Friday, April 28, 2006

American Monasticism: Contemplation in an American wasteland

In Christian history and tradition, contemplative prayer has been the “quieting of the mind in order to rest in, center on, and contemplate [the] love”[1] of God, and there are some who believe that contemplation “is so difficult and so terrible an experience that no one may reach it without great struggle and then only relish it rarely in those moments of ecstasy called ravishing.”[2] Contemplative prayer was considered a state of "loving attention to God"[3] during which “the soul is not passive…but rather learns to keep that attention to God in a loving way.”[4]

But is this all there is to contemplative prayer? Might it not be possible to experience this quieting of the mind through activities other than spending time in absolute silence and emptying our minds of all thought?

Contemplation comes from the latin root templum (from Greek temnein: to cut or divide), and means to separate something from its environment, and to enclose it in a sector.[5] In essence, contemplation is actually the creation of holy space – holy, because it is set apart, and space, because it has liminality.

Contemplation, then, may also be expressed through acts of geopiety.[6]

If indeed we believe that God has created the earth and has passed it to us in love for thoughtful use and loving service,[7] then we ought to be concerned with our environment. For us to be anything else, or “to deny [our] divine responsibility to care for all that God has made would be to deny something that is at the core of our existence.

This is why litter and pollution are spiritual issues.”[8]

And this is also why things like recycling, and environmental clean up are spiritual disciplines. Not only becaue the earth is sacred, but because we – adam[9] – are made from the same stuff as the place where we have been placed – adamah.[10] God has formed us “from dust, from dirt – the same stuff that we walk on everyday, the same stuff on which we build our houses, the same stuff in which we plant our gardens, the same stuff over which we construct our roads and on which we drive our cars.”[11]

We are this place, and we must find ways to make that realization resonate.

Tree planting, for example, is a metaphoric expression of life welcoming life, of rich soil accepting saplings, willing and ready to nurture them. Planting trees is the creation of sacred space, of setting aside that piece of the land for new life in emulation and honor of our Creator. This is celebrated among devout Jews in Tu B'Shvat, the New Year for Trees, as one of the four Rosh Hashanahs[12] where families plant trees, eat special fruits, and collect monies for new trees to be planed outside of Israel.[13]

We may also note that many Christ-followers have found creation to be a sanctuary of sorts, or a “holy place that invites [us] to pray.”[14] Yet it is not so much that the place is holy in-and-of-itself, as the fact that our awareness and our openness to God set that place apart, thereby making it holy. We perform a contemplative act by setting the space aside for communion with God; and, in doing so, begin to identify this piece of creation as the “cathedral of God.”[15]

It is here that we may become aware of the “powerful sense of the whole created order, a celebration of creation and redemption, that healing wholeness [and] the oneness in plurality”[16] that takes us to God through our immediate surroundings. This awareness, though, must typically be something that we invite, or make welcome, for it is not inherent in the exercises of geopiety, but in the willingness of the person involved.

In addition to our relationship to God, geopiety also gives us space to contemplate our relationship with the earth that shares God’s creative stamp with us. We can find meaning in the Genesis account where God permits the land to produce vegetation, where He empowers the land to do something and gives it “the capacity to produce trees and shrubs and plants and bushes that produce fruit and seeds.”[17] We can explore the mystery of what it means that “God empowers creation to make more”[18], and what it might mean for us to begin addressing environmental issues as if they were spiritual concerns instead of corporate concerns or the pet projects of disenfranchised celebrities. Perhaps Thomas Merton said it best when he noted that “no amount of technological progress will cure the hatred that eats the vitals of materialistic society like a spiritual cancer…the only cure is, and must always be, spiritual”[19] in reference to the buffet of human enterprise that gorges itself on our host.

There is much to learn and experience of God when we make holy space for Him, albeit in ordinary ways like planting trees or collecting trash. There is much He can speak to us, about Himself or about our home, if we will create that space; and that, most accurately, is the way of contemplation, though it may look less impressive and far more commonplace than some of its prior manifestations.

[1] Tony Jones, The Sacred Way (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2004), 72.
[2] Ibid., 75
[3] Cf.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Cf.
[6] Belden C. Lane introduced the notion of geopiety in Landscapes of the Sacred (Baltimore, John Hopkins, 1998).
[7] Cf. Genesis 2.1-15 NIV
[8] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005), 158.
[9] Lit. “man”, derived from “adamah”, Cf. Strong's Number: 0120,
[10] Lit. “the earth”, Cf. Strong's Number: 0128,
[11] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2005), 76.
[12] Lit. "New Years"]
[13] Cf.'shvat
[14] Gary Thomas, Sacred Pathways (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1996), 45.
[15] Ibid., 45
[16] Estheer de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York, Image, 1997), 23.
[17] Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005), 157.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude (New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1999), xii

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