Coming soon to Holyscapes!


Since walking the Camino de Santiago, I have been toying with the idea of expanding Holyscapes into something more. I have shuffled around a few things on the website, and updated my BIO and Project description. I will now direct all blog post traffic to the Patheos page as well. But most importantly I am working on launching a Patreon Page so that I can start raising money for Interactive Online Holyscapes Workshops! Stay tuned!

A Blessing for 2018

IMG_8388.JPGIn this New Year, may we take the time to both be and become. May we drink of the rich beauty of this life with all the excitement of a fresh sapling. First, acknowledging the Author of all life, that loved us into being. And then, by doing something, even a small something, each day to care for the earth, the poor, the vulnerable and the weak and to stand for justice. May each day be a cup that overflows with goodness, charity and kindness. May we waste less time while remembering to stop and appreciate each moment. There is a difference between time wasted and time that is spent in stillness and quiet. May we acknowledge and learn more of the names and habits of our brothers and sisters in creation: birds, plants, trees and stars. May we pray sincerely every day and not lose heart when we are too tired or feel rushed, letting our praise and petitions eventually melt in the quiet solitude of God’s love. May we read many good books. If we can squeeze it in, may we also work on learning a new language, and so enter into a new world. May we eat fresh food and marvel anew that the bodies of other beings become our own, and to always be humble before this troubling and beautiful mystery. May we thank those who make our clothes and grow our food, and in some small way participate in manual work with them, thus touching the sacred earth with our fingers, and taking some small part in growing the bounty that appears so miraculously at our tables. May we walk and walk and walk and feel our sacred body-souls moving through the world and relish the atmosphere that comes in to us as we dwell in her. May we do all this and more, not as items on a list of resolutions, not as accomplishments for our ego, but as an irresistible way of being in and of this world and becoming the next world, together.

Non-Yogis Like Me Should Not Practice Yoga. There I Said It.

In a popular online Yoga for Complete Beginners video, the instructor begins by inviting participants into a Sanskrit-named pose. We, the viewers, are going to relax, to ‘watch’ the breath, ‘create space’ in the body, and ‘connect’ with ourselves. We are encouraged to remember that there are no right or wrong poses. The movements are about “self-expression” and “awareness” of the body. When I finished my awkward attempts at the poses and lay on my back listening to the soft exit music of the video, I admit, I felt good. But I am soon distracted with self-criticisms. A lifelong curmudgeon and cynic about all things trendy, I am skeptical about the surge in popularity of yoga in North America. But if yoga feels good, and contributes to a general sense of wellbeing and fitness, then what’s the big deal? Why write a post like this?

Well, in this post I will articulate some generally unpopular opinions that will leave most yoga aficionados annoyed. But this post is really a way for me to figure out my own relationship to yoga, helpful to others or not. Let me start by saying that I have nothing against people who dive fully into their spiritual or religious practices, and, I have no problem with authentic conversions. Religions should earn their adherents, and if they are not filling us spiritually we should look elsewhere. What I am concerned with is a twofold problem with the adoption of Eastern spiritual practices in the West: appropriation for profit, and, a buffet spirituality mentality that only serves to reinforce the primary Western religion of consumerism and self-centered ego worship. Offended yet?

Yoga came to the West in the 19th century, but since the 1990s has taken the Western world by storm. A 2016 survey suggests that over 36 million Americans practice some form of yoga, and the United Nations has even declared an International Day of Yoga. There is a growing yoga industry in North America, especially the Pacific Northwest, and practicing yoga classes are promoted as promising immediate physical and emotional benefits to practitioners. Characteristically, we even have North American-adapted versions of yoga that serve specific demographics: Acro, Power, Flow, Hot, Bikram, Yin, Restorative, Gentle, etc. each with a different emphasis, benefit or purpose. As journalist Hanna Rosin points out in her Atlantic article, ‘Striking a Pose’,“Where older religions promised heaven, the church of yoga promises quicker, more practical, earthly gratification, in the form of better heart rates and well-toned arms.”

