Photo: Ball Cactus, Saxifrage, and one of the Pawnee Buttes; Weld County, CO; June 10, 2013
Welcome to The Contemplative Earth! This blog is designed to foster a liberating spiritual vision based on the beauty and grandeur of Nature, present in the wilderness, in the Divine, and within human nature.
This vision is an expression of a Nature-based Christian Mysticism, one that also includes insights from Nature writers, psychologists, poets, Buddhists, and the masters of a variety of other spiritual traditions, all seen through the eye of Christ. The aim here is to reveal how wilderness imagery suffuses contemplative experience even of the Divine, who appears in the presence of both God and Sophia.
Here, the Christ in "Christian" is less an object of vision than a lens through which any of us can look at the world - and at human nature and the world's great spiritual traditions - with the eyes of calm, radiant love.
A major portion of what this Christ-lens sees and highlights is the love-aspect of the world, of human nature, and of all the world's great religious traditions. Ultimately, however, the Christ-eye disappears in humble self-emptying, leaving only Mother Earth - Sophia - to shine through everything in all of her radiant glory! Here, it is she who experiences delight and awe within our emotions. In other words, it is not we who are the ultimate contemplatives. Instead, it is Mother Eartht- Sophia - who knows and celebrates her great beauty and goodness through us! Hence the title of this blog - the Contemplative Earth.
In this vision, Christ is like an alpenglow sun that has humbly disappeared for all eternity beneath the horizon of Being, leaving all the world - together with human nature and the various spiritual traditions - to glow in the gold, lavender or rose hues of their own highlighted beauty! The traditional Greek word for this disappearance is kenosis, which means “self-emptying.” This is a Christ who would never think to point to himself. Instead – through kenosis – he becomes a mere window through which the world can be seen in the light and warmth of an unassuming divine love.
Friday, February 28, 2014
Photo: Ball Cactus, Saxifrage, and one of the Pawnee Buttes; Weld County, CO; June 10, 2013
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
A Contemplative View of Christmas
As I approached the arched wooden door of the monastery, I
was greeted by a half-dozen groves of aspen trees processing down from the hills
right up to the building. White like the hooded habits of the monks,
they added an atmosphere of rich silence to the setting. I opened the
door and entered the stone-floored room where I took a seat in the
circle of chairs. One of the monks was stoking a wood stove. He
acknowledged my presence and commented briefly – in whispers - on the
beauty of the full moon. The smell of a large Advent wreath lying on
the floor in the center of the room filled the air with the scent of
After a few minutes, the other monks – about a dozen – entered the
room. All I could hear of them was the rustling of their habits
as they walked. Sitting in moonlit silver, we sang several psalms in
the ethereal phrases of a Gregorian chant. After a few moments of
silence, a goose-necked lamp switched on, and a monk read a passage from
the biblical Book of Wisdom:
peaceful silence lay over all, and night had run the half of her swift
course, down from the heavens, from the royal throne, leaped your
all-powerful Word . . .” (18:14).
Then the lamp clicked off, a Japanese meditation bell sounded, and we entered the rich silence.
my eyes and entering into contemplative prayer, I gently repeated the
word “silence, silence” several times before allowing it to dissolve in
the mysterious stillness to which it pointed. Simultaneously, I found my
awareness drawn like an iron filing to a nameless magnet whose Presence
I could feel welling up like a spring of silence arising from the
innermost core of my being. I knew this silence loved me because of the
obscure sense of absorption I felt.
Held in the depths of an inner canyon by a stillness that
surrounded me like embracing arms, I barely noticed – as though from
the side - my thoughts and perceptions sparkling like stars and
streaking like meteors in the “sky” far above me.
Moonlight streamed through the large arched windows of the room. The
silence was so thick it rang in my ears. Suddenly a coyote let out a
howl. Moments later, answering howls, yips and barks resounded from all
around the valley. But just as suddenly as they began, they all ended,
disappearing back into the silence. A few minutes later, an owl hooted
several times from the branches of a blue spruce growing just outside.
Then all was still again. Rather than disturbing the silence, these
sounds seemed rather to highlight it by the contrast they provided. To
me, they seemed like ripples flowing on the surface of the stream of
consciousness, their active yang highlighting the depths of the yin-like pool of stillness that spread out endlessly beneath it.
