Dispatches from the Camino de Santiago: The End is the Beginning

  1. Arriving in Santiago

Falling to my knees, I found myself at an unexpected altar. I may have pushed a little too hard to arrive in Santiago before the crowds became unbearable; and then eaten some questionable local seafood for lunch. All of which induced a temporary but debilitating stomach upset. I could hardly stand let alone walk around the city. My arrival in Santiago was supposed to be a joyous and cathartic release after so many miles of prayerful walking. Instead, I was vomiting in a shared bathroom at an overpriced nightly pension just behind the Plaza de Obradoira. I could overhear the jubilant cheers of groups arriving at the cathedral from my bed.

Earlier that morning, when I had arrived in the Plaza, I had taken a wrong turn in the city’s labyrinthine city corridors and walked into the open rectangular plaza from the south, rather than through the small portal on the north side where a bagpipe busker plays swelling Celto-Galician melodies for the arriving pilgrims. When I stepped into the plaza, rather than feeling elation, I felt slightly confused. In the photographs it was weathered, and lichen covered and had the character of an ancient baroque cathedral, now it was immaculately clean, like the stone had just been laid. For a second I wondered if I was in the right place. Then, seeing some other pilgrims arrive and begin to celebrate I knew that of course I was in the right place. It turns out the façade had just been restored, and the scaffolding had only come down the day before. It was beautiful, lacking the characteristic grit and age I expected, the years of chips, pocks and stain had been lifted to reveal its true and youthful self. A beautiful metaphor for the spiritual life.

Entering the cathedral, a pilgrim’s Mass was wrapping up, and I waited at the back until the crowds began to reverently disperse. Wandering the nave, it felt smaller and less assuming than one might expect. It certainly felt much different than the classically gothic cathedrals of León and Burgos. Its baroque motif and adornments were a bit dusty and worn down, there was scaffolding above the altar, a few pigeons flew about the rafters, and its arches and ceiling were in desperate need of repair and restoration. And yet, despite its unassuming and worn appearance, the space exuded a kind of sacred expectation. A cue of people lined up to hug a golden statue of Santiago, Saint James behind the altar, and another waited to pray at the reliquary holding his reputed remains.

I did both rituals with a smile. I had finally arrived at the cathedral and, despite a wobbly landing, I began to fill with the satisfaction and joy of a pilgrimage completed. I then sat in the pews waiting for the next Pilgrim’s Mass and tried to be as open as possible to the reality of what was before me: the goal accomplished, the eccentric beauty, the diversity of my fellow pilgrims. The cathedral Mass was well orchestrated, the Bishop spoke a slow and discernable Spanish, and the music added to the reverent atmosphere. I lingered in the cathedral after the Mass snapping pictures, craning my neck at the Romanesque arches.

As I say, that night I fell ill, but by the morning I was OK enough to go back to the cathedral and walk around the city, visiting its many other treasures, churches and plazas over four days. As I rested from thirty days of intensely regimented walking, my heart filled with the romance and beauty of the place. I also began to reflect more deeply on the meaning and impact of pilgrimage in general, and my first walk on the Camino de Santiago.

Elaborate Camino trail marker.

  1. What is a Pilgrimage?

When I was ten or eleven, I jumped into a big van with a dozen or so of my fellow Mormon youth and headed to San Diego for an overnight trip. We were going to walk a section of the Mormon Battalion Trail, the historic route which the US Army-appointed Mormon Battalion marched before the end of the Mexican-America War. This march never saw combat, but it helped open a southern route to California as the US annexed much of the Southwest from Mexico.

We wanted to experience firsthand what it was like to walk the same trail our ancestors had walked. We were told of the hardships and inconveniences they had to endure. We walked to show gratitude to their sacrifice and build character. This pioneer pilgrimage is not uncommon in Mormon culture, and pioneer treks, reenactments and historic sites are a big part of forming Mormons in their own heritage and identity as America pioneers with a unique claim to the nation and its promises. In 2008, Mormons from across the US participated in a reenactment of the entire Mormon Battalion trek, a journey of over 2,000 miles. As an erasable teen, I just remember feeling annoyed, and wanting more snacks. But even then, my self-centered brain managed to muster some measure of reflexivity on just how difficult life must have been for those who came before me.

At the beginning of my pilgrimage to Santiago, one thing that surprised me was just how secular and recreational everyone’s motives seemed to be. As a religious person, I was frustrated by this. I even heard a Catholic priest say he was walking the Camino to get away from his hectic and busy life as an urban parish priest! I am not opposed to recreation or cool experiences, but to me, for a pilgrimage to be a pilgrimage, it must in some way connect the self with the sacred.

Wandering through the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago, a central display defined pilgrimage as a universal human phenomenon, existing in many religions and cultures. A pilgrimage is an allegory for the human experience, it is a holy path to a holy place; “a journey in search of spiritual meaning.” It is both destination and journey. In Spanish, ‘Camino’ simply means ‘way’ or ‘path’, and Christianity was initially described as The Way. Tao, the central concept of the constellation of folk religions and philosophies often referred as Taoism, also simply means the ‘Way’. Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhisms embrace an eight-fold path to Nirvana, or enlightenment. The Psalms frequently refer to God’s law as a ‘path’, the path which the righteous follow. “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths” (Psalms 24:5).

For the Medieval Christians, braving the dangers and toils of the path, was not about having an experience or about leisure. It was about seeking forgiveness for wrongs, self-denial in the service of spiritual growth, healing from a debilitating illness, for petitions for family and friends that could not make the journey. It often involved great expense and great risk. The path was an objectively sacred path, to an objectively sacred place. Saint James was a spiritual force whose intercession was hoped to effect actual things in the world. He was no archetype or whimsical character from Christian myth. Pilgrimage was a spiritual technology in a world where life was short, difficult and dangerous.

