The Gardener

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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.

Lost in Lent

5-Moss on sleeping oak
About a week before Lent began, I took a retreat to a Benedictine monastery in central Washington. Unlike several of the other monasteries I have visited, this particular monastery was located in a more suburban setting, and, founded as a small college, the monastery is now a bustling university.

I went hoping for some silence, writing time and immersion in the familiar rhythms of the monastic liturgy. When I arrived, however, the first thing I noticed when I got out of the car, was how loud it was. I could hear I-5 rushing and hushing in the background. In addition, the liturgy was not chanted but spoken, which made it feel less vibrant, and the space of the chapel was one of those ill conceived modernist boxes. Nonetheless, the monks were kind, and I enjoyed talking with them, and learning about the monastery’s history.

The monastery started with close to 600 acres, but now retained only about 350, most of which was devoted to the campus and student housing. They had a small farm operation in the 1930s-1950s but it ended by the 1960s. Even with a smaller footprint, the monastery had taken good care of the remaining second or third growth forests, which had a number of walking trails. And even with the white noise of the freeway in the background, I enjoyed walking them.

Despite the loveliness of the forest, I ended up having a difficult time writing, felt restless during the spoken Divine Office, and everywhere I went, the freeway was audible. I ended up leaving early, so I could get home and regroup.

On the way, feeling the weight of dissertation anxiety and something of the distance that opens between us and the Divine at times, I decided to go for a hike at my favorite protected area in Bellingham, Washington, Stimpson Family Nature Preserve. It was late in the afternoon, and a friend and I headed around the wet, still snowy in places, trail.

It is one of the few older growth forests in the area, and I often feel God’s presence there as I breathe the clean cool air, and marvel at the riot of colors. But this time, riding the wave of restlessness from my retreat, I felt a very strong sense of God’s absence. It hit me like a wave, a sudden pang of nihilistic agnosticism, and the darkening forest, still silent and deadened to winter, felt cold, indifferent and lifeless.

For several days after this, I pondered the dark mood that had descended. I stopped praying, and considered skipping Church for a few weeks. My usual excitement for Lent turned into a smoldering dread.

I recently decided to join an Anglo-Catholic Parish in Vancouver because of its wonderful liturgy, and I had signed up to be part of the altar party as a torch bearer on Ash Wednesday. So, despite the darkness that had descended onto my spiritual life, I decided to go.

At first I felt sad, and distant, but as the liturgy proceeded, my attention sharpened, and I began to feel lighter. During the consecration of the Eucharist, which like Traditionalist Catholic Mass is said with the Priest facing the altar, as torch bearer, I knelt with the candle behind the priest. As the bells rang and the priest lifted the bread and then the wine, a subtle shift occurred in my chest. The utter strangeness and beauty of the liturgy penetrated my dark mood, and lifted me back into a place of openness and receptivity. It was nothing profound, or revelatory, but a perceptible change. I was again, ready to enter into simplicity and silence of Lent, in anticipation of Easter.

Reflecting on this ‘Dark Night of the Soul’, I began to understand the gift that God’s absence can sometimes be. I remembered the scene in 1 Kings 19, where Elijah is called out of his hiding place in a cave by God:

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.” (NIV) 

Of course God is present to all things, but She cannot be confined to any one of the elements. Having experienced God’s presence so deeply in forests over the years, it was alarming to feel such a sense of despair, and emptiness. But it is true, just as the forest is a place of beauty and life; it is also a place of suffering and death. If God were wholly present to the forest, there would be no distance to cross between us.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si:

“Our relationship with the environment can never be isolated from our relationship with others and with God. Otherwise, it would be nothing more than romantic individualism dressed up in ecological garb, locking us into a stifling immanence” (Laudato Si, 119).

I am most certainly guilty of romanticism, but this phrase, “stifling immanence” keeps coming back to me. God is everywhere present, and hold all things in existence at each moment. But there remains an infinite gap between us.

As I deepen my Lenten journey with prayer, fasting and silence, I am grateful for this lesson, and it has served as rich food in the Desert of Lent this year.

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The Tower of Silence

The Prophet Zoroaster

The Prophet Zoroaster. Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

Mumbai Tower of Silence Entrance Source: Wikipedia

Mumbai Tower of Silence Entrance
Source: Wikipedia

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

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

Homily: Living Symbols

[Homily delivered Feb. 26, 2017 to Saint Margaret Cedar-Cottage Anglican Church.]

