From May 15-31 I will be in Israel/Palestine on pilgrimage. Going to post some jottings. But I’m writing them on my phone so forgive the brevity and choppiness.
The first ten days will be on a tour led by a Franciscan friar named Father Ben. He is originally from Ghana. Getting here was a long journey but very smooth. On my over night plane from JFK to Tel Aviv, there were many different kinds of Jewish folk. The man next to me wore a black woven Kippah on a bald head and it kept falling off when his head dipped in sleep.
I would wake up and look around with groggy eyes and see men dressed in full Jewish prayer regalia bobbing in place with prayer books in hand or sitting quietly adjusting their phylacteries on forehead and left arm.
The airline steward asked if I wanted my mid flight meal kosher, or “just regular.” I looked at my Jewish seat companion and said, “um, non-kosher please.” I said that so as not to imply that eating Kosher was all that odd.
At the hotel, there were mezuzahs on every door. A surcharge for spa services on Shabbat. And there was an elevator that was designated for use on Shabbat, saving observant Jews from having to press the elevator buttons. There was a small synagogue in the hotel basement.
In the front of the hotel, just below their welcome sign, there was a small pipal tree growing, the holy tree of enlightenment for Buddhists. I think they are quite common here.
When I rented a car on the first day before the tour started so I could see Haifa, I saw a man pulled over to the side of the busy freeway praying on his mat in the dust. In the most mundane of places he was making that dust holy with his prayer.
As I drove on the busy Israeli freeway, I passed a Caesarea freeway exit and the Roman aqueduct that fed water to the city from Mount Carmel built by Herod to honor the Roman Emperor in 22 BCE. It felt surreal to see Biblical place names on street signage. But of course, how else would it be? These places did not freeze in time.
In Nazareth, we visited holy basilicas and shrines and then ate shawarma in an equally ancient grotto turned pilgrim cantina. I joked that perhaps it was the place Jesus himself had his first shawarma!
Eating fish at our hotel on the Lake of Galilee, where Jesus and his disciples fished. Walking the shoreline and seeing privatized beaches with kayak and sea doo rentals.
All the religious sites have been breathtaking, if crowded. But at the margins off all these places and spaces there has been a kind of dialect of the holy also spoken by the mundane. If holy places are so often sacred because of what we believe exists there objectively, holiness can also be a powerful practice of making-sacred-with our places.
I recently joined the board the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society. We are getting ready to launch our website, and I was tasked with writing a short bio on Father Charles Brandt, a Hermit-Priest who lived in a small cabin and supported himself as a bookbinder on Vancouver Island. I met Charles in 2016, when I was completing my dissertation at UBC.
Charles Brandt was the fifth child of the six and was born on February 19, 1923, in Kansas City, Missouri. He is of Danish-English heritage, the child of Alvin Rudolph Brandt-Yde and Anna Chester Bridges. His father was an auto mechanic at a Buick dealership and later served as a pilot in the Airforce during World War II. After the war, he worked as a Park Superintendent at Swope Park. Charles had two brothers and two sisters.
At the age of three, the family moved to a small farm where he had some of his first encounters of wonder in the natural world. The family raised chickens and had a milking cow. A small spring emptied into a creek on the property and there Charles would fish for perch and crawdads. In primary school, an observant teacher encouraged Charles to paint, and he enjoyed painting apple blossoms with watercolors. His Aunt, Helen F. Bridges, was on the board of the Kansas City Art Gallery and encouraged all the Brandt children to pursue artistic talents. Charles continued studying art at the Kansas City Arts Institute on Saturdays for several years.
As a Boy Scout, he earned the rank of Eagle and was drawn toward craft and book binding. Eldon Newcomb, a scientist who was also the head of the nature staff at Osceola Boy Scout Camp, became a major mentor and influence on Charles. For several summers, he served as a counselor at the Osceola Boy Scout Camp, where he taught bird watching and natural history. As a Scout he was elected to the Mic-O-Say tribe, which is an honor society that exists within the Boy Scouts of America. (In recent years the organization has been criticized by Indigenous people over concern that it engages in cultural appropriation. But in Charles day, it was a different time.) Charles was very early on fascinated by birds. Charles writes,
“During the spring of my 2nd year of high school, having become quite interested in bird study, I had an experience on weekend out along the Blu River. It was beside a small stream with the spring foliage when I began to see a stream of warblers moving along the stream and in the bushes, feeding and calling. The amazing thing was there were about nine different species in all their mating plumages, migrating through their nesting grounds. It was an overwhelming experience of beauty and wonder and wild. I wanted to preserve it forever” (Brandt 2006, 2).
This fascination with birds, birding and wildlife was a key dimension of Charles’ contemplative approach to ecology, and ecological approach to contemplation.
Father Brandt attended high school in Raytown, Missouri. Active in debate, band, swimming, oratory, sports, drama. He also worked as a life saver and lifesaving instructor. When Charles was thirteen, he read Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden Pond, and immediately felt the desire to “go to the woods”, a desire that eventually would call him to the hermit vocation. On Thoreau Charles said,
“I got interested then in Henry David Thoreau. He went to the woods to find out what life was all about, and that was really quite exciting, and a real challenge for me; and I wanted to do something like that. That was probably my first inroad into the hermit life” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 42).
Land, place, ecology and silence were for Charles a single whole from a very young age.
But at university, he decided to study conservation at the University of Missouri where he majored in wildlife conservation. Reflecting on this later, Charles realized that he had roomed with Starker Leopold who was studying wild turkeys in the Ozarks. Starker was the son of the famed conservationist Aldo Leopold (1987-1948).
In 1943 Charles entered Active Service with the US Army Air Corps. It was around this time, while Charles was studying in Colorado for the army, that Charles began attending a Baptist Church. And until 1946, when Charles was discharged, he travelled and studied for his service positions with the US Army, including bombardier training in Victoriaville, California. Charles was appointed a Flight Officer but never saw active combat before the war ended. When he entered military service, he didn’t really reflect on whether or not it was the right thing to do, since it seemed to be a patriotic duty. But by the end of his service, he felt that he had become something of a pacifist and winced at the thought of being an actual bombardier.
In 1947, Charles headed to Cornell University to study ornithology. Charles studied birdsong recording under Dr. Peter Kellogg and studied nesting birds at the Edwin S. George Reserve in Michigan. He was also elected to Phi Kappa Phi, a student scientific society for his high academic achievement. Charles would go on to graduate first in his class with a Bachelor of Science in biology. Charles’ first scientific article was published in the Wilson Bulletin, based in Anne Arbor, Michigan. The essay was entitled “The Parasitism of the Acadian Flycatcher.”
Taking serious stock of his spiritual life, Charles began attending Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Ithaca, New York. Soon, Charles met the Reverent Francis Voelcker, the priest in residence there, who saw in Charles a great contemplative potential. He began mentoring Charles and encouraged him to explore a vocation to the Anglican priesthood. Charles spent that summer living with an Anglican religious order, the Brothers of Saint Barnabas, who were devoted to the care of men and boys with developmental disabilities and incurable illnesses.
Though as a Hermit-Priest Charles never married, and he doesn’t mention many romantic partners, it seems that during this time he was quite fond of a woman he refers to as C.C. They attended services together at Saint John’s and Charles simply writes, “we spent considerable time together” (Brandt 2006, 4).
After graduating from Cornell in 1948, Charles decided to pursue Holy Orders. He returned to Colorado where he lived during his military training and was accepted as candidate for Anglican priesthood by Bishop Bowen of the Colorado Diocese. He entered Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin, living there for three years where Charles enjoyed the routine of the community which included Mass and the daily office.
However, during seminary Charles continued to wrestle with finding a meaningful spirituality and began to read more widely from books by writers such as Jeremy Taylor and Father Benson of the Cowley Fathers of England, another Anglican religious order. He seemed to be seeking a deeper spirituality of silence and contemplation. Then, Charles stumbled upon Trappist monk Thomas Merton’s autobiography The Seven Story Mountain and found a deep resonance with Merton’s rich contemplative spirituality. Of Merton’s writing he said simply, “it blew me away.” So much so that he and several seminarians had arranged to spend easter at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton lived, to experience Trappist life firsthand and meet Merton in person, but the trip was cancelled at the last minute, and they didn’t end up going. On reading Thomas Merton for the first time, Charles reflects,
“So when I read The Seven Story Mountain, that was what I was looking for; that really answered my question. I wanted to know if it was possible to really experience God in this lifetime, can you talk to him, as a person? That was really a revelation, The Seven Story Mountain, and it changed my whole thinking. From then on, I was thinking in terms of monastic the life” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 48).
That year, however, Charles ended up visiting another Trappist monastery. He made arrangements to meet with Father Bede O’Leary the Abbot and theologian of Our Lady of Guadeloupe Trappist Abbey which at the time was located in New Mexico (in 1954 the community relocated to Carlton, Oregon). Charles wanted to talk with O’Leary about contemplative, or mental prayer and Father Bede became a great voice of council for Charles.
In 1950 Charles spent the summer at the Community of Augustine and Anglican Contemplative House in Orange City, Florida and on December 7th Charles was ordained a Deacon at Saint Andrew’s Church in Denver, Colorado by Bishop Bowen.
In 1951, accompanied by Reverend Voelcker, Charles went to England to explore the varieties of the Church of England’s contemplative life. They visited Chevetogne, Belgium where he met with Dom Lambert Beauduin (OSB) who was interested in the Anglican re-unification with Rome. This meeting brought Charles to question the validity of Anglican Holy Orders, because he learned that they had been declared invalid by the Vatican.
From here, Charles began to try his hand at the monastic life in earnest and in 1951 he became a Postulant at Community of the Resurrection, an Anglican monastery in Mirfield, Yorkshire. Despite his doubts, in 1952 he was ordained an Anglican Priest by Bishop of Wakefield, UK.
In 1953 Charles left the Community of the Resurrection and spent some time in continental Europe making various stops in France and Rome. He spent ten days in Assisi, a few weeks in Rome, and met with a Benedictine monks named Father Dennis Stratham OSB. Father Stratham was from Saint Gregory’s monastery in Shawnee, Oklahoma. This meeting would prove providential, as Charles was received into the Roman Catholic Church there in 1956.
In the meantime, Charles continued his quest for a place to express his contemplative vocation within the existing religious communities of the Anglican/Episcopal traditions. When he returned from Europe in the latter half of 1953, he travelled to a property in Gaylordville, New York where Father Paul Weed had a property that he wanted to transform into a contemplative community. Father Charles built a small hermitage on the property out of old railroad ties and started working as a Chaplain at Kent School in Connecticut where he also helped with the garden.