With the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, and the Reformation’s emphasis on grace over works, pilgrimage began to lose its force and meaning. Catholic superstition and idolatry was looked down upon, and for many Protestants, there was no path to walk since we are only saved through God’s grace, not through the Sacraments, or through our efforts.

Today, I would say a majority of those who walk the Camino are not affiliated with any particular religion, or have left the religion of their upbringing. At first I felt lonely in my religious and spiritual motivations. I became a little more judgmental and self-righteous than usual. For many the Camino was undeniably a social experience, or an athletic challenge. But despite my cynicism, it was an overwhelmingly positive and healing experience for many as well. The Camino can be life changing, life restoring, and so much more than just an interesting get away. The Camino has the ability to heal a part of people that isn’t readily available in daily life; that was nourished by the movement, the friendship and the sunshine.

I would not say that my experience was particularly life changing or healing. My pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was definitely not what I expected. What going in promised to be a conventionally spiritual experience that traversed some beautiful country, turned out to be a very raw encounter with my most persistent demons. However, even though at several moments I thought of quitting, or at least wanted the experience to be over, I am so grateful that I did it. I am so grateful for the privilege of being able to take this time to just walk. The lessons I gleaned are still bubbling up. But I learned so much about the heritage of Christianity, about Spain, art and architecture; and yes, about myself. Here are a few of the major themes that emerged as I reflected on my walking pilgrimage between Pamplona and Santiago de Compostela during the month of June, 2018.  

  1. Pilgrimage is an Embodied Spiritual Practice

I am grateful for the revival of pilgrimage as a spiritual practice, and despite my cynicism toward its popularity, I really do believe that it is ultimately a good thing. I do however worry that we (inclusive we) focus too much on the external aspects of pilgrimage, with the temptation to broadcast our experiences to the world via social media in order to garner admiration and praise. I certainly wrestled with metering my own use of social media during the trip. Use of social media aside, I feel that in order for one to really be a pilgrim (peregrino) rather than a tourist (turi-grino), awareness, attention and interest in the spiritual dimension of the journey should be primary. Pilgrimage is not just experience, hiking or athleticism.

Pilgrimage is an important and rare embodied spiritual practice indigenous to Christianity. Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) has long neglected the body in our worship and spiritual practice (we don’t have our own version of Yoga). Thus, pilgrimage is an important way of re-incarnating Christianity, bringing us back to the body. Pilgrimage is powerful because it is fully embodied, but at the same time perfectly mirrors the spiritual dimensions of life itself as a spiritual journey.

The phenomenology of pilgrimage as spiritual practice is captured by the slow step-by-step-by-step walking of which it is made. It should not be rushed. Patience is a virtue. It is an ongoing encounter with the world as we slowly move through it. It is boredom and exhaustion and sickness and discomfort and social awkwardness and silence and monotony. It is ugly and beautiful places. It is moving at a primordially human pace. It is stopping to sit, stare, listen, cry, feel, pray, poke something strange, smell flowers, kick stones, wave at cows, laugh, remember, lament, worry, jot down an idea, think about the future, find a place to pee, and say ‘Buen Camino!’ for the 50th time. It is the sound of wind through cottonwoods, rain drops on the small leaves of a hedgerow, our own heart beating, speeding semi-trucks, distant wind mills, planes over head, pilgrims discussing in a language not our own. Pilgrimage is walking through a land of deeply embedded cultural memories, none of which were my own. The hilltops wink at their former pagan worshippers; the brittle ruins of the Roman Empire poke out like dry bones; there are whispers of the long ago Muslim conquest. The farmland exudes the long slow dwelling of a thousand generation of farmers, peasants and artisans.

And yet, there were several moments on the Camino that transported me back to places I have lived in my life. Walking toward León from a high hilltop, the view of the cathedral spires and the open arid valley behind it looked uncannily like Salt Lake City, Utah with the spires of the Mormon Temple and the Great Salt Lake Basin in the background. The semi-arid landscapes of the Meseta, and the smell of eucalyptus plantations in Galicia reminded me of my first home-place, California. There was a sort of present-invoking-the-past quality to these places. Unfamiliar landscapes they might have been, they still triggered many of my own past selves and experiences. These memories and thoughts then become part of the fabric of embodied reflection, lesson and landscape. This phenomenology of walking is an important aspect of any spiritual practice that engages not just our minds but our whole person and pushes and challenges us in new ways.

There is also a ritual aspect to pilgrimage as spiritual practice. To be a pilgrim is to do more or less the same thing every day: wake, pack, eat, walk, eat, walk, find lodging, wash clothes, eat, sleep. At times I found this monotony, even with the constantly new scenery and company, to be tedious. One of the podcasts I listened to while walking from Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron’s show Word on Fire shifted my perspective on the monotony of pilgrimage, and its ritual connection to the Mass. He quoted the 20th century Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton in his famous work Orthodoxy where he celebrated ritual repetition as an attribute of God’s ongoing creation of the world. Chesterton wrote:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Like the Mass, which follows more or less the same pattern every time, ritual repetition is a way of returning to and reinforcing essential spiritual truths. This repetition with change, doing the same thing every day in slightly different places under slightly different circumstances is part of the holiness of pilgrimage. The slow change of the day mirrors the slow ripening of our own souls. The mistakes and sin which we continually find ourselves making are opportunities to return to God yet again, to do it again.

Magnificent ornate Retablo at Ascension church in Navarrete.