After a half-hour of rich silence, like golden aspen leaves falling
one or two at a time, the monks all left the room. A few minutes later,
I too got up, put on my coat and gloves, and walked back down the snowy
road to the guest house. It was now 4:30 A.M.
For me, Christmas time has always elicited these images of my first stay
at St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado, thirty-two years ago. Meditating at night, the
silence, the material simplicity and corresponding poverty of thought - together with the
freshness of insight that typically is born out of this silence - all embody
perfectly for me the Advent spirit. In fact, for the Christian
contemplative tradition, the events of Christmas are actually symbolic
of a much larger reality, one that is reflected as well in our inner
lives. As Thomas Keating – St. Benedict’s Monastery’s most well-known monk – once wrote: “Events and images in Scripture symbolize inner experiences.
Christmas is, therefore, an important occasion in our personal
history. Through it, God awakens us to the divine life in us.”
Most fundamentally, the “silent night, holy night” we sing so much about occurs within us. During the practice of contemplative prayer, we gently put to sleep the thinking mind and allow ourselves to sink into the deep abyss of the soul, where we are completely surrounded by the obscurely-felt presence of God, like Jesus embraced in swaddling clothes and held lovingly in “the night that was so deep,” as the famous carol so aptly puts it. In the fourth century, St. Gregory of Nyssa spoke of “the soul enter[ing] into the sanctuary of divine knowledge where she is hemmed in on all sides by divine darkness.” Similarly, Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite wrote in the sixth century of “plunging into the truly mysterious darkness of unknowing.” Here, “renouncing all that the mind may conceive, wrapped entirely in the intangible and the invisible, we belong completely to the One who is beyond everything.” As I mentioned above, when we sink during contemplative prayer into the inner abyss at whose center God dwells, our thoughts seem to circulate above that interior canyon like stars and meteors in the sky on Christmas Eve. It’s no wonder that St. John of the Cross spoke so frequently of union with God as a “dark night.”
Thomas Keating often talks about contemplative prayer as “resting in God,” a phrase that resonates strongly with the image of the baby Jesus sleeping in the manger. It is important during our age of frenetic activity to find a place within in which we can rest and feel grounded in the midst of our hectic busyness. As Dame Julian of Norwich put it in the fourteenth century, "For He is the Very Rest. God wishes to be known, and it pleases Him that we rest in Him. When, for love of Him, it is empty, the soul can receive His deep rest."
Interestingly, the medieval mystics realized that God also seeks rest in us
as well. During the twelfth century, a Cistercian monk named Guerric
of Igny exclaimed: "Blessed is the one with whom God has found rest if
but once, in whose tent He has rested if only for one hour . . . , God content with us, and us content in God. Unless He finds with us the rest He is seeking, we shall not find in Him the rest we
desire." Baldwin of Ford, another twelfth century Cistercian, agreed
with this perspective. "In everything that God has done for us since the
creation, he sought rest for himself in us, and rest for us in him,"
Baldwin wrote in one of his sermons. Summarizing this insight, Robert
Thomas, a modern Trappist monk, reminds us that "There is in effect a
reciprocal rest: the soul rests in God - but God, Wisdom, rests also in
Yet another twelfth-century
Cistercian monk, Gilbert of Hoyland, wrote explicitly of this rest as a sort of
spiritual sleep. Accordingly, he counseled his fellow monks to
“Enter the chamber of peace, of [ ] outward peace yes, but even more of that inner peace, the dwelling of
contemplation [where] ‘I will sleep and take my rest’ (Ps. 4:9).” Gilbert calls
contemplation “a mind slumbering in the embrace of the Bridegroom” which occurs
in “a holiday spirit” that offers a
foretaste of “the festive joys of unimpeded meditation.”
Elsewhere, Gilbert comments on the verse in the Song of Songs in which the female lover
says, “In my little bed by night I sought Him whom my soul loves” (3:1). He interprets this bed as the practice of
contemplation which involves “that deep and intimate quiet of the divine goodness
and wisdom, that eternal, secret and sacred silence of tranquility, the unity
and peace of the whole Trinity ‘which surpasses all understanding’ (Phil.
