Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Environmental Dimension of Spirituality

A couple of days ago a Jesuit blogger whom I follow wrote about having just completed his annual eight-day retreat in Chicago.  I immediately wanted to know how that worked: silence in the city?  Not exactly summer in the city as I imagine it. He responded that his spirituality is very urban, and that he's made retreats in several cities, including Montreal and Jerusalem.

That got me thinking: How does environment play a role in our spirituality? Is it something extremely personal?   I would call my own very outdoor, open-space oriented.  The evidence:

As an adult in my late 20s, the place in which it occurred to me that there might possibly be a God was at the top of Stoney Indian Pass overlooking Glacier National Park ~ on a backpacking trip.  Not in a church (actually, it had not occurred to me to go anywhere near a church for at least a decade at that point, despite all those years of Catholic and Protestant boarding schools), and most definitely not in the city in which I practiced law every day.

If you asked me to name a few places in which God has seemed especially present to me, off the top of my head they would probably include the beach (any beach) at sunrise, the North Carolina mountains, the soy bean fields of southern Ohio, the Rockies, and the starry sky above the Connecticut Valley and the Berkshires.  The exceptions to prove my rule: Gothic cathedrals.  They are usually located in cities (but they are interior environments of extraordinary open space - ha!).  And the Chapel of the Martyrs in Paris ~ a major exception.

Retreats?  Well, my first one was at Guelph in Ontario.  As I told Joe, my then-director responded to my plan to go there in a pejorative email tone of voice by saying, "It's very RURAL."  And it was -- it offered me a place in which I could walk across fields and through woods for miles each day, and spend much of my afternoon prayer time during that 90-degree week sitting on a rock in the middle of the river.  Then I tried Manresa outside of Detroit, which was way too small ~ although anyplace in the universe would have been too small for the day on which I learned that my son had died.  There's a retreat house here to which I've been with groups and occasionally to walk the grounds with friends -- where I've even co-led a retreat, actually ~ and it's a lovely respite from the city, but city is where it is.  And now there's Wernersville, a Pennsylvania version of Guelph.  On the outside anyway.  I guess interiors are a topic for another post.

At any rate, outdoors and remote is the way to go for me.  Here, I spend a lot of my prayer time walking, either to the Little Lakes a couple of miles away or to the cemetery a couple of blocks away.  Both provide enough in the way of woods and water and birds and other wildlife to at least seem spacious and even a little  remote.

And when I imagine my future in ministry, my fantasy life includes a late-in-life decade spent as a spiritual director and writer at someplace like Ghost Ranch.  (Oddly enough, that plan seems to be working out in reverse, sort of, as I have plenty of spiritual direction work to do here in the city.  Does this mean I'll be pastoring a church in the middle of nowhere in  my 70s?)

I suppose that I might make an exception for Montreal or Jerusalem, though!  (And seriously, this has got me wondering about my own limitations in terms of spiritual openness and availability in urban environments.  Or in small spaces, such as Michelle's been writing about in describing her adventures in exploring the contemplative life in Japan.)

What about you?  Where does God seem most present to you?

Summer in the Cemetery


  1. I have to be outdoors as well: I did my best talking to God while walking the Camino. Recently I visited the local church after two aunties (both elderly) died. Someone suggested I might want to go into the quieter Blessed Sacrament chapel. But I feel claustrophobic in such small rooms!- I stayed in the main body of the neo-Gothic church I was in.

  2. It was also for me that I most connected with God, that Mysterious Heart in the wide open spaces, the wilderness that is so accessible in this part of Africa. In the last few years though I have found a gradual shift, not into urban necessarily but into the small and particular which may be found anywhere, from my kitchen to a busy street to the wafting grass seedheads in a small clearing in the wide wide bush to the faint fragrance of sweet basil on a hot afternoon.

    I have not given much thought to what this may mean, only that it has seemed that there is no where, no small detail, from which The Loving God is absent.

  3. Oh Kiwi, I would love to walk the Camino!

  4. Gae, you will love the book that Cindy sent me that I'm going to write about soon.

  5. doesn't have to be outside, but I am a country mouse. The big city is a strange land I enjoy but avoid most of the time.