  1. Sacred Spaces are an Essential Component of Pilgrimage

Early on in my walk, it was clear that there was a spectrum of feelings about the ubiquity of Catholic sacred spaces on the Camino. Most of the churches, if they were open, offered stamps for our pilgrim passports; and most of the must-see destination along the Camino were historic monasteries, hermitages, chapels and cathedrals. It was sad to see so many pilgrims simply hurry past an open church door, or shrug at a suggested donation sign. Those who made it inside often strolled through the aisles and side chapels as if in a museum, or simply stamped their passports and left. To a certain extent I get it, there is a need to conserve one’s energy with so many churches along the way. I too found myself in a sort check off mode in all too many minor churches or hermitages, but sacred space is an important dimension to walking a pilgrimage.

The animosity toward churches and cathedrals went deeper for some folks I met. I would sometimes overhear pilgrims say that the sacred spaces were a waste of money—monuments to corruption and feudal extraction of wealth, first from the Spanish peasantry and then the ‘New’ World. One day, early in my Camino, I walked for a kilometer or so with two men from Mallorca and for them churches were a sign of the church’s earthly power, nothing more.

Another man admitted that the churches were great and all, very beautiful, but that he had long since stopped going to Mass. He balked at the notion that he needed a priest to forgive his sins, or that somehow the sacred began once he stepped one foot inside the church. He didn’t need a church to pray to God; wherever he knelt was his church.

I am sympathetic to these stances; the church has at many times been too focused on power, wealth and prestige. And, as someone who experiences God’s presence in the natural world, I am not opposed to viewing the world as sacred. However, what I would say to these arguments (and what I said to these pilgrims as we walked) is that sacred spaces are monuments to beauty, and an important centering complement to the diffusing nature of walking.

First, to suggest that the legions of people who participated in building these structures were merely either compelled or motivated by worldly power is too cynical a view to capture the ornate attention to detail, story and affect that these spaces undeniably afford. As we learn from our mistakes, I think that the church can be dedicated to beauty and equity. Being dedicated to social justice does not exclude a commitment to beauty as a tool for evangelization and encounter with God. As 19th century labor organizer Rose Schneiderman famously said in a speech, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

To the second criticism, I tend to agree in principle that the world itself is sacred because it was made by God. However, our awareness of God’s presence is not spread equally throughout our lives. It is like saying that fitness can happen any place, not just the gym; sure it can, but they sure help! What is powerful about sacred spaces is that they are set aside (the root of sacred means set aside) to amplify the sacred dimensions of life, and push us to the boundaries the sensible world. They are places where we practice the presence of God; where we train ourselves to discern the sacred in the world, each other and ourselves.

Dedicated sacred spaces, spaces that take beauty seriously, are in my estimation the best places to bring together the paradoxical aspects of spirituality: material and spiritual, tangible and intangible, temporal and eternal, universal and particular. Their arches, height, columns, symmetry, depth and focal points participate in an objective beauty that is universally appealing. Yet, with their insistence on corporality through painting, statuary and iconography they stubbornly insist that the viewer not get lost in the transcendent, but take into account the bodies and lives and stories of the saints and the central figures of Christianity. Cathedrals and churches are filled with statues of triumphant and ecstatic saints yes, but also broken, beaten, bleeding, breast feeding, crucified, tortured and burnt alive saints. Catholic sacred space points to resurrection and eternity, but they do so through the brutalized body of a Jewish peasant. Sacred spaces point to the transcendent with a finger made of flesh and bone.

In one particularly striking example, on a tour of a 16th century Franciscan convent, there was a life sized statue of the bleeding body of Jesus laid to rest in the tomb. In the wound in his side was a monstrance and tabernacle. A monstrance is a small clear case for a consecrated piece of Eucharist bread, and the tabernacle is where the left over consecrated bread is stored after Mass. The monstrance is used in Eucharistic Adoration, and in processions. For Catholics, once consecrated, these hosts are the actual body of Christ under the appearance of bread. In the gruesome statue at the convent, rather than decorated in abstract design and flourish, as is typical, it was in the side of Christ. While I often find baroque statuary to be distasteful and hokey, even grotesque, this statue perfectly exemplified Catholicism’s insistence on both the transcendent and immanent aspects of God. God is utterly beyond our comprehension, and utterly within our grasp. God does not cause our suffering, he endures it with us.

Another way sacred spaces bring together the paradoxical aspects of religious life by blending objective and subjective dimensions of beauty. I think that one of the reasons so many people are drawn to massive gothic cathedrals is that their presence, size and forms participate in objective beauty, beauty whose affect comes from outside human construction. The perspectives, arches, domes etc. are affecting, they act on the human consciousness and draw one toward the transcendent. On the other hand, the motifs and décor, the styles of the adornment and statuary are often framed within a particular period or style whether Romanesque, Gothic or Baroque which appeals to a more subjective sense of beauty through historic and cultural cues.

There is also a spiritual ecology to Catholic sacred spaces, especially cathedrals. Living in the age of national parks, protected areas and wilderness, it is easy to overlook that Catholic sacred spaces are also stylized homages to the sacramental quality of the world itself. They are monuments to the transcendent, to the eternal, but undeniably celebrate the particular beauty and sacredness of this world. Cathedrals were built as microcosms of the medieval macrocosm, as cosmic-spiritual observatories of sorts. They are oriented along an east west axis, with the altar facing east, the direction of the rising sun, a symbol of Christ. They are often cruciform in shape, which is symbolic of the cross, but also of the human person, or even the personhood of the world. The church is the mystical body of Christ of which we are member, and with the resurrection, that body extends into the entire universe.

The priest, in his vestments, recapitulates all of creation and brings the bounty of creation and work of human hands (our offerings, and bread and wine) to the altar. The Sanctus prayer is a way for human beings, led and symbolized by the priest to join the prayer of the universe and creation, not to speak over it. The priest’s vestments change color with the seasons, and the liturgy is meant not only to reflect the praise of God that is happening all the time in heaven, but to participate in the archetypal cycle of the earthly seasons of birth, life, death and resurrection.