In Roots of Yoga James Mallinson and Mark Singleton describe the deep historical and ecumenical roots of yoga as a spiritual path. Yoga has a diverse cast of practitioners from the beginning. It can be broadly defined as a psycho-physical technique that was designed to facilitate the achievement of overall well being and in the case of most serious yogis throughout history, spiritual enlightenment. The Vedas, the oldest religious texts in Hinduism, and arguably the world, make mention of visionary meditation, posture, mantra repetition, and breathe control as part of their central practice of venerating and petitioning various Deities.

Key passages from the Upanishads and the Mahabharata, also Hindu scriptures, mention yoga, but there are also sources going back to ancient Tantric, Buddhist and even Jain traditions. This is because in around 500 BCE, Buddhists, Jains, and Ajivikas, began to split off from the Brahmanic sects to form their own ascetical cohorts and lineages motivated by finding an end to suffering and the cycle of birth and death (Samsara). The goal was liberation (moksha, nirvana), which included the annihilation of the individual ego, not its enhancement, into the Divine Source.

According to Mallinson and Singleton, yoga was initially practiced through meditation techniques. The earliest definition of Yoga comes from the Katha Upanishad, wherein the senses are held still, like a chariot driver controlling his horses. However, these Yogins also developed a suit of austerities to win favors from the gods, or to intensify their meditation practice and bring the body into alignment with the soul. Patanjali’s Yogasutras (2CE) is the most prominent text in the history of contemporary Yoga, wherein the author lays out metaphysical and practice concerns with yoga as a path to enlightenment. However, two centuries before this text, the Yogacara school of Buddhism was also teaching a form of Yoga as well, suggesting that yoga does not have a single lineage or origin, though it did emerge from the Indian constellation of spiritual and religious practices that have today solidified into various religious traditions.

In around 1,000 CE what is now called Hatha Yoga developed out of several lineages in India, which were designed to be more accessible to householders, rather than purely for ascetics, hermits or monks. Yoga soon became a practice that anyone could engage in regardless of caste, class or metaphysical persuasion. Hatha drew broadly from Patanjali and Tantra traditions, but began to focus on a more intensive use of postures called Asanas, to lead the body and mind into greater unity. Proper diet, regulated breathing, and a focus on practice apart from caste and metaphysical school, made Hatha a diverse and widely adaptable lineage. Especially within the Hatha lineage, yoga had no centralized Vatican-like interpreter or missionary order, and it diffused through various Hindu-Buddhist lineages as one of many techniques which led one to enlightenment.

On his tour of Europe and North America, particularly his speech at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions, Swami Vivekananda introduced yoga and Hinduism to the West. Hindu philosophy took root with Transcendentalist nature spirituality of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and the Theosophical mysticism of Helena Blavatsky. During the 1960s, like other eastern traditions, it became a foil to the establishment religions, especially Christianity, with its rigid dogmas and cerebral worship. Yoga became another badge of hippie counter-culture along with LSD, Transcendental Meditation and flower power. And of course, some were absolutely authentically drawn to yoga’s ecumenical appeal, its emphasis on practice, and its myriad benefits for wellbeing.

Today Yoga is big business with millions of Americans and Canadians practicing it at least once or twice a month. In Vancouver, there are just about as many yoga studios as sushi joints and coffee shops, not to mentions tradition churches or temples. Yoga as a form of exercise really took off in the 1990s with Entrepreneurial gurus such as Bikram Choudhury and a thousand others. President Barack Obama endorsed yoga as a “universal language of spiritual exercise,” and even the American College of Sports Medicine recommends integrating yoga into one’s exercise regime.

If yoga is such an adaptable and beneficial practice, what’s the problem? Well, despite its flexibility, in its Western setting, I fear that it has been completely bent out of shape, to use an appropriate analogy, and has taken on a very different set of values and objectives. To be clear I do not deny the transferability and diffusion of religious and spiritual traditions. All religion is hybrid, mixture, conversation. But I can’t help but worry that the yoga boom has gotten out of hand, that it has appropriated the mystique of yoga from its original purpose in the service of the religion of self, promoted by capitalism.

