Blue Sapphire

I am a lapsed Nonconformist, the grandson of a Christian Socialist minister, brought up to approach religion and ethics from a rational Enlightenment perspective. I am embarrassed to confess that I was taught to be suspicious of High Anglicans and Roman Catholics. During my adult life I have explored atheistic humanism, teachings of the Medicine Wheel, Chan Buddhism, Taoist philosophy and deep ecology. While I struggle with the notion of a transcendent God, I accept that whatever we take as sacred and divine is immanent in the universe and the Earth in which we live. Given this personal background, I find it curious that I have been deeply engaged in study of a book about the Desert Fathers, written by a professor of theology at a Jesuit academy.

Douglas Christie offers us a long and scholarly book, but one that I have found both inspiring and challenging. He draws on the experience and practice of the ascetics, hermits and monks known as the Desert Fathers (although there were women among them too) in the third and fourth centuries after Christ, showing how their contemplative disciplines took them between inner and outer landscapes in search of a consciousness of the whole of creation. While often expressed in terms of “living in the presence of God”, which can sound strange to modern and non-theist ears, Christie shows how they were also expressing a sense of the limitless beauty and vitality of the natural world and of the deepened, even transcendent, awareness of the self that accompanies this. He shows how this “contemplative ecology” finds echoes in modern environmental writers and has relevance for our work and lives today.  Contemplative ecology, he writes, “can best be understood as an expression of the diverse and wide-ranging desire emerging within contemporary culture to identify our deepest feelings for the natural world as part of a spiritual longing.”

The current movement for the “greening of religion” is not just about the current ecological crisis; rather, the faith traditions are deepened when conceived of as more intimately related to the living world. And in parallel “a full and adequate understanding of ecology requires the integration of spiritual insight and practice,” so that scientific understanding is placed in its full context, to include “human emotions, reason, imagination, and yes, soul.”

Christie’s argument is that the quality of awareness that enables us to engage with the beauty, significance and fragility of the natural world is essentially mysterious.  It requires an inner attention to that which the contemplatives experienced as their “demons” but that we moderns understand as our ego attachments, our sense of self-importance, our fragmented selves.  And it requires an outer attention, a willingness to notice everything as part of a sacred whole. All this requires disciplined practice and is profoundly challenging.

There was, it seems, a powerful sense of wholeness in the ancient contemplative traditions. This wholeness included the ancient contemplatives’ feeling for the living world, a simple awareness of the beauty of the desert, an appreciation of deep silence, and wonder at their emerging intimate reciprocity with other beings. It grew out of the monks’ intense commitment to pay attention, out of which arose a sense of compassion and responsibility for their world, broken as it was by the dominance of the Roman Empire. This suggests that in contemporary culture we would benefit from a contemplative practice that would allow us to comprehend our increasingly degraded and compromised world as sacred; to live in a deeper and more encompassing moral or ethical relationship with the living world; to live “so that we do not continue to visit our most destructive impulses upon the natural world.”

This, Christie argues, demands “self-conscious spiritual practices rooted in a desire to kindle a greater feeling and responsibility for other living organisms and the world as a whole.” We do not need to use the language of God for this; we can seek a transcendent spiritual meaning while remaining agnostic as to its origins. But this is demanding and challenging, potentially costly and self-implicating: there are no safe positions when it comes to reimagining our place in the world and enlivening our care for it. Christie quotes Robert Orsi as saying that while meaning-making begins in wounding, the process of meaning-making is itself wounding.

The first chapter is essentially a self-contained essay that sets out this understanding of what these ancient traditions may offer for a contemplative ecology. The following chapters explore the practices in detail, continuing the comparison of ancient teachings with modern environmental writings.

The Desert Fathers emphasized the importance of “contact”, of paying attention to everything, both inner and outer, so that through sustained attention we can retrieve a vision of the world as a whole. This involves inner attention to “ego’s isolating and alienating power” but also to the presence of the world around us. Christie tells us that the full meaning of the words “To dwell in the place of God” is to live with a particular intense awareness of living as part of the whole, within an intricate web of relationships.  We may imagine that the Desert Fathers were entirely engaged in communion with a transcendent God, but we learn that St Antony, one of the key figures in the movement, fell in love with the place in the desert where he built his cell, planting a garden and giving himself fully to the life of the place. This “fluid, reciprocal relationship between place and spirit, interior and exterior landscape, became a distinctive part of the world of the early Christian monks.”

Contact with the world draws our attention to that which is broken. The early monks lived in a society fractured by the dominance of the Roman Empire. For them, Penthos: the gift of tears, was an essential part of healing both self and world, enabling a deep and honest reckoning and awakening the soul to its spiritual fragility. Christie recalls Aldo Leopold’s statement, when contemplating the gradual disappearance of the once-abundant prairie wildflower the cutleaf Silphium, that “We only grieve for what we know” and asks us to consider the psychic numbing that allows the unravelling of our world. The ability to mourn for the loss of other species and ecosystems is an expression of our kinship and participation in the whole. We need resolute action in the face of the ecological crisis, but it is difficult to imagine that any action will bear real fruit without a true mourning for what is lost.