The cathedral itself is designed as an early paradise, a Garden of Eden. The columns are trees whose tops are often adorned with stylized leaves. The ceilings are sometimes adorned with stars, or at least lead the eye to heaven. The moldings are bursting with flowers, vines and leaves. The stained glass, statuary, retablos and paintings are filled with birds, trees, mammals, grottos, light and seasons. It is also very common for the altar retablos column’s to feature sheaves of wheat and spiraling grape vines.

On the outside, many Spanish churches were often literal bird sanctuaries. Walking into a new town, sometimes the easiest way to find the church was to watch where the swallows were flying. Often placed on small rises or hilltops, church bell towers were almost always bustling with bird life. Purple martins and barn swallows were the most abundant, but there were also pigeons, sparrows and sometimes colonies of storks.

I also found that elements of my walks were reinforced within the décor of the cathedrals. For example, the rose windows of the Leon cathedral felt so much more powerful because all along the Camino, the wild roses were in full bloom. And, one cannot help but notice the thousands of acres of vineyards and grain along the Camino, elements which are daily lifted on the altar during the Eucharist. Walking through oceans of grain, and row after row of vineyard took on a special significance when I knew that in the evening I would attend Mass.

In sum, sacred spaces at their best are meeting places for inner and outer landscapes, between transcendent and immanent, between mortality and eternity. For this reason, they are such an important complement of our walks. Sacred space is a focal point and a place to practice of the presence of God. It is a ritual of repeatedly coming to God as we are, and then trying to take a little more of God with us into the world when we leave.

Carmelite Monastery where John of the Cross is Buried.

  1. Seeking God Often Includes Periods of ‘Darkness’

Before I flew back to the states, I took a train to Segovia, just northwest of Madrid to visit the final resting place of Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Carmelite mystic who I had read before the Camino, but who became increasingly important to me as I realized just how much my own experience of the Camino was reflected in his phases of spiritual development. My first official pilgrimage felt very much like what John of the Cross would call a Dark Night of the Soul, a period of purification (purgation) where despite being immersed in spiritual practice, we feel a strong sense of God’s absence and spiritual desolation rather than consolation. The world famous and now canonized Saint Mother Teresa experienced nearly 50 years of this darkness, after a very vivid experience of hearing the voice of Jesus call her to start her work in the slums of Calcutta.

I am not glorifying this sort of experience, or wearing it as a badge. I am not saying that I suffered anything all that dramatic; but, my experience on the Camino de Santiago was surprisingly difficult. I did not connect as easily or readily with my fellow pilgrims as I expected; I felt more pain and discomfort than I thought I would. It was also an expectedly direct encounter with many longstanding insecurities, fear, depression, temptation, feelings of deep unworthiness and religious doubt. I did not often feel an obvious sense of God’s presence, of my own goodness, of the going-to-be-alright-ness of the world, or even of the truthfulness of Christianity.

When the mystics talk about spiritual darkness, or I say that I encountered it on the Camino, we are not talking about a force in opposition to goodness. Darkness is a shade of spiritual experience so to speak; it tries to capture the fact that the spiritual life is not always marked by reward, positive emotions or blessing. The spiritual life is not a vending machine. For some reason when it comes to religion this lesson seems to be out of vogue. We don’t always feel a direct correlation between spiritual growth and current mood. I feel confident that if we insist on correlating Gods presence with good feelings, we are in danger of turning spirituality into a sappy TV commercial.

Everyone knows that if you want to be a better runner, athlete, artist, writer, politician, or just about anything, that you often have to give up certain pleasures in order to grow; that one must push and stretch oneself to make progress. Pilgrimage as a spiritual practice is not just about the positive experiences and the sweetness of feeling God’s presence in places, people and nature (though it certainly is that too), but also learning to work through the absence of these consolations as well. Faith is being able to keep going even if we don’t feel a reason to. In The Divine Comedy, Dante wanted to immediately climb the Holy Mountain to get to God, but before he could, he had to pass through hell and purgatory. His path showed him the spectrum of human suffering and sinfulness and the ways that we turn away from God.

Catholic spirituality intuits, sometimes gruesomely, the idea that suffering is redemptive. The Camino was filled with statuary depicting the suffering the martyrs, with statuary of the Sorrowful Blessed Mother with knives stabbing into her heart, and the brutalized body of Jesus. As I have said, while I find these statues mostly disturbing and sometimes hokey, they made a certain kind of sense as a pilgrim. Archetypal suffering didn’t seem as foreign to me when I limped into a church soaked in sweat.

An important part of pilgrimage as a spiritual practice then is being willing to subject oneself to difficulty and discomfort so that God can effect growth in the soul, even if we are not aware of it. On a pilgrimage we do not accomplishing anything other than opening ourselves to what God is seeking to accomplish through us.

  1. The Spiritual Life is Ultimately about Love

I was mostly annoyed by the obnoxious tagging and graffiti along the Camino, but one day as I walked, for some strange reason I stopped and read one of the hand-written scrawling’s on one of the many Camino signs. It read: “We only accept the love we think we deserve.” The words struck me very powerfully. I have always struggled with self-acceptance. I have lived much of my life believing that I would be loved only for being smart, or nice, or morally worthy. My religious life has been in large measure a hoped for equation between pious works for God-given blessings. Part of my ongoing process of healing these deep wounds will simply be learning to trust long enough to unclench my defenses and feel just how much love has always been and is already around me. Not resolving to work harder, to be better in these bullet pointed areas, accomplishing these goals by this date in order to validate my existence. My family already and always will love me. The people who call me friend, already love me. God already loves me. It is amazing just how difficult it is for me to accept this reality! To use a symbol from the Camino, my heart is so often like a closed shell, I use most of my energy and strength keeping the shell tightly shut, my walls up, and myself safe from hurt, disappointment and rejection.