Yoga, like Mindfulness TM has been coopted into the capitalist project of desire and identity fulfillment rather than as extensions of the paths that lead to liberation and transformation. I am not against conversion, or against white yogi’s who are embedded within an identifiable lineage. But hip yoga fitness hubs that cater to Western standards of beauty, body type and a vaguely spiritual identity, do violence to the traditions they have stolen from. Yoga is not a marketing slogan, a clever T-shirt punch line, or a décor. It seems that yoga and mindfulness are increasingly being employed to satiate proximate desires for relaxation, productivity, bodily health and fitness, rather than as tools in the human quest for ultimate desire and fulfillment through union with God. As Hanna Rosin writes, “yoga is no longer a spiritual antidote to the upscale Western lifestyle; it’s just the latest manifestation.”

So, can non-Yogis practice Yoga? The answer I am afraid is simply no. Yogis should practice yoga, wherever they come from, but to appropriate yoga into the Western cult of the Self, is wrong. In addition, practicing yoga casually, or from within another tradition fosters a spiritual buffet mentality which is not only appropriative but religiously lazy. So where should non-Yogis go for practices that promote spiritual and physical wellbeing? Does the west not have a comparable tradition? Yes, in fact we do. As journalist Linda Johnsen points out ancient Greeks and Romans practiced something like Yoga which in Greek was called Henosis or, which cultivated a single-pointed awareness of the unitary consciousness that pervades existence. The 3rd century BCE Greek philosopher Plotinus’s last words were “Try to unite the divinity in yourself, with the divinity in all things.” In the Gymnasium, where Greeks competed naked, fitness and enlightenment were stops along the same path. Only in the modern West has bodily wellness and spiritual wellness been so divided. But not without an effort to keep the two together. For example, in the 1850s there was a movement called the ‘New Gymnastics’ (with a more modest dress code) for the purpose of renewing the body and the soul in the service of ensuring healthy and balanced communities.

We in the West seem to always be looking for a remedy for the busy, sedentary modern life, even while we refuse to abandon it for something more wholesome and spirituality satisfying. So, of course one obvious response is that we need to change the structures of society so that our lives are more balanced, whole and fulfilling in the first place! But that is a whole other article. But my question remains, why didn’t we just revive the gymnastics movements, or create something similar? What is it about eastern spiritualities and practices that is so irresistible to some in the secular West?

There is of course no single answer to this question, which is admittedly reductive from the start, but at least for my own purposes a helpful starting point. By and large, I see a connection between the rise of the spiritual but not religious and the failure of western spiritual traditions to fully engage with practices that unify body and the soul, before engaging with metaphysical or theological questions. It seems that many Christian denominations lead with belief, creed or scriptural interpretation, rather than teaching first and foremost ways of sinking into the deep and sustaining relationship with the Divine. For example, Christian and yoga instructor Karen Hefford in her article “Why are People Going to Yoga Instead of Church?” sheds light on the attraction of yoga for some Christians. She writes:

“I find more comfort in the silence of my yoga practice than I do when I am in church. I feel a deeper connection while practicing yoga because it is about surrendering and finding peace… Prayer is often about asking for something or thanking God. Yoga is more about clearing the mind… and surrendering it all.”

If Christian churches are not teaching the deep tradition of silence, surrender, and peace that is at the heart of Christianity, then they have done the Christian tradition a great disservice. Yoga should not be a spiritual supplement, a revenue generator, or a youth magnet for churches, it is its own path to God and people who practice it should be on that path. Christians should begin with their own tradition, before we dialogue and learn from others.