The silence of the thinking mind is an important element of
this restful “Silent Night,” for it is within this interior
stillness that the living expression of God – the “Word” – comes to
birth. For the medieval mystics, the passage from the Book of Wisdom
Snowmass monk read during Vigils was also favorite in their Christmas
“When peaceful silence
lay over all, and night had run the half of her swift course, down from the
heavens, from the royal throne, leaped your all-powerful Word . . .”
Even though this passage goes on to speak of the Word
bringing destruction, the medieval monks, in typical lectio divina fashion, interpreted it in terms of peace. As Guerric of Igny says in his Fourth Sermon
for Advent, the Word “can be heard by us provided only that we have interior
silence to correspond to the exterior silence that surrounds us . . . And now
if the depths of your soul were to keep a quiet silence, the all-powerful Word
would flow secretly into you from the Father’s throne. Happy then is the person who has so fled the
world’s tumult, who has so withdrawn into the solitude and secrecy of interior
peace that she can hear not only the Voice of the Word but the Word
himself.” Guerric, like the other
twelfth century Cistercians, was convinced that “The ways of Wisdom are not
only at peace, they bring peace.”
Guerric continues this theme in his Fifth Sermon for
Christmas. There, he writes: “Truly it is a trustworthy word and
deserving of every welcome, your almighty Word, Lord, which in such deep
silence made its way down from the Father’s royal throne into the
mangers of animals, and meanwhile speaks to us better by its silence.
Let him who has ears to hear, hear what this loving and mysterious
silence of the eternal Word speaks to us . . . I would gladly be silent
even from good things, that I might be able the more attentively and
diligently to apply my ear to the secret utterances and sacred meaning
of this divine silence, learning in silence in the school of the Word . .
.” These are profound insights in our era as well, when people tire of
an overemphasis on words and the disagreements they cause, especially
in the realm of religion.
Thomas Merton, a direct spiritual heir of these writers, reiterates this theme of God speaking through silence when he writes:
“The contemplative waits on the Word of God in silence, and when he is
‘answered,’ it is not so much by a word that bursts into his silence.
It is by his silence itself suddenly, inexplicably revealing itself to him as a word of great power, full of the voice of God.”
Merton, writing in the 1960s, would probably not be surprised
to see that his words are even more true today.
“People don’t want to hear any more words,” he wrote. “In our mechanical age, all words have become
alike, they’ve all been reduced to the level of the commercial. To say ‘God is love’ is like saying ‘Eat
Wheaties.’ Things come through on the
same wavelength. Silence, on the other
hand, really does speak to people!”
The monks understand that part of the reason why God’s word
is itself silence – rather than being merely a word spoken into the silence - is because true silence is chock-full of the listening of God, a divine receptivity which
engenders our creative human insights. As James Carse puts it in The Silence of God, “It is not that sensitive
listening will lead you to discover a
new depth to yourself; [rather,] it will create
a new depth. This is why listening .
. . is creative. I am heard therefore
I am. I am who I am only because I have
been heard . . . My own suggestion is that the apparently endless variety of
interpretive responses to scripture shows how thoroughly we can be listened
to. It awakens us to the most intimate
voice of the heart. It is because our
hearts find their voice that the present silence of God has become the silent
presence of God.”
How does the mystical tradition understand the birth of
Christ, the “Word” appearing out of silence?
For the most profound practitioners of the tradition, it means the birth
of divine self-understanding. Thomas
Keating puts it this way in one of his reflections on the Incarnation: “The ‘Father’
in Christian tradition is the uncreated source of the divine nature, the
silence of the Godhead from which the eternal Word emerges . . . This interior
Word, this self-awareness arising
continually from the Father’s infinite silence, remains interiorly
Quite a few Christian mystics - like their Sufi and Hindu brothers and
sisters - have viewed the core of the human essence as a sort of mirror in
which God views and appreciates Godself. For example, a fourteenth
century Flemish mystic named John Ruusbroec once wrote: "God has created
each person's soul as a living mirror, on which he has impressed the
image of his nature . . . In this created life, God knows his power,
wisdom and goodness." In Buddhist terms, we have Emptiness manifesting
itself in the mirror-image of Form, like a vast lake of awareness
suddenly beginning to shimmer in a billion sunlight diamonds.
