Dispatches from the Camino de Santiago: Setting Off

12 Century Spanish Cistercian Chapter House being restored at New Clairvaux Trappist Abbey in Vina, CA.

A few weeks after I had defended my PhD and graduated from the University of British Columbia, I bought a ticket to Barcelona. I had heard of many people having amazing experiences on the nearly 500 miles long Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that gained popularity in the middle ages as a safer alternative to the Holy Land. In the last several decades, annual walkers of the “French Way” have risen to approximately 300,000. I love walking, but I have never done any long distance hiking apart from a hand full of overnight backpack trips. I want to walk the Camino for a lot of the same reasons that most people walk it. I have the time and the resources. I love to travel. I love Christian history, mythology and architecture. I am discerning my vocation within the church.

Of course, a pilgrimage is supposed to be more than just a long hike. Twentieth-century contemplative writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote that “the geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey.” My journey has been one of enormous privilege and blessing. Now, at the end of my education, there is no juicy job offer, no tenure-track position awaiting me; just the vacuous uncertainty of 50 or so digital black holes asking for three letters of recommendation. It is a frightening liminality; being in between my last moments of a very long career as a student, and my hoped-for profession of scholar and educator.

About a week ago, after wrapping up a course for the Forestry Department at UBC, and delivering my last midday meal to some high-rise office in downtown Vancouver for my part-time food delivery job, I packed up my truck and said goodbye to a beloved Vancouver community. As I have done many times before, I boxed up my possessions, mostly books, and hoisted a few boxes into the creaking bed of my small truck. On the morning I left, after saying what felt like weeks of send-offs and well wishes, I took one last look at the strange geometry of a familiar but empty room. Over the last week, I drove down the West Coast, staying with friends along the way. I am writing this in Oceanside, California, while I visit with family in preparation for my brother’s college graduation. I will catch a flight to Barcelona from LAX on Sunday, May 27.

Even though I leave this coming Sunday, I began my pilgrimage kneeling on the sanctuary steps of Saint James Anglican Church about a week and a half ago. After converting to Roman Catholicism in 2015, my long spiritual journey continues, and I have really fallen in love with the balance between progressive values and traditional liturgy of the Anglo-Catholic tradition that is alive and well in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where Saint James is located. At the end of my last Sunday High Mass, the Rector gave me a simple pilgrims blessing, and the love, admiration and prayers of the parishioners buoyed my spirit.

Whenever I drive to Southern California, the first thing I notice when I summit the passes of the desert mountains is the smell. It is a smell that tugs at all of the memories of my formative years and if I were to describe it, it would be something like the smell of fresh rain on hot pavement. I love that the freeway exit signs and place names read like a catechism of the Catholic Saints. Just as we call the collection of states in the Northeastern United States ‘New England’, it would not be inappropriate to call the Southwest ‘New Spain.’ I only realize now that the tallest mountain in Orange County, where I grew up, was christened by the Spanish in honour of Saint James. Santiago Peak and Santiago Canyon were familiar words with invisible histories for me as a young Mormon growing up in Orange County. There is a certain “Catholicity” to the geography of Southern California, and I am only now becoming literate to the names and charisms of the many saints and feast days that dot the state’s many post-colonial place names. Having grown up in Southern California near Mexico, and having travelled in Latin America, it feels right to finally be paying a visit to the ‘Old Country.’

The last few months have been busy with planning the logistics of the trip, making lists of cathedrals and monasteries I want to visit, and assembling the proper gear for the walk. It is only in the last few weeks that I have begun to really reflect on the spiritual reasons I am walking the Camino apart from the raw experience of the walk. Traditionally, people undertook a pilgrimage as an act of penance, petition or gratitude to God. I am certainly taking my own sins, prayers and thankfulness with me on the Camino, but I wonder if there is something more my walk could mean or put out into the world. I am not expecting any grand revelations or mystical encounters, but what does the simple act of going for a long walk mean in such uncertain times?