For example, Centering Prayer, a tradition derived from the anonymous 14th century writer of the Cloud of the Unknowing, but promoted by many contemporary denominations, teaches a kind of meditation that strives to go beyond words and petitions for the mysterious silence of God. It is prayer, but prayer that does not treat God as our own personal vending machine. In addition, as Karen Hefford points out in her article, the 13th century Saint Dominic taught nine different symbolic postures for prayer, each of which engaged the body in a unique way; from a profound bow, to a full prostration, to genuflecting, and standing in the shape of the cross. In another case, for Eastern Orthodox, who typically do not have pews in their churches, and where services are mostly done standing, when a worshiper enters a church, they often cross themselves several times, touch the ground, kneel or even prostrate on the ground. Or as another example, why not simply reciting the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me) while stretching, running or walking? These forms of somatic prayer could be a seed of the return of Christian prostration sessions which are oriented toward an icon, altar, or an easterly aspect, which has deep roots and history in Christian architecture, symbolizing the return of the Sun and the Son. Of course Dominic also practiced a more intense asceticism, including self-flagellation, but this will seem tame compared to the austerities of the early Yogis.

To summarize: I am all for a full-bodied embrace of a spiritual tradition that puts one on the path to self-realization in God through harmonizing body, soul and spirit. What I am opposed to is a capitalistic cult of the spiritual identity that promises to make a few enterprising entrepreneurs millions of dollars all while reinforcing rather than eliminating the ego, the cult of sexy bodies, and the buffet style self-indulgence of some spiritual but not religious seekers. In addition, I believe that Christianity has the resources to fulfill the intuition of yoga’s appeal if it were to more creatively engage its own history, theology and spirituality.

The Tower of Silence

The Prophet Zoroaster

The Prophet Zoroaster. Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

Mumbai Tower of Silence Entrance Source: Wikipedia

Mumbai Tower of Silence Entrance
Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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


Two Takes on the Decline of Christianity

Krista Tippet, the gifted radio journalist who hosts the popular On Being radio show and blog, recently published an article in the Jesuit America Magazine. The article is an optimistic assessment of the future of religion in the hands of an increasingly irreligious generation we all know as “Millennials.”

While many are wringing their hands at the decline of religious identity and church attendance among nearly 1/3 of those under 30, Tippet boldly proclaims: “The new nonreligious may be the greatest hope for the revitalization of religion.” Tippet identifies these ‘spiritual but not religious’ with an emerging ‘21st century reformation,’ wherein the traditional markers of Christian or religious identity are shifting, not disappearing. Her comments resonate with writers like Episcopal Priest Matthew Wright or Camaldolese monk Cyprian Consiglio who are calling this shift the ‘Second Axial Age,’ comparing it to first Axial Age, which was responsible for birthing the world’s major religious traditions between 900-300 BCE.

Tippet doesn’t blame many of the young for feeling repulsed by religion. The political debates of the 1980s and 90s were filled with toxic moralizing, culture warriors that hardly seemed to embody the love we were taught was the essence of the God we were supposed to be worshiping. The new forms of religiosity she sees defy many of modernism’s supposed conflicts: New Monastics like Adam Bucko and Rory McEntee are reinventing community and liturgy; curiosity and wonder are transcending the crusty debates between religious and scientific certainty; and a passion for social justice is melting the supposed divide between secular and sacred. She writes:

“I see seekers in this realm pointing Christianity back to its own untamable, countercultural, service-oriented heart. I have spoken with a young man who started a digital enterprise that joins strangers for conversation and community around life traumas, from the economic to the familial; young Californians with a passion for social justice working to gain a theological grounding and spiritual resilience for their work and others; African-American meditators helping community initiatives cast a wider and more diverse net of neighbors. The line between sacred and secular does not quite make sense to any of them, even though none of them are religious in any traditional form. But they are animated by Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of creating “the beloved community.” They are giving themselves over to this, with great intention and humility, as a calling that is spiritual and not merely social and political.”

The decline in traditional religious observance is a sign of the shape of religion to come, not the death knells of religion as we know it.