Christian mystical terms, this mirror - with which the human soul finds
itself united - is called the "Son." Meister Eckhart, founder of the
school of Rhineland
mysticism in the fourteenth century, talks about what he calls "the
According to Eckhart, “God has ever been begetting
His only-begotten Son and is giving birth to him now and eternally . . . This birth is His understanding, eternally welling forth from His paternal heart,
in which lies all His joy.” Johannes Tauler, Eckhart’s student, makes it clear
that this understanding is actually God’s
self-understanding. Accordingly, he exclaims in one of his
Christmas sermons: “The Father turns to Himself with His divine
comprehension. He sees Himself with a
luminous understanding of the essential abyss of His eternal being, and out of
this pure comprehension of Himself He
utters the Word which is His Son. The
eternal birth of the Son is nothing else than the Father’s own knowing of Himself.” Continuing a theme we saw earlier, Tauler ends
his sermon with these words: “ ‘When all around was silence and everything was
utterly still, when the night had run its course, then, O Lord, Your almighty
Word came down from the royal throne.’
This Word is the everlasting Word uttered in the heart of His
Father. This is how it must be with us:
perfect stillness all around, everything in deepest silence. Then we
can hear the Word.”
Eckhart makes it clear that this birth must happen not just cosmically – or once upon a time in Bethlehem - but within the heart of each one of us. “This
eternal birth occurs in the soul precisely as it does in eternity,” he
tells us, “no more and no less, for it is one birth, and this birth
occurs in the essence and ground of the soul.” “As surely as the Father
in His simple nature bears the Son naturally, just as surely He bears
him in the inmost recesses of the spirit, and this is the inner world. Here God’s ground is my ground and my ground is God’s ground.” In fact, “God’s nature, His being and His Godhead depend upon His working in the soul. God be praised, God be praised!” Eckhart understood that the deepest aspect of the human soul – which he called the “little spark” or funklein – is the ground in which this birth occurs. He is thinking of this “spark” when he exclaims: “We
are an only son, whom the Father has eternally borne. Between the
only-begotten Son and the soul there is no difference.” In fact, “He
gives birth not only to me, His Son, but He gives birth to me as Himself
and Himself as me, and to me as His being and nature.” Amazingly, this
birth then ricochets, enabling us to become parents
of the Divine nature: “Out of the purity He everlastingly bore me, His
only-born Son, into the same image of His eternal Fatherhood, that I may be Father and give birth to Him of Whom I am born.” Here, "The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me"! It is through our spiritual perception that God knows godself. How amazing!
Elsewhere, Eckhart uses maternal imagery to describe this birth of
divine self-understanding. “In begetting the Son and the soul,” he
writes, “the Father lies in a childbed like a woman who has given
birth.” Reciprocally, the human soul is “pregnant with Nothingness” –
that is, with the presence of a God who lies deeper than all concepts.
“We are all meant to be mothers of God, for God is always needing to be
born,” he exclaims. Perhaps Eckhart was thinking here of Angela of
a thirteenth century Franciscan mystic, who famously declared: “And my soul in an excess of wonder cried out: ‘This world is pregnant with God!' ”
Eckhart goes on to make an even more radical claim: “If I did not exist, ‘God’ would also not exist. That God is ‘God,’ of that I am cause;
if I did not exist, God too would not be ‘God.’” Aware that his words
will probably cause a bit of consternation among his less adventurous
listeners, Eckhart quickly adds: “There is no need to understand
this.” I take Eckhart’s daring words to mean that each of us is called
to give birth to some new and unique expression of God. In addition,
since God is so thoroughly emptied out – through kenosis - in divine love for the world, we are called – I believe - to “reconstruct” the Divine Presence as it might subsist logically before it empties itself out into seeming non-existence.