Soon however, Charles discerned that this was not his place and he decided to move to Three Rivers Michigan, a small Anglican Benedictine community in 1954 and entered as a postulant. While he was there, he learned to chant the divine office in Latin, and continued his voracious reading of the mystics and contemplatives. Charles was deeply moved by the writings of Camaldoli monk Father Bede Griffiths whose autobiography The Golden String deeply impacted Charles. Griffiths was a monk in England for many years, but eventually found himself in India dialoguing with Hindu Sanyasis and fusing East and West. Father Charles also began reading John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Newman had spearheaded the Anglo-Catholic revival in the Church of England in the late 19th century, but eventually converted to Catholicism and was made a Cardinal by Pope Leo XIII in 1879. This period sealed Father Charles movement to the Roman Catholic Church, so he left for Louisiana to meet with the only catholic priest he knew, Father Bede O’Leary who was on leave and serving a parish there. O’Leary sent Charles to St Benedict’s Monastery, and he met with the Prior there. Despite meeting daily for a month, Charles was not quite ready to make the move from Anglican to Roman Catholic. So, Charles decided to travel to Mexico City on pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our lady of Guadeloupe, accompanied by Father Bede.
Upon returning, he decided to head to Saint Gregory’s Abbey in Shawnee, Oklahoma where he continued his discernment, studied Latin, and met with a resident theology professor regularly. It was during this time that Father Charles fell in love with book binding, a skill that would become his own contemplative bread and butter throughout his years as a hermit in British Columbia.
On January 26, 1956, Charles Brandt was received into the Roman Catholic Church and in April he was confirmed in the Cathedral at Oklahoma City. Charles continued his stay at Saint Gregory’s, taking theology classes and deepening his bookbinding skills. That Easter Charles decided to travel to Gethsemani Trappist Abbey where he met with Thomas Merton who was the novice master at the time. Merton was warm and received Charles with kindness.
On his first meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Brandt recounts, “So at Easter I went to Gethsemani. I knew Merton was the novice master. I didn’t realize I was going to meet him. I was in the guest house for about a week. So [knocking] I hear this knock on the door, and in enters Thomas Merton. You know, he sat down there, just the most ordinary person in the world. Immediately, I liked him, really liked him as a person, and we talked. My intent was to enter the novitiate there, but he said, “Don’t come here. We could make a good monk of you, but not a good contemplative”” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 52).
After several chats with Merton and later his Bishop, Charles decided to forgo a trip to Rome to pursue a quicker pathway to priesthood and decided to first solidify his vocation as a monk. Charles decided to enter New Melleray Abbey, Dubuque, Iowa, another Trappist Abbey. This decision seemed fruitful and in 1958 Charles made Simple Profession (temporary vows) and was put in charge of a small book bindery. Charles continued his studies in philosophy and theology.
In 1964, during the upheavals and experimentation of Vatican II, Charles became uncertain about making final profession (vows). All over the world, monastic orders were studying their roots, which went back to the hermits and recluses of Syria, Judea and Egypt. Charles remembered that Thomas Merton told him about the Camaldolese Order which had a monastery in Ohio. So, Charles and his Abbot drove to visit them. However, the Camaldolese stood for the duration of the divine office. Having a back problem, Charles knew within ten minutes that he wouldn’t make it.
Back to the drawing board, Charles wrote a letter to Thomas Merton. Merton’s reply was published in a collection of letters, and Merton encouraged Charles to continue his search for a more contemplative place to live out his vocation. Charles soon found two eremitic experiments: A Benedictine hermit named Peter Minard in North Carolina and Dom Winandy, greatly admired by Merton, who was leading a small group of hermits on Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
After visiting Peter Minard, Charles was impressed. Minard lived a simple life on old plantation. But soon it became clear that Father Minard was mostly looking for someone to run the farm. So, the Abbot of New Melleray wrote to Dom Winandy, who gave Charles permission to come for a visit.
In March of 1965 Charles arrived at Winandy’s group, The Hermits of Saint John the Baptist, located on the Tsolum River in Merville, BC one hundred acres of forested land. Charles moved into a small trailer and then began to build a hermitage there with some local help which was completed in September. To earn a living Charles decided he would try his hand at being a professional book binder, and the Trappists of Carlton, Oregon, Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey (who Charles had previously visited in New Mexico), donated some book binding equipment. With this Charles began to search for clients in the local area.
Despite Dom Winandy’s misgivings about hermits becoming priests, Winandy gave Charles permission to meet with Bishop Remi De Roo, who eventually accepted him as candidate for priesthood. In August he received minor orders and was incardinated in the Diocese of Victoria which essentially ended his temporary vows at New Melleray. On November 21, 1966, Charles was ordained as a Roman Catholic priest by Bishop De Roo at the Canadian Martyrs Church. According to Charles, he was the first full time hermit ordained in Catholic Church in several hundred years.
While living on the Tsolum River, Charles began working as a fisheries technician, and assisted in some parish work on Cumberland on Sundays. Eventually the hermitage site became a bit too crowded, and Winandy and several hermits including Charles dispersed to other properties. In the Spring of 1970, Charles moved his hermitage structure to its current location on the Oyster River.
In the mid-1970s Charles travelled extensively to improve his bookbinding skills. He spent several months in San Francisco learning book restoration and then travelled to the New England Document Centre in Andover, Massachusetts to learn more about flatwork conservation of maps, parchments and prints. Charles was even appointed Chief of the Bindery, which kept him very busy teaching workshops and conducting surveys. In 1975-76, Charles travelled extensively in Europe where he both worked and studied additional conservation techniques.
Returning to Canada, from 1976-1981 Charles was employed by various Canadian book conversation programs. First, he worked for the Canadian Conservation Institute in Moncton, NB as Professional Book and Paper Conservator. Charles said a daily noon Mass in an English-speaking Church in Moncton. When this office closed, he moved to a centre based in Ottawa where he restored bound volumes, maps and art works on paper. Charles was also hired by the Manitoba government to design and oversee the building of a state-of-the-art restoration laboratory in Winnipeg from 1981-1984. The purpose was to survey and restore the Hudson’s Bay archives. Charles also travelled throughout Canada doing conservation work in Yukon, Manitoba, and Alberta during this time. On his love for bookbinding and conservation Charles wrote:
“Probably the best contemplative part of bookbinding is sewing the book. It’s a very relaxing, I think a very meditative, contemplative aspect of binding. Literature is disappearing at a great rate from our libraries all over the world, and it’s our written record of humanity. So if you’re preserving that, as I am, you’re preserving humanity, the culture, and I think that’s really quite worthwhile. It’s like preserving the earth. It’s not just a job, it’s something that’s conducive to the prolongation of civilization” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 55).
Charles was a craftsman and appreciated work well done. The embodied nature of the work, the quiet and the sense of purpose facilitated a contemplative atmosphere that was conducive of prayer.
In 1984, Charles finally returned to his beloved hermitage where he began making additions to the structure and installing a conservation lab and library. Charles began teaching conservation and restoration techniques at University of Victoria, UBC, Simon Fraser, University of Alberta, Washington State University and in many communities across Vancouver Island.
Even before he left for his travels related to book binding and document conservation, Charles was a passionate lover of place. He would write letters to local officials protesting proposed developments on the Oyster and Tsolum Rivers. When he returned to full time residency at the hermitage in 1984, he began lobbying campaign which mushroomed into a large number of environmental projects throughout the Campbell River and Comox Valley. Throughout the years, Charles was involved in many environmental groups and causes: The Steelhead Society of BC, Haig Brown Kingfisher Creek Society, the Campbell River Environmental Council, the Tsolum River Enhancement Committee, the Oyster River enhancement Society, the Oyster River Watershed Management Committee and the Tsolum River Restoration Committee. In the 1990s the local media began to take notice, and he even received several environmental awards for his work on river restoration and conservation.
It was at this same time that he began holding meditation retreats with the local community, despite some Catholic leaders warning against “Eastern” forms of prayer and meditation. His work of ecology and contemplation were quite a natural fit: Action and Contemplation were connected. In 1990, the meditation group became a regular event, which continued to the end of Charles’ life.
In 2001, Charles was the keynote Speaker at the Western Conference on Christian Meditation in Edmonton, Alberta which solidified his leadership in the global contemplative movement. On prayer, Charles reflected, “I think that anybody who prays benefits the whole body of Christ. Prayer touches everybody. The person next to me is affected by whatever I do. If I pray, that helps them, and it also helps the natural world” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 39).
Charles life was a series of questions lived out in many different places and among many different communities. But his love for craft, ecology, and prayer shine through all of this. Charles is an exemplar of contemplative ecology lived well. Toward the end of his life, Charles reflected on the contemplative life and on the hermitage property that the Hermitage Society lovingly maintains. He said,
“In a way, I’m looking towards eternity now. I’ll be 93 on February 19th, , so I’m not going anywhere. I love this spot. I’m permanent. I feel steady, in a sense, with life, and with my calling. And this is my place. I walk out and I know the trees, and I know the birds and the animals. They’re my friends. As I said, the human community and the rest of the natural world has to go into the future as a single sacred community. I feel that I’m part of this community where the natural world and people come and go; and if we don’t, as Thomas Berry says, we’ll perish” (Grayston and Chang 2016, 57).
Father Charles Brandt died at the age of 97 on October 25, 2020, after a short stay at a local hospital in the Comox Valley. Upon his death, close friend and co-founder of the Brandt Oyster River Hermitage Society Bruce Witzel reflected, “His stature as a spiritual teacher as well as his whole legendary reputation as someone who integrated spirituality with ecology will live on after him in the lives and efforts of the many people he directly inspired” (Closter 2020).
Charles Brandt. Meditations from the Wilderness: A Collection of Profound Writing on Nature as the Source of Inspiration (Harper Collins, 1997). 150 quotations about ecology, place and contemplation.
Self and Environment: On Retreat with Charles Brandt. (Bloomsbury Academic, 2000). An outline of Charles thinking on contemplative and ecology.
Charles Brandt, “Autobiographical Timeline” Email from Charles Brandt to Judy Hager (Dec. 14, 2006).
Rev. Don Grayston (1939-2017) and David Chang “A Single Sacred Community:
Keynote address presented to Facing Ecological Grief at Simon Fraser University, April 29, 2023
I don’t know how you all build community, but planning conferences like this is one of my favorite ways! Planning this conference has been a joy. I am very grateful to Naomi Krogman, Paul Kingsbury, Laurie Anderson, Laurie Wood, Candace Ratelle-Le Roy and Chelsie de Souza for believing in this gathering. I am also grateful to all of you, who trust us enough with your day to come and sit and talk.
But I am not just grateful to you. I need you. We are going to need each other to weather the coming age. I am not sure if what we are witnessing is a death rattle or a birth pang. Perhaps, both. What I am going to do is outline some perspectives on ecological anxiety and grief. Not as a psychologist but more as a cultural and spiritual activist.