As I drove a long stretch of highway between the city of Saint Francis (San Francisco) and San Luis Obispo, California, I listened to a three-part series from Radiolab about illegal immigration in the United States. The series explored how toughening border security in urban areas in the 1990s had pushed desperate migrants into the deserts, who must walk for days on end to reach the United States. The number of deaths and disappearances surged drastically. Prior to 2000, fewer than five migrant deaths were reported each year. After 2000, the number has reached nearly 200 each year. And those are just the ones that are found. As Radiolab’s guests argued in gruesome detail, a dead body does not last long in the desert, with vultures, scavengers and even ants quickly dismembering and dissolving the bodies into nothingness.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers took vows of voluntary poverty and privation and sought a kind of spiritual anonymity. Desperate migrants, who risk everything to find a better life for themselves and their families all have names, stories and people who love them, and yet do find spiritual solace in the privations of the desert. As I listened to the stories of these brave people seeking a better life, a life like the one I was given through no merit of my own, I could not help but feel somewhat ashamed of my privileged stance as a voluntary pilgrim. I am going to walk for leisure, adventure and spiritual insight; they walk for their lives and the lives of their families.

In addition to my own burdens and questions, the people and petitions I am carrying with me; I will also make space to pray for refugees and migrants. For the thousands of men and women who have no other choice but to walk. I know this will not contribute directly to solving these complex global problems and heartbreaking realities. But there is a small part of me that believes that in the midst of a broken world, the earnest prayers of even one person make a difference. I am praying with my feet on a path that has been travelled by thousands of people for over a thousand years. I am going for a walk.

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The Annunciation of Spring

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

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

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

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

The Gardener

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In today’s Gospel reading from John 20:12-15 we read:

“But Mary stayed outside the tomb weeping. And as she wept, she bent over into the tomb and saw two angels in white sitting there, one at the head and one at the feet where the body of Jesus had been. And they said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken my Lord, and I don’t know where they laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus there, but did not know it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She thought it was the gardener and said to him, “Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.”

We all know what happens next. This familiar Easter narrative has both delighted and puzzled Christians over the centuries. Mary Magdalene, a woman, was the first to see the resurrected Jesus. She was the Apostle to the Apostles, the first member of the Christian Church. We have often wondered, however, why it was that she did not immediately recognize Jesus.

One Jewish legend of the time, attempting to discredit the story of the resurrection, speaks of a man named Judas, who was worried that Jesus’s disciples would trample his cabbages when they came to visit his tomb. So, he relocated Jesus to another tomb, and the myth of the resurrection began. It is said by Biblical scholar Rudolf Schnackenberg, that perhaps this story is the reason John’s Gospel refers to Jesus as a gardener in the first place.

Other commentators have of course pointed to Mary’s grief, or even her focus on the worldly body of Jesus as reasons why she did not at first see her Teacher. Or, perhaps the author of the Gospel was playing with the familiar ancient trope of the disguised returning hero (See Homer’s Odyssey).

I would like to suggest a much simpler possibility. Perhaps Mary mistook Jesus for a gardener, because he was gardening. The scripture says that Mary turns around and sees Jesus there, it does not say that Jesus was facing her. Perhaps she noticed his presence, but his face was obscured because he was hunched over, hands in the dirt, taking in the smells of the earth on the early morning after he had suffered so much, and been miraculously returned to life.

The dialogue that ensues between Mary and Jesus could have taken place at a short distance, as Jesus playfully repeats the words of the angels, “why are you crying?” and Mary hopelessly asks if perhaps he knows where her Teacher has been laid. Perhaps he then got up from his task, and put his hand on Mary’s shuddering shoulder and spoke more directly: “Mary!” And when she looked up, only then did she recognize the face of the man she had come to love and respect so much.

Now, of course this is speculation, but I feel like this reading enriches many of the existing elements of symbolism in salvation history. As many commentators have pointed out from the earliest days of the church, including Paul, whereas Adam brings sin and death into the world through disobedience in the Garden of Eden, it is Christ, who in the Garden of Gethsemane and then the garden of the tomb points to the final Garden of the Resurrection. The Garden of Eden begins the salvation narrative, and the garden tomb finishes it. Jesus is the new Adam, as Mary is the new Eve. Christ suffered in a garden. He rises in a garden. As the second Adam, he is the “Greater Gardener.”

Sometimes we imagine the resurrected Jesus as a white-clad, angel like man. But the accounts of the resurrection, often portray him in day-to-day scenes. He appears to Apostles in a small room, and eats with them; He appears to two men walking along the road, and again eats with them; He sits by the Lake of Galilee and cooks breakfast over a fire. I am reminded of the familiar Zen Koan, “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.” Before the resurrection, fully human and fully divine, after the resurrection, fully human and fully divine.