The spiritual life is not about earning God’s love through works, pilgrimage is not about showing God how dedicated we are, it is about putting ourselves in a position of vulnerability so that love freely flows from outside to inside, from inside to outside. At so many times as I walked along the Camino, the calcified shell around my heart cracked open ever so slightly—walking before a magnificent sunrise or sunset, experiencing the peace of solitude, listening to the birds sing, watching butterflies waft in the breeze, getting a kind smile or kind work from a fellow pilgrim, during the Mass, listening to a Podcast, reading a Psalm that spoke perfectly to my state of mind, standing before a piece of art, or ancient retablo—only to promptly shut again when difficulty arose, someone was unkind, or I felt vulnerable.

One day, after arriving at my Alberque and walking around the small village of Villafranco de Los Montes de Oca, I approached the ancient stone church. It was closed, but I noticed that there were bees flying in and out of a small hole above the door of the church. There was a beehive in the church, and I smiled, remembering a familiar poem I had once read, and would later see posted on the Camino. It was a verse from Antonio Machado’s poem, ‘Last night as I was Sleeping’:

“Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.”

The church at its best is a sanctuary for the slow and messy work of becoming holy. The spiritual life at its best, is the ongoing acceptance that this work is already underway. There is a delightful legend about a local saint who lived not far from where this church was located. Saint John of Ortega (1080-1163), after surviving a shipwreck, devoted the rest of his life to improving the Camino de Santiago through the notoriously dangerous Oca Mountains. Saint John established a monastery and a hospital for pilgrims, and was nicknamed ‘Ortega’ which means nettles, because he lived as a hermit in the mountain forests. Some years after his death and burial, his tomb was opened and to the amazement of the crowds, a pleasant aroma wafted out along with a swarm of white bees. This was taken as a sign of his blessedness, and he became a patron saint of children, hospice care and fertility.

In William Faulkner’s story about a man hunting an elusive and legendary bear it is not until the hunter puts down his gun that the bear reveals herself to him in the woods. We often think that we are seeking God, but really it is God who is seeking us. Much of my spiritual practice, I realize, has been about trying to control God, on my terms, when I am ready, when I feel spiritual, when I want something. The Camino has taught me that this is an idol. God cannot be caged, Holiness is messy. All of our liturgy, ritual and practice is but an exercise in learning to be open to God, not a spiritual technology for manipulating or binding God into our timelines or will. If I only accept the love I think I deserve I muzzle the effusive grace of a wild God.

Of course, I certainly did leave the Camino with a to-do list, with priorities, with ideas, with things I want to accomplish, with resolutions; but I also left with the reassurance that the essence of the spiritual life is to live in love, and love can only be felt and given in the measure that it is first accepted.

  1. The Ending is the Beginning

There is a common phrase on the Camino de Santiago: The end is the beginning. Ringing of paradox, this cliché has come to resonate with me as I reflect on my experience. In Christianity, the end of life is the beginning of eternity. The moral of the story is the story itself. The destination and journey are part of the same sacred whole. The Cathedral of Santiago is sacred, but so are the many paths that lead there. Now more than ever, reflecting back on my original motivations to be a pilgrim, I realize that I am only at the beginning of the spiritual life. Pilgrimage was far more difficult than I expected, I went hoping to find something new, but what I discovered is that pilgrimage is not about getting something, but opening ourselves to the wealth that is already within us at each blessed moment whether filled with joy, sadness, pain or anxiety.

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Dispatches from the Camino: Settling into the Journey

After a plane, two buses and a high speed train, I arrived in Pamplona, the city I had decided to start my pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, French Way. I flew into Barcelona from LAX and spent a few days there. My experience of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Cathedral was profoundly affecting and I hope to return there again someday.

From Barcelona I headed northwest to Zaragoza, where there is a church devoted to Our Lady of the Pillar, a fascinating bit of Saint James hagiography where Our Lady appeared to James atop a pillar to encourage him in his evangelization.

While in Spain I began to brush up on my Spanish, and learn the basic responses and prayers of the Roman Mass. Although, while I was in Barcelona, one of the Masses was said in Catalan, which had me completely lost, despite its close relation to Spanish (Castellano).

On June 1, I took my first steps out of the Municipal Albergue and onto the stream of ancient prayer that is Camino de Santiago. Some pilgrims had begun in San Jean Pied de Port, others as far as Germany, Lourdes, and Belgium. I would begin in Pamplona, and walk approximately 678 kilometers (422 miles) to Santiago de Compostela, the reputed resting place of the bones of the apostle to Jesus. Certainly I could have started in San Jean, but I wanted to skip the section where Emilio Estevez dies in the film The Way.

The first couple of days were good, as I got the hang of the rhythm of walking, thinking, finding places to eat, and locating my next albergue. The weather was very mild, and the typically dry and brown landscape was lush green, and bursting with wildflowers. Despite the near total cultivation of the landscape, hilltops and hedgerows were wild with familiar and unfamiliar plants, wild roses, rosemary, red poppies, stinging nettle, blackberry, elderberry, scotch broom, wild oats and grasses, fennel, and wild mustard. In addition to the crunch of my feet on dirt, paved and gravel paths, and the occasional greeting from a passing pilgrim, the birds were my constant auditory companions; swallows, sparrows, hawks and so many more that I wish I knew. I walked through remote rural areas, small villages and large industrial cities. Trying to stay present to what each offered. 

