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Nature and the Contemplative Life (Part 1)

Nature and the Contemplative Life (Part 1)

“The present moment holds infinite riches beyond your wildest dreams but you will only enjoy them to the extent of your faith and love. The more a soul loves, the more it longs, the more it hopes, the more it finds. The will of God is manifest in each moment, an immense ocean which only the heart fathoms insofar as it overflows with faith, trust and love.”

— Jean-Pierre De Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment

In the West, both nature and God have too often been treated as entities outside of ourselves. It may not be a coincidence then that our relationship with the church and with the earth are in crisis. This notion will be familiar to followers of Passionist Priest Thomas Berry. Our perceived separation from God has left a gaping hole in the spiritual lives of many, and our perceived separation from earth has facilitated the most complex and unsustainable civilization the world has ever seen. Berry and others suggest that only through a sustained, storied, and moral response do we stand a chance of making a transition toward a more sustainable civilization, the first step being to overcome our perceived alienation from the world.

Contemplative writers and practitioners from every tradition and age have done wonderful work in helping us to come to the realization that the Divine/God/Absolute is not just somewhere out there but also here and now. The contemplatives teach us to find the Divine in each passing moment through practices that still the mind and help us to focus on each miraculously unique softly falling snow flake of the now, now, and now. It is no accident then that as the mystics discovered the Creator within, they also discovered Creation. Mystics like St. Francis, Teresa of Avila, Teilhard de Chardin, and many others realized the intuition of what the sciences of ecology and cosmology are telling us today: reality is fundamentally a communion, an interconnection of bodies that are not on the world but woven deeply within it, emerging from it. Those breaths in our contemplative practices that so deeply connect us to Source also connect us to the sources of life that share this delicate planet hurtling through space-time around a tiny star in the indifferent arms of the Milky Way.

Just as contemplative practices seek to unify us with the Divine and with the present moment, so too might we see contemplation as a means for overcoming our alienation from nature. By seeking to dwell more fully in what we might call “the wilderness of the present moment” as part of our contemplative practice, perhaps our collective insights will contribute to the vision of a mutually enhancing Divine-human-earth relationship. In this essay, I propose three main points of conversation toward that end:

We are Nature
Cultivating Compassion
Encountering our Fear
Part 1 of this two-apart article discusses “We are Nature.” Stay tuned next week for Part 2, which will discuss “Cultivating Compassion” and “Encountering our Fear.”

We Are Nature

To state it simply, the stars are our ancestors. As physicist Brian Swimme has put it, “Our bodies have passed through countless vast explosions.” [1] This is because most of the elements heavier than helium and hydrogen were forged in the furnaces of exploding stars. Four-and-a-half billion years ago, the earth formed from the clouds of these supernovae and began to orbit our sun like a whirling dervish. Life, our primordial elder, emerged (was created, if you like) shortly thereafter. Evolution saw the blossoming of the sacred Tree of Life whose branches meandered through time reaching for the light of consciousness. The dynamic of life and death, predator and prey, living and nonliving gave shape to our bodies.

Our eyes in relation to light.
Our ears in relation to sound.
Our hands in relation to trees.
Our feet in relation to ground.
Our teeth in relation to the bodies of others.
Our hearts in relation to each other.

As Anthropologist Richard Nelson puts it, “There is nothing in me that is not of earth, no split instant of separateness, no particle that disunites me from the surroundings. I am no less than the earth itself. The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. Where the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself.” [2]

Ironically, one of the West’s most beloved spiritual ideas, wilderness, developed as a response to the idea that humanity and nature are separate. So to protect nature from us, we had to keep it that way. Nature became a domain of reality separate from human beings either by the interpretation of scripture or through cultural sophistication. This dualistic modus operandi has not been all bad—our perceived separation unleashed immense creativity in the fields of biology, medicine, engineering, and technology that allows me to write this article and communicate it with people around the world. Our knowledge of cosmology, anthropology, biology, and physics has all come through the hard work of persons operating under this perceived separation. But the dualism between culture and nature and the industrial project have also had devastating consequences for the earth and her myriad life forms.

