Contemplative spirituality has a rich connection to the desert; how might we adapt the unique spiritual insights that developed in that harsh ecology to the lush rainforests of Cascadia?
The Call of the Desert
Even though we are worlds away from the deserts of Egypt and Syria, Cascadian Christians can learn a lot from the early monastic Desert Fathers and Mothers. We are blessed to live in a lush and verdant rainforest, and though a far cry from the deserts of the Middle East, there are lessons to be gleaned from these green “deserts.”
In the world of mythology and Jungian psychology, the desert can be imagined as an archetypal image of the call to adventure—of primordial chaos in need of ordering. An archetypal image is a symbol that is deeply ingrained in the human experience and shared among most or all human societies. They bubble up from our ancient past and occupy a place in the collective consciousness. The tension between the dangerous desert and the ordered, lush garden is the tension between chaos and order in our lives.
When we venture into the chaos of the world, and our own inner lives, we take risks.
When we venture into the chaos of the world, and our own inner lives, we take risks. Sometimes those risks pay off. The desert was, ultimately, the threshold for the transformative experience of the biblical Hebrew people.
Moses led the Hebrews through the desert before they were able to return to the Promised Land. John the Baptist called sinners to repentance on the margins of Jewish society. Jesus spent long stretches of time alone in prayer in the desert, and transfigured on Mount Tabor, echoing Moses’ experience on Sinai.
It was this deep memory of the desert that allured the early hermits and monks who we now call the Desert Fathers and Mothers. They were the beginnings of the Christian monastic tradition; and they were drawn to the desert because of those who had gone before them. The harsh, remote and silent ecology was a perfect container for contemplative prayer and facing one’s demons.
Bringing the Desert to the Rainforest
Much like the desert, the forest of Cascadia offers a call to adventure. As many early contemplatives have written, the greatest adventure is the path to union with God. That path often includes passing through two distinct phases: Purgation and Illumination. Both of these “ways” were fostered by the distinctly harsh ecology of the desert. The rainforest of Cascadia offers their own resources for helping us enter these challenging paths to union with God.
In contemplative and mystical spirituality, the first step toward recognizing our unity with God involves overcoming our attachments. The first phase is often referred to as Purgation. Fourth century monastic Evagrius of Pontus taught that the contemplative must overcome vice and sin in order to reach a state of Apatheia, literally without passion, and thus fully realize one’s spiritual union with God. The desert’s harsh and bleak landscape was the perfect purgative so to speak; as Saint Jerome, another desert-dwelling monk wrote, “the desert loves to strip bare.”
But what about the rainforest? Unlike the desert, we live among a lush riot of living creatures. Rather than the long simple views of the desert, we are closed in by towering trees and mountain canyons. However, when we go out into the forest for a walk or a hike, we can mimic the purgative way by leaving certain comforts behind: Cell phones, video games, work, family obligations, and interpersonal drama.
This simple and temporary practice of letting go prepares us to settle in and let the forest work on us-—to soak us in as we soak in the world, and as a result become more receptive to the presence of God and the Holy Spirit in our lives. How often do we go for a hike and our mind begins to calm and the solutions to our problems begin to bubble to the surface? The forest is a call to adventure and a call to Purgation.
The forest is a call to adventure and a call to Purgation.
Illuminating the Green Desert
The second phase of spiritual development is referred to as Illumination. As we begin to loosen our attachments and come to grips with sin and passion through cooperation with God’s effusive grace, we are filled with confidence, spiritual insight, and light. It feels like we are making progress, we want to utter praise and speak words of thanks. In contemplative spirituality, this impulse is behind much of what we call cataphatic prayer (Gk. meaning according to the word), or prayer that claims to say something about God. Liturgical, praise, intercessory and Ignatian mental prayers are examples. The mass, Eucharist, and communion services are filled with cataphatic prayers.
The Illuminative phase and the cataphatic mode of prayer also embraces the word of God spoken through Creation. The Bible is the word of God; however, we can also speak of the Book of Creation. Just as Christ is the Logos of God, the Word made flesh, creatures are words of God because they were created by God, and speak of God’s love, attributes, and purposes. In Saint Athanasius’s biography of the most famous of the Desert Fathers, Life of Saint Anthony, he writes:
A certain Philosopher asked Saint Anthony (of Egypt): Father, how can you be so happy when you are deprived of the consolation of books? Anthony replied: My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and anytime I want to read the words of God, the book is before me.
In the Illuminative Way, Anthony embraced the world as a word of God, and came to love the creatures of his remote hermitage.
We are blessed to live in a region with lush and abundant animal and plant life. Old growth forests are temples of Creation, and all of our unique biomes are filled with “words” of God. One way into Creation is to begin to learn the names of plants, trees, mosses, birds, and fungi. As Saint Anthony mused, each one of them has something to teach us. As we discern the difference between species of moss or lichen, or recognize the call of certain birds, we are entering more deeply into the mystery of God’s Creation, and training ourselves to be present to each being as an expression of God’s creating power.
Union Beyond Words
As we pick up speed in learning and feeling God’s presence through the Illuminative way, we should not turn these feelings into attachments or idols. Union with God is, paradoxically, as much about unknowing as it is about knowing, and the rainforest is the perfect place to embrace the beyondness of God.
Union with God is, paradoxically, as much about unknowing as it is about knowing, and the rainforest is the perfect place to embrace the beyondness of God.
In the depths of the Illuminative Way, we begin to learn to see beyond words, and perhaps catch a glimpse of our union with God. To commune with God is not to cease to exist, but to come to taste the knowledge of our True Self, as Thomas Merton and many others have called it. The True Self is the “place” deep inside where God is actively creating us in the present moment.
In Christian Spirituality, this final phase is often associated with apophatic (Gk. denial of words) prayer, prayer that seeks to move beyond words about God, effable experiences, and to rest in God. It is as much about unknowing and silence as cataphatic prayer is about knowing and speaking. Both forms of prayer are important aspects of spiritual development, and neither is better than the other. Nor does one necessarily come before the other, we can slip between apophatic and cataphatic modes however and whenever we pray.
As we walk in the rainforest, we can slip between naming and just being present and appreciating Creation for its existence and mysterious beauty. Yes, we should learn the names and habits of our relatives on this earth, but we should also be willing to just sit with their mysterious otherness. Once we have left our concerns behind, focused our attention on the habits and attributes of our fellow beings, all that is left is to sink into deep communion with our shared creatureliness, beyond purgation and illumination, beyond words.
Even our insistence on feeling spiritual feelings in the forest can convert the forest into a kind of spiritual resource for our consumption. Appreciating the intrinsic value of the world means that Creation has meaning and value in and of itself, apart from its potential use of exchange value to human beings. Apophatic prayer, the Unitive way, helps us to cultivate this deeper sense of value because it is ultimately about just being present to what is before us in all its mystery and beauty.
As we each walk on our own spiritual path, let us remember how the desert teaches us to be at home in the rainforest.