I want to gesture towards an engagement with grief that holds all the wonderful and terrifying tensions that are building in our time. I don’t come to grief as a problem to be solved. A symptom to be alleviated. A neurosis to be alchemized into action by positive thinking.
Rather, I want to suggest that grief is more like an art form. Grief is a skill. I would even say that grief is a companion or a friend.In the arriving age, we need movements and justice and policy and technology. We also need practitioners of what I call grief-craft: Midwives and storytellers and artists and chaplains. So let’s talk about our time of trouble with no easy answers.
A Litany of Bad News
Because I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the world as we know it is ending. There has been a steady litany of troubling news from policy experts and scientists. There has been a litany of pleading for change from the world’s religious leaders, environmentalists and Indigenous communities. Listen to a few of these actual headlines from my newsfeed in recent weeks:
“Temperatures in 2023 could be record breaking with rapidly developing El Niño.”
“We are not the first civilization to collapse, but we will probably be the last.”
“Living sustainably isn’t just a trend, it’s a necessity.”
“As 1.5 degrees looms, scientists see growing risk of runaway warming, urgent need to slash emissions.”
“Climate diplomacy is failing — but we need it to survive.”
“Catastrophic warming will claim lives without action.”
“Ocean currents could collapse this century.”
“Oceans littered with 171 trillion pieces of plastic.”
“Record deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon a challenge for incoming president.”
“Extinction crisis puts one million species on the brink.”
“Scientists deliver ‘final warning’ on climate crisis: act now or it’s too late.”
Of course, there is lots of good news peppered in there too! Deforestation rates have slowed, nations are committing to more protected areas, or even that the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean is enabling novel marine ecologies! But these days the scales seem to be tipped toward the catastrophic. We know there are still several pathways forward. But as the weeks and months pass, fewer and fewer of these pathways exclude a great reckoning with massive ecological, cultural and spiritual losses. This litany of troubling headlines can trigger in me a deep well of anxiety and anticipated grief. But what’s worse is that most of the time the sheer quantity of bad news results in numbness to feeling anything at all. (It also helps that the next frame is usually a tree or a cat or someone falling or a brand-new baby!)
So, while there is no longer any uncertainty about the reality of anthropogenic climate change, it is not certain what kind of world our children will inherit. While passing 1.5, 2 or even 3 degrees warming will not be the end of the world full stop; this does not resolve a sense of dread about how bad things are and will continue to get. How much loss will the coming generations have to metabolize? How many species, whose evolutionary lineages span millions of years, will be put to an end? As psychologist and holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, “at the end of uncertainty comes the uncertainty of the end.”
For me, this uncertainty at the end of the Holocene climate invokes a buzzing anxiety. Ecological Anxiety is typically defined as a state of worry about the future that invokes feelings of sadness, despair, anger, helplessness or hopelessness. Mental health and therapy circles have been talking about climate and ecological anxiety as an impact or symptom of the unfolding crises. This clinical approach tends to revolve around adapting one-on-one therapy models to equip individuals with more tools for coping with their climate-induced emotions. But anxiety is a completely normal response to an unfolding crisis.
Anxiety is as much a signal being communicated from the heart of the world as it is a complex of subjective emotional responses. So rather than just coping with symptoms, deep attention to all of our feelings is an important part of engaging with anxiety related to the ecological crises. In her book Generation Dread, Britt Wray writes, “Despair and fear are not inherently bad. Hope and optimism are not inherently good…. We must move from an either/or to a both/and model. There is meaning in every emotion.”
There is a powerful practice here which is borrowed from Buddhist mindfulness. Anxiety is not best dealt with by insisting that I think positively or try to just focus on feeling gratitude. As Alain de Botton writes through his School of Life organization: “Peace of mind doesn’t come from hoping for the best; it comes from close attention to the very worst…”
A common misconception in discussions of climate anxiety and grief is that this is primarily a concern of the privileged, global north. However, psychologist Susan D. Clayton and co-authors which included Britt Wray have shown, young people in the global south self-reported negative emotions related to climate anxiety at a higher rate than those in the global north. Their essay published in the peer reviewed journal Sustainability analyzed the data from a survey of 10,000 young people between the ages of 16-25 from ten different countries. For young people all over the world, climate anxiety is impacting their ability to function on a daily basis. In Western countries however, self-reported impacts averaged around 45% whereas in the countries from the global south it was closer to 75%.
These findings reveal the obvious: Those closest to the front lines of these unfolding crises are most impacted by them. This is also the case for the far north. As the research of Ashlee Cunsolo, Dean of Arctic and Subarctic Studies at the Memorial University of Newfoundland shows, Northern and Inuit peoples are on the front lines of ecological anxiety and grief in an ecology that is seeing rates of warming four times higher than the global average. One of Cunsolo’s research partners, an Inuit Elder remarked: “Inuit are people of the sea ice. If there’s no more sea ice, how can we be people of the sea ice?”
In a civilization that has perfected the art of either or, the media often presents us with two responses to the unfolding crises. The first is Climate Doomism which believes it is too late for any meaningful action. The second is a Hyper-Optimism that includes the belief that the more we do the better chance we have of fixing all the world’s troubles.
American writer Roy Scranton, in his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene writes, “The greatest challenge we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront our situation and realize that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the difficult task of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.”
Scranton frames himself as a climate realist, rather than an alarmist or reactionary. In my view he is more motivated by his anti-capitalist politics than a healthy realism about the future of the earth’s climate. Swedish academic and activist Andreas Malm, himself a Marxist scholar, calls Scranton’s book a reification of despair. This means that too often the Doomist view risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy that frees its adherents from any responsibility “in the meantime.”
But there is something else going on here too. Having frequented environmentalist circles and taught in universities in different parts of North America, I worry that a contributing factor to the Doomist mentality is the belief that our species deserves to go extinct. It is imagined that perhaps the earth community would be better off without us.
This intuition is actually a kind of self-hatred that appears among some settlers and progressives. Some days, I empathize. But I worry that we will not bother building the foundation for a world that we don’t believe our children are worthy to inherit.
Rather, with scholar Lyla June Johnston, who has Navajo, Cheyenne and European ancestry, I believe that “Human beings are meant to be a gift to the land.” Human extinction would be as tragic as passenger pigeon extinction or monk seal extinction or tiger extinction or orca whale extinction. Human beings emerged from a mesh of ecological brilliance; and there is a place for us in the web of life so long as we can stop techno-industrial civilization from unraveling it completely.
On the other side of this false choice is what I am calling Hyper-Optimism; which feeds a well-intentioned fix-it mentality. All of us struggle with finding meaningful ways to take action. But this urge is so powerful that we sometimes demand ten ways to take action, before listening to what’s really going on. Fed on a sugary diet of can-do’s, many activists throw their lives into the work and end up burning out in a few years. In his excellent book Earth Grief, Stephen Harrod Buhner reflects, “Activism is an institution that compulsively seeks to heal the world’s pain rather than feel it.”
Of course, he (and I) are not against action, or activism. We worry that a compulsive activism, fueled by urgency but also by guilt, can end up bypassing the necessary work of processing our feelings of fear, anxiety and grief. Some of this hyper-optimism is also deeply rooted in the modernist humanism which created these crises in the first place. The so-called techno-optimists, sometimes referred to as Eco-Modernists or Pragmatists, promise us that we are one technological breakthrough away from solving the climate crisis. Geoengineering, carbon credits, carbon capture and de-extinction will allow us to finally usher in the ecological utopia we have been dreaming of. I am very often tempted by their promises myself. Boosters of this approach are not so shy about suggesting that soon we will be managing every aspect of the planet’s biosphere.
There is, I think, a middle way between Doomism and its self-hatred and Hyper-optimism and its over-activism. Ecological Grief is part of this middle way: Grief work engages with complexities and uncertainties. As Donna Haraway writes, it’s part of the work of Staying with the Trouble. As an analogy, perhaps rather than franticly thrashing around in the dark to find the light switch, we might sit still for a moment and let our eyes adjust.
Topographies of Grief
In his book about the death phobia that pervades European descended North Americans, Stephen Jenkinson offers a novel description of grief: “Grief is a way of loving what has slipped from view. Love is a way of grieving that which has not yet done so.” The famed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross developed a typology for the stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, and finally Acceptance. This has been a helpful tool for individuals coping with a terminal diagnosis or the death of a loved one. But as the illustration on the right shows, there may be a common definition of grief, but there is no common experience of it.
We began today with a land acknowledgement. And every land acknowledgement brushes up against a deep well of historical trauma and grief. To speak of ecological grief as an emerging phenomenon is absurd without first acknowledging that it is a present reality for so many. As Indigenous scholar Kyle Whyte writes, “In the Anthropocene, then, some indigenous peoples already inhabit what our ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future.”As a philosopher, Whyte has theorized an Indigenous ethic of sustainability and spiritually appropriate science. He also amplifies the many examples of Indigenous communities that are restoring ecological and cultural connections to place and species despite the heavy losses wrought by colonial violence and erasure.
To some extent, all our bodies carry the grief of our ancestors. But the topography of ancestral grief is anything but flat. The collision of colonial, racist, gender-based and species-ist violence with ecologies and Indigenous bodies, black bodies, brown bodies and women’s bodies shape the contours of the topographies of grief like tectonic plates. Some are subducted under the enormous weight of oppression, while others are lifted to greater heights of privilege and social mobility.
Ecologies of Grief
Humans are not alone in feeling grief over lost loved ones. There are cultures of grief woven through the earth community. Fellow primates express grief and may even have a form of ritual. For example, chimpanzees have been observed ritually cleaning the fur of a dead loved one. Elephants are well known to reverence the dead and even to handle their bones. And closer to home, J35 was a Salish Sea resident mother Orca who carried her dead newborn with her for over 17 days.
Psychologist and writer Andrew Solomon writes, “To be creatures who love, we must be creatures who despair at what we lose.” Most of us have felt that icy absence of a partner, a loved one or a pet from our homes. We have walked around familiar places after a divorce or tough break up and felt both cherished and painful memories.
There is an ecology to our grief that is at once a response to loss within the web of our relationships, and the slow composting of loss into new life that finds a way to keep going. Grief after the death of a loved one is learning to inhabit a new interpersonal landscape, a rearranged social ecology. Paraphrasing writer and mythologist Sophie Strand, “Each loss opens a wound and a song in the Animate Everything.”