Wild places are often the setting for contemplatives in both Western and Eastern writings, predating the Victorian institutionalization of wilderness. As Belden Lane has pointed out in his excellent book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, the well-known Christian hermits of the 3rd century and onward fled to the deserts of Palestine and Sinai in emulation of Jesus of Nazareth, but also to escape from an increasingly imperial form of Christianity. The deserts of Sinai and Egypt were teachers, places to exorcise the demons of mind and heart. The father of Christian hermits, St. Anthony, said that a monk outside the wilderness was like a fish out of water. Desert monks were seen as not only emulating the Gospel life of leaving everything to follow God in the desert, but also as a kind of New Adam, returning to the garden of the Lord. Hagiographical stories of Celtic monks and hermits are filled with tales of the special rapport they had with animals. [3] Taoist, Chan and Zen monks fled the chaos of cities for the solitude of remote mountain crags, caves, and hollows. Their poetry, some of it written 1,300 years ago, reads like a Transcendentalist’s personal journal.

Ironically, attempts to balance the industrial project by setting aside National Parks, Monuments, National Forests, and other Protected Areas emerged from, and some would say, helped perpetuate a perceived separation between humanity and nature. One controversial example is Environmental Historian William Cronon whose essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” has provoked controversy in the preservation/conservation movement. Cronon, an environmentalist, expresses a deep ambivalence toward the idea of wilderness. He suggests that while the intentions of the Wilderness Act, passed in 1964, were good, and that setting aside over 110 million acres of protected areas has certainly benefited the world, wilderness as a cultural phenomenon has reinforced our perceived separation from nature. For Cronon, wilderness is not an objective reality we have learned to appreciate, but a product of human civilization, a social construction. This simply means that as society began to modernize, our fear of wild places and our impulse to convert them into cities, factories, and farmland was slowly replaced with a longing for them. A longing that ignored the deep human history many of these places already had.

Thus, not only did wilderness perpetuate the Western dualism of separation but it also propagated the myth that wilderness was somehow untouched, primeval, ignoring the fact that Native peoples had managed these lands for centuries (mostly through fire) before they became designated wilderness. Another aspect Cronon finds troubling is that wilderness teaches us to value wilderness more highly than the places closer to home such as ponds, bogs, grasslands, woodlots, parks, gardens. Cronon notes that places like swamps were not designated wilderness until the 1940s, and a grassland has yet to be. In a so-called “Wilderness Ethic” there is no in-between, and no advice for beautiful places that have been altered by humans.

It is also important to realize that many of our most beloved nature writers penned their most famous works in places that were already heavily modified by human culture or enterprise: Henry David Thoreau wrote Walden in a second growth forest owned by Ralph Waldo Emerson that was less than two miles from Concord; John Muir’s early essays were penned while operating a saw mill in Yosemite Valley; Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac was written in a family cabin on a reclaimed dust bowl farm; Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire was written in a small trailer in Arches National Monument where tourists were ever present; Wendell Berry’s Long Legged House was written in a cabin on his uncle’s Kentucky farm; and even Thomas Merton’s hermitage was in a forest that the Trappists had long since cut, and were just getting around to replanting.

Despite harsh criticism from the conservation community, Cronon’s essay is meant to suggest that in addition to loving wilderness, we open our eyes to the wildness all around us and within us. He urges us to embrace the nature in our backyards, our community gardens and parks, creeks, woods, and trails. He states, “If wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.” For Cronon, if wilderness can point us to the wildness in all things it is worth keeping; if not, it needs rethinking. Just as the church has taught us to seek God through its sacraments and sacred spaces, so too has the conservation movement taught us to seek nature through our protected areas and wilderness. This is all to say that it is not that we should avoid churches, temples or protected areas, but that the Divine and nature are both to be found within and all around us if we learn to dwell in the wilderness of the present moment.

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Click here for Part 2.

[1] Brian T. Swimme and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Journey of the Universe (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 34.

[2] Richard Nelson, The Island Within (New York: Vintage, 1991), 249.

[3] I will discuss this more in Part 2.

Jason Brown
Jason Brown

Jason M. Brown grew up in Southern California but since 2001 has lived in the Dominican Republic, Utah, Connecticut and British Columbia. He was raised in the Mormon tradition but is currently practicing contemplative spirituality within the Anglican and Zen traditions. He has dual master's degrees from Yale University in forestry and theology and is currently working on his PhD at the University of British Columbia's Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) in the field of Spiritual Ecology. www.holyscapes.wordpress.com