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 Tower of Silence

The Prophet Zoroaster

The Prophet Zoroaster. Source: Wikipedia

I recently did an interview with three Zoroastrians who live here in Vancouver. As I was preparing for the interview, I learned the fascinating history of the death rituals practiced by ancient and some modern Zoroastrian communities.

Briefly, Zoroastrians are followers of the teachings of the prophet Zarathustra, or Zoroaster in Greek, who is thought to have lived some time between 1,500 and 650 BCE. They are probably the first monotheistic religions with a great reverence for the elements, especially fire, which is a kind of incarnation of wisdom.

However, because of a dualistic cosmology, with the forces of good and evil forever at odds, dead bodies are believed to be quickly tainted by evil spirits. Because the elements are holy, death must be dealt with in such a way that the elements are not tainted by the corpse. This means no burial, no cremation, or setting out to sea. Traditionally then, Zoroastrians have conducted what is often referred to as ‘sky burial.’ The corpse is taken to a place called a Tower of Silence, where carrion eaters such as vultures devour the corpse. The technical term for this is excarnation, and it is also practiced by certain sects of Tibetan Buddhism, and in Mongolia, Bhutan, and Nepal.

Mumbai Tower of Silence Entrance Source: Wikipedia

Mumbai Tower of Silence Entrance
Source: Wikipedia

One particular case that drew my attention, was the Zoroastrian community in Mumbai, whose Tower of Silence called the Doongerwadi, is surrounded by 54 acres of unmanaged forest, creating a small oasis. The Tower was built in the late 1600s, but is located in what is now an upper middle class neighborhood.

However, in the 1990s, the vulture population, which traditionally devoured the corpses in short order, collapsed due to the use of a drug administered to cattle, which was then ingested by the birds who had eaten the remains of treated cows. In some places, the vulture population was decreased by 99%.

This decrease in the vulture population, has meant that there are not enough birds to properly decompose the corpses of Mumbai’s Zoroastrian community, and there are worries about the public health implications of half decomposed corpses sitting around, even with the forest buffer.

In response, Zoroastrian activists have begun experimenting. There is a vulture breeding program in the works that is having some success, but others have began experimenting with solar concentrators which direct the suns heat onto the decomposing corpses which dries them out and speeds up decomposition time.

Sources

https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/jan/26/death-city-lack-vultures-threatens-mumbai-towers-of-silence

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1443789.stm

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.

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.

Holy Ground

ShackThere is something about being in a place that our spiritual, historical or literary ancestors have once tread. Ones that walked, worked, wrote or traveled through a place or landscape. The practice of retracing their steps is an ancient human practice, we call pilgrimage. I didn’t go on foot, but between a lovely wedding in Chicago among family and an amazing Religion and Ecology conference in New Haven among friends, I was lucky enough through the grace of some old friends to visit several of these places over the last week. While in Madison, Wisconsin we travelled by car just north of Baraboo to a small shack on the western shore of the Wisconsin River. It was here that Aldo Leopold, Yale Alumnus and ecology saint wrote his famous A Sand County Almanac. The locale is no pristine wilderness, a sandy soiled pine forest that gives way to riparian grasses and shrubs at the river’s edge. But walking the numbered stations of the Leopold Foundation’s pamphlet, like an ecological stations of the cross, those typical trees took on the spirit of the Leopold family, who planted the trees in an act of ecological restoration. The shack as temple in a sacred grove. A temple, not of worship or divinity, but a tangible shrine to one of the early voices to suggest that humanity was not conqueror of Nature, but citizen. As we stood on the sandy river shore in silence, water lapping against the sandy ground, a flock of 15 sand hill cranes passed overhead on their way to their nightly roost. The water was deep blue and the air was chilly when the sun passed behind clouds. There was nothing otherworldly about the experience, but it certainly enriched my love for Leopold and his contribution to the ecology movement.