Zooming out a little, loss is also an integral part of the earth’s ecosystems. But on the ecological level, the long-term effects of loss are more difficult to judge. By this I mean that ecosystems are not nouns they are verbs, they are not things but events. Ecologies are adept at reorienting around loss and forming new processes and pathways. Afterall, with hindsight, I am incredibly grateful for the many losses that melted the glaciers that once covered this very spot and made way for lush rainforests to grow.
Death and loss are not separate from change and life and birth. The good earth subsumes interconnection and rupture, balance and imbalance. If you go into a forest and only see what is alive, you are only seeing half the picture. So, to my fellow environmentalists, if all we see when we look at changing ecosystems is loss, then we are not seeing the possibilities that change might afford for fostering novel relationships that are regenerative.
But do not get me wrong! I am not saying that actually, loss is just change, let’s accept it. There is a massive work of discernment here! It is true that a fear of change makes me allergic to loss. So, engaging with ecological grief helps me become better acquainted with loss and death. But ecological grief, as contemplative as it is, is not quietism! It is not a resignation to whatever may come. If grief is a way of loving, then I am not afraid to admit: We still have a lot to lose! This is going to mean that grief-craft is not just the skill of accommodating loss and tragedy. It is not passive or reactive.
As the twin sister of love, grief teaches us to accept loss when it comes, yes it does. But a love-bound grief is also willing to resist the losses that should not yet be let go of! In Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road we read a grueling and gritty thought experiment with a stripped-down sense of human purpose. In the novel, a man and his son stumble through a post-catastrophe landscape scrounging for food and avoiding roving bands of cannibals. The man’s only purpose is to see his son survive. His son is deeply committed to an objective sense of the Good. He carries with him the flame of hope that some day a better world might exist. At the end of the novel, McCarthy warns us against inheriting a world that is starved of life and beauty. He writes,
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”
We have a lot to lose, and I do not want to make meaning with the scraps of a once beautiful world! I want to live in a world that teams with life and love and beauty. And yes, even in that world that we all know is possible, grief will not disappear. On some deep level, I know that to love is to risk great suffering.
Building on this idea that love grows out of the rich compost of grief, University of Washington scholar Jennifer Atkinson writes that, “Grief is strength in these times. Burying our emotions might shield us for a while, but grief keeps us in contact with truth, and beneath everything, it opens our eyes to the profound love we feel for the fabric of life that’s under threat. Grief is a direct expression of connection—a pain we could never feel if it weren’t for the depth of our love. And more than cheerfulness or stoicism or more information, it is love that will move us to fight. No scientific report or technological innovation will ever match that kind of power.”
So being willing to risk the deep wounds of grief might give us a fighting chance. And that, my friends, brings us to Hope.
Litanies of Hope
Writer Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark is a powerful meditation on the complexities of history and the power of collective action over the long term. Solnit argues that Hope is active, but it does not die when things don’t turn out the way we expect. Hope is a stance of openness to the possibilities that uncertainty may bring. It is a posture of prayer. Hope is what got me out of bed this morning. Hope is what led Britt Wray, the author of Generation Dread, to the decision to have a baby despite her deep fears for the future. Hope is what is blooming all over Vancouver right now. Hope is what brough the goldfinches and chickadees and sparrows to my bird feeder this morning.
For these reasons, I appreciate Stephen Harrod Buhner’s reflections. He writes, “Hope is a quiet, enduring, persistent thing. It is not filled with the excited, uplifting, future-oriented energy of optimism. It possesses instead a slow-moving groundedness, an enduringness, a solidity, a nowness. It isn’t going anywhere, it just is. It’s a form of faith, a faith that comes from life itself.”
Hope is our animal soul’s very breath! There are dozens of projects, workshops, circles, art exhibitions and gardens that are engaging with the skills that accompany what I am calling grief-craft. Projects that are exploring the personal and collective depths of ecological grief. Francis Weller’s book The Wild Edge of Sorrow outlines many ways of engaging with grief through ritual. And groups in Iceland and Switzerland have already held public funerals for glaciers that are melting out of existence. A woman named Gabrielle Gelderman who lives in Edmonton, Alberta has begun using the title of Climate Grief Chaplain. In Victoria, a small collective of artists has started a magazine called Solastalgia which aims to be a resource for art, movement building and grief-craft. (I’ll explain this word in a moment.) There are earth hospices, good grief networks, grief circles and climate cafés being explored all over the world, online and off.
Just to highlight a few more of my favorite projects: Participatory artists Heidi Quante and Alicia Escott founded the “Bureau of Linguistic Reality”. This project solicits new words that express worries and the textures of our unfolding reality. They took inspiration from philosopher Glenn Albrecht’s neologism Solastalgia which means Comfort-Pain, was imagined to get at a pervasive uneasiness about the losses our home places are incurring. This word has spoken to thousands of people from Appalachians fighting against mountain top removal, to the Inuit peoples witnessing the rapid warming unfolding before their eyes. This is a powerful reminder that cultivating a love for our home places is not just for good days. Placefulness, as I call it, is also about loving our places after they have been clear cut, or on the days that wildfire smoke is turning the sun orange and we cannot breathe.
Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects began as a pioneering method for processing movement and ecological grief. Her cyclical, almost liturgical practice, encourages us to return again and again to gratitude. Then, turning our attention to honoring our pain allows us to see the world with new eyes. And even after one hundred burn outs, doing so enables us to go forth. To say with Samuel Becket, “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” In a way, I structured this talk around this liturgy of hope: Gratitude, pain, new ways of seeing and the ways we might go forth from this conference.
Trebbe Johnson, a former wilderness guide, has started an organization called Radical Joy for Hard Times. Through annual Earth Exchanges, she invites us to love wounded and neglected places with simple acts of beauty. In a similar act of beauty, on June 16, 2017, during a Save the Arctic Campaign Ludovico Einaudi’s played “Elegy for the Arctic” before a calving glacier. This was of course primarily a public awareness campaign, but it reminded me of the famous epigram from German playwright Bertolt Brecht who wrote from exile, “In the dark times will there be singing? Yes, there will be singing. About the dark times.”
Ecological Grief is deeply personal, but we also need ways to express collective grief. I am open to ideas. Even bad ones! Perhaps we could create rituals that honor the losses we are too numb to feel. Perhaps we could sing our grief together and walk our grief together and dance our grief together. Or, perhaps we could experiment with nurturing trees and plants that are adapted to warmer climates. The many projects popping up all over the world help me to see that grief is not the opposite of hope, it is its pollinator.
Just as death is a mirror that we hold up to life to see how precious it is; grief is a mirror that is held up to love to feel how risky it can be. Public intellectual Cornel West once said that “justice is what love looks like in public;” well, my friends, if that is so, then perhaps what love feels like in public, is grief. And perhaps that is what storyteller Brother Blue meant when he said, “My heart is broken. I never want it to mend.”
Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of sketches of some ideas I have kicking around in my head. With luck, they might become longer essays or full-length books! Apologies in advance for any grammatical errors or sloppy syntax!
Toward the end of writing the manuscript for my book about the monastic sense of place, a simple turn of phrase occurred me: Placefulness. This seemed to sum up in a simple word how monks in the Benedictine/Cistercian monastic tradition related to the landscapes of their respective monastic communities. The were present not just to abstract theological notions, or the love of God, but to the intricacies of their surrounding environments, which were often extensive rural properties.
I googled the phrase. A workshop called Into the Mountain mentioned it, seeking an embodied encounter with the land. A travel writer named Vanessa Walker named her website after the word, and it appears to be a new site dedicated to travel writing. There were a few other hits, but nothing that explored the word as an academic concept or spiritual practice.
The word felt useful. So, in December 2022, when I was invited by the Multifaith Network for Climate Justice in Bellingham to give a talk on contemplative ecology, I thought I would think through the idea out loud. The talk was well attended, and I gave a follow up in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University’s Institute for the Humanities. This Sketch is an outline of that talk.
We seem to me living in the -fulness of times. You are probably familiar with the term Mindfulness: Meditation practice rooted in Buddhism; moment by moment awareness of sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement. But there is also an emerging alternative called Bodyfulness, articulating the somatic therapist Christine Caldwell’s paradigm for a more embodied contemplative practice. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud has recently written a book called Timefulness which argues that as temporal creatures we are embedded in earth’s deep time cycles. Placefulness then would be something along the lines of the contemplative practice of attending to what is and what arises in our places, especially during troubled times. So, like any spirituality worth its salt, that means integrating the good, the bad and the ugly in the places we live, especially as climate change takes a deeper hold on the world.
To Be in Place
The Greek philosopher Archytas (4th century BCE) is reputed to have said that “To be is to be in place.” This positioned place as a central ontological notion in Greek thinking that was all but obliterated with the advent of geometric space during the Enlightenment and the seeming social construction of everything with the semiotic turn of the 20th century. Starting in the 1960s sense of place began to reclaim space (so to speak) in the theoretical circles of geography and the social sciences. For example, an early re-examination of place is found in Yi Fu Tuan, a geographer, who used the term Topophilia to explore the “feeling-link” between people and places (1974). This can be compared with EO Wilson’s Biophilia: The idea that we are biologically rooted to feelings of affinity with life. Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness (1976) examines the importance of em-place-ment, and the malaise of place-less-ness that set in during the late modern period. One of my favorite explorations of place and perception is by anthropologist Tim Ingold, who developed a “Dwelling Perspective” on environmental perception that drew from the phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, who were overtly opposed to the Cartesian project that had favored space over place. Echoing this ontological turn, anthropologists began to see that as Christian Norberg-Schulz writes, “To dwell means to belong to a given place.”
A few examples:
Aboriginal Song Lines
Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines (1987) explores settler and aboriginal understandings of place in Australia. In the publicly available sources, Aboriginal sense of place can be described as relating to the Dreaming. During the Dream Time (Every-when), the Ancestors of all life sang the world into being along tracks, called Songlines. during the Dreamtime. A Dreaming is one’s first Ancestor whether it be Kangaroo, Lizard, Bandicoot, Honey Ant, or Badger. Most Dreamings are animals, a few are plants or trees. An initiated person receives a portion of a Songline that traverses the first track of their Dreaming. The tempo and melody of the Songline express the topography of the place. So, forms of the land are a remnant of the first ancestors first movements, and each place is stacked with stories from that sacred canon.
Moral Place-scapes Among Western Apache
Indigenous placenames in the American West are often made up by afforded features of the landscape: Trees, mountains, valleys. Or they speak of activities that take place there like harvesting, council, or hunting. For example, in Western Apache place names, Tséé Chiizh Dah Sidilé means Coarse-Textured Rocks Lie Above in a Compact Cluster. This is a descriptive name for the features of that place.