After a few days however, I was confronted with some all too familiar demons. My feet began to hurt, I worried that I walked too slow. I began to doubt my ability to finish. After a couple of awkward conversations with fellow pilgrims, I began to worry I was unliked, even unlikable. I also began to chafe with self-righteousness at the mostly secular pilgrims who just did not appreciate the sacredness of the path. I mean, it was not like we were walking to the United Nation´s Shrine to Generic Self-Discovery and Acceptance. This was a Christian pilgrim path to a Christian sacred site!

I heard people relate familiar tropes and prop up familiar straw men about why religion just wasn’t for them, why they were spiritual but not religious, why the churches were beautiful, but they didn’t need a church to connect with God. I began to feel like an outsider among outsiders. The physical pain and a sense of unwanted loneliness began to settle in and I considered calling the whole thing off. 

Sixteenth century Spanish mystic and poet John of the Cross talks about the Dark Night of the Senses. A period were God purifies us of our sin and attachments in preparation for the Dark Night of the Soul. The first two weeks of my Camino have felt very much like a kind of purgatory, a time of purification and frankly just some good old fashioned toughening up. I expected to relish the solitude and feel spiritual highs in the churches and hilltops. Mostly I felt a lot of self-pity and resentment and then guilt for feeling that way!

But even in the midst of all this, grace has a way of breaking through, especially in such a beautiful place, a place saturated with prayer, dreams and self-examination. There are many examples I could give, one more recent that is just too raw to share. But on another occasion, at the top of a difficult hilltop, after several hours of soft rain, the clouds opened and the sun shone on an ocean of barley and wheat. The Meseta, the bread basket of Spain, is flat and monotonous, but its long views invoke a sense of eternity and lift the eyes toward the distant horizon. As I stood resting and taking in the view, a small white butterfly flew past me and rested on a red poppy. Then, I noticed another, and another. The fields were alive with white butterflies, silently wafting among the billions of heads of grain. It was a moment, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, that was charged with the granduer of God. 

In the last five days or so, I have been lifted up by good people, beauty, and unexpected moments of effusive grace. I don’t say this to balance out my dark night, I didn’t earn it. But bit by bit, step by step, my heart has softened as my feet have toughened. Now that I am over half way to Santiago from Pamplona, taking a rest day in Leon, I admit I am eager to finish, but I feel a deepening in my heart that I thought I was sure to miss out on. My feet still hurt, but I am taking more time for rest and stretching and being more patient with myself. Truly the Camino provides. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement, I feel very privileged to be walking this path, and you are all here with me.

What’s in a Name? Ecological Literacy as Spiritual Practice

IMG_8754Back in 2011, toward the end of my master of forestry program, I began to wonder whether my newly-found knowledge of the forest was getting in the way of experiencing it. Memorizing Latin names for family, genus and species; describing the intricate details of the physiology of tree growth; categorizing the phases of forest succession; or, learning to identify diseases and invasive species. Together, these skills were allowing me to see the forest through fresh eyes. But what I found myself lacking, was those simple encounters with the raw and transformative beauty of trees and forests that go beyond our ability to name, categorize and catalogue.

What I am exploring in this paper is the notion that a balance between naming and experiencing are complementary aspects of any spiritual ecology. Understanding, identifying and naming are powerful ways to experience the world, its utility to us and its sacramental depths. Words are symbols used to point to objects, persons, relationships and ideas. The Traditional Ecological Knowledges of any culture develops to organize life around necessary categories: food, medicine, season, friend, foe, real, hidden, etc. Our languages develop in relation to the web of life around us, to describe the properties and uses of the world. In a time of mass disconnection from ecological processes, re-learning these words, uses and processes are a powerful cultural transformation strategy.

The phrase Ecological Literacy was coined by sustainability educators David Orr and Fritjof Capra and can be paraphrased as a basic understanding of the ecological cycles and functions of the earth. Developing a sense of place, and a basic understanding of the processes, elements and organisms in our bioregions is a crucial component of ecological sustainability. In addition, as scholar Douglas Christie has written, there is a deeply rewarding complementarity between spirituality and ecological literacy. He writes:

[S]piritual thought and practice is immeasurably enriched through being situated within the natural world, and…ecological understanding is given added depth and meaning by extending the ecological field to include traditions of spiritual thought and practice.[1]

Language forms a crucial element of Christian theological spirituality. God is said to have spoken the world into being, and thus, in turn, the world speaks of God’s being. In the Gospel of John, the author affirms Jesus not just as a wise teacher, but as the Logos, or Word of God made flesh.

Naming is also an element of Biblical theology. In the Book of Genesis, Adam is charged by God to name the animals. And the very name of God is sacred to the Jewish writers.

These logo-centric analogies have often led theologians to see the world itself as a text referred to as the Book of Creation. Natural Theology proceeds from the assumption that if we are able to learn to read this Book, we will better come to know its Author. Saint Augustine (354-430) writes:

Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a greater book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: ‘God made me!’[2]

Creation speaks of God through its existence, beauty and diversity. This analogy continued into the enlightenment. In a letter, Galileo (1564-1642) wrote, “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”[3]

During the enlightenment and reformation, religion and science took divergent institutional paths, which included their respective approaches to the uses of language to understand the world. In the academy today we have two schools of knowledge rooted in this political dispute between Western epistemological categories. Scientific knowledge has focused on the analytical, observable and measurable. Religious and poetic knowledge is assumed to express the realm of the subjective, the speculative, the qualitative and the mystical. For early atheist David Hume, for example, the poet expresses nothing but fabrication. He wrote, “Poets themselves, though liars by profession, always endeavor to give an air of truth to their fictions.” For Hume and the more contemporary atheist writer Richard Dawkins religion is simply outdated and bad science.[4] On the other side, for the Romantic poet Jon Keats (1795-1821), dissecting the beauty of a rainbow, as Isaac Newton’s laws of optics did, risks losing the mystery, beauty and enchantment of the world to a “cold philosophy.”