CWOn foot, I seek an inconspicuous corner of 1st Street in East Village, Manhattan. The St. Joseph Catholic Worker House of Hospitality has been in continuous operation since Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day founded them in 1936. When I arrived, a small crew of volunteers that included two Mormon missionaries, were serving a simple soup, and a smiling woman made the rounds topping off coffee mugs. The guests sat mostly in silence, some in quiet conversation. I struck up a short conversation with a volunteer and he immediately offered to let me serve some coffee. We chatted about the project, the place, and Dorothy Day, the movement’s founder, who is currently being reviewed by the Vatican for Canonization. The Catholic Worker Movement is a lot like other homeless shelters, but more than that it was an early socialist attempt to live the Gospel by fulfilling Jesus’s command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick. They espouse a simple philosophy of Christian pacifism, agrarianism and personalism. They serve daily meals and give free clothing away and house several dozen people on a temporary basis. A drop in the bucket in a city of 8 million, but just looking around I could feel of Dorothy’s spirit, silently fulfilling the most basic of Christian practices.

A young parish priest opened the Rectory door of Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights and asked “How can I help you?” I told him I was a reader of Thomas Merton, and asked if I could see the chapel. Without hesitation, he slipped into tour guide mode, opened the door and showed me to the room where Merton first met with Father George Barry Ford. A small hand painted portrait of Merton hung on the north wall. The Priest showed me into the church and guided me toward the back of the chapel to a small baptistery where Merton was baptized. The church was beautiful, built in 1936 in a Baroque Revival style. A little too ornate for my taste, and nothing like the Cathedrals I had visited throughout the day in Manhattan. But the place help a special presence as the place where Thomas Merton worked out his conversation and eventual decision to join the Trappists in Gethsemani Abbey, Kentucky. Merton went on to become one of the most influential Catholics of the 20th century, and his writing is widely read.

I am no expert on these writers, but they have all, Leopold, Day and Merton influenced by thinking, the way I live my life and the subject of my research. Being in the places where these wonderful human beings worked out their own questions, ideas and lives gave me a kind of strength and assurance that I was at least moving in the right direction.

 

Convergence Reflections

A year ago, I decided I wanted to put on a conference. I had just started my PhD program at UBC and finished a course on the history of environmental thought. It became clear that there was so much to learn about our religious and spiritual relationship to the world. Being new in the Pacific Northwest I wanted to bring people together, to see what was out there, what was being done, and how we might form a stronger community of ‘spiritual ecologists’ in the region. I wanted to discuss religion, spirituality, ecology and cosmology in the same space, and I wanted to gather strength for the fight for our future that our generation is in the midst of. What started as an idea became a reality from September 22-24 and the 29th. With fifteen artists and at least twenty four presenters, speakers or narrators this truly was a Convergence of talent, ideas, passion and beauty. I chose the title Spiritual Ecologies and New Cosmologies, because I wanted to span the diverse terrain of scholarship, activism and advocacy for a new way of seeing ourselves in relationship to the earth and the Universe herself. I chose the plural because I knew there would not be just one vision of a sacred earth or a sacred cosmos, but many. I chose Convergence, because I wanted it to be about more than just presenting papers. As the core organizer I made plenty of mistakes: perhaps too many speakers, too few breaks, too much time in our heads. But overall we had an amazing spectrum of lectures, presentations, storytelling, performance, walking meditation, art and most importantly discussion and sharing. While the Convergence is over, the art will be exhibited at the Liu Institute until November 6, so if you missed the Convergence stop by!