In short, places teach Western Apache how to live. The collective history of the Apache has accumulated in these places, and they speak their lessons to the people. For example, at one such place a man attempted to commit incest with his stepdaughter. In Keith Basso’s account of these places in his amazing book Wisdom Sits in Places, his informant Ruth gets visibly uncomfortable as they pass this place in their car, and says, “I know that place, it stalks me every day.” In Ruth’s case the place reminded her of an assault she suffered by someone close to her. Not a romantic notion, but the wrongness of the act is written in the landscape which gave her strength. To put a person in their place so the speak, one need only recite a particular place name and its lessons will shoot like an arrow into the mind of one’s interlocutor.
Well Known Coast Salish Transformer Sites
In my part of the world, Cascadia, where Coast Salish peoples have lived and flourished for thousands of years, Transformer Spirits such as Xáays among the Squamish are responsible for certain prominent features of the landscape. A few publicly available examples: The Lions Peaks / Twin Sisters (Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn) on the North Shore Mountain range were transformed for negotiating a peace treaty. The Stawamus Chief (Siám’ Smánit) in Squamish was a Long House where people and animals met for ceremony. Skalsh Rock in Stanley Park was an ancient chief turned into stone for insisting on purifying himself before his child’s birth. Additionally, obsidian deposits were understood as places where Thunderbird shot lighting out of his eyes. These sites were not only moral lesson, but monuments to their deep ties to place.
To be Rooted
Place is a richly textured part of Indigenous spirituality and lifeways. However, despite a reputation for Platonic otherworldliness, the Christian contemplative tradition has deep roots in a biblical sense of place. Simone Weil once wrote that “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Rootedness was a central idea for Weil, whose life was cut short by her own radical asceticism.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann (2002) wrote that “In the [Bible] there is no timeless space, but there also is no spaceless time. There is rather storied place, that is, a place that has meaning because of the history lodged there.” The Peoples of the Levant were covenanted to the Divine through places: Jacob/Israel wrestled with an angelic person, and the placename Penuel means Face of/facing Adonai. Many passages in the Hebrew Bible either begin or end with a reference to the name of a place, or the origin of that place’s name. Stone altars, groves, and mountain peaks were places of contact with the Divine or the history of the Patriarchal period. This is not a reverent nature spirituality, but a sacred geography where a peoples’ claim to the land was rooted in encounters with the Divine. Layered over this history, is the motif of the tension between the Paradise-Garden and Desert-Wilderness, starting with the very first chapters in Genesis where Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden. The entire arc of the story of Israel is God alluring them back to the garden through covenant, obedience and justice.
The story of Jesus of Nazareth is told through particular places. The arc of his vocation as Messiah recapitulated the places of Hebrew tradition: Bethlehem, Egypt, Jerusalem, Mount Tabor, and finally the Tree of Life (cross) and the Garden (tomb). Jesus consistently leaves the towns and cities to pray in the desert. Early Christians recognized certain places as sacred based on their association with Hebrew prophets, Christian martyrs, monks and ascetics and the life of Jesus. The early hermits and monks fled to the desert as means of radical asceticism, but also because the desert is an ideal place to practice a spirituality of silence.
The Christian relation to place becomes more ambivalent as it weds Greek metaphysics. As Saint Augustine wrote, “Our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Christian writers often portray humanity as a wandering pilgrim on earth, much as Plato saw the Forms as the really real. Belden Lane (2001) and John Inge (2003) show that despite a rich sense of place throughout Hebrew and Christian sacred writings, there is a tension with the mystic placelessness of Christian eschatology: Lane writes, “…one finds a continuing tension between place and placelessness, between the local and the universal. God is here—in this place at Bethlehem, Lourdes, Iona, even Boston and Salt Lake City.”
The Monastic Sense of Place
My book Dwelling in the Wilderness: A Liturgy of Place for the Anthropocene (2023) will explore how contemporary monastic communities are invited into a rich sense of place. Rather than being born from the place as Indigenous peoples are, monks take a vow of stability that encourages them to become ‘lovers of the place;’ to root their whole spiritual life of seeking God in a place and a community of imperfect monks. That life is punctuated by daily and seasonal liturgies that can attune the monks to the cycles and seasons of their places. Manual work balances a life of prayer by engaging the body and can enrich spiritual development by linking tasks to places and teaching vital lessons about the spiritual life. A monk’s time spent in formation, work and leisure means that over many years memories and lessons accumulate in place, giving shape to a personal spiritual ecology that connects place, spirituality and theology. And while some monks may return to certain places over and over, it was often the ‘Charged Moments’, as one monk put it, that ended up being most significant. By Charged Moments the monk was referring to times when a feeling of communion, or a spiritual insight comes out of nowhere. Those unexpected places are then integrated into a monks’ spiritual ecology, or moral landscape: places of rich memory, lesson or insight that then continue to teach monks how to be monks. As one monk said, “You become part of the land. Our vow of stability grounds us, and an image that was really helpful for me was the idea of these trees [points] taking root; you know we’ve got thirty feet of topsoil, and the roots go deep… So that was the image of stability that I had. The longer I stay here, the more I can see myself growing in ways I never thought possible. It’s of course not always easy, staying in one place, but the [longer] you stay the [the higher you can] reach.”
Placefulness as Contemplative Ecology
European descended peoples in North America live with a devalued sense of place. It has been re-placed by mobility, commodity and sentimentality. We see uprootedness, placelessness, dis-placement. The troubling loss of place can been seen through the post-modern attempt to respond to a deep yearning for rootedness in the culture. As philosopher Vince Vycinas wrote, “[W]e are homeless even if we have a place to live”Often, new architecture seeks to emplace us by building homey Town Centres that mimic public or even domestic spaces, flashing a sense of place to our meaning-hungry hearts. Consumerism is as much driven by manufactured needs as it is a sense of belonging or self that has been expertly packaged and sold back to us. The Anthropocene, the so-called geological epoch of human domination, is as much a crisis of meaning as it is a crisis of ecology and extinction.
As parties gather in international conferences to discuss emissions reductions targets, many activists have also been looking for ways to heal a wounded sense of meaning, purpose and sacredness in a world on the brink. In the scholarly world, tracking this movement is often called Religion and Ecology or Religion and Nature. But activists tend to use terms like Spiritual Ecology or as Pope Francis does in his encyclical letter Laudato Si, Integral Ecology. These broad movements represent the spiritual wing of environmentalism that sees ecological issues as moral issues, the earth as sacred. As Sufi teacher Llewelyn Vaughn Lee expresses, “The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. The world is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing.” Separateness and displacement from earth are roots of our ecological crisis.
This sense of oneness is echoed in the non-religious but deeply spiritual ethnographic memoir of anthropologist Richard Nelson, which takes places on the island of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. He writes,
“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.”
Without reference to God, religion or even spirituality, Nelson describes a realization that is perhaps obvious to Indigenous peoples, and those who are rooted in place, whose ancestors nourish the land they harvest their food from. For Nelson, it was an ecological Apokalypsis, a great revealing of a truth hidden before his very eyes.
My own writing at Holyscapes has been oriented toward a contemplative spiritual ecology that reflects on the relationship between inscape and landscape. Really what I am interested in is to learn the liturgy of my place. My walks attend to the cycles of the stars, sun and moon; I am even learning the rudiments of the astrological archetypes and Greek stories that accompany the constellations. I want to attune to the cycles and patterns of season and weather, the features of topography and surficial geology. The Latin, common and/or Indigenous names of plants, animals and fungi. The lifeways of food, medicinal plants and fungi. The soundscape and seasonality of local and migratory birds. And a growing awareness of the memories, lessons, experiences, symbols and rituals that embed themselves in the places I visit.
In addition to learning the liturgy of place, I think it is essential that we engage and support ecological restoration projects. While ecological restoration has its critics, one of its potential benefits is not just to local biodiversity or ecosystem function, but to our sense of place. As ecologist Stephanie Mills (1996) writes,
“[The act of restoration] gives [people] a basis for commitment to the ecosystem. It is very real. People often say, we have to change the way everybody thinks. Well, my God, that’s hard work! How do you do that? A very powerful way to do that is by engaging people in experiences. It’s ritual we’re talking about. Restoration is an excellent occasion for the evolution of a new ritual tradition.”
Ecological restorations’ biggest potential might be in its ability to restore people to a deeper relationship with our places.
Caution I: Beware Spiritual Extractivism
One of the core moral lessons of the conservation movement, was that industrial civilization’s hunger for converting the earth into cash or calories has devastated ecosystems and caused a culture-induced mass extinction. Many of those who are interested in shifting the conversation toward a more sacred sense of the world have started many wonderful projects such as retreat centres, Wild Churches, or Forest Bathing circles. As I shift my mind set of seeing the world as a background to one of home, I want to say that caution is in order. In some ecological spirituality circles, workshops or liturgies I have attended, there is often a circle sharing exercise in which we are encouraged to go out into the forest and find a natural object that speaks to us, or to have a conversation with a tree, etc. We are charged, dismissed and given 45 minutes to soak up the forest’s spiritual lessons and the pressure is on! As I talk about Placefulness, my first caution would be to beware of a taking our extractivist cultural instinct and simply shifting it toward what I am calling a spiritual extractivism. Theologian Belden Lane’s words are a much better caution:
“The challenge is to honor the thing itself, as well as the thing as metaphor. When [Ralph Waldo] Emerson declared in 1836 that ‘every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,’ he sent people racing to the woods, anticipating the voice of God in the call of every thrush. But too often they paid scant attention to the songbird in their anxiousness to hear some transcendent message. They returned home full of nothing but themselves, their pockets stuffed with metaphors. As the imagination reaches relentlessly for a timeless, interior soulscape, it is easy to sail over the specificity of particular landscapes” –Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998, 17)
Caution II: Beware Dissociative Jargon
This one’s for me. In academia, we are coming up with some important terms to describe what is happening to our world, words like Solastalgia, coined by Glenn Albrecht has gotten a lot of traction because it speaks to a feeling that is becoming more common, and just as potent as nostalgia was thought to be during the 1700s, where it was diagnosed as serious illness due to longing for one’s homeland. Solastalgia is the feeling of loss and longing for one’s home place as it changes before our eyes. This kind of language, though abstract and new, is powerful for describing our feelings. What I mean by dissociative jargon is more in line with words like environment, ecosystems and even ecology. Ecosystem is a word for places coined by a culture without a home. I learned this caution from a hero of mine, agrarian writer Wendell Berry. I have a lot to learn from this caution. As Berry writes:
“No settled family or community has ever called its home place an “environment.” None has ever called its feeling for its home place “biocentric” or “anthropocentric.” None has ever thought of its connection to its home place as “ecological,” deep or shallow. The concepts and insights of the ecologists are of great usefulness in our predicament, and we can hardly escape the need to speak of “ecology” and “ecosystems.” But the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind. The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people.” –Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1993, 35)
Troubles: Therapizing Place and NIMBY-ism
In addition to these cautions, I am also interested in the troubles on the horizon, troubles for which I don’t have direct prescriptions to solve. These are troubles that I want to think out loud about in future writing and if possible, public gatherings.
