Dispatches from the Camino de Santiago: Setting Off

12 Century Spanish Cistercian Chapter House being restored at New Clairvaux Trappist Abbey in Vina, CA.

A few weeks after I had defended my PhD and graduated from the University of British Columbia, I bought a ticket to Barcelona. I had heard of many people having amazing experiences on the nearly 500 miles long Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route that gained popularity in the middle ages as a safer alternative to the Holy Land. In the last several decades, annual walkers of the “French Way” have risen to approximately 300,000. I love walking, but I have never done any long distance hiking apart from a hand full of overnight backpack trips. I want to walk the Camino for a lot of the same reasons that most people walk it. I have the time and the resources. I love to travel. I love Christian history, mythology and architecture. I am discerning my vocation within the church.

Of course, a pilgrimage is supposed to be more than just a long hike. Twentieth-century contemplative writer and Trappist monk Thomas Merton (1915-1968) wrote that “the geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out an inner journey.” My journey has been one of enormous privilege and blessing. Now, at the end of my education, there is no juicy job offer, no tenure-track position awaiting me; just the vacuous uncertainty of 50 or so digital black holes asking for three letters of recommendation. It is a frightening liminality; being in between my last moments of a very long career as a student, and my hoped-for profession of scholar and educator.

About a week ago, after wrapping up a course for the Forestry Department at UBC, and delivering my last midday meal to some high-rise office in downtown Vancouver for my part-time food delivery job, I packed up my truck and said goodbye to a beloved Vancouver community. As I have done many times before, I boxed up my possessions, mostly books, and hoisted a few boxes into the creaking bed of my small truck. On the morning I left, after saying what felt like weeks of send-offs and well wishes, I took one last look at the strange geometry of a familiar but empty room. Over the last week, I drove down the West Coast, staying with friends along the way. I am writing this in Oceanside, California, while I visit with family in preparation for my brother’s college graduation. I will catch a flight to Barcelona from LAX on Sunday, May 27.

Even though I leave this coming Sunday, I began my pilgrimage kneeling on the sanctuary steps of Saint James Anglican Church about a week and a half ago. After converting to Roman Catholicism in 2015, my long spiritual journey continues, and I have really fallen in love with the balance between progressive values and traditional liturgy of the Anglo-Catholic tradition that is alive and well in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where Saint James is located. At the end of my last Sunday High Mass, the Rector gave me a simple pilgrims blessing, and the love, admiration and prayers of the parishioners buoyed my spirit.

Whenever I drive to Southern California, the first thing I notice when I summit the passes of the desert mountains is the smell. It is a smell that tugs at all of the memories of my formative years and if I were to describe it, it would be something like the smell of fresh rain on hot pavement. I love that the freeway exit signs and place names read like a catechism of the Catholic Saints. Just as we call the collection of states in the Northeastern United States ‘New England’, it would not be inappropriate to call the Southwest ‘New Spain.’ I only realize now that the tallest mountain in Orange County, where I grew up, was christened by the Spanish in honour of Saint James. Santiago Peak and Santiago Canyon were familiar words with invisible histories for me as a young Mormon growing up in Orange County. There is a certain “Catholicity” to the geography of Southern California, and I am only now becoming literate to the names and charisms of the many saints and feast days that dot the state’s many post-colonial place names. Having grown up in Southern California near Mexico, and having travelled in Latin America, it feels right to finally be paying a visit to the ‘Old Country.’

The last few months have been busy with planning the logistics of the trip, making lists of cathedrals and monasteries I want to visit, and assembling the proper gear for the walk. It is only in the last few weeks that I have begun to really reflect on the spiritual reasons I am walking the Camino apart from the raw experience of the walk. Traditionally, people undertook a pilgrimage as an act of penance, petition or gratitude to God. I am certainly taking my own sins, prayers and thankfulness with me on the Camino, but I wonder if there is something more my walk could mean or put out into the world. I am not expecting any grand revelations or mystical encounters, but what does the simple act of going for a long walk mean in such uncertain times?