Conservative writer Rod Dreher on the other hand, has a different approach. Convinced by Alasdair MacIntyre’s critique of modernity in After Virtue who writes: “What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us” (my emphasis), Dreher sees Christian culture becoming dangerously thin in the wake of modernity. He thus calls on Christians to adopt the ‘Benedict Option’ or, a communitarian vision rooted in the wisdom of the 1,500 year old Rule of Saint Benedict. He defines it this way:

“The “Benedict Option” refers to Christians in the contemporary West who cease to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of American empire, and who therefore are keen to construct local forms of community as loci of Christian resistance against what the empire represents.”

American Christianity has become to individualistic, too patriotic, and too cozy with the norms and assumptions of modernity. The Enlightenment project created a world of science and democracy, but also of “moral chaos and fragmentation.”

Dreher is not a utopian, or an escapist, but his view of contemporary religious scene differs greatly from that of Tippet. While Tippet is optimistic about the energy and possibility in the rising generation, Dreher seeks to circle the wagons so that Christianity can revitalize itself from within. “Voting Republican, and expecting judges to save us, is over. It’s all about culture now.”

Dreher thus looks to Saint Benedict (480-553), the Italian monk who in the 6th century fled the corruption of a defeated Rome for the solitude of the forest. He eventually gathered a community around him, and wrote his famous Rule. For Dreher, Benedictine monasticism can teach the whole of Christianity many lessons about authentic Christianity, without necessarily requiring that we all become celibate monastics.

He writes, “The monasteries were incubators of Christian and classical culture, and outposts of evangelization in the barbarian kingdoms.” For Dreher and many others, Christianity is not a worldview or system of beliefs, but a way of life. Thus community must begin not just with beliefs and morality but praxis. How shall we live? This means creating community boundaries and norm that form Christians in a way of life. It means balancing work and prayer, but also making our work a prayer. It means not just going to church on Sunday, and then returning to 9-5 job during the week. Dreher also admonishes Christianity to learn the monastic virtue of Stability: or, learning how to stay put, and seeing what places and people have to teach us. We need, Dreher suggests, to learn how to live in community again, because community living informs who we are and what we are called to be.

Dreher and Tippet stake out seemingly opposite assessments of the state and future of religion, particularly Christianity. However, I think that both hit on important tasks for religious culture in the coming years.

  • We do need to bust open the polemical opposition between religion and science which has only served to entrench fundamentalisms on both sides.
  • We do need a deeper commitment to place and community that is not rooted in pleasure and ego fulfillment. A community is not a group of people who agree on everything, that is a clique.
  • As with the recent conversations regarding refugees, we need a consistent moral compass that does not obsess over ‘pelvic’ issues, or abortion, but the broad principles of a moral society. For example a consistent ethic of life would care about the number of abortions, and the destruction of ecosystems.
  • We need to integrate our work and our spiritual lives. Many of us do not want to live a compartmentalized life between work and religion. We feel a call to vocation, a mission in the world that is both fulfilling and provides for our needs. This has as much to do with democratizing the workplace as it does with renewing skills and crafts from which we can make a living.

In the end, I agree with both Tippet and Dreher, the future of religion is bright, but we can’t all hold the same candle.




Today, I walked from my home in East Vancouver, to Mass at a beautiful Ukrainian Catholic Church off of Cambie Street. I zig zagged northwest until I arrived at a large dome with three crucifixes, each harboring either a seagull or a crow. It was a beautiful, crisp day with much of the New Years snow still holding onto sidewalks and front gardens. The city is a beautiful mix of new and old, wild and manicured, beautiful and ugly. Here are a few pictures from my walk.


Dwelling in the Wilderness: A Monastic Spiritual Ecology


Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey. Carlton, OR.

[Seminar Presentation delivered at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) at the University of British Columbia November 11, 2016. It summarizes by PhD Dissertation at this point.]


At 4:13 AM I stumble in the pale darkness to my choir stall. When I finally look up through the west facing window of the Abbey Church, the luminous full moon is setting through a light haze. We begin to chant the early morning Divine Office of Vigils, a ritual that unfolds day after day, month after month, year after year in contemplative monasteries all over the world.

