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.

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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Learning to Hear the Music: Toward a Mormon Mystical Tradition

Raised as a devout Mormon, my religious life began taking new direction in about 2011, when I started teaching a World Religions class at Salt Lake Community College. The seeds of that new direction came while attending the Easter Vigil in Salt Lake’s beautiful Cathedral of the Madeleine, one of the few Cathedrals under the patronage of Mary Magdalen, the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. As I entered the dark Cathedral with hundreds of other candle lit faces, I realized that we were at a funeral; that we were not just talking about Christ’s death, we were mourning it in preparation to celebrate his resurrection; a gift freely given. Something clicked, I felt sincere sorrow and then joy. I began to finally understand that word so many other Christians were using: Grace. Since then, I have taken slow and cautious steps toward the Catholic faith, and during this year’s Easter Vigil, I was baptized, confirmed and received first communion.

Liturgy, participating in cycle of Christ life and death, helped me to realize that God’s love was always already there. And it was through this Grace, this freely given gift of the world, I was loved, unconditionally. But not loved as an object of a distant Father’s affection, actually loved into being. Creation is and continues to be an act of grace.

I am not completely checked out of Mormonism. Most of my family still practices, and I am plugged in to the Bloggernacle. So during my Easter retreat this year, I decided to tune into to a bit of General Conference. During Wilford W. Anderson recent General Conference address, he began with a story about a Native American man who asked a doctor if he could dance (dancing being a way of healing for this man). The Doctor said no, and asked if the man could teach him. The Native American said that he could teach him to dance, but that the doctor must first learn to hear the music. Applying this to contemporary Mormonism Anderson stated:

“Sometimes in our homes, we successfully teach the dance steps but are not as successful in helping our family members to hear the music. We learn the dance steps with our minds, but we hear the music with our hearts. The dance steps of the gospel are the things we do; the music of the gospel is the joyful spiritual feeling that comes from the Holy Ghost. It brings a change of heart and is the source of all righteous desires.”

This peeked my attention. My major problem with Mormon spiritual practice was that in my experience, morality and church participation were means of earning God’s love, of earning the presence of the Holy Spirit, who, I was taught, would flee at the slightest offence. In this mode of spirituality, guilt became the primary motivator for avoiding certain behaviors, believing certain doctrines, and even attending church. Christ’s atonement made my sins forgivable, but somehow, caught up in right action, I missed the whole point of Christ in the first place. Thus, learning to hear the music before we learn to dance seemed like a perfect metaphor for understanding Christ’s love: Hearing the music is primary, and learning the dance steps comes with practice, over a lifetime. Mystical encounter, the act of being present to God loving us into being, is at the core of Christian spirituality, and from which flow our desires to do good. But then Elder Anderson continued:

“The challenge for all of us who seek to teach the gospel is to expand the curriculum beyond just the dance steps. Our children’s happiness depends on their ability to hear and love the beautiful music of the gospel. How do we do it? First…”

Elder Anderson then attempts to teach us the steps to hearing the music. In order to hear the music you must learn the steps!? At this my heart sunk and I turned off Conference and began to pace my room. I began to wonder why a religion founded on a profound mystical encounter with the Father and the Son in a grove of trees, could have become so anti-mystical. I looked in the LDS Topical Guide to see what it had to say: “Mysticism: See False Doctrine Sorcery Superstitions Traditions of Men.”

The guide refuses even an attempt at defining the tradition which gave rise to its own religion! So I went to the always reliable (sometimes controversial) Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Friar: “All I mean by mysticism is experience-based religion whereby you come to really know something for yourself. It’s not just believing something; it’s knowing something.” It seemed so curious to me that Mormonism embraces this definition of mysticism as the means to understanding doctrine reject it as a spiritual practice for knowing God’s love. Somehow, instead of seeking personal experience of the truth and reality of God’s unearned, ever-present love, Mormonism uses ‘mystical’ encounter as a tool to confirm propositions of faith, identity and personal morality. Again, there is nothing wrong with morality, identity, or beliefs. But when we start with them as a means of getting to God, we will ALWAYS come up short. The person of Jesus came to reveal to us that this is backwards. We start with God’s love, and then live into beliefs, identity, and morals. As a Mormon I was living this process completely backwards, and as a fledgling Catholic, I still struggle with it.

Then, an article, like a cyber-revelation, came across my Facebook feed. It was Adam Miller’s General Theory of Grace. Miller agrees that Mormons have a “tendency to read the gospel as a kind of secular manual for can-do humanism and self-improvement.” For Miller “righteous works only become righteous when they are motivated by the pure love of Christ, when they are the product of God’s grace as that grace works its way out into the world through our hearts, minds, and hands.” And here’s the clincher: “Grace is this massive, ongoing act of divinely organized creation that involves an uncountable host of agents (human and nonhuman) embedded in irreducible webs of stewardship, consecration, sacrifice, and interdependence.” [i] Beautiful words, felt deeply. Mysticism, in this light, is learning to be quiet and experience the grace of God creating us from moment to moment in what has been called by Jean-Pierre De Caussade the sacrament of the present moment. I encourage my dear Mormon friends and family to pick up Adam Miller’s books. His prophetic writing could help us put the horse back in front of the cart so to speak and as Elder Anderson hopes, to hear the beautiful music of the gospel, to which our lives become a dance.

[i] http://bycommonconsent.com/2015/04/07/a-general-theory-of-grace-ldsconf/