We will never know for certain of course, but there is nothing that convicts me of the both the reality and naturalness of the resurrection more than watching the cycles of birth, life, death, decay and rebirth that happen each year in the garden that we call earth.

References

Schnackenberg, Rudolf. The Gospel According to St. John: Volume III. Crossroad, 1990.

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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Sacred Groves

img_6302In the beginning, the tree of life emerged as a tiny seedling. Soon, it branched out into everything we call living: microbes, fungi, plants, animals, and humans.

We evolved with trees.

Perhaps they lowered our primate ancestors down from their bows and nudged us toward the savanna.

But trees never left us; they continued to provide us with food, fodder, shelter, tools, medicine, and stories.

They began to appear in our dreams.

They began to populate our stories.

It was here, in a forest, that Yahweh planted a garden of trees, pleasing to the eye and good for food (Genesis 2:8–9).

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

It was here that Inanna, goddess of Babylon, 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; which 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, 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 held the sky in place and marked the cardinal directions.

FIRST VISIONS

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

It was here that Abraham wrestled with angels and beheld visions of Yahweh.

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

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

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 the Sikh Guru Nanak experienced the One True God.

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

It was also here, in the presence of the divine feminine, that the boy Joseph Smith saw in vision the Father and the Son.

And it was here that John Muir rambled in ecstasy for days.

FIRST TEMPLES

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

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

It was here that Isis of Egypt was worshipped as the mighty Sycamore on the banks of the Nile.

It was here that the Druids passed on their knowledge, worshipped the gods, and sacrificed human flesh.

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 all resembled the trunks of trees, carrying the eye upward to God. But these temples of stone limited God to one place, one people, one faith. It was here that we fell from universal grace.

FALL

It was here that Adam and Eve fell.

It was here that civilization expanded.

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, or subjective.

RETURN

In an age of climate change, extinction, and corporate tyranny, 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 experience mystical solitude.

It is here that we are now.

To return to the forest, we must become familiar with it. Go to a mountain grove and take off your shoes. Once 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.

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

Imagine drinking the sun in as food.

Focus on your breath by letting the clean air pass through your nostrils and fill your lungs.

Feel your lungs slowly empty as your body expels carbon dioxide.

Feel your lungs slowly fill with oxygen.

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

In and out.

Imagine that oxygen, produced in the leaves of these very trees gently being pushed from the leaf’s stomata, wafting through this space, and entering our lungs.

As you breathe out, imagine the CO2 wafting in the air and entering the stomata of the leaves, powering the cycle of photosynthesis.

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 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!

Thomas Merton once 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.

I offer you this prayer: Forest! May we sustain you as you sustain us!

Think of this prayer, whisper this prayer, or shout this prayer when you are grateful for what a place has given you: a forest, a body of water, a desert, a garden.

Deep Roots, Entwined Branches: Reflections on the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Laying on cured grass just outside of a closed Forest Service campground in the foothills of the Idaho panhandle, cool air condenses into dew on my sleeping bag. I shiver between sleep and wakefulness. The stars keep me company. I watch Cassiopeia slowly swing around the North Star, and around 4:00 am, Orion becomes visible. It is strange that only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. There are dozens of other constellations whose faces I do not recognize, and whose stories I do not recall. Then, in the east, an almost imperceptible glow begins to put the trees and hilled horizon into dim relief. Venus, Mercury and Jupiter line up to greet the day. Morning is approaching.

I, along with five other members of the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance are on our way to the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions supported by a small grant from the Sisters of Charity Halifax and we have stopped to camp for the night after a long day of driving.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was first convened in 1893 in Chicago to coincide with the World’s Fair. This year it is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah the Axis Mundi of my first religious tradition, Mormonism, and the place I lived and taught World Religions for two years before I moved to Vancouver. In 2014, I attended the Society of American Foresters annual conference in the very same venue, and when I heard that the Parliament was coming in 2015, I felt a pang of synchronicity. I studied both forestry and theology in graduate school, and though it was a small coincidence, it felt like Life reassuring me that I was on the right path.

