanting with the monks, my favorite part of the retreat, feels so much different than listening from the pews; I felt quite literally inside the chant itself. The openness of the Abbey church with its high glass ceilings and long windows, made me feel as though we were chanting the day into being, and putting it to rest again at dusk. My days were full: three meals, six chants, two meditation sits, personal lectio divina (the monastic practice of reading of the scriptures as prayer), access to an extensive library, and classes given by the monks on Prayer, Lectio Divina and the Cistercian Fathers.

Despite my busy schedule, I spent many hours hiking the extensive grounds of the monastery which are covered by a beautiful mix of white oak, douglas fir, alder and ponderosa pine. It was a wet spring at the monastery, and witnessing the annual rebirth of creation during Easter time at a monk’s pace brought greater determination to be present to the earth’s subtle seasonal liturgy of birth, life death. When I arrived, the white oaks were just beginning to break their buds, and the swallows had not yet arrived; by the time I left, the oaks were in full leaf and the swallows were noisily colonizing the storage shed rafters behind the cloister. One feels a deep connection between the monastery and the forests that surround it. Here is a poem recorded in my journal from mid April:

A stand of Douglas fir trees,

planted by the first generation of monks.

They stand tall,

clothed in mossy cowls,

silent as the monks who planted them.

The robins in their copper and grey habits,

far out number the monks,

and sing their own Psalter from the tops of the trees.

My interest in the connection between spirituality and ecology was fostered during my joint masters degrees in theology and forestry. In my current work as a doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, I am continuing to explore the spirituality of sacred landscapes, especially forested ones. Brother Chris, the monastery forester, knows the Abbey forests like the back of his hand and showed a deep reverence for trees, especially the rare Madrone. The monastery’s grounds make up the largest contiguous forest in a largely agricultural Yamhill County, and all harvesting operations are Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. Yet, far from primeval, the forests were almost wholly planted by hard working monks whose forestry operations started in earnest in the late 1960s. Land being an essential part of the Trappist isolation from the ‘world’ and a pillar of their livelihood, a Trappist monastery then is one part church, one part nature park, one part working forest, one part farm, one part university, and one part industrial village. What drew me to the Monastic Life Retreat was a desire to dwell in this holism; the balance sought, not always perfectly, between work, prayer and study. The community centers around the liturgy, but the liturgy is nested within nearly 1,000 acres of monastic cloister, enterprises, farmland and beautiful forest and restored oak savannah.

The monks support themselves by leasing their farmland to local farmers, timber harvests, a bakery, a book bindery and a large wine storage warehouse and labelling operation that serves local vintners. Every morning after Mass, I would work with the one or several of the monks in a variety of these enterprises or on special projects. From cleaning the refectory, replacing light bulbs and folding laundry, to trimming hedges, mowing lawns, boxing wine for shipment, or preparing the garden for planting. Some work tedious, some work difficult, but all of it somehow connected to monastic life. Most mornings however, I worked along side the Abbey Cellarer Brother John. This was a real privilege. In his early 80s, his kind spirit shines through his well worn and patched denim work jacket. He worked circles around me and wielded a chainsaw with the same grace that he did the incense thurible during Mass. Though we did a variety of work in the woods and around the monastery enterprises, my favorite days were spent repairing sections of several trails that lead to the shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe at the top of the monastery’s hill. Particularly muddy, slippery or steep sections of pathway became level, graveled trails. In some places we even installed railings and steps.

Not only did this work remind me of my time with the U.S. Forest Service, but it mirrored an inner treading, retreading and clearing of the messy, overgrown and contradictory pathways of my own soul. I was raised in a devout and loving Mormon family in Southern California, with roots in Salt Lake City, Utah. I love my tradition, but for the past several years my soul has yearned for something I did not find there. The Monastic Life Retreat is the latest stop on a lonely and at times discouraging spiritual journey along the winding paths of seeking, sometimes desperately, to belong, to believe, and to practice an authentic, fulfilling spiritual life. While at the Abbey, I had no revelatory breakthroughs, no first visions; just the subtle peace that stillness brings. I had a lot of space to wrestle with my angels, demons, questions, and identity, like Jacob is the desert wilderness. reflecting back, it seems I know less about God now than I thought I did as a Mormon, less about truth, less about salvation. I won’t go into my emerging theology, but it involves being more comfortable with uncertainty, ineffability; and an ever deepening conviction that when I am close to earth, reading the book of creation, I feel closer to God–the Ground of Being, the Absolute, Reality, Life, the True Self.

I am not necessarily called to the Trappist vows, but I am so grateful for my time at the Abbey. It was a privilege and an honor that these kind men shared their time, space and friendship with me during this important time in my journey. I hope to return very soon. To the monks of Guadalupe Abbey, thank you! Your lives inspire me to not just be a more serious contemplative, but a better human being.