Day 1: Beginnings

Storytellers

Storytellers

The picture of Monday’s speakers brings me great joy. For all the strife and religious violence in the world it was amazing to have people speaking from 10 different traditions, and sharing those perspectives with an audience of 80 other perspectives. We had some technical difficulties and the speakers went a little long, but to be in the First Nations Long House among the amazing totems and pillars was a wonderful place to tell stories of origin and beginnings. We were welcomed to the Musqueam territory by Elder Larry Grant, who told us about the origin of the name Musqueam, and the problematic nature of colonial English words like ‘creation’ and ‘Creator’ and the Musqueam concept of all things possessing a life force. As we learned, not all of our spiritual traditions tell stories of beginnings –our Buddhist and Hindu storytellers spoke of unimaginably long cosmic cycles within which human beings strive for liberation from suffering. While the Judeo-Christian creation stories (Gen. 1 and 2) offer poetic details about the emergence of the universe and a cast of characters, our Sikh storyteller declared that only God knows how the universe was brought into being. For us it will always be a mystery. In Islam, everything in creation points back to Allah, from beginning to end, and our Mormon storyteller spoke of our eternal co-existence with God and the universe. If we had had more time, I would have asked 10 more scientists to speak from their traditions. But our cosmology story teller, Ben Pfeiffer a Langara College science professor, did an amazing job, by telling of the Big Bang and the origin of the earth in a story that included a mythical spider who challenged the dominant telling of the scientific story of the universe by mostly white men. After the welcome dinner, we heard from those in the audience who brought up many interesting points and spoke from experience. They all had stories to tell, and I wish we would have had time to hear them all.

Day 2: Cosmologies

DSC_7468

Cosmic Meditation Walk

On our second day, via skype, we heard from the producers of ‘Journey of the Universe’, a film about reconnecting the human purpose to cosmic evolution. During the response to the film by Bruce Sanguine, a local self-professed evolutionary Christian, a young woman entered the room and began speaking loudly, asking if she could speak, asking what we thought we were doing. I tried to ignore her and move on with the evening, but she persisted despite efforts by some of the participants to calm her down and invite her outside. At one point she insulted our speaker by saying what he was saying made no sense. As Bruce continued, I lost my temper and stormed up to her demanding that she leave the premises. She refused and my anger only escalated her outbursts. The room was tense and we tried to move forward, while someone called UBC security. While I stormed around, one of the participants quietly gained her trust, and took her outside, calming the woman down, and teaching her how to reconnect to herself through the ground and the trees that surround the Liu Institute. The woman admitted that perhaps she should not have made such a scene and apologized. The evening proceeded with some very insightful reflections, but as I reflected, my boldness melted into shame. Yes, I had worked so hard to build something, and she had tried to ruin it…How dare she insult my speaker! But I realized what a perfect metaphor it all was. All of our preconceived notions of comfort, order, harmony, normality, and mental health can be shattered in an instant. How could I change my relationship to the earth if I could not even love one person suffering from a momentary lapse in mental health? If that woman, who refused to tell us her name, is reading this, I want to say I am sorry. Please forgive my lack of compassion for you. I will do better.

After our discussion we turned to the Sisters at Earth Literacies Program for a walking meditation that spanned the entire history of the universe as told by contemporary Cosmology, each milestone marked with a candle. I was impressed by the amount of silence between the beginning of the universe and the emergence of galaxies, and the tiny spaces between the creation of earth and the evolution of consciousness. After the Sisters outlined the journey, we all walked the spiral from the center to the outer edge in silence. It was profound to see the milestones that led to Jason M. Brown walking in a small room of peers in British Columbia under my feet; to grasp that I was but star stuff reflecting back on the process of becoming Mind stuff.

Day 3: Ecologies

Speakers and Participant from the afternoon session

Speakers and Participant from the afternoon session

On the third day we had an amazing and full lineup of speakers. We had some great discussion as well. I felt so privileged to be around people who care so deeply about the earth and making our civilization more sustainable. We also had the perspectives of Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Pagans, Unitarians, Survivalists, Atheists and more! I was struck by Meg Robert’s and Mike Bell’s points about the importance of spiritual practice for keeping our activism vital. I was struck by the need to ground our consciousness raising in the landscape, in a context, or as Matthew Humphrey argued, in a bioregion, or life-place. As Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr has put it in his writing “We don’t think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.” This is exactly what Suresh Fernando is attempting to do with his spiritual community at Ruby Lake on the Sunshine Coast. Yes we can seek personal spirituality, but it must be grounded in place, in tradition, in community.

