Dear monks, artists, and pilgrims
During this Jubilee year of sabbatical we are revisiting our Monk Manifesto by moving slowly through the Monk in the World retreat materials together every Sunday. Each week will offer new reflections on the theme and every six weeks will introduce a new principle.
Principle 4: I commit to cultivating awareness of my kinship with creation and a healthy asceticism by discerning my use of energy and things, letting go of what does not help nature to flourish.
Read on or listen to the audio version of the reflection.
Nature is such a source of solace for many of us. Imagine a place right now where you have gone to rest in the grace of the world and experienced freedom and the peace of wild things. Breathe in the beauty of this memory.
Consider that Creation is the original icon revealing the face of the Holy
Nature is a holy text for me, an icon, a window to the divine presence at work in the world. Just as we spend time gazing upon an icon or our beloved, we can also allow our gaze to be drawn to nature, this most holy and splendid of sights. I can spend hours meditating with ocean waves lapping the shore, contemplating the ancient witness of grand red cedar trees, delighting in geese flying in patterns of support.
Gazing is an act of loving reverence, a perspective that opens me up to transformation. Icon spaces invite me to linger, to relish, to admire. I imagine those ancient poets who wrote the psalms of creation, celebrating God’s grandeur and mystery. Nature is an icon that slowly shifts beneath my gaze, revealing a God who is constantly creating. From this viewpoint, I become aware of a holy presence, the Great Artist, at work in the world around me, and I begin to connect deeply to the divine slowly at work within me, crafting and shaping my life, inviting me here this day to sit in stillness and witness to the beauty of the world.
The creatures and trees are spiritual teachers
“Believe me as one who has experience, you will find much more among the woods then ever you will among books. Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master.”— Saint Bernard of Clairvaux
In ancient tradition, there were often holy men and women who were described as having a special relationship to animals. St. Benedict, for example, befriended a crow who was later said to have saved his life. It was said of St. Kevin that an otter would sometimes bring him salmon from the lake so he could eat. These special connections and relationships to animals were once a sign of holiness.
In one of his letters, Thomas Merton wrote that this is what the ideal monastic life is all about: “The monk here and now is supposed to be living the life of the new creation in which right relation to all the rest of God’s creatures is fully restored.” As monks in the world we live the life of the new creation in which right relationship to all creation is restored. We are not anticipating its arrival, but living its becoming.
My own dogs have been my spiritual directors, each one with their own unique wisdom to impart. Our last dog Petunia we referred to fondly as the Abbess of our Abbey. Winter, our dog now, I call Amma Winter sometimes because her difficult past reminds me of the struggles of the desert mothers and fathers who were called ammas and abbas. Perhaps you have a wise animal companion as well.
The elements are spiritual directors
These elements of earth and fire, water and wind offer us wisdom and guidance, they are the original soul friends.
Contemplate for a moment the gifts of the four elements.
Air is the gift of breath we receive in each moment, the rhythm of life sustaining us.
Fire is the gift of life force and energy and we might call to mind John of the Cross’ image of God as the living flame of love which burns in each of our hearts.
Water is the gift of renewal and replenishment and we might call to mind the ritual of baptism as a call to claim our full gifts.
Earth is the gift of groundedness and nourishment. The elements at the communion table emerge from the earth, the act of eating is sacred and holy, also sustaining our life and work.
The mountains and flowers are the Saints
Thomas Merton again writes: “The bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength. The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance.”
The poet David Whyte has this beautiful line in one of his poems where he asks, “why are we the one terrible part of creation privileged to refuse our own flowering?” The animals and the elements live their fullness without holding back and in them we can discover what it truly means to become a saint.
The seasons are our scripture text
“This earth we are riding keeps trying to tell us something with its continuous scripture of leaves.” – William Stafford (poet)
Much of my work is centered around the wisdom that attending to each of the four seasons can offer to us. In monastic tradition, even the day has its season with the movement from dawn to day to dusk to dark. Spring invites us to blossom forth, summer calls us to our own ripening, autumn demands that we release and let go, and winter quietly whispers to us to rest, to sink into the dark fertile space of unknowing, releasing the demands of productivity and calendars and to do lists and to simply be.
