Dispatches from the Camino de Santiago: The End is the Beginning

  1. Arriving in Santiago

Falling to my knees, I found myself at an unexpected altar. I may have pushed a little too hard to arrive in Santiago before the crowds became unbearable; and then eaten some questionable local seafood for lunch. All of which induced a temporary but debilitating stomach upset. I could hardly stand let alone walk around the city. My arrival in Santiago was supposed to be a joyous and cathartic release after so many miles of prayerful walking. Instead, I was vomiting in a shared bathroom at an overpriced nightly pension just behind the Plaza de Obradoira. I could overhear the jubilant cheers of groups arriving at the cathedral from my bed.

Earlier that morning, when I had arrived in the Plaza, I had taken a wrong turn in the city’s labyrinthine city corridors and walked into the open rectangular plaza from the south, rather than through the small portal on the north side where a bagpipe busker plays swelling Celto-Galician melodies for the arriving pilgrims. When I stepped into the plaza, rather than feeling elation, I felt slightly confused. In the photographs it was weathered, and lichen covered and had the character of an ancient baroque cathedral, now it was immaculately clean, like the stone had just been laid. For a second I wondered if I was in the right place. Then, seeing some other pilgrims arrive and begin to celebrate I knew that of course I was in the right place. It turns out the façade had just been restored, and the scaffolding had only come down the day before. It was beautiful, lacking the characteristic grit and age I expected, the years of chips, pocks and stain had been lifted to reveal its true and youthful self. A beautiful metaphor for the spiritual life.

Entering the cathedral, a pilgrim’s Mass was wrapping up, and I waited at the back until the crowds began to reverently disperse. Wandering the nave, it felt smaller and less assuming than one might expect. It certainly felt much different than the classically gothic cathedrals of León and Burgos. Its baroque motif and adornments were a bit dusty and worn down, there was scaffolding above the altar, a few pigeons flew about the rafters, and its arches and ceiling were in desperate need of repair and restoration. And yet, despite its unassuming and worn appearance, the space exuded a kind of sacred expectation. A cue of people lined up to hug a golden statue of Santiago, Saint James behind the altar, and another waited to pray at the reliquary holding his reputed remains.

I did both rituals with a smile. I had finally arrived at the cathedral and, despite a wobbly landing, I began to fill with the satisfaction and joy of a pilgrimage completed. I then sat in the pews waiting for the next Pilgrim’s Mass and tried to be as open as possible to the reality of what was before me: the goal accomplished, the eccentric beauty, the diversity of my fellow pilgrims. The cathedral Mass was well orchestrated, the Bishop spoke a slow and discernable Spanish, and the music added to the reverent atmosphere. I lingered in the cathedral after the Mass snapping pictures, craning my neck at the Romanesque arches.

As I say, that night I fell ill, but by the morning I was OK enough to go back to the cathedral and walk around the city, visiting its many other treasures, churches and plazas over four days. As I rested from thirty days of intensely regimented walking, my heart filled with the romance and beauty of the place. I also began to reflect more deeply on the meaning and impact of pilgrimage in general, and my first walk on the Camino de Santiago.

Elaborate Camino trail marker.

  1. What is a Pilgrimage?

When I was ten or eleven, I jumped into a big van with a dozen or so of my fellow Mormon youth and headed to San Diego for an overnight trip. We were going to walk a section of the Mormon Battalion Trail, the historic route which the US Army-appointed Mormon Battalion marched before the end of the Mexican-America War. This march never saw combat, but it helped open a southern route to California as the US annexed much of the Southwest from Mexico.

We wanted to experience firsthand what it was like to walk the same trail our ancestors had walked. We were told of the hardships and inconveniences they had to endure. We walked to show gratitude to their sacrifice and build character. This pioneer pilgrimage is not uncommon in Mormon culture, and pioneer treks, reenactments and historic sites are a big part of forming Mormons in their own heritage and identity as America pioneers with a unique claim to the nation and its promises. In 2008, Mormons from across the US participated in a reenactment of the entire Mormon Battalion trek, a journey of over 2,000 miles. As an erasable teen, I just remember feeling annoyed, and wanting more snacks. But even then, my self-centered brain managed to muster some measure of reflexivity on just how difficult life must have been for those who came before me.

At the beginning of my pilgrimage to Santiago, one thing that surprised me was just how secular and recreational everyone’s motives seemed to be. As a religious person, I was frustrated by this. I even heard a Catholic priest say he was walking the Camino to get away from his hectic and busy life as an urban parish priest! I am not opposed to recreation or cool experiences, but to me, for a pilgrimage to be a pilgrimage, it must in some way connect the self with the sacred.

Wandering through the Pilgrim Museum in Santiago, a central display defined pilgrimage as a universal human phenomenon, existing in many religions and cultures. A pilgrimage is an allegory for the human experience, it is a holy path to a holy place; “a journey in search of spiritual meaning.” It is both destination and journey. In Spanish, ‘Camino’ simply means ‘way’ or ‘path’, and Christianity was initially described as The Way. Tao, the central concept of the constellation of folk religions and philosophies often referred as Taoism, also simply means the ‘Way’. Both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhisms embrace an eight-fold path to Nirvana, or enlightenment. The Psalms frequently refer to God’s law as a ‘path’, the path which the righteous follow. “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths” (Psalms 24:5).

For the Medieval Christians, braving the dangers and toils of the path, was not about having an experience or about leisure. It was about seeking forgiveness for wrongs, self-denial in the service of spiritual growth, healing from a debilitating illness, for petitions for family and friends that could not make the journey. It often involved great expense and great risk. The path was an objectively sacred path, to an objectively sacred place. Saint James was a spiritual force whose intercession was hoped to effect actual things in the world. He was no archetype or whimsical character from Christian myth. Pilgrimage was a spiritual technology in a world where life was short, difficult and dangerous.