In order to situate ourselves carefully and thoughtfully in our world we must find a way to be “at home always a stranger”. The ancient monks can teach how to live with the tension between a deepening sense of familiarity and belonging in place and the knowledge that no place can claim us completely. We need also the kind of non-attachment that a stranger might have, which offers openness, freedom, reciprocity. Christie quotes the American landscape photographer Robert Adams “Landscape pictures can offer us three verities—geography, autobiography, and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together… the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact—an affection for life.” This appeals to me greatly, as it applies beyond photography to my own discipline of nature writing and indeed all forms of artistic response to the world. And spiritually it is expressed in the story of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton who, on encountering the great carved Buddha figures in Sri Lanka, wrote that “The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya—everything is emptiness and everything is compassion.”

Central to the contemplative practice of the early monks was Prosoche: the art of attention: the contemplative way of life meant learning how to look, stay awake, not missing through carelessness or inattention. The ascetics cultivated attention not just through seeing, but through touching, tasting, and smelling, in a way that included but transcended what is visible, “seeing deeply into the whole of reality.” This looking deeper into the world has important lessons for modern ecological practice, as way of seeing the whole even as one pays attention to the qualities of this of that particular facet of the whole that arises in our attention.

I found myself particularly engaged in Christie’s discussion in chapter six of Logos: the Song of the World, in which he asks “whether a thoughtful retrieval of the Christian contemplative sense of the Word—in all its cosmological and sacramental fullness—can contribute to a richer and stronger sense of what it is to inhabit a world that is… an expression, a voice, as song.” There is a lot of subtle theology in this chapter, which gave me a deep appreciation how the Christian fathers struggled to grasp the nature of reality, in particular the a tension between the notions of God’s radical transcendence and radical immanence within all creation. I learned that it is distortion to see the Christian idea of the Word just as a discursive text and a message to be read. For in the theology of the ancient monks, the Word creates the world out of silence and nothingness, just as our visible Universe flared forth from apparent no-thing-ness.  Christie asks whether we bring this understanding of silence and the Word to bear on our current ecological predicament? He writes of his attempts to pay attention to the voices among which he lives: “I commit myself, as a simple gesture of respect and love, to trying to notice them. It is not much, I admit. But it is something.” Can our capacity to hear the song of the world be deepened and extended, so that we can more fully enter into the “gesture of language [that] arises through the shape of the canyon, the rise and fall of bird song, the play of sun and moonlight among the cottonwoods, the shifting currents of floodwater, the wind”?

The following chapter, Eros: Exchange, Intimacy, Reciprocity, explores the possibilities of that may be open to us in those fluid, imaginative spaces where the human and more-than-human worlds meet: the contested spaces between “matter and spirit, body and soul, heaven and earth, humanity and divinity.” Our habits of rigid, dualistic thinking are too narrow and limiting for us to allow us the reciprocity needed to touch and encompass the Other. We need an imaginative practice that allows us to let go of linguistic constructs and take the risk of becoming open and vulnerable to the touch, voice, fragrance, taste, and vision of the Others. This requires a self that is open, expansive, unfinished.

But as we open ourselves to others we confront not only beauty but also the need to be open to the most abysmal suffering and the potential loss of meaning that arises from that suffering. In Christian terms, how can evil exist in a world created by a loving God? The contemplative monks learned, just as the modern ecologist must learn, how to live in a world where boundless beauty and cruelty meet us at every turn and the “immensity of loss that washes over the world continuously.” Chapter Eight explores Kenosis: Empty, Emptied, what does it mean to face pain and suffering, and what does it mean for us in the present age to face the truth of the unravelling of our world?

The book closes with a chapter that explores Telos: Practicing Paradise. Is the Christian vision of a world as paradise, a simple, harmonious whole, completely lost, or could it be still available to us? How do we live with the gulf between our simple intuition of wholeness and our experience of alienation?  The challenge is to step beyond our longstanding tendency to separate and divide dimensions of the whole that in fact belong together and reimagine the world as a whole—an apparently simple task that remains “one of the most elusive and challenging dimensions of the contemplative ecological project.”

I much appreciated Christie’s scholarship and ability to express subtle theology clearly. In comparison, my Nonconformist spiritual background seems threadbare. But there are also things I missed. Christie draws parallels in many places between contemplative Christianity and environmental writers, attending mainly to the stalwarts of the American tradition such as Snyder, Lopez, Leopold, and especially Thoreau. I would have appreciated a much stronger link with those aspects of modern scientific ecology, Gaia theory, holistic and systemic thinking which envisage our world as a whole; and links with ecological practices such as Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects, ecopsychology, and wilderness experiences. I would like to have learned more about the actual practices of the Desert Fathers, and some comparison these with other traditions. I often found myself making links with Buddhist meditation, and wondered if I would have got as much from the book if I myself did not have my own contemplative practice.

I come to the end of my reading of the book with my prejudices completely disconfirmed: early Christian mystics were not on a hopeless quest of mortifying the flesh in search of God; rather, they approached their world with a subtlety and discipline from which much can be learned. In particular, I was often taken beyond the either/or dualism that so often characterizes debate about the place of religion and spirituality in our lives. I am more than ever convinced that we will not learn to live in harmony with the ecology of our planet while holding onto a worldview that owes much to the European Enlightenment. New forms of politics, economics, industry and social relationships are all essential. But they will need to rest on a deeper sense of belonging in the world, a capacity to link the immediate and the local to the whole, an ability to see the sacred in our damaged and degraded planet. This is not an easy option, but requires intense discipline and self-examination. Maybe Christies’ “notes toward a contemplative ecology” will help us find a way forward.

Douglas E Christie
The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a contemplative ecology
New York: Oxford University Press, 2013
ISBN 978-0-19-981232-5

A shorter version of this review will appear in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of Resurgence & Ecologist