Arriving in Salt Lake City, we found the Salt Palace Convention Center packed with about 10,000 people, representing at least 50 faiths, from 80 countries. The first Parliament excluded Native peoples, Mormons and Atheists, but this year just about every possible belief and practice was present. We began by going through a ‘smudge’ purification ritual officiated by a kindly Paiute elder, and then making an offering of tobacco to the sacred fire. It was good to start the Parliament by acknowledging the Spiritual Ecology of the First Peoples of this land.

The Parliament was a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual and religious diversity: mandalas, labyrinths, spontaneous dance parties, flash mobs, meditation gurus, chanting, even a procession of people dressed like angels. Exhibitors hawked every kind of spiritual ware from prayer beads and Native American jewelry, to sacred texts and icons. It was a cacophonous mosaic of the world’s spiritu-diversity. Overwhelming at first, I settled into the rhythm of the Parliament, and to try and drink from its convention-shaped wisdom.

The mission of the Parliament is “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” This mission was on full display throughout the Parliament, as most sessions focused on issues of poverty, cooperation, women’s rights, violence, terrorism, climate change, ecology, and more. I attended dozens of the concurrent sessions –from Pagans respond to the Pope, to Vedic Cosmology. I was even lucky enough presented a few myself.

In ‘Religion and Ecology in the Anthropocene’, I looked to the future religion in an ecological context of human domination. I presented Spiritual Ecology as an emerging and increasingly popular orientation that transcends religious affiliations. Our Panel headed up by Suresh Fernando, Maya Graves-Bacchus and Alysha Jones then defined spiritual ecology and presented the vision and mission of our organization. It was a wonderful conversation! In my second presentation ‘Trees, Forests and the Sacred’, I started with a poem on Sacred Groves, and then rushed through a PowerPoint on the types of sacred trees and forests. Then I invited participants to leave the air-conditioned convention center and spend time with actual trees in Temple Square. We reconvened in front of the LDS Temple and discussed our experiences. It was a very powerful way to bring home the importance of trees in our spiritual lives. My third presentation was as a short guided meditation on cosmology. Wandering through the phases of cosmic evolution, we meditation on the 5 elements focused on each in our bodies and in the earth. But enough about that!

Along with the hundreds of concurrent sessions there were six plenaries sessions spaced throughout the week which addressed Women’s issues; Emerging Leaders; Income Inequality; War, Violence and Hate Speech; Climate Change and Indigenous issues. The speeches and energy in the massive plenary hall was electric, and I was deeply moved by most of the speeches and speakers. The diversity of voices were not there to convince us of their beliefs or doctrines, but to challenge us to live up to our best moral teachings. Not that their beliefs and doctrines did not come through in their talks, or that they needed to check them at the door, but that the Parliament was simply not the place to debate the metaphysical truths of religious belief. It was a place of convergence in common cause, and a space for sharing the unique perspectives each tradition brings to the works of justice, mercy, poverty and ecology.

I was particularly inspired by the number and diversity of women leaders. Eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, writer and Course in Miracles enthusiast Marianne Williamson, Ayurveda teacher Mother Maya Tiwari, theologian Dr. Serene Jones, Indigenous Grandmother Mary Lyons, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, indigenous youth activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Primatologist Jane Goodall, writer Karen Armstrong, evangelical climate activist Katherine Hayhoe, religion and ecology scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker and so many more. The Parliament was a welcome place for those who sought to advance the equality of women. There was also a surge of energy focused on the reemergence of the Divine Feminine.

On the role of women, it was stated plainly, the world’s religions have a mixed record with respect to treating women with dignity. Parliament Board member Phyllis Curott reiterated,

“The dignity, safety and equality of women is the global human rights struggle of our time. The world’s religions can no longer contribute to or allow the denigration of half of humanity…Women, and men, of faith and spirit are gathering in Salt Lake City to fix this broken moral compass and call upon the world’s religions to stop the deprivation and violence against women and girls; to stop harmful teachings and practices that justify discrimination and abuse; and to ensure that women are fully involved in decision-making within religions.”

It was humbling to once again realize how much privilege I carry in the world as a white, cis-gendered male, Christian; and to realize that my place of privilege has led to the suffering of bodies that do not look like mine. Speaking of the recent attack on a Gurdwara in Wisconsin where a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four others, Sikh woman Valerie Kaur lamented that:

“100 years after my family has called this country home, and 14 years after 9/11, our bodies are seen as perpetually foreign, and potentially terrorist. Just as black bodies are seen as criminal, brown bodies illegal, trans bodies immoral, indigenous bodies savage, and women’s bodies as property.”