With the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason, and the Reformation’s emphasis on grace over works, pilgrimage began to lose its force and meaning. Catholic superstition and idolatry was looked down upon, and for many Protestants, there was no path to walk since we are only saved through God’s grace, not through the Sacraments, or through our efforts.

Today, I would say a majority of those who walk the Camino are not affiliated with any particular religion, or have left the religion of their upbringing. At first I felt lonely in my religious and spiritual motivations. I became a little more judgmental and self-righteous than usual. For many the Camino was undeniably a social experience, or an athletic challenge. But despite my cynicism, it was an overwhelmingly positive and healing experience for many as well. The Camino can be life changing, life restoring, and so much more than just an interesting get away. The Camino has the ability to heal a part of people that isn’t readily available in daily life; that was nourished by the movement, the friendship and the sunshine.

I would not say that my experience was particularly life changing or healing. My pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela was definitely not what I expected. What going in promised to be a conventionally spiritual experience that traversed some beautiful country, turned out to be a very raw encounter with my most persistent demons. However, even though at several moments I thought of quitting, or at least wanted the experience to be over, I am so grateful that I did it. I am so grateful for the privilege of being able to take this time to just walk. The lessons I gleaned are still bubbling up. But I learned so much about the heritage of Christianity, about Spain, art and architecture; and yes, about myself. Here are a few of the major themes that emerged as I reflected on my walking pilgrimage between Pamplona and Santiago de Compostela during the month of June, 2018.  

  1. Pilgrimage is an Embodied Spiritual Practice

I am grateful for the revival of pilgrimage as a spiritual practice, and despite my cynicism toward its popularity, I really do believe that it is ultimately a good thing. I do however worry that we (inclusive we) focus too much on the external aspects of pilgrimage, with the temptation to broadcast our experiences to the world via social media in order to garner admiration and praise. I certainly wrestled with metering my own use of social media during the trip. Use of social media aside, I feel that in order for one to really be a pilgrim (peregrino) rather than a tourist (turi-grino), awareness, attention and interest in the spiritual dimension of the journey should be primary. Pilgrimage is not just experience, hiking or athleticism.

Pilgrimage is an important and rare embodied spiritual practice indigenous to Christianity. Christianity (Catholic and Protestant) has long neglected the body in our worship and spiritual practice (we don’t have our own version of Yoga). Thus, pilgrimage is an important way of re-incarnating Christianity, bringing us back to the body. Pilgrimage is powerful because it is fully embodied, but at the same time perfectly mirrors the spiritual dimensions of life itself as a spiritual journey.

The phenomenology of pilgrimage as spiritual practice is captured by the slow step-by-step-by-step walking of which it is made. It should not be rushed. Patience is a virtue. It is an ongoing encounter with the world as we slowly move through it. It is boredom and exhaustion and sickness and discomfort and social awkwardness and silence and monotony. It is ugly and beautiful places. It is moving at a primordially human pace. It is stopping to sit, stare, listen, cry, feel, pray, poke something strange, smell flowers, kick stones, wave at cows, laugh, remember, lament, worry, jot down an idea, think about the future, find a place to pee, and say ‘Buen Camino!’ for the 50th time. It is the sound of wind through cottonwoods, rain drops on the small leaves of a hedgerow, our own heart beating, speeding semi-trucks, distant wind mills, planes over head, pilgrims discussing in a language not our own. Pilgrimage is walking through a land of deeply embedded cultural memories, none of which were my own. The hilltops wink at their former pagan worshippers; the brittle ruins of the Roman Empire poke out like dry bones; there are whispers of the long ago Muslim conquest. The farmland exudes the long slow dwelling of a thousand generation of farmers, peasants and artisans.

And yet, there were several moments on the Camino that transported me back to places I have lived in my life. Walking toward León from a high hilltop, the view of the cathedral spires and the open arid valley behind it looked uncannily like Salt Lake City, Utah with the spires of the Mormon Temple and the Great Salt Lake Basin in the background. The semi-arid landscapes of the Meseta, and the smell of eucalyptus plantations in Galicia reminded me of my first home-place, California. There was a sort of present-invoking-the-past quality to these places. Unfamiliar landscapes they might have been, they still triggered many of my own past selves and experiences. These memories and thoughts then become part of the fabric of embodied reflection, lesson and landscape. This phenomenology of walking is an important aspect of any spiritual practice that engages not just our minds but our whole person and pushes and challenges us in new ways.

There is also a ritual aspect to pilgrimage as spiritual practice. To be a pilgrim is to do more or less the same thing every day: wake, pack, eat, walk, eat, walk, find lodging, wash clothes, eat, sleep. At times I found this monotony, even with the constantly new scenery and company, to be tedious. One of the podcasts I listened to while walking from Roman Catholic Bishop Robert Barron’s show Word on Fire shifted my perspective on the monotony of pilgrimage, and its ritual connection to the Mass. He quoted the 20th century Catholic writer G.K. Chesterton in his famous work Orthodoxy where he celebrated ritual repetition as an attribute of God’s ongoing creation of the world. Chesterton wrote:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

Like the Mass, which follows more or less the same pattern every time, ritual repetition is a way of returning to and reinforcing essential spiritual truths. This repetition with change, doing the same thing every day in slightly different places under slightly different circumstances is part of the holiness of pilgrimage. The slow change of the day mirrors the slow ripening of our own souls. The mistakes and sin which we continually find ourselves making are opportunities to return to God yet again, to do it again.

Magnificent ornate Retablo at Ascension church in Navarrete.

  1. Sacred Spaces are an Essential Component of Pilgrimage

Early on in my walk, it was clear that there was a spectrum of feelings about the ubiquity of Catholic sacred spaces on the Camino. Most of the churches, if they were open, offered stamps for our pilgrim passports; and most of the must-see destination along the Camino were historic monasteries, hermitages, chapels and cathedrals. It was sad to see so many pilgrims simply hurry past an open church door, or shrug at a suggested donation sign. Those who made it inside often strolled through the aisles and side chapels as if in a museum, or simply stamped their passports and left. To a certain extent I get it, there is a need to conserve one’s energy with so many churches along the way. I too found myself in a sort check off mode in all too many minor churches or hermitages, but sacred space is an important dimension to walking a pilgrimage.

The animosity toward churches and cathedrals went deeper for some folks I met. I would sometimes overhear pilgrims say that the sacred spaces were a waste of money—monuments to corruption and feudal extraction of wealth, first from the Spanish peasantry and then the ‘New’ World. One day, early in my Camino, I walked for a kilometer or so with two men from Mallorca and for them churches were a sign of the church’s earthly power, nothing more.

Another man admitted that the churches were great and all, very beautiful, but that he had long since stopped going to Mass. He balked at the notion that he needed a priest to forgive his sins, or that somehow the sacred began once he stepped one foot inside the church. He didn’t need a church to pray to God; wherever he knelt was his church.

I am sympathetic to these stances; the church has at many times been too focused on power, wealth and prestige. And, as someone who experiences God’s presence in the natural world, I am not opposed to viewing the world as sacred. However, what I would say to these arguments (and what I said to these pilgrims as we walked) is that sacred spaces are monuments to beauty, and an important centering complement to the diffusing nature of walking.

First, to suggest that the legions of people who participated in building these structures were merely either compelled or motivated by worldly power is too cynical a view to capture the ornate attention to detail, story and affect that these spaces undeniably afford. As we learn from our mistakes, I think that the church can be dedicated to beauty and equity. Being dedicated to social justice does not exclude a commitment to beauty as a tool for evangelization and encounter with God. As 19th century labor organizer Rose Schneiderman famously said in a speech, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too.”

To the second criticism, I tend to agree in principle that the world itself is sacred because it was made by God. However, our awareness of God’s presence is not spread equally throughout our lives. It is like saying that fitness can happen any place, not just the gym; sure it can, but they sure help! What is powerful about sacred spaces is that they are set aside (the root of sacred means set aside) to amplify the sacred dimensions of life, and push us to the boundaries the sensible world. They are places where we practice the presence of God; where we train ourselves to discern the sacred in the world, each other and ourselves.

Dedicated sacred spaces, spaces that take beauty seriously, are in my estimation the best places to bring together the paradoxical aspects of spirituality: material and spiritual, tangible and intangible, temporal and eternal, universal and particular. Their arches, height, columns, symmetry, depth and focal points participate in an objective beauty that is universally appealing. Yet, with their insistence on corporality through painting, statuary and iconography they stubbornly insist that the viewer not get lost in the transcendent, but take into account the bodies and lives and stories of the saints and the central figures of Christianity. Cathedrals and churches are filled with statues of triumphant and ecstatic saints yes, but also broken, beaten, bleeding, breast feeding, crucified, tortured and burnt alive saints. Catholic sacred space points to resurrection and eternity, but they do so through the brutalized body of a Jewish peasant. Sacred spaces point to the transcendent with a finger made of flesh and bone.

In one particularly striking example, on a tour of a 16th century Franciscan convent, there was a life sized statue of the bleeding body of Jesus laid to rest in the tomb. In the wound in his side was a monstrance and tabernacle. A monstrance is a small clear case for a consecrated piece of Eucharist bread, and the tabernacle is where the left over consecrated bread is stored after Mass. The monstrance is used in Eucharistic Adoration, and in processions. For Catholics, once consecrated, these hosts are the actual body of Christ under the appearance of bread. In the gruesome statue at the convent, rather than decorated in abstract design and flourish, as is typical, it was in the side of Christ. While I often find baroque statuary to be distasteful and hokey, even grotesque, this statue perfectly exemplified Catholicism’s insistence on both the transcendent and immanent aspects of God. God is utterly beyond our comprehension, and utterly within our grasp. God does not cause our suffering, he endures it with us.

Another way sacred spaces bring together the paradoxical aspects of religious life by blending objective and subjective dimensions of beauty. I think that one of the reasons so many people are drawn to massive gothic cathedrals is that their presence, size and forms participate in objective beauty, beauty whose affect comes from outside human construction. The perspectives, arches, domes etc. are affecting, they act on the human consciousness and draw one toward the transcendent. On the other hand, the motifs and décor, the styles of the adornment and statuary are often framed within a particular period or style whether Romanesque, Gothic or Baroque which appeals to a more subjective sense of beauty through historic and cultural cues.

There is also a spiritual ecology to Catholic sacred spaces, especially cathedrals. Living in the age of national parks, protected areas and wilderness, it is easy to overlook that Catholic sacred spaces are also stylized homages to the sacramental quality of the world itself. They are monuments to the transcendent, to the eternal, but undeniably celebrate the particular beauty and sacredness of this world. Cathedrals were built as microcosms of the medieval macrocosm, as cosmic-spiritual observatories of sorts. They are oriented along an east west axis, with the altar facing east, the direction of the rising sun, a symbol of Christ. They are often cruciform in shape, which is symbolic of the cross, but also of the human person, or even the personhood of the world. The church is the mystical body of Christ of which we are member, and with the resurrection, that body extends into the entire universe.