As I drove a long stretch of highway between the city of Saint Francis (San Francisco) and San Luis Obispo, California, I listened to a three-part series from Radiolab about illegal immigration in the United States. The series explored how toughening border security in urban areas in the 1990s had pushed desperate migrants into the deserts, who must walk for days on end to reach the United States. The number of deaths and disappearances surged drastically. Prior to 2000, fewer than five migrant deaths were reported each year. After 2000, the number has reached nearly 200 each year. And those are just the ones that are found. As Radiolab’s guests argued in gruesome detail, a dead body does not last long in the desert, with vultures, scavengers and even ants quickly dismembering and dissolving the bodies into nothingness.

The Desert Fathers and Mothers took vows of voluntary poverty and privation and sought a kind of spiritual anonymity. Desperate migrants, who risk everything to find a better life for themselves and their families all have names, stories and people who love them, and yet do find spiritual solace in the privations of the desert. As I listened to the stories of these brave people seeking a better life, a life like the one I was given through no merit of my own, I could not help but feel somewhat ashamed of my privileged stance as a voluntary pilgrim. I am going to walk for leisure, adventure and spiritual insight; they walk for their lives and the lives of their families.

In addition to my own burdens and questions, the people and petitions I am carrying with me; I will also make space to pray for refugees and migrants. For the thousands of men and women who have no other choice but to walk. I know this will not contribute directly to solving these complex global problems and heartbreaking realities. But there is a small part of me that believes that in the midst of a broken world, the earnest prayers of even one person make a difference. I am praying with my feet on a path that has been travelled by thousands of people for over a thousand years. I am going for a walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The challenge is to honor the thing itself, as well as the thing as metaphor. When [Ralph Waldo] Emerson declared in 1836 that ‘every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,’ he sent people racing to the woods, anticipating the voice of God in the call of every thrush. But too often they paid scant attention to the songbird in their anxiousness to hear some transcendent message. They returned home full of nothing but themselves, their pockets stuffed with metaphors. As the imagination reaches relentlessly for a timeless, interior soulscape, it is easy to sail over the specificity of particular landscapes.[6]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wilderness and Wild, Wild Country

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Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or Osho the founder of the Rajneeshee movement that temporarily took over a small town in Oregon

Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931–1990) began teaching publically in the 1960s.  Bhagwan criticized socialism and Gandhian politics and challenged many traditional Hindu values. His talks seemed to synthesize and illuminate the teachings of various religious traditions. He was an advocate of free love, he blended psychotherapy and meditation, and held civilizational aspirations that framed his movement as the catalyst for a global transformation that would end war, violence, sectarianism and hunger. Many of his talks are available on YouTube.

Despite being fascinated by religion, and having even taught a course on New Religious Movements, I had never heard of Rajneesh, or Osho, as he was later affectionately called. With the release of a six-part Netflix documentary series Wild, Wild Country directed by Maclain and Chapman Way, we are given a whirlwind tour of one of the US’s most fascinating and explosive religious experiments.

In terms of production quality, Wild, Wild Country may be the best documentary series I have ever seen! The visual storytelling is masterful. The cinematography seamlessly blends historic footage and colour-saturated contemporary footage of the people and places associated with the movement’s heyday. The soundtrack isn’t bad either! The narrative is at times alarmist but overall sympathetic to both those who opposed Osho’s movement, and those who are still loyal to him and his teachings. Wild, Wild Country confronts us with yet another case of religious outsiders seeking acceptance on the margins of American society, and like most new religious movements, they were met with intense resistance.

The 40 residents of the town of Antelope, state and federal officials were almost immediately worried when an obscure Guru from India purchased a large ranch in central Oregon. Baghwan’s first commune in Pune, India, established in the early 1970s, ran into trouble with the national government. In 1981 Rajneesh and many of his followers relocated to the United States.