First, there is a strong tendency to assume that developing a place is space is a kind of wellness technique. For example, forest-based therapists often see places through a therapeutic lens (this is often good). We develop a practice of deep attention to place as a means of de-stressing, unwinding, or spiritually tuning in to the happenings of a forest. However, I must insist that just as mindfulness is not just to be practiced when we are happy, a practice of Placefulness is not just practiced when our places are lush, or when we are comfortable and happy, or simply in need of cheering up. Forests are places of predation, decay, rot, parasitism, suffering and pain. If we go to the forest and only see vibrant life, interconnection and cooperation we are missing half of the experience.
Sense of place can also become something of a classist project of protecting a strict view of land that elevates places that are primarily in wild states, lined with walking trails and recreational areas. Working landscapes are often excluded, which tends to bias our notions of places worthy of our attention toward those that fit the narrow aesthetics of urban and wealthy recreators, retirees, or second homeowners. NIMBY-ism (Not In My Backyard) can even kill renewable energy projects that threaten a cherished viewshed. Some communities value places primarily for wellness, aesthetics, spirituality and leisure and these are important values. But Placefulness needs to wrap its arms around the reality that many people have to make their livings from the land, as foresters, miners, loggers, truckers, farmers, ranchers and many other professions and many of them are trying their best to do a good job, usually small scale, independent operators. This is tricky, because we need to radically transform our economy, but the answer isn’t simply building a wall around some places while others go to shit.
With Trebbe Johnson’s Radical Joy for Hard Times, we need to be prepared to love damaged places. We need to witness and resist cultures of destruction but also as Donna Haraway encourages us, to “stay with the trouble”. This means resisting either/or narratives that trade in either apocalyptic or techno-optimistic storylines. It means attuning to our neighborhoods as well as our local wild forest parks. It means supporting and celebrating a stream restoration project and grieving an oil spill in the bay. Our places are wounded, so are we. Attention, holy grief and acts of beauty in wounded places are integral to Placefulness.
Troubles: Weaponizing Place
Another important trouble is that deep reverence to places are caught up in human conflicts all over the world. Control over (sacred) places is often enlisted by ethno-nationalist agendas. For example, Hindu nationalists (VHP) demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992 because they claimed it was built by Muslim invaders on a sacred Hindu site. Sacred Groves in India, which are often pointed to as examples of ancient conservation projects, are often caste-restrictive, gender restrictive and include taboos that look nothing like the egalitarian access Westerners expect from protected areas. Sense of place is often accompanied by knowing one’s place in a social hierarchy. In addition, Israel/Palestine continues to be a conflict between those who are deeply invested in their identities and home places. Zionism is a place-based movement. Placefulness needs to grapple with this toxic dimension of sense of place.
Troubles: Reconciling Place
Last, sense of place is not communing with Nature with a capital N. In the pacific West where I live, he beloved forests where I walk, the parks and neighborhoods are all the traditional territory of the Musqueam people. To go into the forest and see only nature is to negate that these are cultural landscapes whose ancient stewards have been stripped of their claims by force. There is a political ecology to Placefulness.
There are some very encouraging large-scale trends: The BC Treaty Commission, Indigenous protected and conserved areas; the advancement of Rights and Title settlements; co-management, profit sharing agreements. The Land Back, Land Guardians, Indigenous land trusts, revitalization movements, Voluntary Land Tax projects like the Reciprocity Funds program. These are all gesturing in the right direction, but reconciliation and decolonization are not the same thing, and Placefulness needs to grapple with what that means for settler and immigrant peoples who love where they live. A post-colonial “Cascadia” should be able to include settler and immigrant peoples, but Indigenous peoples need to be treated with the historical justice that making right deserves. How far does that go? I don’t know. Perhaps I should start look into immigrating back to England after 7 or so generations of ancestry in North America? Or, perhaps my practice of Placefulness needs to be able to sit with discomfort, ambivalence, and the historical wrongs that I had no part in carry out, but whose privileged fruits I unquestionably benefit from. As Nigerian Post-Christian Yoruba writer Bayo Akomolafe says:
“I like to say that, sometimes the best answer to a pressing question is bewilderment. It’s not the answer itself, it’s not the correct answer, it’s the gift of bewilderment, it’s a gift of straying away from the algorithms of easy arrival. And my Elders always taught me that…the answers are not always going to be available…thank you for holding the space for queer questions, and uneasy arrivals for tending to the tense fields where new kinds of beings and becomings can thrive and grow…”
Placefulness is about making space for the unknown, cultivating holy grief for a rapidly changing world, and loving our places even when it might be uncomfortable.
 Edward Casey, Getting Back into Place, 1993, 14.
 Christian Norbert Shultz, The Concept of Dwelling, 1993, 109.
Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of sketches of some ideas I have kicking around in my head. With luck, they might become longer essays or full length books! Apologies in advance for grammar and spelling errors…
Living in Vancouver I have always felt a bit lonely in my Christianity. I love the catholic tradition, but I have serious hesitations about a full-throated enthusiasm for being part of the Roman Catholic Church. Recently, I learned that two men I admire converted (or in one case reverted) to Christianity. This has made me feel a bit less lonely and pointed to something I see happening among some spiritual but not religious ecological types. Paul Kingsnorth and then Martin Shaw, both British, and both frequent speakers on podcast and YouTube circuits, converted to Christianity in 2021. Paul converted directly into Eastern Orthodoxy, and Martin, after being baptized by an Anglican priest, has entered catechesis with a local Orthodox church in Exeter.
Shaw grew up in the Baptist tradition, with a preacher as a father, but in his teens became a musician and eventually left the church (very familiar to my own story). He was raised not just with theology but the telling of fairytales and myths. Now in his late 40s, at the end of a 101-night vigil in the forest, Shaw saw a multicolored star-like aura of light moving toward him which pierced the ground like an arrow. He heard a voice that said “Inhabit the time in Genesis of your original home.” He says he felt the presence of “the mossy face of Christ.” Thereafter, entering the lockdowns of COVID-19, he had series of dreams in which a clear message was conveyed. Podcasters Mark Vernon and then Justin Brierley have observed that many in the West are seeking for deeper meaning beyond the fuzzy post-Christian spiritual but not religious landscape of the liberal and progressive West. They have cautiously suggested that Christianity is entering a new phase.
Paul is a talented novelist, who for many years, was a front lines environmental activist. He always had a spiritual side and spent time in Buddhism and Wicca as an unapologetic Deep Ecologist and critique of industrial civilization. His book Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist was a public break with his career in the mainstream environmental movement and a manifesto of slowing down, staying put and giving up on the “carbon game.” His response to environmentalism, and his lavish praise for writers like Wendell Berry always sounded to me quasi-monastic. His decision to move to a small farm in Ireland sealed that impression. Kingsnorth continues to rail against “the machine” but he is now doing so within a consciously English, even Celtic, Christianity that shares very little of the New Age trappings of the Neo-Celtic visions of folks like Matthew Fox or John Phillip Newell.
In both of their Substack threads Kingsnorth and Shaw have been thinking out loud about their newfound Christian practice. One thread of Shaw’s is entitled “A Liturgy of the Wild” and in it Shaw curates several wonder stories and archetypal hero journeys that are accompanying him as he learns the rhythms of the Christian liturgical calendar. I have always admired both men, and I feel a deeper kinship with their stories. I don’t always agree with Kingsnorth’s politics, but I certainly have taken heart in my own lonely journey with the catholic contemplative tradition.
My pilgrimage into catholic Christianity began when I stumbled onto the writings of Thomas Merton, the Trappist writer-monk who spent much of life writing about contemplative spirituality from his monastery in Kentucky. When I attended my first Easter Vigil (Saturday evening service before Easter Sunday), I felt the power of the liturgy through the candle-lit depth of anticipated resurrection. It was a powerful, aesthetic, and affective experience. As the warmth of the liturgy sank in over the days and weeks thereafter, I realized that for me the power of the Christian tradition lay not just in creeds and atonement for sin, but in an ability to invite us into a participation with the cruciform nature of the cosmos. By this I mean that through a liturgy that aligns with the seasons of the Norther Hemisphere’s waxing and waning and the earth’s own resurrection, we bring our own bodies to the pascal mystery: birth, death, and resurrection. Coming to believe in the resurrection of Christ was made possible for me by experiencing first a real attention to the resurrection of the earth. Thereafter, the resurrection of Jesus was not an exercise in intellectual ascent to the proposed truthfulness of an enchanted version of History, but to the reality of resurrection that spoke out of every flower and tree and my own circadian pilgrimage through the year. Jesus distilled and recapitulated that rhythm with his life.
I recount this here because what I am observing and learning from Kingsnorth and Shaw is that to a large extent they too were drawn to the archetypal, storied mysterious depth of the tradition. Their hearts were caught in the fisher’s net, and they have lived to tell the tale. Like the mystics, who classically emphasize direct experience, they are speaking from their own bewildered walk with a wild Christ. Not the buddy Christ of contemporary mainstream Christians, but a dark figure who broods in the wildlands and rails against convention.
Shaw for example specifically states that he was drawn back to Christianity because of the strangeness and wildness of Christ and the story. He calls Christianity “the last great mystery”. And now he is a on a mission to reclaim the contemplative, wild, ecologically rich texture of the faith. Whereas many converts to Orthodoxy I have read about tend to emphasize coming to some ascent to its authenticity in relation to some imagined original or continuous Christianity, what I hear Kingsnorth and Shaw doing, is, walking in the tracks of the mystics, drawing close to the warm glow of the power of Christianity’s stories and liturgies.
They are in short espousing what I want to call a Christian Mythodoxy. Mythos: from a root that comes from mouth, myths are not untruths to be busted, but the stories and deep human truths in which we see ourselves participating; not just moral lesson or entertainment. Doxy: meaning praise is our orientation toward the Divine, how do we soak up the rays of the Divine? It constitutes our spiritual practices, our liturgy and worship.
In the wider orbit of ecological spirituality, there are a lot of wonderful conversations that are trying to reconnect with the earth’s rhythms, place, archetypes, myths and even astrology. Adaya’s ecological spirituality courses, the School of Mythopoetics, the now defunct Seminary of the Wild, and many more. Yet while many of these courses can feel quite hostile to Christianity (speaking from personal experience), several renegade threads have been seeking to rewild the Christian lifeway.