The priest, in his vestments, recapitulates all of creation and brings the bounty of creation and work of human hands (our offerings, and bread and wine) to the altar. The Sanctus prayer is a way for human beings, led and symbolized by the priest to join the prayer of the universe and creation, not to speak over it. The priest’s vestments change color with the seasons, and the liturgy is meant not only to reflect the praise of God that is happening all the time in heaven, but to participate in the archetypal cycle of the earthly seasons of birth, life, death and resurrection.

The cathedral itself is designed as an early paradise, a Garden of Eden. The columns are trees whose tops are often adorned with stylized leaves. The ceilings are sometimes adorned with stars, or at least lead the eye to heaven. The moldings are bursting with flowers, vines and leaves. The stained glass, statuary, retablos and paintings are filled with birds, trees, mammals, grottos, light and seasons. It is also very common for the altar retablos column’s to feature sheaves of wheat and spiraling grape vines.

On the outside, many Spanish churches were often literal bird sanctuaries. Walking into a new town, sometimes the easiest way to find the church was to watch where the swallows were flying. Often placed on small rises or hilltops, church bell towers were almost always bustling with bird life. Purple martins and barn swallows were the most abundant, but there were also pigeons, sparrows and sometimes colonies of storks.

I also found that elements of my walks were reinforced within the décor of the cathedrals. For example, the rose windows of the Leon cathedral felt so much more powerful because all along the Camino, the wild roses were in full bloom. And, one cannot help but notice the thousands of acres of vineyards and grain along the Camino, elements which are daily lifted on the altar during the Eucharist. Walking through oceans of grain, and row after row of vineyard took on a special significance when I knew that in the evening I would attend Mass.

In sum, sacred spaces at their best are meeting places for inner and outer landscapes, between transcendent and immanent, between mortality and eternity. For this reason, they are such an important complement of our walks. Sacred space is a focal point and a place to practice of the presence of God. It is a ritual of repeatedly coming to God as we are, and then trying to take a little more of God with us into the world when we leave.

Carmelite Monastery where John of the Cross is Buried.

  1. Seeking God Often Includes Periods of ‘Darkness’

Before I flew back to the states, I took a train to Segovia, just northwest of Madrid to visit the final resting place of Saint John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Carmelite mystic who I had read before the Camino, but who became increasingly important to me as I realized just how much my own experience of the Camino was reflected in his phases of spiritual development. My first official pilgrimage felt very much like what John of the Cross would call a Dark Night of the Soul, a period of purification (purgation) where despite being immersed in spiritual practice, we feel a strong sense of God’s absence and spiritual desolation rather than consolation. The world famous and now canonized Saint Mother Teresa experienced nearly 50 years of this darkness, after a very vivid experience of hearing the voice of Jesus call her to start her work in the slums of Calcutta.

I am not glorifying this sort of experience, or wearing it as a badge. I am not saying that I suffered anything all that dramatic; but, my experience on the Camino de Santiago was surprisingly difficult. I did not connect as easily or readily with my fellow pilgrims as I expected; I felt more pain and discomfort than I thought I would. It was also an expectedly direct encounter with many longstanding insecurities, fear, depression, temptation, feelings of deep unworthiness and religious doubt. I did not often feel an obvious sense of God’s presence, of my own goodness, of the going-to-be-alright-ness of the world, or even of the truthfulness of Christianity.

When the mystics talk about spiritual darkness, or I say that I encountered it on the Camino, we are not talking about a force in opposition to goodness. Darkness is a shade of spiritual experience so to speak; it tries to capture the fact that the spiritual life is not always marked by reward, positive emotions or blessing. The spiritual life is not a vending machine. For some reason when it comes to religion this lesson seems to be out of vogue. We don’t always feel a direct correlation between spiritual growth and current mood. I feel confident that if we insist on correlating Gods presence with good feelings, we are in danger of turning spirituality into a sappy TV commercial.

Everyone knows that if you want to be a better runner, athlete, artist, writer, politician, or just about anything, that you often have to give up certain pleasures in order to grow; that one must push and stretch oneself to make progress. Pilgrimage as a spiritual practice is not just about the positive experiences and the sweetness of feeling God’s presence in places, people and nature (though it certainly is that too), but also learning to work through the absence of these consolations as well. Faith is being able to keep going even if we don’t feel a reason to. In The Divine Comedy, Dante wanted to immediately climb the Holy Mountain to get to God, but before he could, he had to pass through hell and purgatory. His path showed him the spectrum of human suffering and sinfulness and the ways that we turn away from God.

Catholic spirituality intuits, sometimes gruesomely, the idea that suffering is redemptive. The Camino was filled with statuary depicting the suffering the martyrs, with statuary of the Sorrowful Blessed Mother with knives stabbing into her heart, and the brutalized body of Jesus. As I have said, while I find these statues mostly disturbing and sometimes hokey, they made a certain kind of sense as a pilgrim. Archetypal suffering didn’t seem as foreign to me when I limped into a church soaked in sweat.

An important part of pilgrimage as a spiritual practice then is being willing to subject oneself to difficulty and discomfort so that God can effect growth in the soul, even if we are not aware of it. On a pilgrimage we do not accomplishing anything other than opening ourselves to what God is seeking to accomplish through us.