This 2014 retreat, inspired the questions that would become my PhD dissertation research. I wanted to know: How has the monastic tradition contributed to the management of monastery landscapes? What about environmental discourse? What might we learn from the monastic sense of place in an era of ecological displacement?

Monasticism in the Christian West began in Egypt with Saint Anthony, who fled to the desert to live a life of solitude and strict asceticism. The silence and nakedness of the desert landscape was an icon for the silence and simplicity sought within. As Saint Jerome wrote, “The desert loves to strip bare.” The landscape was not simply a metaphor, but a gateway beyond metaphors; it was apophatic in monastic parlance, beyond the image.

While hermits feel called to live in solitude, cenobites live communally, under the obedience of a Rule and a Superior. This can be done in cities, but more often, contemplative monasteries of men or women are found in quiet, remote and beautiful places.

As a researcher, and a convert to Catholicism, I became something of a contemplative ethnographer in four such men’s monastic communities located in the American West, for about 12 days or so at a time; chanting, eating, working and praying with the monks. Learning the contours and rhythm of each community with my own, out of place, body. What time to wake, when to be in my choir stall, when to make the sign of the cross, when to stand, sit or bow, where to line up for meals.

I conducted 50 interviews, some seated and some walking. For those of you who have done interviews, you know that interviewing is itself a kind of contemplative practice. One must focus on what the subject is saying, while consistently bringing oneself back to the present moment from distractions.

In writing the chapters of my dissertation, my task is now to interpret the meaning of the words I have recorded. But I am also paying attention to the spaces between the words of the monks and my own. On December 10, 2015, after a walking interview looking over the Big Sur Coast, I recorded this in my journal:

“What is left unsaid, what they cannot say much about, except in affirmation, are the small things—the walk from cell to chapel, the stars, and the ocean—because the words are not there. These are the silent, contemplative aspects of embodied experience. There were plenty of silences in our interview where we were both simply walking, wondering perhaps what the other was thinking. Feeling pressure to speak, to say something useful for the recorder. But underlying it was the understanding that what we experience is not always shapeable into words. That what the sunset reminds us of is a thin veneer over the profound solitude of what lies beneath it….We were creating a place, a reality together. The interview was not predicated on getting to the bottom of what his world was really like. But what the world was like between us.”

Spiritual Ecology

This is what I mean by Spiritual Ecology, or Contemplative Ethnography, describing the relationship between inner and outer landscapes within contemporary discussions in Religious and Environmental Studies.

But what does this matter, in an era of ecological catastrophe? The Anthropocene is dawning and industrial humans are at a crossroads. The contours of Nature and Wilderness are being warped from within and without. Our role in the biosphere is being vigorously debated. We need policy changes, mass movements and technological innovation. But environmental ethicists argue that we also need a revolution of the human heart.

In diagnosing our modern malaise, Lynn White Jr. a historian of medieval technology, laid the blame for the ecological crisis not on mushrooming population or government oversite, but on the fundamental axioms of Judeo-Christian civilization. Since that time, scholars and activists have sought to retrieve traditions, scriptural passages, and practices from the world’s major religions that connect spirituality with the environment. As a result, some are pointing to a ‘Greening of Christianity,’ while others suggest that mainline churches have yet to make any substantial shifts toward pro-environmental behaviors.

It is within this line of inquiry that monasticism has garnered increased attention as a case study in the relationship between belief, sustainability and sense of place.

Land Management as Liturgy

My first research stop was to New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. The community was established in 1958 by monks from Italy. They emphasize the hermit tradition and spend more time in silence than other communities. The Hermitage is located on 880 acres in the Ventana Wilderness of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Coastal Live Oak dominate the erosive, fire adapted chaparral ecology, and the narrow canyons shelter the southernmost reaches of Coastal Redwood. The area is also habitat for a recovering colony of California condors. The monks make their living by hosting retreatants and run a small fruitcake and granola business.