Forests are the original cathedrals and mosques
“Groves of redwoods…are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or mosque—a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy.” –Biologist Colin Tudge, Secret Life of Trees
I love this image, the cathedrals we build reflect the sacred spaces that trees create. Next time you are in the forest, imagine this space as one of the original churches or sanctuaries, what has helped inspire the creation of thousands of spaces of sanctuary.
Our liturgy arises from the original hymn of creation
In the opening pages of Being Still: Reflections on an Ancient Mystical Tradition, Jean-Yves Leloup describes a young philosopher who comes to Fr. Seraphim to learn about prayer of the heart. Fr. Seraphim says that before he teaches him this way of prayer, he must learn to meditate like a mountain. He learned stability of posture and grounding from the mountain, the weight of presence, and the experience of calmness and stability. He entered into the timeless time of mountains and experienced eternity within and around him while also learning the grace of the seasons.
Next Fr. Seraphim sent him to learn how to meditate like a poppy taking his mountain wisdom with him. From the poppy he learned to turn himself toward the light and to orient his meditation practice from his inner depths toward radiance. The poppy also taught him both uprightness and the ability to bend with the wind. And while the mountain taught him about the eternal, the poppy taught him about the finitude of our days as the blossom began to wither. He learned that meditation means experiencing the eternal in each fleeting moment.
He was then sent to the ocean to learn the wisdom of ebbing and flowing. He learned to synchronize his breath with the “great breathing rhythm of the waves.” As he floated on the sea he also discovered the great calmness of the sea below its undulating surface and he learned to hold awareness of his own distinct self without being carried away by the rhythm of breathing.
Fr. Seraphim finally had him learn to pray like a bird saying that the Prophet Isaiah (31:4, 38:14) describes meditation as the cry of an animal like a roaring lion or the song of a dove. The bird was to teach him how to sing continuously, repeating the name of God in his heart without ceasing. The invocation of the divine name led him to a deep place of stillness.
Earth and her creatures teach us how to pray, how to worship and praise.
These words come from Way of the Pilgrim (19hcentury Russian Orthodox text)
“And while I prayed in the depths of the heart, everything around me seemed transformed: the trees, grass, birds, earth, air, light—every created thing seemed to proclaim that bears witness to God’s love for humanity. Everything was praying. Everything sang glory be to God”
When I go for my morning walk, I try to hold in my heart this image of joining together with the pigeons and the squirrels in the praise of creation. I am present to the trees and the crows as my abbas and ammas, my wisdom fathers and mothers. I sometimes ask for a word as I walk, and I listen for what is spoken to me. Creation is the foundation of my spiritual community, the matrix from which all of my work and loving are made possible. I remember that nature is the primary expression of divine artistry and that my commitment to the act of creating is in kinship with the world around me.
Each time you go for your walk, see if you can begin with a sense that you are stepping into a landscape that is animate and alive. We have separated ourselves from creation by claiming consciousness only for ourselves. Creation is the first scripture, offering wisdom to us with each turn. Claiming our inner monk means remembering that we are the children of the earth, and the earth is in our bodies. The rhythm we discover outside is also within. Remember the way that the breath offers us a microcosm of the seasons of each day and year.
Canadian Catholic Bishops wrote a beautiful letter about our relationship to the environment and they expressed three primary responses we should cultivate:
Contemplative, ascetic, and prophetic
- Contemplative presence – spaciousness, relationship
- Reclaiming a healthy asceticism – conversion, changing individual actions
- Cultivating a prophetic vision – examining our collective impact
I believe when we begin with the contemplative it infuses our prophetic and ascetic responses and ground them in relationship and intimacy.
The monk in the world strives to live simply, so as not to be possessed by possessions, but also to live more lightly within creation, to remember that we are a part of the very earth matrix.
I want to close this section with a quote from the writer Dostoevsky:
“Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things . . . When you are left alone, pray. Love to throw yourself on the earth and kiss it. Kiss the earth and love it with an unceasing, consuming love.”
May your days ahead be filled with the unceasing consuming love of creation. And may you discover the deep truth that your freedom is intimately connected to the freedom and flourishing of all living things.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE
Photo © Christine Valters Paintner