  1. The Spiritual Life is Ultimately about Love

I was mostly annoyed by the obnoxious tagging and graffiti along the Camino, but one day as I walked, for some strange reason I stopped and read one of the hand-written scrawling’s on one of the many Camino signs. It read: “We only accept the love we think we deserve.” The words struck me very powerfully. I have always struggled with self-acceptance. I have lived much of my life believing that I would be loved only for being smart, or nice, or morally worthy. My religious life has been in large measure a hoped for equation between pious works for God-given blessings. Part of my ongoing process of healing these deep wounds will simply be learning to trust long enough to unclench my defenses and feel just how much love has always been and is already around me. Not resolving to work harder, to be better in these bullet pointed areas, accomplishing these goals by this date in order to validate my existence. My family already and always will love me. The people who call me friend, already love me. God already loves me. It is amazing just how difficult it is for me to accept this reality! To use a symbol from the Camino, my heart is so often like a closed shell, I use most of my energy and strength keeping the shell tightly shut, my walls up, and myself safe from hurt, disappointment and rejection.

The spiritual life is not about earning God’s love through works, pilgrimage is not about showing God how dedicated we are, it is about putting ourselves in a position of vulnerability so that love freely flows from outside to inside, from inside to outside. At so many times as I walked along the Camino, the calcified shell around my heart cracked open ever so slightly—walking before a magnificent sunrise or sunset, experiencing the peace of solitude, listening to the birds sing, watching butterflies waft in the breeze, getting a kind smile or kind work from a fellow pilgrim, during the Mass, listening to a Podcast, reading a Psalm that spoke perfectly to my state of mind, standing before a piece of art, or ancient retablo—only to promptly shut again when difficulty arose, someone was unkind, or I felt vulnerable.

One day, after arriving at my Alberque and walking around the small village of Villafranco de Los Montes de Oca, I approached the ancient stone church. It was closed, but I noticed that there were bees flying in and out of a small hole above the door of the church. There was a beehive in the church, and I smiled, remembering a familiar poem I had once read, and would later see posted on the Camino. It was a verse from Antonio Machado’s poem, ‘Last night as I was Sleeping’:

“Last night as I was sleeping,

I dreamt—marvelous error!—

that I had a beehive

here inside my heart.

And the golden bees

were making white combs

and sweet honey

from my old failures.”

The church at its best is a sanctuary for the slow and messy work of becoming holy. The spiritual life at its best, is the ongoing acceptance that this work is already underway. There is a delightful legend about a local saint who lived not far from where this church was located. Saint John of Ortega (1080-1163), after surviving a shipwreck, devoted the rest of his life to improving the Camino de Santiago through the notoriously dangerous Oca Mountains. Saint John established a monastery and a hospital for pilgrims, and was nicknamed ‘Ortega’ which means nettles, because he lived as a hermit in the mountain forests. Some years after his death and burial, his tomb was opened and to the amazement of the crowds, a pleasant aroma wafted out along with a swarm of white bees. This was taken as a sign of his blessedness, and he became a patron saint of children, hospice care and fertility.

In William Faulkner’s story about a man hunting an elusive and legendary bear it is not until the hunter puts down his gun that the bear reveals herself to him in the woods. We often think that we are seeking God, but really it is God who is seeking us. Much of my spiritual practice, I realize, has been about trying to control God, on my terms, when I am ready, when I feel spiritual, when I want something. The Camino has taught me that this is an idol. God cannot be caged, Holiness is messy. All of our liturgy, ritual and practice is but an exercise in learning to be open to God, not a spiritual technology for manipulating or binding God into our timelines or will. If I only accept the love I think I deserve I muzzle the effusive grace of a wild God.

Of course, I certainly did leave the Camino with a to-do list, with priorities, with ideas, with things I want to accomplish, with resolutions; but I also left with the reassurance that the essence of the spiritual life is to live in love, and love can only be felt and given in the measure that it is first accepted.

  1. The Ending is the Beginning

There is a common phrase on the Camino de Santiago: The end is the beginning. Ringing of paradox, this cliché has come to resonate with me as I reflect on my experience. In Christianity, the end of life is the beginning of eternity. The moral of the story is the story itself. The destination and journey are part of the same sacred whole. The Cathedral of Santiago is sacred, but so are the many paths that lead there. Now more than ever, reflecting back on my original motivations to be a pilgrim, I realize that I am only at the beginning of the spiritual life. Pilgrimage was far more difficult than I expected, I went hoping to find something new, but what I discovered is that pilgrimage is not about getting something, but opening ourselves to the wealth that is already within us at each blessed moment whether filled with joy, sadness, pain or anxiety.

Liturgy as Ecology

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Saint James Anglican Church

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

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

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

Pale Green

In the spring,

The pale yellow-green leaves of the maples

Bleed into the rich yellow plumage of the just-arrived warblers.

By the time the maple leaves are deep green with summer,

The warblers will have gone.

–May 17, 2017

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

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.

The Christ of the Celts

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The Milky Way, near Oyster Bay, Vancouver Island

This week I read J. Philip Newell’s lovely book Christ of the Celts. While it’s a shallow on historical or theological detail, it does a wonderful job pointing to way to how the Neo-Celtic Christian movement might help in birthing Christianity anew.

Newell, a well respected priest in the Church of Scotland, and a popular retreat leader, outlines the Celtic response to the most iconic, and unfortunately, the most damaging Christian dogmas: Original Sin, Celibacy, Ex Nihilo creation and Substitutionary Atonement. I was impressed by how Newell both highlighted alternative approaches to these doctrines, ways in which the Church might move forward, and ways that we might engage other traditions while deepening our commitment to Christ and the Cross.

