Desert Spirituality in the Rainforest: A Lenten Retreat

 

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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.

A Season for Kenosis

 

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A Night for All Souls, Mountainview Cemetery

Since becoming Catholic, my love for the real meaning of Christmas has only grown. This year, I decided to do something extra in preparation for the Season of Advent, the season of ‘Holy Waiting’ in anticipation of the Incarnation.

 

Every year, Mountain View Cemetery holds A Night for All Souls, a public event and art installation that corresponds to the Christian Holy-day of All Saints and Souls Days, and the ancient Pagan Holy-day of Samhain (pronounced Saw-win). For the past couple years, I have really enjoyed this time of year. With the land turning from summer to winter and having lost several family members and friends, it was a good time to reflect on transitions; on life and death.

I wanted to do something to connect this time of year to my anticipation of Advent. I have heard of celebrating the Celtic Advent, which begins around mid-November. But it occurred to me that as we prepare to receive the Incarnation into the world, meditating on transition, on death, on our blessed dead was the perfect time to deepen our understanding of the mysterious idea of Kenosis.

Kenosis is Greek and literally means self-emptying. Paul uses this curious phrase in Philippians chapter 2, where he says:

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross! (NIV) 

God emptied himself of divinity to take on humanity, so that we could, in turn, enter into the divine presence.

This idea has cosmological implications. One of the monks that I interviewed for my PhD had this to say:

God reached into the far end of the universe, like grabbing the back end of a balloon and pulled it back the other direction. He’s made himself present by becoming part of the created order precisely so he can pull the entire created order back up into himself. Christ is the head of everything, and everything is present in him. Everything finds its expression before God in Christ. So when I’m encountering the beauty of a flower…any part of creation…I’m encountering some part of Christ, some radiance of Christ.

Christ’s full divinity and full humanity mean that the cosmos is not a static creation, but an ongoing event that is moving toward God. Teachers like Teilhard de Chardin and his contemporary interpreter Ilia Delio, see this as corroborating scientific discoveries of the 20th and 21st centuries that see the universe, not as a static space, but an unfolding drama, wherein human beings play an integral role with the rest of creation.

Kenosis also takes on an ethical dimension in Christianity. Not only did God empty himself of Godself to become human, but the way back to God on the Christian path is to mimic this self-emptying through the cultivation of agape, or love.

In Simone Weil’s (1909-1943) Gravity and Grace she writes:

It is God who in love withdraws from us so that we can love him. For if we were exposed to the direct radiance of his love, without the protection of space, of time and of matter, we should be evaporated like water in the sun; there would not be enough ‘I’ in us to make it possible to surrender the ‘I’ for love’s sake. Necessity is the screen set between God and us so that we can be. It is for us to pierce through the screen so that we can cease to be.

To cease to be often comes across as a kind of Eastern annihilationism. However, in Christianity, to empty ourselves is really to strip down the layers of prejudice, pretence, greed, selfishness and hate that plague us as human beings and discover what Thomas Merton calls the ‘True Self’ which lies at the core of our being. Weil goes on to write:

May God grant me to become nothing. In so far as I become nothing, God loves himself through me.

To empty the self is to dig down to the source of the living waters that bubble up at the core of our being, where God is continually present to us and in fact creating us at each moment. If you are like me, there is still a long way to get there. But no amount of work on my part will get me all the way there. So long as I am looking, waiting, watching for God, She tends to bubble up and surface in unexpected and grace-filled ways.

This is why Kenosis is such an important Christian practice, and perhaps why this is a good season to engage it more deeply. As we enter the season of Holy Longing (Eros), we await the refreshing fulfilment of the Incarnation. Once we have emptied ourselves of the clutter of self-regard and sin, we are more prepared to be filled with the pure love of Christ (Agape). This dance between Eros and Agape is a productive tension in Christianity, and it seems like the perfect time of the liturgical calendar to engage it most playfully. Longing and fulfilment, emptiness and fullness, eros and agape tug at each other. Christianity is a religion that seeks to find itself by giving up the self, a religion that worships one God in three persons. Or, as Mother Clare Morgan writes, “Christianity is about paradox. Our greatest wealth is our poverty. Our greatest strength is our vulnerability. Our greatest armor is the wound in our side.”

Liturgy as Ecology

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Saint James Anglican Church

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

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

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

What’s in a Name? Decolonizing Personal Spiritual Ecologies

Standing on the creaky porch of Park Butte fire lookout, it felt like I was face to face with the southern slope of Mount Baker. Thirty miles east of Bellingham, Washington, on this 4th of July, the trail had been practically empty. I stayed the night in the lookout, and watched the colorful flicker of fireworks on the coast below mirror the twinkle of the stars above. As I began my hike down the next morning, I wanted somehow to reverence the commanding presence of the mountain in whose close proximity I had slept. I asked myself a simple question: Does it matter if I think of the mountain by its Settler name? Or, should I refer to it by its Lummi name: Kulshan?

I didn’t really know anything Mr. Baker, except that he was English; or much about the word Kulshan, except that it was one of the hip new breweries in town. So, I mustered a hasty sign of the cross, brought my hands close to my heart, and said ‘thank you.’