Several things did not sit right with the local towns peoples. The Rajneeshees practised an ecstatic form of meditation called ‘Dynamic Meditation’ that resembled, in some footage, a kind of psychotic break. They embraced free-love. They re-incorporated the town of Antelope and renamed it Rajneeshpurum, occupying almost the entire City Council. Rajneeshees or, Sannyasins as they were also called, wore mostly maroon or pink colours as a sign of group cohesion. Feeling somewhat unwelcomed, they became heavily armed as a measure of “self-defence.” And, it seemed that Rajneesh lived in lavish luxury, while his followers lived simple communal lives, suggesting a disparity between teacher and student. Many followers also cut off ties with family and friends and donated their assets to the movement, a red flag for many. This combination of factors, and the recent mass-suicide at Jonestown in Guyana meant that what may have felt like utopia to some, was being framed by locals and the media as a capital ‘C’ cult.

However, by far the most compelling character in the series is Rajneesh’s personal secretary Ma Anand Sheela. Much of the militancy and controversy in the public eye came through her interviews as the mouthpiece of the movement. She was the Stalin to Rajneesh’s Lenin; an uncompromising and fierce protector of Osho and his movement. In the defence of the commune, Sheela would stop at nothing. She plotted assassinations, wiretapped the entire compound, and perpetuated one of the worst bioterrorism attacks in the history of the United States by contaminating Wasco County salad bars with E. coli bacteria.

You simply must see for yourself how it all comes unravelled, but in reviewing this excellent film, I wanted to focus on one aspect that caught my attention. Though not rooted in the Christian tradition, the decision of the religious commune to take refuge in a remote part of Oregon has a long lineage in monastic and religious movements. Religious scholar and theologian Belden Lands says this of the relationship between land and new religious movements:

“People seeking new vitality in the spiritual life continually retreat to wild and undeveloped landscapes, seeking new meaning along the outer margins of familiarity. There, in places of abandonment—the desert, the highlands—they establish community rooted in the spirit of wilderness saints before them. But after having made this new land habitable, beginning to look upon it with a pastoral eye, they sense the danger of losing the sharp edge and hardiness the original landscape had suggested. Subsequent movements of reform, therefore, set off in search of still other wild and remote regions to begin anew. Or they preserve within the present terrain an archetypal or metaphorical landscape symbolizing the wilderness enclave the community still aspires to become. Repeatedly, therefore, the “desert ideal” of fourth-century monasticism in Egypt, Syria, and the Wilderness of Judea served to inspire successive movements of spiritual renewal” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, 47).

In some ways, I appreciate religious movements that see religion as something more than an after-work hobby, a social club, or a Sunday ritual. The Rajneeshees saw themselves as moving to the desert to begin the work of transforming the planet. Sound familiar? Many hundreds of utopian movements have had similar ambitions and claimed not to be a new religious sect.

In my research on medieval era monasticism, new orders would often emerge as an attempt to return to the spiritual roots of the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They would write grand narratives about their fleeing to the dangerous and unforgiving wilderness to make the wildlands blossom as a rose and to spread the Gospel. And, if there were people there, they would either write them out of the story or in more rare cases, physically drive them out of the area.

The Rajneeshees often claimed that they simply wanted to live in peace. But as they set their sights on the Wasco County Commission election, it became clear that they had a more evangelical agenda. There is something absolutely revitalising about starting fresh. But, when you show up in someone’s ‘countryside’ and assume it to be a ‘desert wilderness’ there are bound to be problems.

The Crown of Thorns

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

The Annunciation of Spring

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

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

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

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

Desert Spirituality in the Rainforest: A Lenten Retreat

 

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Lookout at Capitol Reef National Park in Utah

Introduction

 

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

The Call to the Desert

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

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

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

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

The Book of Creation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Garden in the Desert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Closing Prayer

A Prayer for our Earth

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

You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

We thank you for being with us each day.

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

Pope Francis, Laudato Si (2015)

Resources on Desert Spirituality

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

A Tale of Two Ecosystems

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

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

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

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

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

See for yourself, what do you think?

The Decadense of Moss

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

MOSS_DSC1675_DSC1666_DSC1688

The Shape of Water as Anthropocene Fairytale

[SPOILERS]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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