I was not surprised by his critiques of celibacy missing the point of a full human life, or the way Substitutionary Atonement turns God’s love into a debt. But I was particularly impressed with his discussion of the Ex Nihilo doctrine. As a Mormon we were taught to see this as one way the church had lost its way. Joseph Smith interpreted Genesis as saying that “created”in Genesis 1 meant organized from pre-existent matter. A doctrine that doesn’t really gain anything for Mormonism as far as I can tell, it simply helped the early Church differentiate itself from the rest of Christianity. Catherine Keller writes a stunning critique of Ex Nihilo in her book Face of the Deep as an essentially masculinist approach to creation. What she calls “tehomophobia” or fear of the Tehom, the chaos or the primordial waters over which the spirit broods in the beginning.

Newell’s approach, far less complex, is a simple distinction. Rather than assuming that God created the world out of nothing, he argues that Irish theologians such as John Scotus Eriugena, saw the world as created out of God. Newell suggests that this is an important distinction because, an Ex Nihilo view of creation, where matter is simply a raw material created to satisfy the needs and wants of the human soul, contributed to the disenchantment of Nature that led to the ongoing industrial holocaust of the earth and her myriad creatures.

In the Christianity that must be birthed, if it and the earth are to survive, we must return Christ to the center of matter. Christ, the Word made flesh, is originally incarnate in creation. For Newell, the Bible and creation are two books that must be read simultaneously.  The body of Christ and the body of the Cosmos are indistinguishably intertwined, and the through the help of the Celtic writers, Christianity can learn to see that once again.

Making the Invisible Visible

One way to conquer a people is to erase their places. As I attempt to come to an understanding of my own connection to place, it is important to remember the invisible layers that already exist. This project is mapping Indigenous Place-names in the Vancouver area. These simple place-names marked prominent features or seasonal uses and were embedded in a Spiritual Ecology of food, kin, myth, trade, and war.

Deep Roots, Entwined Branches: Reflections on the Parliament of the World’s Religions

Laying on cured grass just outside of a closed Forest Service campground in the foothills of the Idaho panhandle, cool air condenses into dew on my sleeping bag. I shiver between sleep and wakefulness. The stars keep me company. I watch Cassiopeia slowly swing around the North Star, and around 4:00 am, Orion becomes visible. It is strange that only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. There are dozens of other constellations whose faces I do not recognize, and whose stories I do not recall. Then, in the east, an almost imperceptible glow begins to put the trees and hilled horizon into dim relief. Venus, Mercury and Jupiter line up to greet the day. Morning is approaching.

I, along with five other members of the Salish Sea Spiritual Ecology Alliance are on our way to the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions supported by a small grant from the Sisters of Charity Halifax and we have stopped to camp for the night after a long day of driving.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions was first convened in 1893 in Chicago to coincide with the World’s Fair. This year it is being held in Salt Lake City, Utah the Axis Mundi of my first religious tradition, Mormonism, and the place I lived and taught World Religions for two years before I moved to Vancouver. In 2014, I attended the Society of American Foresters annual conference in the very same venue, and when I heard that the Parliament was coming in 2015, I felt a pang of synchronicity. I studied both forestry and theology in graduate school, and though it was a small coincidence, it felt like Life reassuring me that I was on the right path.

Arriving in Salt Lake City, we found the Salt Palace Convention Center packed with about 10,000 people, representing at least 50 faiths, from 80 countries. The first Parliament excluded Native peoples, Mormons and Atheists, but this year just about every possible belief and practice was present. We began by going through a ‘smudge’ purification ritual officiated by a kindly Paiute elder, and then making an offering of tobacco to the sacred fire. It was good to start the Parliament by acknowledging the Spiritual Ecology of the First Peoples of this land.

The Parliament was a veritable smorgasbord of spiritual and religious diversity: mandalas, labyrinths, spontaneous dance parties, flash mobs, meditation gurus, chanting, even a procession of people dressed like angels. Exhibitors hawked every kind of spiritual ware from prayer beads and Native American jewelry, to sacred texts and icons. It was a cacophonous mosaic of the world’s spiritu-diversity. Overwhelming at first, I settled into the rhythm of the Parliament, and to try and drink from its convention-shaped wisdom.

The mission of the Parliament is “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” This mission was on full display throughout the Parliament, as most sessions focused on issues of poverty, cooperation, women’s rights, violence, terrorism, climate change, ecology, and more. I attended dozens of the concurrent sessions –from Pagans respond to the Pope, to Vedic Cosmology. I was even lucky enough presented a few myself.

In ‘Religion and Ecology in the Anthropocene’, I looked to the future religion in an ecological context of human domination. I presented Spiritual Ecology as an emerging and increasingly popular orientation that transcends religious affiliations. Our Panel headed up by Suresh Fernando, Maya Graves-Bacchus and Alysha Jones then defined spiritual ecology and presented the vision and mission of our organization. It was a wonderful conversation! In my second presentation ‘Trees, Forests and the Sacred’, I started with a poem on Sacred Groves, and then rushed through a PowerPoint on the types of sacred trees and forests. Then I invited participants to leave the air-conditioned convention center and spend time with actual trees in Temple Square. We reconvened in front of the LDS Temple and discussed our experiences. It was a very powerful way to bring home the importance of trees in our spiritual lives. My third presentation was as a short guided meditation on cosmology. Wandering through the phases of cosmic evolution, we meditation on the 5 elements focused on each in our bodies and in the earth. But enough about that!

Along with the hundreds of concurrent sessions there were six plenaries sessions spaced throughout the week which addressed Women’s issues; Emerging Leaders; Income Inequality; War, Violence and Hate Speech; Climate Change and Indigenous issues. The speeches and energy in the massive plenary hall was electric, and I was deeply moved by most of the speeches and speakers. The diversity of voices were not there to convince us of their beliefs or doctrines, but to challenge us to live up to our best moral teachings. Not that their beliefs and doctrines did not come through in their talks, or that they needed to check them at the door, but that the Parliament was simply not the place to debate the metaphysical truths of religious belief. It was a place of convergence in common cause, and a space for sharing the unique perspectives each tradition brings to the works of justice, mercy, poverty and ecology.