It is always a hard reality to face; that my demographic has caused so much suffering to women, to immigrants, to blacks, to indigenous communities, and to the LGBTQ community. It reminded me of something Jim Wallis said in relation to the violence facing so many African Americans in the US: “If white Christians in America acted more Christian than white when it came to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children.” These are hard words. The Parliament was a call to repentance. I am trying not to internalize guilt, but to channel it into the energy we need to build a better world, and the energy I need to continue to strive to be a better man, a more conscious white person, and the kind of Christian that takes God’s love seriously, for myself and for the other.

There was no illusion that religion is often tangled up with this discrimination, violence, terror and hatred around the globe. Fundamentalism, extremism, patriarchy, terrorism and capitalism were all called out for their negative consequences, faults, flaws and mistakes, but there was very little bitterness, vitriol or blame. For all its faults, religion was overwhelmingly embraced as a force for good in the world, a force that is capable of acting out of a deep and Divine source of love toward those that we might otherwise fear. Each speaker drawing from their own traditions and experiences, in the face of insurmountable problems, was able to expose the center of love and compassion at the core of all our religious and spiritual traditions. They admonished us to access this core with the intention of serving our human siblings and the earth community. Each speaker was grounded in respect, love and hope for the possibilities present in this remarkable gathering.

While the problems we face were certainly front and center, the good we have accomplished was also with us. Discussion of the transition from the UN Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals cited that fact that globally, extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990. Eboo Patel discussed his work with Interfaith Youth Corps, which works with campus groups around the USA to build interfaith relationships and to make it known just how much interfaith cooperation has succeeded in the past. New Thought Minister Michael Beckwith talked about the potential of moving the economy from a model of Success 1.0 and 2.0 with an emphasis on personal profit, or personal profit tempered by philanthropy; to what he called Success 3.0, which focuses on the impacts our enterprises have on other people and the planet before personal profit. Jane Goodall spoke to the evolutionary origins of violence, and how human beings, unlike chimpanzees face a choice. We can act on those evolutionary impulses or we can transcend them. The Parliament was a pep-rally for actively choosing goodness over evil, forgiveness rather than revenge, and hope rather than despair.

One thing I noticed at the Parliament was that young people were a minority. This really hit home when I sat around the table with old friends from Utah and we realized that though most of us had attended BYU (the LDS owned College in Provo, Utah), most of us had left the Mormon Church. Few had transitioned to other faiths as I had, and most were still carrying the wounds of lost belief, residual guilt, and bitterness. My friends have left for many reasons, but I wished that they could have heard the plenary speeches which called us to forgiveness and hope. Yet, for most young people, the damage has been done, and the thought of returning to the religions of their upbringing is near impossible. I do not blame young people for leaving organized religion, as I said, there is plenty to point fingers at, but it makes me sad none the less. Especially at a time when their voices and creativity are so desperately needed to address these mounting global issues and problems. If religion wants to survive, it must find a way to engage young people in ways that are authentic, meaningful, and hopeful.

Yes religion can be insular, exclusive, moralistic and violent, but at the Parliament of the World’s Religions I realized that we were part of something much greater than a collection of religious institutions in dialogue. We are part of a global Interfaith Movement that is predicated on the assumption that we have something to learn from other religious traditions, and that the problems of the world are a test of how well our traditions serve humanity and the earth. Some predict that religion will go away. I am not convinced of this. Yes, religion will have to change as it always has—as I realized in the wet grass of the Idaho Panhandle, it is only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. As we continue to dialogue, to seek understanding, to cooperate on global projects to combat climate change, poverty and discrimination, the roots of our faith may deepen, but our branches will become more entwined. This is the religion of the future.

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.

Eulogy for my Grandmother Nancy Lee Holmsen

Nancy a few weeks before her death on Jan. 7, 2015.

Nancy a few weeks before her death on Jan. 7, 2015.

When I came to know Grandma Nancy, she had already been deeply wounded by life. My earliest memories of her are filled with explanations for why she could not walk as fast, see as well, or drive. Why part of her forehead was missing. Nancy had faced death several times in her life: Polio, cancer, a brutal car accident, meningitis; and she wanted none of it. She wanted to live!