Thus the experience of a forest has often required one to take sides, the pragmatic and the economic on the one side, and the poetic and the intrinsic on the other. This is the epistemological divide we have inherited, and which we seek to overcome. In his book The Reenchantment of Nature, Alistair McGrath, a scientist and Anglican priest, insists that science is not the only valid source of knowledge about the world. For McGrath there is a balance to be struck between the two ways of knowing that are complementary:

Our appreciation of a rainbow is enhanced through an understanding of the Newtonian laws of optics. This does not detract or distract from the immediate spine-tingling sense of delight at a rainbow, or from the potential of a rainbow to point beyond itself to a realm for which we can only long in our present situation, but which we believe we shall one day enter.[5]

For McGrath, what we call the cataphatic (according to words) and the apophatic (without, or beyond words) need each other. Words and beyond words are complementary. God in the liturgy and God in silence feed each other.

This lesson is precisely what I have learned in my experiences as an amateur naturalist and more recently as a researcher working with Catholic monks. For my dissertation research, I interviewed 50 monks from four Roman Catholic monastic communities located in the American West from Benedictine and Trappist lineages. Most monks have a deep sense of place that emerges from their vow of Stability, and a rich symbolic literacy of the landscape rooted in tradition and scripture. Yet, generally, they were not interested in knowing the scientific or common names of more than a dozen common plant and animal species. They seemed to value the landscape as a spiritual resource, one that pointed sacramentally to God and as a consequence, names were of little importance. Rather, it was color, size, niche, and the qualities of an organism that interested them most.

For example, during a walk with a monk of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California; after he bent down to look at a small flower he said that it reminded him of the Saint Therese of Lisieux. I asked what it was. He stated unequivocally, that he didn’t know names, he just enjoyed noticing each particular thing. Saint Therese had compared herself to a little flower, and thus little flowers pointed to the teachings of this important saint, and to God’s tender care for all creatures, even the smallest of plants.

Similarly, a monk at Christ in the Desert Abbey in Abiquiu, New Mexico told me that he cultivated an intimate attention to the particularities of the land and would counsel younger monks to really look at the land when they were out walking. He would sit on a bench and contemplate small creatures, birds and plants for hours, but again, was uninterested in their common or scientific names.

Somewhat frustrated by this finding, I asked another monk at Christ in the Desert why the monks were not interested in the names of plants and animals. He said:

The important [thing] I guess for the monk, you might ask, what’s more important, to know and spend time with a flower and to know its origin which is God or to know what we’ve named it?

The assumption of course was that one activity detracts or takes time away from the other, in the classic epistemological divide between sciences and the humanities. Being a good humored man, he then began to make up the names of plants and wildflowers as we walked along: “That’s the Fred Oak” he said; or, “The Lusitania Trumpet.” The important thing was to be present to it in all its mystery, changes and seasons; the world speaks of God, and to move through the landscape is to be reminded of God through the symbolic and spiritual lessons that the landscape provides. That was the key to the monastic sense of place that I encountered.

And yet, whether scientific or theological, framing the world only through our ideas of it can be just as instrumental or exploitative as a logger or miner might be. Sacramental theology can turn the land into yet another kind of resource for human use, even if that use is spiritual. Theologian of place Belden Lane raised this criticism best when he wrote:

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.[6]

For all of our scientific and theological complexity and precision, naming can often look past the world to our own ideas and uses of and for it. Wallace Stevens gets it right when he wrote that “we live in the description of the place and not the place itself.”[7]

It would seem then that while scientists can become obsessed with naming, analyzing and categorizing; western spirituality can become equally enamored with symbol and metaphor. But, for all this naming, literacy and ‘reading’ of the landscape, it is also essential go beyond words and concepts. This apophatic approach, beyond words, can lead to a deeper encounter that upholds the intrinsic rather than instrumental value of creation and our mysterious union with it through God.

Walking with another monk along the Chama River in New Mexico, without any kind of prompt on my part, he said:

The truth is in the thing itself and not in thinking about it…it’s letting go of that, and being here in the presence…there has to be a point where we’re just in silence before God, and in silence before the beauty that he’s created without trying to put things on it. That’s what contemplative life is supposed to be about, learning to be in silence before mystery and nothing further.

Certainly many of the monks gleaned spiritual lesson and theological symbol from the landscape, but they were also cultivating the ability to pay attention, to sink into God through silence, and with the things themselves. [Strange Stranger]

Douglas Christie suggests that this apophatic spirituality is an openness to unknowing: “There is a further, more encompassing, more mysterious knowledge that one comes to only through unknowing.”[8]He continues, “The Word (Logos) speaks through the world and it is necessary to learn this language. But there is also the rich ground of silence in which the contemplative listens, the physical silence of solitude…or stillness in which the Word can be apprehended and absorbed.”[9] Words are punctuated by silence, and the theology of the Word points to the silence of God that underlies reality.