I was particularly inspired by the number and diversity of women leaders. Eco-feminist Vandana Shiva, writer and Course in Miracles enthusiast Marianne Williamson, Ayurveda teacher Mother Maya Tiwari, theologian Dr. Serene Jones, Indigenous Grandmother Mary Lyons, Rabbi Amy Eilberg, indigenous youth activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, Primatologist Jane Goodall, writer Karen Armstrong, evangelical climate activist Katherine Hayhoe, religion and ecology scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker and so many more. The Parliament was a welcome place for those who sought to advance the equality of women. There was also a surge of energy focused on the reemergence of the Divine Feminine.

On the role of women, it was stated plainly, the world’s religions have a mixed record with respect to treating women with dignity. Parliament Board member Phyllis Curott reiterated,

“The dignity, safety and equality of women is the global human rights struggle of our time. The world’s religions can no longer contribute to or allow the denigration of half of humanity…Women, and men, of faith and spirit are gathering in Salt Lake City to fix this broken moral compass and call upon the world’s religions to stop the deprivation and violence against women and girls; to stop harmful teachings and practices that justify discrimination and abuse; and to ensure that women are fully involved in decision-making within religions.”

It was humbling to once again realize how much privilege I carry in the world as a white, cis-gendered male, Christian; and to realize that my place of privilege has led to the suffering of bodies that do not look like mine. Speaking of the recent attack on a Gurdwara in Wisconsin where a white supremacist killed six people and wounded four others, Sikh woman Valerie Kaur lamented that:

“100 years after my family has called this country home, and 14 years after 9/11, our bodies are seen as perpetually foreign, and potentially terrorist. Just as black bodies are seen as criminal, brown bodies illegal, trans bodies immoral, indigenous bodies savage, and women’s bodies as property.”

It is always a hard reality to face; that my demographic has caused so much suffering to women, to immigrants, to blacks, to indigenous communities, and to the LGBTQ community. It reminded me of something Jim Wallis said in relation to the violence facing so many African Americans in the US: “If white Christians in America acted more Christian than white when it came to race, black parents would be less fearful for their children.” These are hard words. The Parliament was a call to repentance. I am trying not to internalize guilt, but to channel it into the energy we need to build a better world, and the energy I need to continue to strive to be a better man, a more conscious white person, and the kind of Christian that takes God’s love seriously, for myself and for the other.

There was no illusion that religion is often tangled up with this discrimination, violence, terror and hatred around the globe. Fundamentalism, extremism, patriarchy, terrorism and capitalism were all called out for their negative consequences, faults, flaws and mistakes, but there was very little bitterness, vitriol or blame. For all its faults, religion was overwhelmingly embraced as a force for good in the world, a force that is capable of acting out of a deep and Divine source of love toward those that we might otherwise fear. Each speaker drawing from their own traditions and experiences, in the face of insurmountable problems, was able to expose the center of love and compassion at the core of all our religious and spiritual traditions. They admonished us to access this core with the intention of serving our human siblings and the earth community. Each speaker was grounded in respect, love and hope for the possibilities present in this remarkable gathering.

While the problems we face were certainly front and center, the good we have accomplished was also with us. Discussion of the transition from the UN Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals cited that fact that globally, extreme poverty has been cut in half since 1990. Eboo Patel discussed his work with Interfaith Youth Corps, which works with campus groups around the USA to build interfaith relationships and to make it known just how much interfaith cooperation has succeeded in the past. New Thought Minister Michael Beckwith talked about the potential of moving the economy from a model of Success 1.0 and 2.0 with an emphasis on personal profit, or personal profit tempered by philanthropy; to what he called Success 3.0, which focuses on the impacts our enterprises have on other people and the planet before personal profit. Jane Goodall spoke to the evolutionary origins of violence, and how human beings, unlike chimpanzees face a choice. We can act on those evolutionary impulses or we can transcend them. The Parliament was a pep-rally for actively choosing goodness over evil, forgiveness rather than revenge, and hope rather than despair.

One thing I noticed at the Parliament was that young people were a minority. This really hit home when I sat around the table with old friends from Utah and we realized that though most of us had attended BYU (the LDS owned College in Provo, Utah), most of us had left the Mormon Church. Few had transitioned to other faiths as I had, and most were still carrying the wounds of lost belief, residual guilt, and bitterness. My friends have left for many reasons, but I wished that they could have heard the plenary speeches which called us to forgiveness and hope. Yet, for most young people, the damage has been done, and the thought of returning to the religions of their upbringing is near impossible. I do not blame young people for leaving organized religion, as I said, there is plenty to point fingers at, but it makes me sad none the less. Especially at a time when their voices and creativity are so desperately needed to address these mounting global issues and problems. If religion wants to survive, it must find a way to engage young people in ways that are authentic, meaningful, and hopeful.

Yes religion can be insular, exclusive, moralistic and violent, but at the Parliament of the World’s Religions I realized that we were part of something much greater than a collection of religious institutions in dialogue. We are part of a global Interfaith Movement that is predicated on the assumption that we have something to learn from other religious traditions, and that the problems of the world are a test of how well our traditions serve humanity and the earth. Some predict that religion will go away. I am not convinced of this. Yes, religion will have to change as it always has—as I realized in the wet grass of the Idaho Panhandle, it is only when we sit still do we realize just how constant is our motion. As we continue to dialogue, to seek understanding, to cooperate on global projects to combat climate change, poverty and discrimination, the roots of our faith may deepen, but our branches will become more entwined. This is the religion of the future.