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At 4:13 AM I stumbled in the pale darkness to my choir stall. When I finally looked up through the west facing window of the chapel at Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in northwestern Oregon, a glowing full moon was setting through a light haze. The monks began to chant the early morning Divine Office of Vigils, a ritual that unfolds day after day, month after month, and year after year in monasteries all over the world.

This month-long immersive retreat in 2014, inspired the questions that would become my PhD dissertation research, which I completed over a six month period in 2015 and 2016. I am now in writing the dissertation, and should be done in the next 2, 3, 4 or 5 months. I wanted to better understand the relationship between the 1,500 year old monastic tradition, contemporary environmental discourses and the land. And I wanted to better describe for the emerging Spiritual Ecology literature the ways that theological ideas and spiritual symbols populate monastic spirituality of place and creation.

Exodus 24:12-18

In the readings this morning, we are gifted several land-based symbols. God says to Moses in Exodus: “Come up to me on the mountain.” Liberated from Egypt, God is now eager to build a relationship with his people and Moses’s ascent of Mount Sinai to receive the Law mirrors our own spiritual journeys. A thick cloud covered the mountain for six days before Moses was finally called into God’s presence, like so much of my own spiritual life, lived in darkness, with small rays of light.

Matthew 17:1-19

In the Gospel reading, Jesus too ascends a “high mountain.” There, his disciples witness one of the most perplexing scenes in the New Testament: The Transfiguration. Jesus’s face and garments shone like the sun. And then, certainly conscious of the Hebrew text, the writer says that a bright cloud overshadowed them and they heard a voice say: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” Christ, who was fully human and fully God, was revealing in his very person to Peter, James and John his fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. And presence of the symbols of mountain and cloud were bound up in the authenticity of Jesus’s claims to messianic authority.

2 Peter 1:16-21

Even though it’s not clear that the Apostle Peter is the author of our second reading, the message is clear: “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty.” Reading Exodus and Matthew, it might feel simple to slip into an easy allegorical hermeneutic, to see everything as a symbol; but the writer of 2 Peter is clear: Stop trying to turn everything into a myth! This reminds me of the quote from Catholic writer Flannery O’Conner who said of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”

img_6579With these texts in mind, especially questions of religious symbols and religious realities, I want to talk a little bit about my research with monastic communities, and then return to these texts at the end. Monasticism, like Christianity as a whole is steeped in symbols. For example, the Abbas and Ammas of the early monastic tradition experienced the desert as a symbol of purification and sanctification. Saint Anthony fled to the desert to live a life of solitude, spiritual warfare and strict asceticism. The silence and nakedness of the desert landscape was as it were a habitat for the silence and simplicity that led the Desert Fathers and Mothers through the wilderness of their own sin to the simplicity of God’s presence. As Saint Jerome wrote, “The desert loves to strip bare.”

The motifs of the Desert-wilderness and the Paradise-garden are like two poles in Biblical land-based motifs. Pulling the people of Israel between them. Adam and Eve were created in a garden, but driven to the wilderness. The people of Israel were enslaved in the lush Nile Delta, but liberated into a harsh desert. The prophets promised the return of the garden if Israel would flee the wilderness of their idolatry. Christ suffered and resurrected in a garden after spending 40 days in the wilderness. The cloister garden at the center of the medieval monastery embodied also this eschatological liminality between earth and heaven, wilderness and garden.

Mountains too were and continue to be powerful symbols of the spiritual life. From Mount Sinai to Mount Tabor, John of the Cross and the writer of the Cloud of Unknowing, each drawing on the metaphors of ascent and obscurity.

But do you need a desert to practice desert spirituality?

Do you need the fecundity of a spring time garden to understand the resurrection?

I would argue that we do.

For my PhD research, I conducted 50 interviews, some seated and some walking, with monks at four monasteries in the American West. My first stop was to New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. The community was established in 1958 by monks from Italy. The Hermitage is located on 880 acres in the Ventana Wilderness of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Coastal Live Oak dominate the erosive, fire adapted chaparral ecology, and the narrow steep canyons shelter the southernmost reaches of Coastal Redwood. The monks make their living by hosting retreatants and run a small fruitcake and granola business.

The second monastery I visited was New Clairvaux Trappist Abbey, which is located on 600 acres of prime farmland in California’s Central Valley and was founded in 1955. It is located in orchard country, and they grow walnuts and prunes, and recently started a vineyard. They are flanked on one side by Deer Creek, and enjoy a lush tree covered cloister that is shared with flocks of turkey vultures and wild turkeys that are more abundant than the monks themselves. They recently restored a 12th century Cistercian Chapter house as part of an attempt to draw more pilgrims to the site.