After my trip, I began to do a little research. Mount Baker is a 10,700 foot, relatively young at 100,000 years, active strato-volcano. Which means it is made up by layers of igneous rock, lava and pumice. It is glaciated, and snow-covered year round and has one of the highest snowfalls in the world.

Coast Salish peoples have dwelt in the area for at least 14,000 years. The Lummi word for the peak is as I already knew Kulshan, but it doesn’t mean White Sentinel, or The Shining One as I had heard. The word means something closer to ‘puncture wound.’ For the nearby Nooksack people, Kulshan actually refers to the area around the peak, used for hunting and gathering. Kweq’ Smánit, which simply means ‘white mountain’, is the name for the summit.

There are at least two stories associated with Kulshan. A 1919 ethnography recorded a retelling of the story of the Thunderbird, a supernatural being who dwells in the tops of mountains. A Lummi man related

“Thunder is caused by a great bird…the thunderbird is many hundreds of times larger than a fish hawk. It is so large that it can carry a large whale in its talons from the ocean to its nest….This huge bird has its home yonder on Mt. Baker, where you see the clouds piling up now. Whenever this bird comes from its nest and flies about the mountain top it thunders and lightnings, and even when it is disturbed in its nest it makes the thunder noise by its moving about even there…. The lightning is caused by the quick opening and shutting of its powerfully bright, snappy eyes and the thunder noise by the rapid flapping of its monstrous wings” (Reagan, 1919, 435).

The Thunderbird is a being in most if not all Coast Salish cosmologies, and it is often both a respected and feared presence in the land that demands respect and sometimes placation through the burning of ceremonial fires. For the Squamish peoples, the rich deposits of obsidian are places where lighting that shoots from thunderbirds eyes hit the earth.

The ethnographer Charles Buchanan in 1916, recorded another story of a man named Kulshan who had two wives; one beautiful, and one kind. Kulshan loved the kinder wife more, and the beautiful wife grew jealous and decided to leave him, hoping he would realize what he lost and come after her. As she walked south, she turned back many times to see if Kulshan was looking, and as she got farther away she had to stretch higher and higher to see Kulshan. Eventually she made camp on a high outcropping and stared back at Kulshan, waiting for him to come. Eventually she turned into the peak we today call Mount Rainier, and he into Mount Kulshan.

During the age of conquest, the mountain was sketched by Gonzalo Lopez de Haro on a Spanish voyage in 1790. He named it ‘La Gran Montaña de Carmelo,’ in reference to both Mount Carmel, but also the Carmelite Order, home of Saint John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila. In 1792, it donned the now familiar name of Englishman Joseph Baker, who was Captain George Vancouver’s Lieutenant.

Over the years, Anglo mountain climbers, ethnographers and history buffs have been in favor of renaming the peak Kulshan. Proof of this are the dozens of local businesses, mountaineering clubs, or botany societies who have taken it on as a namesake. But in doing so are we paying deference to an authentic place-name tradition? Or feeding our own ideas about indigeneity? Perhaps both.

Personal Spiritual Ecology

Acknowledging indigenous place-names certainly look toward a reconciliatory stance, provided it is accompanied by respect for sacred sites, more resource management autonomy, and Treaty and Title rights if possible. However, phenomenologically, a place-name does not automatically give us admittance to the world the name upholds. For example, Coast Salish place-names are fairly simple descriptives: ‘white mountain’, ‘place for herring fish’, etc. It is rather, the activities of dwelling that accumulate around those place-names that give rise to an experience of the world. This is beautifully illustrated of course by Keith Basso’s Wisdom Sits in Places but unlike Basso’s semiotic approach, Tim Ingold’s insights show us that landscape is not just a cultural layer we project onto the physical world, but the world itself. While I might be able to understand or recall certain Coast Salish place-names or stories, I must admit that I do not dwell in that world, and an attempt to do so for my own academic or spiritual curiosity carries with it the weight and suspicion of the colonialism of the last 200 years. In addition, in retelling these stories, there is the danger not only of losing details in translation, but importing my own world into the telling. And yet, are there any ontologies, especially today, that are not plural? Hybrid?

Learning about the history of the mountain, I confess that Mount Carmel resonated most with me. I am of course aware that to stick with ‘Carmel’, is to return to where we started, to run the risk of perpetuating imperial Christianity; but it is also to connect the place to the rich contemplative spiritual tradition of which I am a practitioner. John of the Cross’s Ascent of Mount Carmel, features the mountain as a symbol for our longing for union with God.

Lastly, regardless of one’s spiritual orientation, the land can speak to us in ways that we cannot always predict. I recall sitting in a discussion group at a Salish Sea conference. I made some point about place names. A Nooksack woman responded patiently that it was not we who named places, but the places themselves that gave people their names as gifts when they are ready. Translated into contemplative spirituality, this is the practice of attention, or, Prosoche (pro-soh-KHAY) in Greek. Being present a person, place, or organism, we listen to what they might say about the world, about ourselves, or about God. Perhaps it is with this practice that new names and thus, new worlds might arise.

This paper was presented at the recent Mountains and Sacred Landscapes Conference at the New School for Social Research in New York City. 

References

The Gardener

Slide1
In today’s Gospel reading from John 20:12-15 we read:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

References

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