In a Christian view of the afterlife, we might try to imagine Nancy as a perfect young woman dressed in white. But this would not be the Nancy that I knew. For me perfection is the wholeness brought about by our wounds. More than anyone I know, Nancy bore her woundedness with love, grace and humor. Her love and laughter have been present throughout my life and I will miss her.

Grandma Nancy was a towering figure of my childhood. Grandma’s house was always a place I loved to go. Sometimes, I would stay overnight at grandma’s small apartment and she would cook lamb chops (and after reading some of her journals, it appears that my siblings got a lot more dessert than I did). She would tell me stories about the Salt Lake of the 1940s and 50s. We have a few of her journals, from 1947, 1951, 1953 and 1954. Reading through them was a treat. She was a precocious young woman, taking note of the weather each day and starting each entry with: “Dear Diary.” She had an early crush on a boy named Dick and many, many friends. She called cigarettes “doogies”, saw movies, ate a lot of French fries, did chores, and played canasta. A few excerpts:

  • January 4, 1951: Had oodles of cars following us all night! Ma smelled smoke on me!
  • January 4, 1953: Don and I went to show. Saw ‘Lure of the Wilderness’ at Richey. Baby really was kicking in show. Don’s ma called earlier and we were scared she’d come and catch Don still here.
  • Friday July 30, 1954: Started throwing up terrible. All morning. Guess I’m pregnant again.
  • Tuesday September 28 1954: Went to the hospital with Polio.

She rarely writes about religion or church (except when she writes about not going), but writes passionately about lovers, friends, family and her home on 2nd North. She was a kind friend, a good sister, and a young mother.

Other times spent with Nancy we would just watch TV, or she would teach me how to haggle with Tijuana merchants if the chance ever arrived, (not sure why, but this is a very vivid memory of her). All of us grandkids remember her long natural finger nails which she would turn into eggs that needed cracking on our ticklish scalps. She never missed a birthday or Christmas and her gifts were generous despite her humble income. She loved to celebrate with us and her later journals are a litany of grandchildren milestones, birthdays and time spent with family. She was there for every major milestone in my life, like many of you.

To hear her stories was one thing, but to tell her our own was quite another. Whenever I told her a story, or showed her something I had made, or gave her an update from college, she lent almost comical attention to every detail. “Grandma look what I made!” YOU MADE THIS! NO!?

I love her and she will be sorely missed. However, I want to admit that I could have spent more time with her, cared about her suffering more, listened to her stories again. Nancy’s death has recommitted me to valuing our elders. With their death comes the reminder that we too will one day die. This is scary and sad, but let us also remember that death is part of the precious gift of life. Like leaves on a tree, our bodies flourish for a time and then return to the soil. This is one of our oldest metaphors; earth-lings, shaped from dust, we must all return to our Mother the Earth. We return to the soil, but the Tree of Life lives on. The air we breathe was breathed by Nancy, and now returning to the earth from which she came, the air we breathe is Nancy. It is hard to fully grasp. We want our loved ones to stay forever, we want to live forever ourselves. Why should the living pass back into the non-living?

These are questions humans have asked for thousands of years. And many of our spiritual traditions provide confident answers about what comes next. I am not here promote or to discourage any one of these beautiful beliefs that give us hope of seeing each other again. But I want to say that for me, a mature spirituality is less concerned with explanations for death and suffering, than with how we respond in the face of death and suffering. What will we do with the losses and the wounds that life metes out without respect of race, class or creed? This is for us to work through together, as family and as friends.

For me, though she was not religious, Nancy embodied fully a religious response to suffering and death; one that I hope to emulate to some small degree. She responded with awe, grace, love, hope, joy, humor and peace to life and in death she teaches us to do the same. Despite our wounds, let us follow the example of Nancy’s holy wonder for life, as we do the work of a thousand generations before us of burying our cherished dead. Thank you.

I would now invite us to celebrate Nancy with our stories and memories…

Winter Solstice Articles

Solstice at Stonehenge

Solstice at Stonehenge

A few excellent Winter Solstice articles I have enjoyed today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent!

http://www.onbeing.org/blog/the-invitation-of-december/7114

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/20/opinion/why-we-need-the-winter-solstice.html?_r=0

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/20/winter-solstice-2014_n_6336518.html

http://www.vox.com/2014/12/21/7424371/winter-solstice

http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2014/12/21/winter-solstice-welcoming-return-light-across-turtle-island-158395