Thirdly, I stayed at Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey, which was also founded in 1955, in the foothills of the Coastal Range in Western Oregon. When they arrived, they found that the previous owner had clear cut the property and run. They replanted, and today the 1,300 acre property is covered by Douglas fir forests, mostly planted by the monks. Though they began as grain and sheep farmers, today the monastery makes its living through a wine storage warehouse, a bookbindery, a fruitcake business, and a sustainable forestry operation.

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

In my interviews, the monastic values of Silence, Solitude and Beauty were consistently described as being upheld and populated by the land. The land was not just a setting for a way of life, but elements which participated in the spiritual practices of contemplative life. To use a monastic term, the land incarnates, gives flesh, to their prayer life.

Thus, the monks live in a world that is steeped in religious symbols through their daily practice of lectio divina, and the chanting of the Psalms. As one monk of Christ in the Desert put it:

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

In this mode, the land becomes rich with symbol: a tree growing out of a rock teaches perseverance, a distant train whistle reminds one to pray, a little flower recalls Saint Therese of Lisieux, a swaying Douglas fir tree points to the wood of the cross, a gash in a tree symbolizes Christ’s wounds. In each case, the elements of the land act as symbol within a system of religious symbology. One monk of Christ in the Desert, who wore a cowboy hat most of the time related:

“When the moon rises over that mesa and you see this glowing light halo. It echoes what I read in the Psalms. In the Jewish tradition the Passover takes place at the full moon, their agricultural feasts are linked to the lunar calendar. When they sing their praises, ‘like the sunlight on the top of the temple,’ ‘like the moon at the Passover Feast.’ ‘Like the rising of incense at evening prayer.’ They’re all describing unbelievable beauty. I look up and I’m like that’s what they were talking about.”

The land populates familiar Psalms, scriptures and stories with its elements and thus enriches the monastic experience of both text and land.

Theologically speaking, God’s presence in the land is a kind of real presence that does not just point to, but participates in God. This gives an embodied or in their words, incarnational, quality to their experience of the land. As another example, one monk went for a long walk on a spring day, but a sudden snow storm picked up and he almost lost his way. He related that from then on Psalm 111 that states “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” took on a whole new meaning.

In addition, the monks often spoke of their experiences on the land in terms of flashes of insight, or moments of clarity that transcended any specific location or symbolic meaning. One monk called these experiences “charged moments” where a tree or vista one sees frequently, suddenly awakens to God’s presence.

The monks at each community, in their own ways, have sunken deep roots into the lands they live on and care for. Each, in the Benedictine tradition, strive to be “Lovers of the place” as the Trappist adage goes. When I asked one monk if this meant that the landscape was sacred, he paused and said, “I would only say that it is loved.”

I am arguing in my dissertation that monastic perception of landscape can be characterized as what an embodied semiotics. By this I simply mean that symbols and embodied experience reinforce each other in the landscape, and without embodied experience symbols are in danger of losing their meaning.

The motifs of desert and wilderness, the symbols of water, cloud, mountain, doves, bread and wine, the agricultural allegories of Jesus, and the garden, are in this reading, reinforced by consistent contact with these elements and activities in real life.

On the last Sunday before Lent, as we move into the pinnacle of the Christian calendar, it is no coincidence that the resurrection of the body of Jesus is celebrated during the resurrection of the body of the earth. But does this mean that Jesus’s resurrection can be read as just a symbol, an archetype, a metaphor for the undefeated message of Jesus? Certainly Peter and the other Apostles would say no. They did not give up their own lives as martyrs for a metaphor.

For a long time I struggled with believing in the resurrection as a historical reality. But when I began to realize the connection between the land and the paschal mystery, it was the symbols in the land itself that drew me to the possibility of Christ’s resurrection. And that in turn reinforced my ability to see Christ in the entire cosmic reality of death and rebirth active and continual in every part of the universe.

As Peter warns his readers: “You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” For how can we truly believe in the return of the Beloved Son, if we have never been up early enough to see the return of the star we call sun?

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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.

 

 

Walking

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.

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Sacred Groves

img_6302In the beginning, the tree of life emerged as a tiny seedling. Soon, it branched out into everything we call living: microbes, fungi, plants, animals, and humans.

We evolved with trees.

Perhaps they lowered our primate ancestors down from their bows and nudged us toward the savanna.

But trees never left us; they continued to provide us with food, fodder, shelter, tools, medicine, and stories.

They began to appear in our dreams.

They began to populate our stories.

It was here, in a forest, that Yahweh planted a garden of trees, pleasing to the eye and good for food (Genesis 2:8–9).

