Fr. Rick’s Talk at Amazing EarthFest 5/10/24

Sacred Space for a Sacred Journey

Thanks to the growing influence of the Native Americans in the development of legislation and management plans of our public lands, the term sacred seems to have found some legitimacy in our increasingly secular culture.  This has encouraged me to hopefully expand the idea of sacred to a wider American perspective.  Depending on which surveys one considers, about 70% of Americans, when polled, still profess to be Jewish or Christian.  This should imply that the Bible is considered a source of Truth and Wisdom, i.e., sacred.

Most people who have studied the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures have identified a recurring theme of the desert and wilderness as a sacred place of healing, purification, penance, grieving and renewal.  We see this most readily in the stories of the Exodus, the Babylonian Exile, Jesus in the desert for 40 days prior to starting His public ministry and Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane before His arrest.  Thirty to forty percent of the Psalms are cries of lamentation, many of them born out of a period of cleansing in the desert.

Certainly, humanity is in no less need of healing, purification, penance, grieving and renewal than were our ancestors in the roughly 4000 years of Judean-Christian history.  Anyone who has ever spent even a whole day of silence in the enormity of a vast wilderness/desert environment can feel the power that emanates from this amazing sanctuary.  If we are honest about the level of disorder in our modern world, starting in our own country, we must honestly concede that a level of healing and renewal is needed beyond what our political, diplomatic, scientific and economic experts can provide.  A sacred landscape awaits those sufficiently courageous to enter the silence and hear the voice of God from within.  (And all the other voices).  This type of landscape is quickly vanishing at a time when the sacred is especially needed.

What type of lessons might one be expected to learn from the desert/wilderness after a brief or extended sojourn?  While the wilderness can be a terrifying place, it is also a place of great solace as we see the enduring features that have survived and been minimally affected even among centuries of change and chaos imposed by heavy human habitation.  The enduring wilderness can give us a level of stability and continuity that helps us perceive more clearly the chaos of modern civilizations that has been made normative.  We can experience that we carry that very chaos and confusion within our own being.  We CAN calm down and REcollect.  Once we emerge from a sojourn in the desert/wilderness how might we envision a corrective or more balanced, sustainable way to live.

One area where moderns could rediscover and maintain the ordered life that God intends for us would be in the monastic traditions.  This is a several yearlong study in itself, but a quick look at the Rule of Benedict reveals the role it played in the reordering of Europe and Western Civilization after its own inner decay as well as the conquests of the Roman Empire by the northern European tribes.

Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans and Presbyterians especially can identify the value of the Rule in the ongoing development of their Traditions which have also influenced subsequent Christian Traditions.  The Rule of Benedict and the development of monasteries and monastic villages demonstrate the centrality of God, the value of silence, order, prayer, study, meaningful work and sustainable lifestyles that can be applied to our modern lives.  Nothing seems to have replaced the religious traditions in the past 60 or 70 years which have provided a sense of order and meaningful direction even amidst a large and increasingly diverse people.

Consider just a few books listed below from a variety of perspectives on the value of the Rule of Benedict. Also included are a couple books on grieving as an essential part of ‘soul work’.

As one considers the vision of a monastic village and their genuine appreciation for the coherency and order of their natural surroundings, one can easily see the vision of the tribal village of our Native American communities. We also see in many of the small towns in southern Utah, including Kanab, the vison of the Mormon settlers with their neighborhoods designed toward interdependent community and sustainable living. We can see a way forward in living with the earth as well as employing the advances of modern technology in a more tempered fashion.  And we can see what was lost in our effort to industrialize and commodify every aspect of modern life. 

Now if I may, I would like to take just a moment to share a fantasy I’ve had after spending many days and weeks in the wilderness areas of the west over the past 40 years.

A large swath of this vast wilderness country could be used primarily for primitive retreats. Special week-long ‘reservations’ could be maintained for the U.S. Congress, Fortune 500 CEO’s, college professors and administrators, church leaders (especially bishops and their senior staffs), state government leaders and senior military officers. Safe, but very primitive accommodations could be set for a week-long encounter in the ear-piercing silence, free of technology and frivolous distractions. I would speculate that most of the people who wield such power and authority in our country have never spent a week in silence, listening only to natural sounds. This annual weeklong outing with their favorite book could be a new expectation for leadership. What a gift to the participants as well as to the whole world! Retreatants could then prepare a personal account of their new insights and inspirations.

        [Retreatants could be escorted in by “Cowboys”, “Indians,” “Tree Huggers” and those who know how to move quietly on fragile ground without machinery]

These national lands are an international treasure and deserve a dialogue of a more transcended nature. We are living in perilous, but equally holy times, if we can just muster the courage and humility to avail ourselves to the lessons of the wilderness/desert.

To summarize:

The power of the desert and wilderness is its capacity to stun us with its stark beauty and a direct experience of the overwhelming power of the Creator prior to massive human alteration.  An extended sojourn into the wilderness silence invites (forces?) us into a deeper encounter with our interior lives and all the stifled emotions and intuitions that are screaming at us for reform.  Once we have emerged from the wilderness, we need an order of life that keeps us constantly in touch with our interior lives and a practice of sustainable living. This is where the Rule of Benedict and the monastic traditions can provide a basic template for rediscovering and maintaining a more nature-ordered pace of life.

Consider just a few books among hundreds from a variety of perspectives of the value of the Rule of Benedict.

Monastic Ecological Wisdom,  Rev. Samuel Torvend, Luthern priest

St. Benedict Toolbox, Rev. Jane Tomaine, Episcopalian priest

Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris, Presbyterian/Anglican

How to be a Monastic Without Leaving Your Day Job, Bro. Benet Tvedten, Catholic  Benedictine Monk

The Rule of Benedict:  A Spirituality for the 21st Century.   Joan Chittister, Catholic Benedictine Nun

Ancient Paths, David Robinson, Presbyterian minister

Pleading, Cursing, Praising: Conversing with God through the Psalms., Sr. Irene Nowell, Benedictine Nun

The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. , Francis Weller, psychologist.

Domestic Monastery:  Rev. Ronald Rolheiser, Catholic priest

Examples of Psalms of Lamentations: 3, 6, 7, 13, 17, 22, 28, 31-32, 35, 42-43, 51, 52, 54),

Job’s laments in the Book of Job (chapters 3 and 29-42),

Psalms in the Book of Lamentations.

Laments can have seven parts:

  • Address to God.
  • Review of God’s faithfulness in the past.
  • The complaint.
  • A confession of sin or claim of innocence.
  • A request for help.
  • God’s response (often not stated)
  • A vow to praise, statement of trust in God.