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.

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The Shape of Water as Anthropocene Fairytale

[SPOILERS]

The Shape of Water (film).pngI suppose it was appropriate to the theme that it was pouring rain as I approached the theatre. After the Oscar buzz of The Shape of Water, Mexican director Guillermo Del Toro’s new fantasy film, I had to brave the water and see it. It was gorgeously imagined, shot and performed, and nods to monster movies and romantic classics. The final scene, however, was something of a jolt to my eco-spiritual sensibilities.

The film revolves around a white woman named Eliza (Sally Hawkins), who is a winsome janitor at a top-secret Cold War era US military research facility that has just acquired a new “asset.” She is an orphan who has strange scars on her neck which apparently are the reason she cannot speak. Her friends Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins) are both outcasts in some way: Zelda is a black woman in a racially charged time in American history, and Giles is a gay man in a very straight world.

The “Asset” is an anthropomorphic, aqueous creature that can breathe air and underwater through a kind of dual respiratory system, which interests the scientists immensely. Their plan, rather than study the creature alive, is to vivisect it and learn what they can before the Russians get a hold of anything that could put them ahead. The creature is tortured and prodded by arch-villain Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) who is the head of security.

Of course, as we soon realize, Strickland is the real monster of the film. On the surface, he embodies the supposed pinnacle of Western civilization during the Cold War: he has a beautiful, obedient wife, two children, a new Cadillac in the driveway, and is on the road to a promotion. None of this makes him happy of course, and he is myopically obsessed with power, with prestige, and with money. He is of course chronically insecure and has to have frequent pep talks with himself in the fluorescent mirrors of the men’s room.

Del Toro’s moral critique of American high modernism couldn’t be any clearer. At every turn, Strickland oozes stale white, male, modernist, Christian stereotypes. He is an effectively hate-able villain, but also a completely predictable, one-dimensional one that merits no sympathy whatsoever. Anthropocentric, greedy Western culture captures and destroys innocent and beautiful nature in a dark sterile industrial looking lab. The subtext is clear: Nature, embodied by the extracted Amazonian amphibious creature who is “worshipped” by the Indigenous peoples of his home place is valuable only as a dissected object. Echoing the classically masculine scientistic view of the world that Carolyn Merchant outlines in the Death of Nature, Strickland will do whatever it takes to subdue and exploit the Asset.

Enter Eliza. The whimsical Amalie-esque janitor is assigned to clean up the lab after the creature is tortured. She inexplicably connects with him and begins a secret romance. She brings him eggs, plays music for him and teaches him sign language. They fall in love. At one point the man-creature is being tortured and prodded by Strickland and manages to bite off two of his fingers. Eliza finds them on the floor as she is cleaning up the blood. They are surgically reattached, but they do not take, and by the end of the film are black and rotten (like his soul?). When Eliza finally gets wind that the lab has decided to kill the Asset because he is too dangerous, she decides to break him out with the reluctant help of her friends and a Russian spy on the inside at the lab.

Fast forward to the final scene: Strickland finds out that Eliza’s friend Zelda knows something about the location of the man-creature and is determined to get it back. He has her pinned to the wall and to intimidate her, he rips off his blackened fingers and throws them on the floor, much to her disgust. This act of sadism compels Zelda’s husband to blurt out Eliza’s name, which he had overheard Zelda talking about the creature with. When Strickland finally finds Eliza, Giles and the man-creature at the docks, Strickland knocks Giles out and then shoots Eliza and the man-creature, who crumpled to the ground. However, as alluded to earlier in the film, the creature has a kind of bioluminescent healing power, he rouses and resurrects. The creature staggers to his feet, places his hands over his bullet wounds, heals himself, and walks toward Strickland who is attempting to reload his pistol. Strickland marvels at the creatures abilities and says, “You are a god.”

At this point in my mystical naïveté, I will be honest, I actually I expected the creature to heal Strickland’s hand, which would soften Strickland’s cold black heart, and the beauty and transformative power of nature revealed. However, as soon as Strickland says “you are a god,” the creature, without thought or much effort slices Strickland’s throat from one end to the other with his sharp claws, and he falls to the ground, himself unable to speak in his final moments. My mouth actually fell open in surprise. There was no harmonious ending for Strickland’s long history of abuse.

The earth is being abused by a relentless industrial culture. The Shape of Water, a kind of Fairytale for the Anthropocene, shows just how indifferent the earth may be to our hubris and attempts at control and power. Many are hoping for a soft landing from our consumer culture. Many are rallying for a ‘good’ Anthropocene. Many see a path of penance and repentance for humanity. In my own eco-theological hope I wanted nature to overwhelm Strickland with grace and healing. To show that the earth is resilient to our abuse and that there is a future for humanity if we would just repent and change our relationship with the earth and her creatures. However, Del Toro’s brutal ending teaches an important lesson, one that is sometimes difficult for me to hear: the earth can only be pushed so far before (s)he pushes back.