It was here that Zoroaster in Persia saw the Saena Tree in a vision emerging from the primeval sea, a tree from whose seeds all other plants grew.

It was here that Inanna, goddess of Babylon, nourished the Huluppu tree on the banks of the Euphrates River.

It was here that Kaang, creator god of the Batswana Bushmen, created the first mighty tree; which led the first animals and people out from the underworld through its roots and branches.

It was here that the Sacred Tree gave light to the Iroquois’s island in the sky—before the sun was made, and before the earth was formed on the back of a great turtle.

It was here that the Mayan Tree of Life lifted the sky out from the primordial sea, surrounded by four more trees that held the sky in place and marked the cardinal directions.

FIRST VISIONS

It was here, in a forest, that the first whispers of the divine spoke to the human consciousness.

It was here that Abraham wrestled with angels and beheld visions of Yahweh.

It was here that Hindu seekers learned the wisdom of gurus.

It was here that Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha, seated beneath the Bodhi tree.

It was here that Moses fasted, prayed, and received God’s Law.

It was here that Muhammad sought refuge in mountain caves and spoke the words of the holy Koran.

It was here that the Sikh Guru Nanak experienced the One True God.

It was here that Nephi of the Book of Mormon communed with angels and beheld the glorious fruit of the Tree of Life.

It was also here, in the presence of the divine feminine, that the boy Joseph Smith saw in vision the Father and the Son.

And it was here that John Muir rambled in ecstasy for days.

FIRST TEMPLES

It was here, in the forest, that we built our first temples and worshipped God without priesthoods or recommends.

It was here that Asherah, Canaanite goddess of all living things, was first worshipped.

It was here that Isis of Egypt was worshipped as the mighty Sycamore on the banks of the Nile.

It was here that the Druids passed on their knowledge, worshipped the gods, and sacrificed human flesh.

It was also here, in the forest, that, after civilization blossomed, we looked for inspiration. Temples of stone with their pillars, columns, and cathedral arches all resembled the trunks of trees, carrying the eye upward to God. But these temples of stone limited God to one place, one people, one faith. It was here that we fell from universal grace.

FALL

It was here that Adam and Eve fell.

It was here that civilization expanded.

It was here that we logged, burned, mined, clear-cut, developed.

It was here that the old stories were forgotten and new ones were written; stories in which creation was no longer sacred, enchanted, animate, or subjective.

RETURN

In an age of climate change, extinction, and corporate tyranny, it is here, to the forest that we must return.

Not only as skiers, hikers, campers, birders, hunters, and foresters, but as devotees.

Because it is here that we see the universe in microcosm; where we get our bearings.

It is here that creation awes.

It is here that we experience the divine.

It is here that we can bring our questions.

It is here that we can experience mystical solitude.

It is here that we are now.

To return to the forest, we must become familiar with it. Go to a mountain grove and take off your shoes. Once you are comfortable and alone, close your eyes. Begin by focusing on feeling—as a tree might—the sun, the wind, the earth beneath your toes.

If you wish, stretch your arms up and out like branches seeking the light.

Imagine drinking the sun in as food.

Focus on your breath by letting the clean air pass through your nostrils and fill your lungs.

Feel your lungs slowly empty as your body expels carbon dioxide.

Feel your lungs slowly fill with oxygen.

Focus on the entire process of breathing and how each moment changes.

In and out.

Imagine that oxygen, produced in the leaves of these very trees gently being pushed from the leaf’s stomata, wafting through this space, and entering our lungs.

As you breathe out, imagine the CO2 wafting in the air and entering the stomata of the leaves, powering the cycle of photosynthesis.

In and out.

The air becomes us, becomes them.

It is a sacrament; we take it upon us, into us, and they upon themselves.

As the trees breathe out, we breathe in.

We are their lungs and they are ours.

In and out.

This is not a supernatural idea; it is an ecological reality.

May we dwell in this reality!

Thomas Merton once said:

We are already one.

But we imagine that we are not.

And what we have to recover is our original unity.

What we have to be is what we are.

I offer you this prayer: Forest! May we sustain you as you sustain us!

Think of this prayer, whisper this prayer, or shout this prayer when you are grateful for what a place has given you: a forest, a body of water, a desert, a garden.

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I remember the first time I realized that God not only created the world, but was immanent to it as well.

It was like staring at one of those paintings where an image of a tree or something is hiding, and it suddenly coming into view.

I was searching for God my whole life, but had been staring her in the face all along.