For example, Franciscan Ilia Delio has showed that Catholic, from the Greek Kata-holon, according to the whole, must catch up with the facts of evolution and the implications of the discoveries of quantum physics regarding matter-energy as a continuous reality. Others like philosopher John D. Caputo have talked about post-modern Christianity as an exercise not in theology as science, but as a kind of Theo-poetics. As I often tell my students, religion done well is poetry about a mystery, meaning that theology for the most part is not meant to be an exercise certainty, proofs and evidence, but one of awe, wonder, praise and sometimes lament. Others such as writers Bayo Akomolafe and Sophie Strand are doing fascinating things with the possibilities of a wilder, earthier, porous Christianity. These two seem to be more on the outside margins of the tradition, but they speak eloquently about the wild origins of Jesus’s teachings, parables, and connections to the natural world in first century Palestine. Brie Stoner’s podcast Unknowing has also been the grounds for some interesting conversations about what comes after a rigid, denominational Christian identity at the dawn of the Anthropocene.
What I see happening more and more in these discoveries or reimaginings of Christianity does not fit into any denominational category. It is rather a kind of diffuse gesture, posture or dare I say (leaderless) movement. A Christian Mythodoxy seems to be one possible green shoot germinating out of the compost pile of a religion in decline (at least in the West). Stoner’s series on composting Christianity, and Sophie Strand have used that wonderful metaphor to talk about living on the edge of something that feels like both a death rattle and a birth pang (Romans 8). The so-called Anthropocene is bringing about great harm but is also opening space for something new.
What I am experiencing and observing is the idea that to be a Christian is not just to ascent to a platform of beliefs and then check one’s life against it. Rather, beyond theology (not in opposition to it), there lies a move toward a mythic praise, a mytho-doxy, grounded in the body and grounded in the cycles of the earth, that is the tangled fabric of our messy faith, which is always, already embedded in the liturgy of the cosmos, the good earth, and the breathtaking beauty of the pascal mystery.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting. Amen.
–The Apostles Creed
“The only true joy on earth is to escape from the prison of our own false self, and enter by love into union with the Life Who dwells and sings within the essence of every creature and in the core of our own souls.”
A Communion of the Saintly
Toward the end of the Nicaean and Apostle’s Creeds, Christians from many denominations affirm the belief in the Communion of the Saints. In practice, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Oriental, and Easter Orthodox traditions commonly integrate saints into our liturgies, calendars and even patronal names at baptism. My own patron saint is Saint Kevin of Ireland. Not only is he the patron saint of very ordinary names like mine, but as a hermit, he embodied the deep love of Creation at the heart of Irish Paganism and Christianity.
The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church defines a saint as someone who is closer or more united with Christ in heaven. Intercessory prayer, which seems to pick up where Pagan polytheism leaves off, sees this proximity to heaven as a legitimate and effective way of amplifying one’s prayers. It emphasizes the idea that the church is a communal structure that is not confined to the living.
Saints are also culture-heroes that elevate our eyes toward heavenly virtues through the prism of their unique gifts. Saints are the celebrities and athletes of the spiritual life. They are role models and icons of holiness and character. For example, sounding a bit like a Catholic Bodhisattva, 19th century French Saint Therese of Lisieux wrote, “I want to spend my heaven in doing good on earth.” Saints are heroic in virtue, and yet they are often keenly aware of their own woundedness. Contemporary Catholic commentator and YouTube evangelist Bishop Robert Barron uses the analogy of a pane of glass to describe the saintly heart. As it becomes more directly illuminated by light, even the slightest smudges and blemishes become readily apparent. As Barron puts it, saints are simply people who know they are sinners. Saints don’t earn this merit, they simply orient their lives toward the light already there.
In a broader sense, all Christians, or even all people, are saints. In his letters, the Apostle Paul refers to the ordinary members of his churches as Saints—as contemporary Mormons, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, continue to do. For Paul, the Saints (Gk: hagiois, holy ones) were those who had chosen to bask in the Grace of the risen Christ.
This notion of ordinary folks being Saints shouldn’t surprise us. Think of Paul’s stark transformation from a persecutor of the church to a Christic visionary; or of Peter’s penchant for cowardly self-preservation at the time of the crucifixion, to a miracle working evangelist-martyr who tradition holds was crucified upside down. From the earliest moments of Christianity there is a notion that each of us are saints in embryo, holy not just through extraordinary feats of virtue, but through our createdness, our belovedness, and our utter dependence on God, who brings us into being and sustains us in each moment.
Making Room for Creation in the Communion of the Saints
For most of Christian history, Sainthood has been seen as a human affair. However, it seems like the time has come to decenter the human person as the only creature in Creation worthy of the title. I don’t want to devalue us, I want to decenter us, there is a difference. I want to think about this with the help of 20th century spiritual writer and monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968), the patron saint of ecology Saint Francis of Assisi, and a few other geologians.
It isn’t actually that much of a leap to go from the notion of a primordial sainthood at the heart of our human createdness, which emerges from no merit of our own, to the saintliness of the rest of Creation with whom we share our evolutionary morphology and instincts. As a monk explained to me on retreat regarding his belief in animal souls: “Do we have the same Father? Ok, then we are siblings!”
In his poem Canticle to Creation, Saint Francis of Assisi affirmed this close kinship with creation in the 12th century. In writing with the reconciliation of two rival cities in mind, Francis declared with the Psalms that all of creation rightly gives God praise. However, he also went a step further by referring to Sun, Moon, Water, Plants, Earth, and Fire as our siblings. He wrote: “Praise be to you Lord God through Brother Sun…” This kinship language is striking for a pre-ecological age that affirms the interrelatedness of all creation. And yet, there is no confusing Creation and Creator, only a more directly aligned prism that is able to see God’s loving presence in Creation.
In his foundational book New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton meditates on the depth of contemplative spirituality in the Catholic tradition. Merton’s writing had a great deal to do with bringing mysticism and contemplative spirituality to an entirely new generation of Catholics, and his influence has reached into the generations of the 21st century through the efforts of the International Thomas Merton Society. One of the most startling and beautiful passages in New Seeds beautifully amplifies saintliness beyond the more than human Creation in a way that would have turned Henry David Thoreau’s scruffy head. Merton writes:
“A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It “consents,” so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.”
A tree’s substance, its tree-ness, is its praise, and because that substance owes its very being to God, it is fundamentally united with God, or, in other words, a Saint. Merton continues:
“The forms and individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God. Their inscape is their sanctity.”
Here, Merton alludes to a word coined by Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. The Inscape for Hopkins is a creature’s most intimate uniqueness, which bears the very finger print of God. As Dan Horan has written, this is a deeply Franciscan idea, which echoes the heady theology of 14th century theologian John Duns Scotus. Merton, say on!
“The special clumsy beauty of this particular colt on this April day in this field under these clouds is a holiness consecrated to God by His own creative wisdom and it declares the glory of God. The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this window are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God. This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.”
Swoon. This is one of my very favorite passages from Merton, and when I first read it as a seasonal forester in Utah in 2012, it changed the way I saw the woods. It is recalling this passage that I affirm the idea that the Communion of Saints is ready for an update.
Extinction is Martyrdom
Death is a fact of evolution. Most species have an ecological life span of about a million or so years. Human beings may be no different if we don’t shape up. Extinction, the death of a species, happens naturally. Admittedly difficult to calculate, the background rate of natural extinctions is about one species per million species per year. The industrial machine is speeding up that rate so by estimates of between 100 to 1000 times the background rate. There have been five major extinctions of life on this planet, reducing species diversity by 75-90 per cent. Human expansion out of Africa, but especially the activities of industrial humanity initiated what some are calling the Sixth Extinction event.
For those of us who see the world as more than a God-given grocery store, extinction caused by human beings is a travesty. Extinction has been likened to the silencing of an instrument in the symphony of Creation. Said another way, if each creature is a word of God, unique and singular in its particularity and bespokeness, a species, is an epic cosmic poem. Extinction at the hands of human expansion impoverishes the vocabulary of this cosmic epic that makes up an earthly Communion of Saints. Just as murder is not just death, extinction by our hands is a kind of martyrdom.
In his Letter to the Romans chapter 8:22, Paul writes that “all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth.” There is a sense that Christ is a cosmic event, and salvation an earthly affair. In the famous John 3:16, “God so loved the world”, after all. Eschatology is the study of last things, final words, and end times. For many Christians, only humans will accompany God into post-moral eternities. But in an era of ecological conscience, eschatology needs an earthy reassessment. As ecological theologian Sallie McFague has written, “Salvation is the direction of all of creation, and creation is the very place of salvation.” Salvation was not just a single event, but an ongoing trajectory of Creation as the Body of God.
Theologians like the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin and his contemporary interpreter Franciscan Sister Ilia Delio, see Big Bang cosmology as affirming the idea that Creation is moving toward its fulfillment in God. For Teilhard the Omega point was synonymous with the Logos of John Ch. 1, where the author states that the Word (Logos) was with God from the beginning and is God.
Omega is the last letter in the Greek alphabet, and Teilhard used this as an image of the entirety of Creation being drawn into God through the humanity of Christ (Logos). Of course for Teilhard, the Omega point insinuated that the Noosphere, or mental realm, would become independent of the physical world, but Delio’s writings make a stronger claim that all of creation is involved in this ongoing cosmic soteriology. She writes, “Rather, reality is a single, organic, evolutionary flowing.” The lives of Saints are powerful because they give us a taste of heaven on earth. To expand the Communion of Saints is acknowledge that like the Our Father prayer, salvation is the ongoing process of earth merging with heaven.
Finally, if a human can be a saint, perhaps we should consider whether or not her gut flora, eye mites, viruses, lice, skin and mouth bacteria, fungi, and parasites might be as well. Perhaps as well, we should wonder whether the species that have been domesticated with us are Saints: Heather, corn, wheat, barley, millet, cows, chickens, dogs, pigs. Perhaps as well those that have accompanied us as we made our cities: Cats, rats, mice, cockroaches, pigeons, squirrels, starlings, coyotes, dandelions, and crows. And perhaps those species and ecologies that provided the materials, medicines, and wild foods that nourished us. And all those that populated our symbols, languages and stories. Perhaps the Communion of Saints is nothing less than an ongoing Being-One-With the Holy-Ones-of-Creation.
A Litany of Ten Salish Sea Rainforest Trees
Saint Western Red Cedar pray for us…
Saint Douglas fir pray for us…
Saint Western Hemlock pray for us…
Saint Grant Fir pray for us…
Saint Sitka Spruce pray for us…
Saint Amabilis Fir pray for us…
Saint Big Leaf Maple pray for us…
Saint Red Alder pray for us…
Saint Paper Birch pray for us…
Saint Yew pray for us…
 Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New Directions. Kindle Edition, 1961/2007), 27.