Lastly, English nature writer Robert Macfarlane is emphatic about recovering a vocabulary of the landscape. Words matter. In our urban and suburban existences, we have left the working land behind, and with it an entire vocabulary of the richness of the textures, contours, events, life phases and diurnal and seasons cycles. Macfarlane argues passionately for a kind of place-literacy, a literacy that is being lost as we lose our connection and relationship to the land. For example the peat-dictionary of the Hebrides in Scotland lists hundreds of Gaelic words for the various aspects of the Moorlands. He laments that the Oxford Junior Dictionary had recently deleted words such as: “Acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow”; and had included words such as “block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voice-mail.” For Macfarlane, words are not just ways of describing the world as it is, but rites of passage that embody and “enchant our relations with nature and place.” And yet despite his insistence on reclaiming a cataphatic ecological literacy, he also writes,

Of course there are experiences of landscape that will always resist articulation, and of which words offer only a remote echo—or to which silence is by far the best response. Nature does not name itself. Granite does not self-identify as igneous. Light has no grammar. Language is always late for its subject. Sometimes on the top of a mountain I just say, ‘Wow.’”[10]

Spending time in the presence of other creatures, learning their names and habits and life histories, is not necessarily getting any closer to understanding their essence, but it does put us in practice of acknowledging and understanding the world on its own terms, which then carries us into its ultimate mystery. This has at least been my humble experience of taking the time to learn the names and habits of a particular tree, moss, bird or lichen. Walking into the woods without a particular thing in mind, our sense filter out the overabundance of stimuli.

And yet, it is apophatic encounters, beyond words, that remain the ground from which awe and wonder emerge, whether experienced by the scientist or the theologian. Additionally, an apophatic stance, might be understood as one of remaining open to new ways that the world might speak through us; leaving open the very real possibility that our paradigms, metaphors and motifs are not serving anyone but ourselves. Even with all our knowledge, humility would acknowledge that there will always be something deeper calling us into new ideas, new relationships and new meanings. That to be alive means both exploring the depths of the human heart, and the unfathomable depth of mystery at the heart of the world.

[1] Christie, Douglas (2012). The Blue Sapphire of the Mind (New York: Oxford University Press), 5.

[2] Saint Augustine (1998) The City of God Against the Pagans (New York: Cambridge University Press), 695.

[3] Galileo Galilei, Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615, Verses 272-279 cited IN Harrison, Peter (2001). The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science. (New York: Cambridge University Press), 197.

[4] McGrath, Alasdair (2002). The Reenchantment of Nature: The Denial of Religion and the Ecological Crisis. (New York: Image), 171.

[5] McGrath, Alasdair, Reenchantment of Nature, 25.

[6] Lane, Belden, Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 17.

[7] Wallace Stevens, IN Lane, Belden, Solace of Fierce Landscapes…

[8] Christie, Douglas, Blue Sapphire of the Mind, 204.

[9] Christie, Douglas, Blue Sapphire of the Mind, 191.

[10] Macfarlane, Robert (2015). Landmarks. (New York: Penguin Publishers).

The Crown of Thorns

You cannot walk far in Vancouver without seeing the remnants of the Pre-European forest. Silent tombstones, towering sentinels. Some take on the guise of faces from the notches cut in the bark to insert planks so that the faller could get above the swell of the base. Often, these unassuming stumps host their ecologies. Moss, lichen, liverworts, ferns. Sometimes their crowns grow what looks like a head of hair of salal or huckleberry. Walking near the Seymour River after church yesterday, during the season of Easter. This particular stump reminded me of the crown of thorns, one of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary prayer. And yet, despite the horrors of Good Friday, Easter Sunday brings new life. After a long winter, the crown of thorns is blossoming.

The Annunciation of Spring

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

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

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

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

Desert Spirituality in the Rainforest: A Lenten Retreat

 

DSC_0722

Lookout at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah

Introduction

 

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

The Call to the Desert

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

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

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

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

The Book of Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do You not give fecundity to the root hidden underground, and can You not, if You so will, make this darkness in which You are pleased to keep me, fruitful? Live then little root of my heart, in the deep invisible heart of God; and by its power send forth branches, leaves, flowers and fruits, which, although invisible to yourself, are a pure joy and nourishment to others.”

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

The Garden in the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Prayer

A Prayer for our Earth

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

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We thank you for being with us each day.

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

Pope Francis, Laudato Si (2015)

Resources on Desert Spirituality

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

A Tale of Two Ecosystems

As the Age of the Anthropocene ripens, debates over how to respond are raging. Behind the disparate strategies are two foundational stories about the nature of the natural world. On the one hand is the very old idea that the world is a super-organism. Mutualism, cooperation, and interconnection are the dominant adjectives to describe this world. That the parts are integral to an intricate whole. This has manifest in ideas like the World-Soul, the Ecosystem, and more recently Gaia Theology.

On the other hand, is the notion that the world is an accidental amalgam of organisms. That the parts only form tentative coalitions. Competition reigns and each organism is fighting for their life. It is the law of eat or be eaten, only the strong survive.

I recently came across two videos on Youtube that perfectly captured the soaring hopes of these two camps for the future of the planet. Each is backgrounded by soaring music and narrated by pithy couplets of ‘facts’ about the world.

The first describes the myth of the wolves in Yellowstone, and how reintroducing apex predators almost magically restores the balance and integrity of the whole. The point, of course, is that intact ecosystems, free of human intervention will take care of themselves and that human beings need to step back and let nature be wild. The solution is not geoengineering, but more wilderness, more restoration, more intact ecosystems.

The second is about Ascension Island, where when it was encountered by European colonialists, had very few native species, but now, entirely through human introduction, has a thriving ‘novel ecosystem.’ The point, of course, is that the world and its life are dynamic, adaptable and resilient and that human beings can play a role in restoring ecosystem services to the planet if we would just put our minds to it. The solution then is not more protected areas, but more human intervention, tinkering and experimentation.

See for yourself, what do you think?

The Decadense of Moss

I was on retreat this weekend, so I brought a plant field guide with me. I decided to spend some time in the Bryophyte section. I knew the Pacific Northwest was rich in mosses and liverworts, but I had no idea just how rich it really is. There were so many variations. I couldn’t keep them all straight. So I just ended up staring in awe. Here are a few shots.

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The Shape of Water as Anthropocene Fairytale

[SPOILERS]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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