While it is clear that a quiet, natural setting is conducive to the monastic life of prayer, in this chapter of my dissertation, I argue that the management of these landscapes is liturgical, in the sense that management values integrate the land into Benedictine spiritual practice. The land not only populates prayer life through silence, solitude and beauty, but also affirms monastic identity and history.

In the Rule of Saint Benedict it says, “Let the monk regard all the utensils of the monastery and its whole property as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.” Guided by this ethic, the Benedictine motto Ora et Labora, or, Work and Prayer has come to be synonymous with the Order.

In terms of history, New Camaldoli recalls the Mother House in Italy, and the monks are proud to belong to an Order with a history of forest management going back centuries. Reflecting on his identity as a monk of New Camaldoli, one monk said, “I’m here to help maintain this property, and this property helps to maintain me in my spiritual journey.”

Another monk, proud of the monastic heritage of living on the land, recounted: “We actually go backwards and make ourselves slaves to the land and to the place and find freedom there, instead of working the land to be free of it, to get our independence. We become slaves of the land. I love that. And even our vow of Stability, I’m going to stay here. I’m not going to go anywhere else. There’s a certain kind of indentured-ness about that, but it’s freely chosen in a Wendell Berry kind of way.”

In my interviews, the monastic values of Silence, Solitude and Beauty were consistently described as being upheld and populated by the land. The eternal horizon of the Pacific Ocean, the enveloping coastal fog, and the precarity of fire, earthquake and drought were not just a setting for a way of life, but elements which participated in the spiritual practices of contemplative life. To use a monastic term, the land incarnates, gives flesh, to their prayer life. That is part of what I mean when I say that land management is liturgical.

The Hermitage has gone to great lengths to protect these values: They prohibit tree cutting, hunting, fishing or the spraying of chemicals on the property. They maintain fire roads and walking paths. In the 1990s, they lobbied against the impending sale of an adjacent property, which was eventually turned into a State Park. The monastery acts as a kind of sanctuary to the world, much as a protected area does.

The Wilderness as Garden

The monastic’s whole life is focused on seeking union with God, an experience beyond words, and land plays an important role in this central purpose. However, as monastic communities have opened up since Vatican II, and decreasing vocations has required additional help from ‘seculars’ (as they refer to us) environmental discourse is playing an increasingly important role in each of the communities’ approach to land. In this chapter, I describe that influence.

The second monastery I visited was New Clairvaux Abbey, which is located on 600 acres of prime farmland in California’s Central Valley. It is surrounded by orchards, but maintains a lush cloister garden that is shared with flocks of turkey vultures and wild turkeys. This Trappist monastery has grown prunes and walnuts for a living since 1955.

New Clairvaux’s orchards are not organic, but managed by industry standards using conventional methods of irrigation and pest management. The monks are concerned about the impact of chemicals on monks, wildlife and guests, but have as of yet been unwilling to risk the financial losses associated with converting to organic.

These monks were less comfortable with the language of ecological sustainability, and spoke in terms of stewardship or agrarianism which frames management as cooperation between humans and nature. One monk related:

“Learning to care for living things, cooperating with them to make them fruitful, its cooperation. With our help we can make them more fruitful than they could be, for Gods glory. Now I mean obviously that’s not quite the same thing as the natural beauty of a wild forest but it’s the beauty of the cultivated orchard and that has a place too. Cooperation between man and nature. I see that as one of the fruits of this particular way of life, its real cooperation.”

In this chapter, I take a critical look at each community in turn and describe the influence of environmental discourses at work within contemporary monastic communities. Each community faces increasing management challenges in the west such as invasive species, drought, erosion, biodiversity loss, development, and each in turn will need to better blend monastic values with contemporary ecological science to cope and adapt.

The Book of Creation

Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey was founded in 1955, when, Trappist monks from a failed New Mexico foundation made their way to the foothills of the Coastal Range in Western Oregon. When they arrived, the previous owner had clear cut the property and run. They replanted, and today the 1,300 acre property is covered by Douglas fir forests, most planted by the monks. Though they began as grain and sheep farmers, today the monastery makes its living through a wine storage warehouse, a bookbindery, a fruitcake business, and a forestry operation.

