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Monk in the World Guest Post: Hillel Brandes

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Hillel Brandes’ reflection on being in community with the landscape.

I walked out on the boardwalk into the saltmarsh, next to a tidal creek. I stopped to simply take in the sights, smells, and sounds: the grass as far as the eye could see, the wide blue sky, the soft mud directly below me with its distinctive odor, the edge of the creek in front of me, marsh wren welcoming me with her gurgles and buzzy trills.  ‘Just pausing in wonder and gratitude. 

And then the scene got quite bright, to the point of no longer really being able to see any details of the landscape in front of me, nor aware of anything or anyone around me, but I heard a voice as clear as if someone was speaking to me, right in front of me: “You are mine. It’s so good to see you again”. And then the light dimmed a bit, such that I could again make out the grass and mud and creek again, but still kind of dazzling. For what felt like 30 minutes or so, I was lost in an overwhelming sense of mutual love and belonging to this place, affirming that this is the landscape that holds me and feeds me in unexpected ways. Then the light faded and I was back in “the real world”, with all my senses reattuned to the natural world. 

I experienced this maybe 15 years ago. ‘One of the several times I was visiting this location with a close friend. He had introduced me to this place. We had many a fond memory visiting and seeing such a variety of birds: shorebirds, raptors, gulls, terns, herons, egrets, songbirds, waterfowl. But in this lifetime, I had never lived here, nor in any coastal landscape. Needless to say, I had grown quite fond of it, enjoying all visits we made whether they were spring, summer, or late fall. 

At the time of this experience (an apparition, as Clarissa Pinkola Estés would say?) I was not alone. My friend was right there with me. I have no idea how much time actually elapsed, but I’m guessing only a few moments. But I told no one about this, because in the Anabaptist community I was part of at the time, I had nowhere to locate such experiences. I had no idea what to make of it. All I “knew” at the time was that some day I had to come back and become embedded in this place, this landscape: coastal marshes, backwaters, and swamps. 

It was only within the last two years that I had the opportunity to relocate to this place. And so I did!  I am very fortunate that this all worked out and that I didn’t need to wait until retirement to do so. I moved 2000 miles to begin this chapter of my life that I was enthusiastic to immerse into. Meanwhile, having continued to gain further insight into myself and my spiritual yearnings, maybe what I experienced was what Bill Plotkin would refer to as a soul encounter. Possibly. I felt as though I had arrived at my “place of resurrection”. This was the place that had much to teach me, and at every opportunity I had, I went out into the landscape. She always mirrored back to me something of myself and of what I needed to further lean into, in uncovering more of myself and my story. This apprenticeship to place, if you will, only grew deeper and more intimate, with all of the more-than-human community, and continues to this day. I have also learned that this sense of belonging to place wasn’t this specific location per se, although that is where this all began, but rather a sense of belonging to this landscape, wherever that may be: salt marsh, backwaters, and swamps. That’s not to diminish the stories of this particular place that are unique, but nevertheless to locate them in the larger story of landscape. 

Part of this landscape speaks to me of expansiveness, fecundity, and its own mystery. It’s a landscape about thresholds. It’s an ecotone where land meets water. Where freshwater meets sea. Where the regular cycle of the tides (in the tidal creeks and marshes) both wash away waste, wash away what is old and decaying, and then wash in fresh nutrients, and all parts of the food web, to support continued growth. It is very muddy, very primal, very fertile! It is a place that from eye-level, only interrupted by meandering tidal creeks, mudflats, or the edges of forest and hummock, is the open marsh, covered in “holy grass, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth” [Robin Wall Kimmerer]. It’s a wonder to behold this expansive landscape, with all the subtle shades of the marsh’s colors brought on by winds and breezes, maybe shifting light and shadow, and the start and ending of the day.

It is a place of seasonal changes, one most notably is the stopovers of seasonal migrants, the shorebirds, who have very appropriately been described as “wind birds”; they come on the wind, seemingly out of nowhere, hang around a while while they vigorously refuel, and then disappear on the wind as magically as they came. Wind. Yes, wind! 

Another piece of this landscape I find particularly mystical is the intersection of the community of the mature forest and the unknown space and community residing under water. ‘Threshold images again! A place calling me to make a deep plunge into the mysteries that reside in my deepest self, pointing to soul. This is also a landscape where the Inner Beloved became very real for me, showing me how much I was loved by Mother Earth, and deepening my sense of belonging to Her and Her whole community, human and more-than-human. 

This landscape is infused with enchantment! It’s a conscious-shifting landscape that I find most conducive for the intersection of mundus imaginalis with anima mundi: for where my own psyche can touch the soul of the world. This is where union with Mystery is most intimate for me. This is where unfolding story, experience, and personal myth can reveal alignment of my soul with the soul of the world; with revealing maybe why the anima mundi spoke to me here, brought me into this world, and might reveal what it is She is asking of me. This, I’ve come to consider, isn’t my place of resurrection, perhaps, but instead I have a strong sense that it’s my place of descent. ‘How wonderful, mystical, fertile, and frightening!

Our crisis of global warming, biodiversity loss, and widespread consequences of environmental injustices, is largely, I believe, a result of our objectification of the more-than-human Earth community. Were we living in relationship to sacred Earth that honored Her agency, I think our world would be a much different place. I don’t know how this can be realized but to begin at a personal level. It’s in this context that Mystery can reveal to us what it is She is asking of us, in service to our whole-Earth community.

Hillel Brandes is a scientist by means, and otherwise one who always connected to Mystery through his experience in, and love of Nature. That is in fact, how his curiosities took him into studies of the natural sciences. As his search of soul discovery took him further away from the institutional church, he found connections with Celtic spirituality, and it is in that juncture that he learned of Abbey of the Arts. He continues to participate with and receive the gifts that Christine and her colleagues bring into this world.  His creative outlet is photography, which is a conduit for the expression of his response to the flow of Mystery in the natural world. He will be putting together a website to share his delight and offering for others, but for now, his artwork is best viewed by following him on Facebook.

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