A night at the Park Butte Fire Lookout

4th of July.

I stumbled my way up and up the 3.5 mile trail to Park Butte historic Fire Lookout.

I arrive near dusk, not sure the time because I don’t have a watch or cell phone with me.

I find the place empty, how lucky to have it to myself for the night.

Up close, Mount Baker’s glaciers accordion down the southern slopes.

The sun is dipping toward the Salish Sea as I explore the nooks and crannies of the Lookout—pots, pans, water jugs, saws, axes, maps, log books from the 80s and 90s.

A few crumpled Gary Snyder poems in a tattered booklet: Patron saint of Washington Fire Lookouts.

I walk the creaky deck surrounding the Lookout.

The wind talks with long pauses between wordy gusts.

The thrushes sing, a bat flutters by eating bugs, the sky darkens.

Venus and Jupiter twinkle as a million tiny fireworks pop in the valley below.

A golden waning moon rises from the Cascade Mountains.

Sleep comes slowly, interrupted frequently by the wind rumbling and clattering through the leaky Lookout.

Smokey dawn, July 5.

My First Visit to Gethsemani Abbey

Statue greeting visitors to Gethsemani Abbey.

Statue greeting visitors to Gethsemani Abbey.

I arrived at Gethsemani in the first mega bus of three. The spire of the Abbey church rose suddenly behind a slight grassy hill. Several monks greeted us and led eager groups of about 20 through the cloister, Thomas Merton’s humble grave, and then up the short road to the hermitage where Merton started living full time in August of 1965. The pilgrim crowd, reverently snapping photos in silence, we converged in waves on the cinder block hermitage. It felt something like a flash mob-monastery—all of us interested to some degree in Merton’s spiritual writings, some of us scholars on Merton’s theology, but none willing to take the lead into the actual life of a monk or nun. We were a momentary cloister, a temporary community. Meanwhile the monastery’s average age climbs, and the monks announced this week that they would discontinue producing the cheese they have produced for many decades. Gethsemani Abbey remains a sacred site to many of us, but it is changing, and its long term future is uncertain.

I stood with the others outside the hermitage, drinking coke, listening to a monk tell us stories about Merton’s life here as fire ants, sent forth from their clay monasteries, silently tried to rip my toenails off my sandal-shod feet. We nodded, asked questions, paced through the small rooms, and then wandered outside toward the edges of the clearing to imagine what solitude would be like here. As we made our way back, another group eagerly approached.

At the end of our tour there was still about an hour before the monks were going to chant the mid-day hour, so I decided to head back out to the hermitage to see if I could steal a few moments alone. I passed chatting stragglers, and when I arrived, I went inside, snapped a few photos of the empty rooms, prayed in the small chapel, turned off the lights, picked up a few discarded refreshment cups from the floor, and then sat myself down on the now silent cement porch which had only a few minutes earlier been bustling with pacing pilgrims. A fat lizard scurried across the front of the cool cement porch into a small strip of sun near the edge. She stopped to eye me up and down, putting in a few push-ups before scurrying on. The breeze was cool and it lifted the green leaves of the tulip poplar, maple and oak trees that now surround the monastery. (At the time it was built, judging from some early photos, the area around the hermitage was much more open.)

Monks chanting the noon hour.

Monks chanting the noon hour.

I didn’t have any profound flashes of insight, or visions of Merton banging out drafts of his immortal prose, but I felt a glimmer of the wholeness of solitude, if only for a few precious minutes. I could hear my breath and the wind rising and falling together. I felt peace. I felt God. Then, a hunched figure appear on the meandering path up to the hermitage. My brief solitude at Merton’s hermitage was ended. As he approached I could see large cuffs in his pants, and a few patches. I could somehow tell he was a monk from Gethsemani, no doubt on his way to stay at the hermitage for a few days, as it is still in regular use. I greeted him, and in with a slightly annoyed but honest tone he said, “You must be a straggler?” I said, “Yes, I will get out of your hair” (he didn’t have very much of it). He introduced himself, and told me he had timed his annual week-long stay with the full moon, so as to be able to attend lauds and mass in the mornings without the use of a flash light. I wished him luck, hopped over a few anthills and was on my way down the road back to the cloister, the road that Merton and many other monks and retreatants have taken over the years. The bell rang, and I made it to the monastery chapel in time to hear the soft chant of the monks of Gethsemani. Later I gave a presentation at the Conference on Merton the hermit and the idea of wilderness. It was a beautiful day.

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Merton’s hermitage from the path.

This year I have been lucky enough to visit a couple of sites with sacred significance to me: Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker house in Manhattan and Aldo Leopold’s shack in Baraboo, Wisconsin. In past years I have also visited the site of the saw mill where John Muir worked in Yosemite Valley, the Sacred Grove where Mormon founder Joseph Smith had his visions, and Walden Pond. Each of these sites brings into full color the significance of place in our encounters with the Divine, with life. Each of us famous or not, inhabits a place. Our bodies know that place better than our minds. So, to inhabit the places where my mentors worked and wrote is like meeting them in person, or more awkwardly, meeting them in place. I think this desire is universal in humanity, based on the number of sacred sites, shrines, national historic sites, etc. that exist throughout the world. But just because we hold a particular cinder block hermitage in New Haven, Kentucky to be sacred, should not meant that everything outside that space is unsacred. As Wendell Berry has written, there are not sacred places and unsacred places in the world, there are only sacred places and desecrated places. May we continue to visit and protect the places that inspire us, and inspire the places we are at home in.