 St. Therese of Lisieux, The Final Conversations, (Washington: ICS, 1977), 102.
In many plains and southwestern cultures, Coyote is an ancestral kin. In many stories, Coyote’s antics introduce pain, suffering and chaos into the world. In comparative mythology, Coyote-like characters are often portrayed as Tricksters. A Trickster often subverts the norm, plays tricks, and holds secret knowledge. Coyote can also be a Hero figure where he slays a monster like Thunderbird. The astrological season of Gemini (May 21-June21) is also Trickster sign, at least according to the folks at the School for Mythopoetics where I have just enrolled as a Founding Member.
Today, I was walking home from the library through Queen Elizabeth Park. I was walking slowly up a hill, and was mostly in my head as I thought about the day’s tasks. As I came to a fork in the steep path, I looked right, and there squatting in the middle of the path was a large coyote taking a shit. We locked eyes as the turd flopped to the ground. I recoiled in disgust and started laughing hysterically. Had I arrived seconds earlier or seconds later and I would have avoided the encounter, and probably felt more of a sense of wonder than of aversion.
I love to find beauty and meaning in the natural world, my writings at Holyscapes is all about this. But today, I was reminded not to take myself too seriously. Reminded that our plans don’t always go the way we expect. Seeing the Trickster in the act of defecating was the ultimate overturning of order and my expectations of natural beauty. Long live the Trickster!
In a previous post I discussed the ethical questions of borrowing spiritual practices from the Hindu and Daoist traditions. Wary of inappropriate cultural appropriation, I have resisted adopting practices outside of a general contemplative Christian framework. However, I realized that Christianity simply does not have the resources for an embodied spirituality that many other traditions such as Yoga and Daoism do. Some may disagree, but this has been my experience. In this post I just want to add a bit more context to the question of embodiment in spiritual practice.
For many years I have been a somewhat consistent practitioner of what has been called contemplative spirituality or Centering Prayer. Fully fleshed out by Trappist monks like Fr. William Meninger, Fr. M. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating in the 1970s, the practice modernizes the musings of the medieval author of the Cloud of Unknowing. This form of prayer is Apophatic, in that it attempts to move beyond words, images and ideas about God and into a place of unknowing, or forgetting the world of self, sacrament and matter. Apophatic prayer moves beyond Cataphatic prayer, from creation to creator, from world to heaven. The writer of Cloud states, “During contemplative prayer all created things and their words must be buried beneath the cloud of forgetting.”[i] (The author imagines a Cloud of Unknowing above and a Cloud of Forgetting below the novice meditator.) The practice strives to move the practitioner into the Cloud of Unknowing, the very presence of God’s being, toward a sort of objectless awareness beyond guided meditations, mantras, rote prayers, petitions, visualizations. This is of course a form of (neo) Platonism, moving from body and world to Source and God. And even if the author maintains the goodness of creation, as they do with words, the ultimate experience of God is beyond all words and things.
Centering Prayer is meant to train us in the slow lifelong spelunking to the cave of the heart, to the core of our being where God is actively creating us in each moment. Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk largely responsible for popularizing contemplative spirituality in the 1950s and 60s, in his book Contemplative Prayer wrote: “Monastic prayer begins not so much with ‘considerations’ as with a ‘return to the heart,’ finding one’s deepest center, awakening the profound depths of our being in the presence of God.”[ii] For Merton, contemplative prayer was a practice for achieving the ultimate communion with God, who could be conceived as dwelling at the inmost space of our being, much like the Atman/Brahman (Soul/Source) theology of the Hindu Upanishads. Catholic critics of Centering Prayer however, claim that Centering Prayer is not prayer at all but a form self-hypnosis or even self-worship.[iii]
In recent years, writer Cynthia Bourgeault and Franciscan Father Richard Rohr have become the most visible advocates of Centering Prayer through the Center for Action and Contemplation. They teach the method as a form of prayer and self-discovery.[iv] In recent years, there has been some lovely discussions of the method taking forms not narrowly influenced by the more sedentary Zen sensibilities of the practice. For example, Barbara A. Holmes in her book Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church (2017) surveys the history of contemplative practice in the black church in North America (Mostly the United States) which takes place in spaces that are saturated with the charismatic worship of black churches and the vital spaces of political activism in the wake of Black Lives Matter.
So far I have described spirituality in at least two senses:
Spirituality 1: “The quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things” (Oxford Dictionary). In this sense, spirituality is a dualized concept that sets spirit in opposition to matter. The intuition behind aphorisms like: “We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Spirituality 2: “An understanding of how life should be lived and an attempt to live that way” (Gottlieb 2012). In this sense, spirituality is a method or practice designed to achieve a religiously-minded goal. Contemplative Prayer it seems is often framed in this way. We engage in the practice to achieve some state of mind or being but also with a hope in some end goal, usually communion with God, enlightenment, Moksha, Nirvana.
However, beyond these two senses of contemplative spirituality, a broader definition is emerging that blurs boundaries between ontological and methodological senses. Many in North America have begun to adopt a more “immanent frame” to borrow Charles Taylor’s phrase from his landmark book A Secular Age. This sense can defined this way:
Spirituality 3: “Spiritual but not Religious”. No longer as concerned with Transcendence, we claim to be spiritual in this sense when we have a vague notion of the world’s sacredness, or when we are in a zone of body-mind synchronization (Flow States or In the Zone). This “New” spirituality is expressed most often in the surge in popularity of the vaguely spiritual athleticized forms of North American Yoga.
It would see that Senses 1 and 2 are compatible, and Senses 2 and 3 are compatible, but Senses 1 and 3 are not compatible. In North America the assumption that one could be spiritual without the trappings of a specific religion is almost an article of faith. We have seen books and seminars on Bodifulness rather than Mindfulness. Art, music, performance, dance, craft, sex, rock climbing, surfing are spoken of as a kind of spiritual practice in Sense 3 above.
Forest Bathing as a therapeutic and spiritual practice has also rocketed into the collective imagination. Zero Waste, Green, Sustainable and Vegan lifestyle-isms have taken not only a moralizing character but a sort of green monastic asceticism. And attending to the dying and death practices has also become an area for discussion both as a form of ecological activism, critique of capitalist professionalization the death industry, and a form of accompaniment-based spirituality.
For me, the exploration of Yoga and Qigong (still very amateur) are motivated by a blending of Senses 2 and 3 of spirituality. Because Centering Prayer tends to have a strong Sense 1 and 2 motivation, engaging the body has been less a part of the conversation in contemplative prayer circles in my experience. We focus on the power of silence and stilling the monkey mind. Of slowing down and not being in movement all the time. Centering Prayer finds God in the center of our being. This is powerful stuff! I think practicing stillness and silence will always be important to my practice. But could an Embodied Contemplative Spirituality help us de-center the Self and thus de-center the presence of God? Not only found in some core Essential Self, but within the wider Ecological Self that is hopelessly entangled, hybrid and open to the more-than-human world. Rather than contrasting Transcendence and Immanence, to speak of Inscendence as the intertwined threads of the tapestry of Being.[v] Not as distinct domains of reality but as folds and contours in the evolving fabric of Cosmos.
Does Embodied Contemplative Prayer resonate? What practices do you engage with that you would consider a form of Embodied Spirituality?
[i] The Cloud of Unknowing (Image Classics) (p. 65). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[ii] Merton, Thomas (2009). Contemplative Prayer (First paperback ed.). New York: Crown Publishing Group. pp. 5–6. ISBN 978-0-307-58953-8.
In 1982, the Japanese Forest Agency began promoting ‘forest therapy’ as a form of preventative medicine. Shinrin Yoko as the practice came to be known means Forest Bathing and the idea is that spending unstructured, unhurried time in forest, temple and park spaces could contribute to positive health outcomes.
In the 1990s, peer reviewed studies seemed to corroborate these findings. Walking in forests increases immune system function, lowers blood pressure and lowers stress hormones. There is a positive impact on symptoms of PTSD, stress, focus and general wellbeing.[i]
These findings are well documented and while they are not necessarily conclusively causative, they are absolutely resonant with increasing our health through lifestyle choices and time away from screens. However, some spokespeople for forests and forest bathing such as Diana Beresford Kroeger, an Irish-Canadian who has a bold vision of reforestation, can speak of the benefits hyperbolically. For example, during an interview on the Wisconsin Public Radio program To the Best of our Knowledge, Diana claimed that just touching certain leaves or plants could prevent leukemia or certain types of cancers.[ii] For example, she claims that by simply touching the green fruits of Black Walnut trees the ellagic acid absorbed through the sweat glands will protect children from leukemia. I couldn’t find anything close to proof of this, so it seems dubious.
In North American, a growing number of organizations are offering trainings to become “certified” Forest Therapy Guides. These trainings typically cost anywhere from $3000-$4000 for a six month program that often includes an in person immersion. When I learned about this practice, I was very interested. But the more I thought about it the more concerned I became. Despite a danger of over-exaggerating the benefits of walking in the woods, what worries me about the increasingly popular phenomenon of Forest Bathing in North America is its flagrant exoticism and the monetization of certification programs.
The first point. It seems that whenever eco-spiritual seeker types get ahold of a concept from “The East”, we immediately read into it a sort of ancient, ecological wisdom. Japan does indeed have a strong sense of identity connected to trees and forests. They have one of the highest rates of forest cover of any nation. Shinto shrines are often located among sacred groves, some of which can be quite ancient. However, Shinrin Yoku as a concept only started in the 1980s. Why is it that despite a massive cannon of poets, naturalists and forest walkers in the Western European and Transcendentalist tradition, many of my fellow Westerners of European descent feel the need to appropriate a modern Japanese practice in order to lend legitimacy to a practice they are eager to monetize?
This brings me to my second question. Why do we need Forest Therapy Guides? Why not just offer a one hour training in Forest Bathing and invite people to do it in small groups that are self-facilitated? Why turn an open source skill into a product? Why charge money to become a certified mediator of the forest space? This seems like it crosses a line.
So maybe folks who are invested in this movement could share their experience. I know plenty of wonderful folks who are Guides, so this critique is not a personal attack. It’s a serious concern and a question that has been building in me for a while. Let me know what you think.
Post Script: While it seems that Japan does have specific trainings for Forest Therapy programs, I am doubtful that these are standalone programs apart from other essential healthcare services. I would be happy to speak with someone who knows more about the movement in Japan. Are Forest Therapy programs in Japan similar to the ones in North America? I know that there are certification schemes for forests and walking trails in Japan, but I am not sure what the training system looks like for anyone who would be the equivalent to a “Guide” in North America.
[i] Li, Qing. “Effect of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku) on human health: A review of the literature”, Santé Publique, vol. no. HS1, 2019, pp. 135-143.