For contemplatives, the image of Mary as a virgin possesses inner meaning as well. Here, “being a virgin” means that we – as mothers giving birth to new expressions of God - are meant to become one and simple within ourselves, without even a secondary thought or plan of giving birth to anything specific in God. Eckhart speaks of this interior oneness as an inner poverty, an emptying out of all images and thoughts, even of our thoughts about God. We might think of this poverty corresponding as well to the fact that “there was no room at the inn.” Indeed, the Word can only be born in an atmosphere of utter simplicity. As a Buddhist might say, only Emptiness can give birth to Form. In fact, the virginal quality of Emptiness remains even after the birth, for the Word appearing as Form out of the Emptiness is actually a sort of evanescent echo of a love-word that God never had a chance to speak on account of his continual, blissful self-emptying or kenosis. Eckhart understands this principle when he exclaims; “The Father speaks the Word unspoken, and the Word remains within.” It is for this reason that he counsels us – during the time set aside for contemplative prayer – to become completely “poor” of our own concepts and ideas, even about God. For it is then that suddenly the divine self-understanding in all of its newborn freshness can be born within us. “We must become virgin in order to be mother,” he explains. “What help is it to me that Mary is full of grace, if I am not also full of grace? And what help is it to me that the Father gives birth to his Son unless I too give birth to him? It is for this reason that God gives birth to his Son in a perfect soul and lies in the maternity bed so that he can give birth to him again in all his works.”
Tauler counsels us that – during the time set aside for contemplation - this birth can occur only if we remain virginally enclosed
within our deepest self. Here, “We should make inside ourselves a
haven of quietness and peace, and live shut up inside it . . . , a home
of stillness and inward peace.” Or, as Eckhart says: “The soul in which
this [divine] birth is to take place must keep absolutely pure, and
must love in noble fashion, quite collected and turned entirely inward;
not running out through the five senses in the multiplicity of
creatures, but all inturned and collected and in the purest part – there
in His place . . . For the soul’s inward work to be
effective, she must call in all her powers and gather them together from
the diversity of things to a single inward activity.” Eckhart counsels
us to “withdraw from all things in order to concentrate all your
powers on perceiving and knowing the one infinite, uncreated truth. To
this end then, assemble all your powers, all your senses, your entire
mind and memory; direct them into the ground where your treasure lies
Paradoxically, when we remain centered within this
interior virginal simplicity, all of creation then comes springing forth
out of the Emptiness! Eckhart realizes that when we allow ourselves to
be embraced within the magnetic abyss of the soul – “locked within the
embrace of the Godhead,” as he puts it - then - wonder of all wonders! -
we watch in stunned amazement as all thoughts, insights and perceptions
– and all of the phenomenal world – suddenly arise out of that abyss, appearing spontaneously in the “sky” above. "God's outgoing is his ingoing!" Eckhart exclaims. “It is an amazing thing that something flows forth and nonetheless remains within
. . . All creatures flow outward and nonetheless remain within – that is extremely amazing.” Again, “The Father speaks the Word unspoken, and the Word remains within.” This is a Christian koan if there ever was one! Or, put in Buddhist terms by a tantric practitioner named “Victorious-Minded Woman:
Kye Ho! Wonderful!
Emptiness, with the artistry of awareness,
Creates magical shows that are unborn, yet appear!
John Ruusbroec makes it clear that the seemingly contrasting acts of moving within into silence and moving without - into the world - are both a part of the very same state of being.
"In one and the same moment of time," he declares, "love is both active and at
rest in its Beloved. The one element is strengthened by the other,
for the higher the love, the greater the rest, and the greater the
rest, the more fervent the love. The one lives in the other, so that
one can actively love and blissfully rest." In fact,
"Each of these is the perfection of the other, and the two remain thus
for all eternity." "Anyone who does not possess both rest and activity
in one and the same exercise has not attained this righteousness."
the Christmas message of these medieval mystics into our own time, a
process philosophy perspective reiterates the fact that each of us is
called to give birth to new aspects of God and of divine
self-awareness. As A.N. Whitehead puts it, “The ‘consequent nature’ of God . . . evolves
in its relationship to the evolving world.” “Each novel actuality in
the temporal world contributes such elements as it can to a realization in God.”
In fact, “It is as true to say that God creates the World, as that the
World creates God.” “What is done in the world is transformed into a
reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the
world. By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world
passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world.”
Sounds like pure Eckhart!