Liturgy as Ecology

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Saint James Anglican Church

I attend a High Mass Anglo-Catholic Parish in Vancouver called Saint James. There are sometimes 12 people in the Chancel at a time, attending to the consecration of the Eucharist, swarming in dervish like semi-circles around the eastward facing priest. Priests, deacons, sub-deacons, acolytes, thurifer, torch bearers and crucifer. No single one of us, even the priest makes the dance complete. We are each an integral part of the liturgical ecology.

This is of course not a food chain, but food is involved. Our oikos is the altar,  the place where we bring the fruits of the land, the work of human hands, and  ourselves, and to turn it, ever so slowly, into God. As an ecosystem transfers energy from up the trophic hierarchy from simple to complex organisms, so we during the liturgy, move the desires of our hearts into God’s desires; a little more each day.

It is true, that if we stay on the surface, the liturgy can be boring and repetitive. But just under the surface, the intricate dance that turns bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ on the altar, is an icon for the everyday intricacy that turns our food into our bodies; bodies that make up the mystical body of Christ.

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.

The Christ of the Celts

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The Milky Way, near Oyster Bay, Vancouver Island

This week I read J. Philip Newell’s lovely book Christ of the Celts. While it’s a shallow on historical or theological detail, it does a wonderful job pointing to way to how the Neo-Celtic Christian movement might help in birthing Christianity anew.

Newell, a well respected priest in the Church of Scotland, and a popular retreat leader, outlines the Celtic response to the most iconic, and unfortunately, the most damaging Christian dogmas: Original Sin, Celibacy, Ex Nihilo creation and Substitutionary Atonement. I was impressed by how Newell both highlighted alternative approaches to these doctrines, ways in which the Church might move forward, and ways that we might engage other traditions while deepening our commitment to Christ and the Cross.

I was not surprised by his critiques of celibacy missing the point of a full human life, or the way Substitutionary Atonement turns God’s love into a debt. But I was particularly impressed with his discussion of the Ex Nihilo doctrine. As a Mormon we were taught to see this as one way the church had lost its way. Joseph Smith interpreted Genesis as saying that “created”in Genesis 1 meant organized from pre-existent matter. A doctrine that doesn’t really gain anything for Mormonism as far as I can tell, it simply helped the early Church differentiate itself from the rest of Christianity. Catherine Keller writes a stunning critique of Ex Nihilo in her book Face of the Deep as an essentially masculinist approach to creation. What she calls “tehomophobia” or fear of the Tehom, the chaos or the primordial waters over which the spirit broods in the beginning.

Newell’s approach, far less complex, is a simple distinction. Rather than assuming that God created the world out of nothing, he argues that Irish theologians such as John Scotus Eriugena, saw the world as created out of God. Newell suggests that this is an important distinction because, an Ex Nihilo view of creation, where matter is simply a raw material created to satisfy the needs and wants of the human soul, contributed to the disenchantment of Nature that led to the ongoing industrial holocaust of the earth and her myriad creatures.

In the Christianity that must be birthed, if it and the earth are to survive, we must return Christ to the center of matter. Christ, the Word made flesh, is originally incarnate in creation. For Newell, the Bible and creation are two books that must be read simultaneously.  The body of Christ and the body of the Cosmos are indistinguishably intertwined, and the through the help of the Celtic writers, Christianity can learn to see that once again.

Making the Invisible Visible

One way to conquer a people is to erase their places. As I attempt to come to an understanding of my own connection to place, it is important to remember the invisible layers that already exist. This project is mapping Indigenous Place-names in the Vancouver area. These simple place-names marked prominent features or seasonal uses and were embedded in a Spiritual Ecology of food, kin, myth, trade, and war.

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.

What it Means to be a Spiritual Ecologist

This group is dedicated to Spiritual Ecology. But it is also about the Spiritual Ecology of a particular place: The Salish Sea. What is Spiritual Ecology? And what relationship do spirituality and ecology have with place?