With respect to system change we had a few different minds. For example, Winnie Chu is starting an air pollution monitoring company guided by Buddhist principles. Others were adamant that what is needed is to create semi-autonomous zones that can push back the system which is hopelessly corrupt, to birth a new way of living on earth. These autonomous zones would not just be political, but could demand freedom from noise pollution, light pollution, techno-addiction, and the alienation from life itself. In the end it seems that authentic Transition will require an all hands on deck strategy: system change from within and pressure from without.

Spiritual practice is what will keep us grounded and keep us from burning out. We must be connected to the wild and to each other. And yet, it is essential that in seeking the wild, we do not romanticize it as some far off wilderness park. As Nikki Van Schyndel reminded us, our hearts are wild, and there are wild things all around us. And yes, sometimes it is scary, but fear can be the birth pang of joy. Yes, we must push back industrial civilization to some measure of sustainable limits, and yes we must protect and restore intact ecosystems; but we must also remember to dwell in the wilderness of the present moment, with what and who are all around us while we work toward these goals.

We were blessed to have several First Nation’s folks among us for our discussions, and they reminded us of the dangers of appropriating Indigenous lifeways. We must stand in solidarity with First Nations peoples and against continued racism; but we must also decolonize our own traditions and retrieve and reclaim the good and beautiful in them. As a Christian practicing Zen Buddhism, this was a particularly potent lesson for me. The Celtic and Franciscan traditions of Christianity have been neglected for the colonial, guilt ridden, and capitalist Christianity of the West.

Nikki teaching us how to make fire with a bow drill.

Nikki teaching us how to make fire with a bow drill.

Day 4: Convergence

On Monday September 29, we decided to continue the community that was forged during these few days. The Spiritual Ecologies and New Cosmologies Community, a tentative title, has been born. Starting with online networking and resource sharing we want to continue to build bridges and understanding between faiths, to offer resources to communities of faith in the Pacific Northwest that want to do more to connect their faith with the earth. The community wants to plan more events, a 2015 Convergence perhaps, but definitely smaller workshops on Sacred Activism. Ari Lazer, one of artists is also hosting a workshop on Sacred Geometry, so check that out. If you did not get the email I sent out and would like to stay connected please let me know.

 

Thank you to all who attended this convergence! To my co-coordinator Elaine Hsiao, to Andrea Reynolds at the Liu Inistitue, to Blake Smith and Miriam Matejova from the Liu Lobby Gallery and to Maya Graves-Bacchus for her help and to many others for your love and support.

Please share your responses and reflections with me at

Jason [dot] minton [dot] brown [at] gmail [dot] com

The Highway to Heaven is in Richmond, BC

Today we visited Richmond’s famous ‘Highway to Heaven.’ Developing along Highway No. 5, there are some  26 religious centers, temples, synagogues, churches and gurdwaras. These centers have been eager to cooperate and recently put on an art exhibit at the Richmond Museum. We didn’t get to visit all of them, and the Shia Mosque was closed. A wonderful Chinese woman gave us a tour of the Pure Land temple and we were offered a lovely vegetarian dinner with the nuns and lay people preparing floats for Canada Day. We sat in for the last few minutes of the Tibetan Buddhist Temple’s daily chant and marvelled at the massive Shakyamuni statuary. It got me thinking; I focus on spiritual ecology, mostly on forests; so is spiritual ecology just something that occurs outside? Or is it anywhere we create a spiritual oikos, a spiritual home. Sacred spaces like temples can sometimes be used to delineate sacred from profane, inside from outside; but they can also point us toward the holy in everything. Sacred spaces are microcosms of the macrocosm (the hole is in the parts). They orient us, instruct us, allow us to practice being human for when we step outside into the messy complex world. If we learn to see the holy in the particular, it can more easily be seen/felt in the universal. Thoughts?