I am delighted to share this guest post from Nancy Wiens about being a monk in the world through wilderness rites of passage. Nancy and I were in the doctoral program at the Graduate Theological Union together many years ago and shared much kinship in our passions then, as well as now. Back when I was studying Hildegard of Bingen and viriditas, Nancy was exploring discernment within the context of the natural world. Read on for more of her insights:
I am not a monk in the classical sense and thus do not live in a traditional monastery. But very often I find myself describing my watershed as the reason I live in Marin County, California, and the physical place that holds me in close communion with God. Nature acts as my monastery and my most common sanctuary. Heat inland of Mount Tamalpais draws the fog from the Pacific up its green slopes of serpentine and granite rock to support one of the most biodiverse watersheds in the continental United States. To watch the hawks play on the air currents while I gaze out over the Headlands toward the Golden Gate Bridge invites me into my deepest human nature and moves me toward my hope of integrating love of God and neighbor, that is, all those who make up this marvelously expanding universe.
The Psalms and the Eucharistic liturgy point toward meaning in such awe-filled inspirations. The Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness there of . . . . Heaven and Earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest! Ours is a God of self-revelation writ large. Incarnation tickles God pink. Glory is bursting out of every seam. Nature mirrors the divine to us in inexhaustible ways that our senses encounter intimately. And almost without exception, those encounters include death and decay. For Nature is cruciform in its radical, ongoing transformation of death into unanticipated new life.
One dimension of living as a monk in the world is to know ourselves as part of Nature. I do not know how to begin that process of awakening to my kinship with creation without many and repeated journeys into non-human nature, both local and wilderness, in order to listen in a way that shows me my true identity over and over.
One remarkable path is a Sacred Quest. As a wilderness rite of passage, it helps people to awaken this identity and to participate consciously in this mysterious conversion of death and life. As a caterpillar knows to make a cocoon, a quester goes into the wilderness to listen for the voice of the One who makes all things new. When transitions arise in our lives, they involve dying to an old way of life in order to allow the new to emerge. Outer transitions, associated with age and responsibilities, as well as inner ones, associated with growth and healing, offer opportunities for vivid transformation. In leading a Sacred Quest, I invite people to conscious engagement with what no longer serves them, to claim what is true right now, and to yearn for openness to what may come. Through a series of preparations in community, people move toward four days of solitude in the wilderness with an opportunity to fast in order to heighten their awareness and facilitate the transformation.
Mt. Tam hosts hundreds of Coastal Redwoods, whose limbs and branches form natural cathedrals. Their cooling and contemplative presence brings me more deeply into myself and beckons perspective and active hope. If you have heard the whisper of the divine in nature’s wild places, or you long to hear it, and if you experience transition that you would like to lead to transformation, perhaps you are called to quest.