Each of us could list some of the
fresh aspects of God that we would like to see birthed here on the
Earth. Here are a few that I'd like to see occur sometime soon:
- An ability to truly know and feel from within what another person, species or landscape is experiencing.
A capacity to find the wisdom present within both conservative and
liberal points of view, and know how to bring them together.
to experience the interior component of environmental issues like
global warming and pollution within our own emotional and cognitive
lives, and thus become more motivated to find solutions.
- Expand our sense of the human self to include the other-than-human world within our own identities as people.
Become increasingly aware of the Earth as a living, spiritual being -
the World Soul or Anima Mundi - and contribute to Her awakening.
Honor and embody the feminine in all of its aspects and work to recover
sacred masculinity, freeing it from destructive patriarchal patterns.
This Christmas season, may we all fulfill our calling as human beings and give birth to fresh aspects of God!
Stephen Hatch, M.A., is a contemplative thinker, photographer and
writer. He lives as a sort of "monk in the world," combining family
life with meditation, silence, solitary time spent hiking and camping
in the wilds, a simple lifestyle, and mindfulness. Stephen has a B.A.
in Philosophy and Religion (with a minor in Natural Resources) from
Colorado State University, and an M.A. in Spirituality from Iliff
School of Theology. He studied Contemplative Christianity under
Thomas Keating, and worked for Contemplative Outreach for several
years. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has taught in the
Religious Studies Department at Naropa University, where he specializes
in Christian Mysticism. For inspiring quotes paired with Nature
Photos, please visit www.NaturePhoto-Quotes.com
, or go to the Facebook page by that same name. Stephen is also
available for lectures, retreats and spiritual direction. You can
contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday, April 28, 2012
We depend upon Nature to give us epiphanies, where all things are suddenly revealed as transparent to Spirit. These revelatory experiences then give us the power to practice this awareness within all of the ordinary occurrences of our lives. Here, the epiphany serves a role that is logically prior to our ability to practice the insight it offers us. Without the revelation, we would never know what exactly to practice.
However, shortly after the revelatory experience arrives, its light begins to dim. Then, we are invited to practice the insight by faith, even when we are tempted to think it isn't true. Then, we understand that the epiphany was simply the radiance of our faith-filled practice or embodiment of the insight. Suddenly, we realize that a reversal has occurred; the practice is now logically prior to the epiphany.
Wisdom is the ability to move back and forth between the two sides of this reversal, as though each is a mirror-image of the other, with no original Reality standing between the mirrors. Which side is logically prior to the other, the chicken or the egg, the epiphany or our embodiment of it through faith? Both, it turns out. But only in a moving form of logic, one that keeps shifting back and forth between the two sides of the equation as each shapeshifts into the other.
Tibetan spirituality has a name for this occurrence: "crazy wisdom." Here, our normal logic is turned on its head. Normally we would say that either the epiphany or the practice of that epiphany is logically prior, not both. But crazy wisdom says that "Because the epiphany is logically prior to our practice of that epiphany through faith, therefore, the reverse is true: our faith in the insight - and our embodiment of it - is logically prior to the revelation of that insight through a Nature-based epiphany. But this is not true in a static sort of way, where we might be tempted to view the two sides of the equation as stationary equivalents. Rather, a moving form of logic is involved, where each side continually shapeshifts into the other. Such, it turns out, is the great mystery of life.
Photo: Sunlight shines through a screen of rain, with White Loco growing on the hillside in the foreground, Reservoir Ridge Natural Area, CO, April 23, 2012
Thursday, March 1, 2012
Thursday, February 23, 2012
"Within nearly all expressions of contemporary women's spirituality is the idea of the Goddess, not as a woman sitting on a throne above the clouds, i.e., transcendent, apart from us, but as immanent, within ourselves. Many would carry this even further and speak of the Goddess as being within all manifestations of life. And more and more women are relating to the idea of divinity . . . as the flowing energy in the very processes of life and living. This Goddess would not be in a person, or tree, or river, so much as she would be the actual organic process, the flow, the changes, transitions, and transformations that the person, tree or river go through. This idea . . . is perhaps more closely related to Taoism than any other body of spiritual thought."
Merlin Stone, "When God Was a Woman"
Photo: Woman at the Merced River, Yosemite National Park, CA, July 26, 2011