Vancouver, BC is only the latest layer in a deep cultural geology that emerged after the glaciers melted from what is now being called the Salish Sea—the watersheds that drain into the Puget Sound, Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Georgia Strait. Coast Salish peoples number over 60,000 souls today making up over 50 tribes, bands and kin groups. By many of their own accounts, they have dwelt in this place from the beginning of time. I cannot speak for them, but I know that for many, place is not an inert geometric space that has over the years produced fond feelings of attachment; it is not an object outside themselves that they have learned to appreciate through meaning-making. Place is the ground of their being; it is an oikos—a dwelling-place, a habitation. The sea, mountains, forests, salmon, deer, plants, air and sky are woven into their be-ing. The stories, myths, rituals, ceremonies and dangers spoken of by First Peoples are not metaphors projected onto otherwise meaningless physical terrain; they are the grammar of dwelling; they do not make up a worldview, they make up the world (See Eduardo Kohn, 2013, How Forests Think).

For my people, the new-comers, the settlers, the children of colonials seeking a better life under the watchful eye of God and Progress; the Salish Sea too nourished our bodies, but also our love of money. Only later did it nourish our souls. Having laid our hands to ax and plow, we were proud of our work and our sweat, we dedicated it to God, built places of worship in His name. We brought ‘savage’ peoples a saving ‘religion’. We too were immersed in not only a worldview, but a world; one that we believed would bring peace to earth and eternal life to souls. Only within the last few years have we begun to wake up to the savagery of our world; to the violence of what we thought was love, to the folly of what we thought was progress. We the learned, have much to learn, much to undo, and much to apologize for.

One way we sought to right our wrongs was by offering up large swaths of the land to healing, contemplation, beauty and solitude. Today, the Salish Sea has become our Spiritual Ecology too. In the 1800s we fell in love with Nature and sought to protect it from our advancing cult of Progress. But our Spiritual Ecology had a flaw, a difference to that of the First Peoples: it was dualistic. By dualistic I mean that the West dwells in a schizophrenic world of distinct domains: culture and nature, subject and object, traditional and modern, spirit and matter. This orientation to the world separates our dwelling places from our soul places: work and worship, city and country. Nature became a place that we went to after a long day; a refuge from civilization, a recreation. Non-humans became objects for our perception and manipulation (whether that be for food, money or beauty). Being ejected from the Garden, we tried to bring the Garden back to us through protected areas, National Parks and National Forests. Ecology meant Nature, and Spirit meant the non-material aspect of our all too materialistic world.

This ontology is killing the world. It is killing our Religion. It is killing our Souls. But things are changing.

For many of the rising generation, spirit is not so much a shimmery version of ourselves that lives inside us like the driver of a car. Spirit is anima, breath. Spirit is Life. Being spiritual is nothing more or less than being fully alive; being present to life and it’s flourishing. The religions most of us grew up with felt like rules and beliefs, and in-group out-group posturing. But within all religions there is always a spirituality of life.  Religion, religare—to bind together—can be about our connection to God and each other, but also about our connection to Life. Religion properly practiced is a response to life. It is not an answer to the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’, for as Philosopher John Caputo would say, life is the meaning of life.

Ecology is not Nature as a separate domain of reality. Ecology is the scientific study of organisms in their environment; but it is so much more than this, for there is no such thing as an environment. There is only a great web be-ing, an intricate web of life, life-ing. All life, even the life that is not yet life in the air, rocks food and water; even the life no longer living. Being present to life is being present to both the beauty and the pain of life. Yes there is tremendous suffering in the web of life and death, but even in the predator, disease and parasite there is life and the continuation of life, the evolution of life, the creativity of life.

Spiritual Ecology then is a celebration of life in all aspects, both beauty and pain. A Spiritual Ecologist mindfully witnesses to this beauty and pain and acts accordingly.

Spiritual Ecology is one part perception, one part practice and one part ethic.

Perception: For a long time in the West, Spiritual Ecology was about appreciating the beauty of Nature, or protecting Nature from Culture. In light of Climate Change, we are realizing there is no such thing as Nature. This is not to say that the world does not exist, or even that it is a social construction; but that if we are looking for hard facts about the world, a place, a thing called Nature outside and apart from Culture it is just not there. Nature is a disembodied spirit, a ghost that has haunted us for 200 years. But our perception is changing, through both the wisdom of religion and the propositions of science we are waking up to a different world. Theologian John Caputo gives us a glance of that world:

“The cosmos opened up by Copernicus collapse the distinction between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’…The earth is itself a heavenly body, one more heavenly body made up of stardust, as are our own bodies. We are already heavenly bodies, which means that ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ must report back at once to headquarters for reassignment, where they turn out to be ways of describing our terrestrial lives here ‘below’. Every body—everybody, everything—is a heavenly body. Heaven is overtaken by the heavens. Dust to dust, indeed, but it is all stellar dust. Our bodily flesh is woven of the flesh of the earth, even as the earth itself is the debris of stars, the outcome of innumerable cyclings and recyclings of stellar stuff, all so many rolls of the cosmic dice. We are not ‘subjects’ over and against ‘objects’, but bits and pieces of the universe itself, ways the world is wound up into little intensities producing special effects of a particular sort in our bodies in our little corner of the universe” (Caputo, 2011, The Insistence of God, 175).