In this chapter, I look at the monastic experience and sense of place. In one school of thought, perception of landscape is a semiotic problem. We socially construct meaning and project it onto otherwise meaningless terrain. Anthropologist Tim Ingold counters that:

“Through living in it, the landscape becomes a part of us, just as we become a part of it…Human beings do not, in their movements, inscribe their life histories upon the surface of nature as do writers upon the page; rather, these histories are woven, along with the life-cycles of plants and animals, into the texture of the surface itself.”

As I observed, for monastics it is clearly both/and. They live in a world steeped in religious symbols, but also embodied spiritual practice. For example, the monks chant the Psalms seven times a day, which are filled with land-based poetry. As one monk put it:

“Any monk who has spent his life chanting the Divine Office cannot have any experience and not have it reflect, or give utterance in the Psalmody. The psalmody is a great template to place on the world for understanding it, and its language becomes your own.”

In this mode, the land becomes rich with symbol: the dormancy of fall speaks to dying, the fresh growth of spring of resurrection, a tree growing out of a rock teaches perseverance, a distant train whistle reminds one to pray, a little flower recalls Saint Therese of Lisieux, a swaying Douglas fir tree points to the wood of the cross, a gash in a tree symbolizes Christ’s wounds. In each case, the elements of the land act as symbol within a system of religious symbology.

And yet, there was also a sacramental aspect to the land. Theologically speaking, God’s presence in the land is a real presence that does not just point to, but participates in God. This gives an embodied or in their words, incarnational, quality to their experience of the land.

In addition, the monks spoke of their experiences in terms of flashes of insight, or moments of clarity that transcended specific locations or symbolic meaning.

The monks, especially at Guadalupe, have sunk deep roots into the land, and strive to be “Lovers of the place” as the Trappist adage goes. When I asked one monk if this meant that the landscape was sacred, he paused and said, “I would say that it is loved.”

The Thing Itself

For my last stop, I headed to the high pinyon-juniper deserts of New Mexico. At the end of a 13 mile muddy dirt road, surrounded by the Chama River Wilderness, an adobe chapel stands in humble relief against steep painted cliffs. Founded in 1964, the monastery is the fastest growing in the Order, with over 40 monks in various stages of formation. The monks primarily live on their bookstore and hospitality, but also grow commercial hops.

In this chapter, I look at a curious finding. After interviewing several monks, a pattern emerged. After describing some moving symbolic meaning behind a flower or tree, I would ask what it was called. Or, as we walked and a bird would fly by, I would ask what it was. As we sat on the banks of the Chama River, one monk described the spiritual significance of the changes of the seasons, pointing to a nearby shrub that was just beginning to leaf out in vibrant green, describing what it would look like next. So I asked, “What plant is that?” “I have no idea” he replied. There were several notable exceptions, but the monks didn’t seem to care all that much about names. During one walking interview, tired of me asking, one monk decided to make them up: “Well that there is the “Fred Oak;” and, this one here is the “Lusitania trumpet.”

So what’s in a name? On the one hand, I expected environmental literacy to include the words and names in the Book of Creation. But on the other, monastic spirituality seeks to move beyond names, metaphor

s and images toward a raw experience of the Divine.

As I walked along a narrow path with one monk at Christ in the Desert, a mix of snow and rain fell onto the parched red dirt. Without any kind of prompt on my part, he said, “The one thing I have learned is that the truth is in the thing itself and not in thinking about it.” “Ok,” I said, frustrated, “but isn’t it important to know what things are called?” He replied, “It can all be there in your knowledge bank, but it’s letting go of that. 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.”

Rather than demonstrating, as I expected, a kind of traditional ecological knowledge, or even a more general place-based ecological literacy, contemporary monastics, have developed a kind of theo-ecological knowledge that recognizes every element, creature, task, or moment of ineffable grace on the landscape, as an invitation to be present to the holiness that patiently awaits under the surface.