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Theodicy in “The 100”

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Source: Wikipedia

Vancouver has recently seen a very unusual arctic front that has not only dropped several inches of snow, but has plunged temperatures below freezing, turning streets and sidewalks into slick ice skating rinks. and leaving city officials totally unprepared for even a basic response.

In this winter weather, before the holidays, I spent a lot of time inside binge watching a TV series on Netflix called “The 100.” Though the post-apocalyptic sci-fi is set in Northeastern United States, it was filmed right here in Vancouver and our surrounding forestlands. It was strange to watch the characters navigate both real and virtual reality terrain in my own city and the places where I frequently hike.

For those who have not seen it, the show opens in space, where several hundred survivors of an earthly nuclear war are living in an international space station, that is running out of oxygen 97 years after the bombs go off. The martial law of survival means that any serious crime is a capital crime and thus one hundred young prisoners are selected for a secret experiment. They are sent to earth to see if it is survivable. The meat of the show unfolds in what and who they find when they get to the surface. The characters are a bit shallow, and the dialogue is sometimes thin, but the highlights several strong women characters and had some very interesting commentary on religion.

The culminating conflict, which is led up to by the many subplot conflicts between warring “Skycrew,” “Grounders,” “Reapers,” and the radiation sensitive residents of a bunker in Mount Weather, takes place between the central ‘Savior’ figure and the artificial intelligence program named Alie, who set of the initial nuclear holocaust 97 years earlier. The program, which was designed to make life better for human beings, used an ice cold logic to deduce that the way to solve overpopulation was to lower earth’s population. Equally calculating, the program designed a software which is implanted in humans by swallowing a communion-wafer shaped chip and transports human consciousness to a virtual world called “The City of Lights” with no suffering, pain or war. Devotees of the City of Lights are easily controlled by the AI, and they are in the process of “chipping” everyone, when a small group led by the main character, Clarke Griffin, played by Eliza Taylor, conspire to defeat the AI and liberate the people who are chipped. To do so however, Clarke must find the virtual kill switch located in the City of Lights. To do this she must implant in her brain a single copy of the second version of the software which was passed down by the original designer of the AI, and also take the wafer so she can get into the City of Lights.

Confused yet? To get all the details, I would recommend watching, but I wanted to point out what I perceive to be a misrepresentation of religion. The City of Lights, and the genocidal AI, are clearly a swipe at organized religion, which seeks to force a kind of conformity on all of humanity, regardless of the consequences. This fundamentalist focus on the ends over the means, is certainly evident in some strands of militant terror. But on the whole, it confuses what religion is actually “designed” to do in the first place.

Under the influence of the AI, “Chipped” people do not feel pain. In addition, they soon forget all of their traumatic and painful memories. No pain, no suffering. At one point, Abbey (not yet chipped), who is a doctor, asks her “chipped” assistant if he remembers his mother’s name. He can’t remember, because she died in his arms, and that was the reason he became a doctor. In a clear teaching moment, the writers are communicating the importance of at least some suffering, pain and grief in making us who we are.

But what I do not like is that the writers seem to be saying that we have a choice between the myths of religion, and the pain of reality, and that we should chose the, though darker, harsher, at least reality of a world of suffering. Religion peddles in fantasy, and though we may be all alone in the cosmos, at least we are facing this reality head on without some kind of “opiate” to numb the pain. In the final showdown between Clarke and the AI, Clarke is tempted to allow the AI to survive. This “last temptation” moment, seems to pit the almost hopeless situation her people face in the harsh world outside, with the virtual salvation presented by Alie.

Watching the post-apocalyptic cast of The 100 run around the forests where I often hike; being in Vancouver for a historical election upset in the US, and the strange arctic weather, I can’t help thinking of dramatic changes coming to the world. Certainly religion could be seen as an escape from this uncertainty.

But in my view, the makers of The 100 get religion wrong. We do not face a choice between the opiate of religion, or the sting of a harsh reality. Religion is not just that which promises us a life after life itself. Religion, with its root meaning ‘to bind together,’ is precisely that which allows us to be most awake to and most resilient in the face of immediate circumstances that seem insurmountable. As Clarke wisely discerns as she decides whether to throw the kill switch, pain is not something we seek to ease, it is something we endure for our good. In Christianity, the central figure, a man nailed to a cross, writhing in pain, suffering is precisely that which allows us to change.

So while I would certainly recommend The 100 to the Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi crowd, it doesn’t make for very good commentary if it insists that religion is only an escape from reality rather than a tool for engaging it.

Dwelling in the Wilderness: A Monastic Spiritual Ecology

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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.]

Introduction

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.