Caputo expresses a deep call calling from beyond our Western world. Science and Religion, who have been temporarily separated due to irreconcilable differences, are starting to warm up to one another again. We need them both, but not as complementary institutions concerned with facts on one hand and values on the other; not as two coins that add up to 1.00, but two sides of the same coin. There is no objective knowledge outside of human experience, and human experience is not the unreliable black box subjectivity. Our bodies, minds, souls and science emerged from this planet. As Caputo again states, “our power of vision, as well as the particular structure of the color spectrum available to sight, is a direct and precise effect of the astronomical composition of our sun, which has set the parameters of vision which we and other animals forms have evolved. To ask whether what we see, as if it were inside our head, ‘corresponds’ to what is out there, ‘outside our head’, is to ask a question not only without an answer but without meaning” (Caputo 2006, The Insistence of God, 176).

Spiritual Ecology then does not involve going to Nature to find spiritual meaning or connection. This keeps nature separate from culture, spirit separate from nature. Spiritual Ecology is cherishing life, and witnessing to the beauty and pain of the world wherever we are. Yes it is about interconnection, but also the connections that hurt, that threaten us with harm; and the connections that threaten others. The virtue of Christian hospitality is not only welcoming the known, the familiar; but the wholly (Holy) other. Being open to life is to see it, really see it, in all its complexity and to let our lifeways emerge accordingly. This can happen in the ocean, the forest, the savannah, a farm, a city, or a slum. Spiritual Ecology is our communities, our places of worship, our prisons, our hospitals, our schools, the blackberry patches on the side of the roads. It is wherever we are present to the unfolding of life.

This presence is not the appreciation of an aesthetic object. Anthropologist David Abrams helps us shift our gaze in this respect: “To touch the course skin of a tree is thus, at the same time to experience one’s own tactility, to feel oneself touched by the tree. And to see the world is also, at the same time to experience oneself as visible, to feel oneself seen” (Abrams 1996, The Spell of the Sensuous, 68). This is not a relationship between knowing subject and known object, it is the relationship between two waves in an ocean.

Practice: Once we realize with Theologian Thomas Berry that “The natural world is the maternal source of our being…the larger sacred community to which we belong.” (Berry 2006, Dream of the Earth, 81), our spiritual practices will reflect that fact. I was raised in the Mormon Church. I greatly admire the Mormon faith and its people; however, my own religious path has called me to a more Contemplative Christianity. For me, the Mass, the Eucharist, prayer, churches and the saints all enhance and give particular form to my celebration of life. Yes there is much to criticize in the Christianity, but through liturgy that centers on the person of Jesus, my appreciation for life, my love for others has only increased. To say that Christ is in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, is to ritualize the presence of Christ in the cosmos from the moment it flared forth at the Big Bang. To shout Christ is Risen, Alleluia! at Easter is to ritualize the emergence of tiny beautiful buds from the limbs of every tree. To bring the body of Christ into my body prepares me to see God in everything I eat, in everyone I come into contact with. This celebration will be different for each person, each tradition.

Ethic: Once we realize in body and mind that we are the world we seek to experience, our actions should not take the form of a rigid dogma, a Puritanical obsession with recycling or turning off the lights. I do not mean that these are wrong, I only mean that they are not ethics, they are dogmas. Green purchasing is just another marketing scheme to Western individuals that want to consume an identity. We do it all the time. I do it all the time. An ethic is a practice that carries moral weight, it is more complicated than rule. Anthropologist Richard Nelson, writing of his connection to an island off the coast of British Columbia, captures the spirit of how an ethic might emerge for a Spiritual Ecologist:

“There is nothing in me that is not of earth, no split instant of separateness, no particle that disunites me from the surroundings. I am no less than the earth itself. The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. Where the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself…I am the island and the island is me” (My emphasis, Nelson 1989, The Island Within, 249, 250).

All of our decisions have consequences that eventually return to us. How and whether we are able to turn this culture around is an ongoing debate, but it will require more than carbon markets, stricter regulations, expanded protected areas, or planting more trees. It will require a deep shift in our perception and practice of the world from which emerges an ethic that refuses to see one more species go extinct, one more child starve, one more woman abused, one more First Nations’ sacred site destroyed, one more mine tailings pond burst, or, most recently, one more fuel leak in the ocean. How we get there is part of a long difficult conversation. Spiritual Ecology is only one aspect of that conversation, but it needs to be part of it.