Earth: The Original Monastery

When I long to go on retreat, it is most often the sea or the forest which call to me. Everything in nature can become a catalyst for my deepened self-understanding. The forest asks me to embrace my truth once again. The hummingbird invites me to sip holy nectar, the egret to stretch out my wings, the sparrows to remember my flock.

Each pine cone contains an epiphany; each smooth stone offers a revelation. I watch and witness as the sun slowly makes its long arc across the sky and discover my own rising and falling. The moon will sing of quiet miracles, like those which reveal and conceal the world every day right before our eyes.

In our spiritual and religious traditions we categorize our experience in a variety of ways but often forget that the earth is the primary source of these categories.

The creatures and trees are spiritual teachers

Believe me as one who has experience, you will find much more among the woods then ever you will among books. Woods and stones will teach you what you can never hear from any master.
St. Bernard of Clairvaux

In ancient tradition, there were many holy men and women who were described as having a special relationship to animals often connected to embodied life.  St. Benedict, for example, befriended a crow who was later said to have saved his life from being poisoned.  It was said of St. Kevin that an otter would sometimes bring him salmon from the lake so he could eat.  St. Brigid had a cow that accompanied her and provided endless supplies of milk. These special connections and relationships to animals were once a sign of holiness.

There is a story about St. Ciaran, one of the early Irish monks in which he encounters a wild boar who was made tame by God. “That boar was St. Ciaran’s first disciple or monk, as one might say, in that place. For straightway that boar, as the man of God watched, began with great vigour tearing down twigs and grass with his teeth to build him a little cell.” After building him his cell, other animals came from their dens to accompany St. Ciaran, “(a)nd they obeyed the saint’s word in all things, as if they had been his monks.” I love this image of the animals as St. Ciaran’s first monks, I love that they formed his original monastic community.

The elements are spiritual directors

How necessary it is for monks to work in the fields, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind: these are our spiritual directors and our novice-masters.
Thomas Merton

The elements of water, wind, earth, and fire, offer us wisdom and guidance.  They are the original soul friends.  Air is the gift of breath we receive in each moment, the rhythm of life sustaining us. Fire is the gift of life force and energy and we might call to mind St. John of the Cross’ image of the divine as the living flame of love which burns in each of our hearts.

Water is the gift of renewal and replenishment and we might call to mind the ritual of baptism as a call to claim our full gifts or the blood that flows through our veins. Earth is the gift of groundedness and nourishment and a reminder that we one day return to the earth.  Bread and wine emerge from the earth. The act of eating is sacred and holy, sustaining our life and work in the world.

The mountains and flowers are the Saints

The bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength. The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance.
Thomas Merton

The poet David Whyte has this beautiful line in one of his poems where he asks, “why are we the one terrible part of creation privileged to refuse our own flowering?”  As Merton describes, the animals and the elements live their fullness without holding back and in them we can discover what it truly means to become a saint. 

They teach us how to live out our own sainthood by no longer refusing our true nature. We work so hard at rejecting our own holiness. How much we can be reminded by looking to nature of ways to yield to who we are most intimately called to be?

The seasons are our scripture text

This earth we are riding keeps trying to tell us something with its continuous scripture of leaves.
William Stafford

In the Celtic tradition it is said that there were two great books of revelation, the first being Nature and the other the scriptures. When we pay attention to the rhythm of the seasons we learn a great deal about the rise and fall of life, about emptiness and fullness.

Spring invites us to blossom forth, summer calls us to our own ripening, autumn demands that we release and let go, and winter quietly whispers to us to rest, to sink into the dark fertile space of unknowing, releasing the demands of productivity and calendars and to do lists and to simply be.
What grace we could offer our bodies by living according to these rhythms and in the winter seasons of the body fully allow the fallowness needed to restore to fruitful ground.

Forests are the original cathedrals and mosques

Groves of redwoods…are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or mosque—a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around.  The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy.
Colin Tudge, Secret Life of Trees

The cathedrals we build reflect the sacred spaces that trees have already been creating for thousands of years.  Next time you are in the forest, imagine this space as one of the primordial or original churches that has helped inspire the creation of thousands of other sanctuary spaces. Notice what arises in your body when you imagine being in the cathedral of trees, joining them in praise of beauty.

Liturgy arises from the original hymn of creation.

In the opening pages of Being Still: Reflections on an Ancient Mystical Tradition, Orthodox theologian Jean-Yves Leloup describes a young philosopher who comes to Fr. Seraphim to learn about prayer of the heart.  Fr. Seraphim says that before he teaches him this way of prayer, he must learn to meditate like a mountain. He goes to learn stability of posture and grounding from the mountain, the weight of presence, and the experience of calmness and stability.  He enters into the timeless time of mountains and experienced eternity within and around him while also learning the grace of the seasons.

Next Fr. Seraphim sent him to learn how to meditate like a poppy taking his mountain wisdom with him.  From the poppy he learns to turn himself toward the light and to orient his meditation practice from his inner depths toward radiance.  The poppy also teaches him the ability to bend with the wind and the finitude of our days as the blossom began to wither. 
He is then sent to the ocean to learn the wisdom of ebbing and flowing. He learns to synchronize his breath with the “great breathing rhythm of the waves.”

Fr. Seraphim finally has him learn to pray like a bird saying that the Prophet Isaiah describes meditation as the cry of an animal like a roaring lion or the song of a dove.  The bird was to teach him how to sing continuously, repeating the name of God in his heart without ceasing.
Each time you go for a walk, see if you can begin with a sense that you are stepping into a landscape that is animate and alive, that is participating in the great unfolding of a liturgy of praise. Then let your body join in with this ongoing hymn, know it as intimate with this already ongoing song.

All elements of creation participate in this primordial scripture, liturgy, sainthood, spiritual direction, and sanctuary spaces offering wisdom to us with each turn.

About the author: 

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD is the online Abbess for AbbeyoftheArts.com, a virtual monastery rooted in Galway, Ireland but global in reach. She is the author of 8 books on creative and contemplative practice.

Christine and her husband John lead writing retreats and pilgrimages. Their next one-day writing retreat will be February 6th in Galway City, and she offers an online retreat for Lent on the theme of this article.

Related Links: