Nature Spirituality in the Contemplative Age?

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When Alison and Jeff Lilly invited me to consider writing for this blog, at first I wasn’t sure. Not so much unsure about them (they are awesome people, as anyone who reads their writing or listens to their podcast already knows), or even about their topic (nature spirituality in the digital age offers multiple possibilities for meaningful and thought-provoking conversation). My hesitancy was more about my own humility: I wasn’t sure that I had much to offer.

After about a seven year stint in the late 1990s and early years of this century bouncing around a variety of Pagan organizations and writing several books on nature-based spirituality, I did something that even I myself would have previously considered unthinkable: I returned to Christianity. And I didn’t even do the sensible thing and return to liberal, progressive, emergent-style Christianity; no, I went whole hog and became a Catholic (you can read about it here). My Pagan friends were stunned. My new Catholic friends were amused and bemused that a Neopagan had joined their ranks. For me, I just wanted a spirituality that was anchored in the contemplative tradition — a tradition that can be traced from Pagan roots (Neoplatonists like Plotinus and Porphyry) into Greek Christianity where it eventually took root in the monasteries that were proliferating just as the Roman empire imploded and Europe went into the so-called “dark ages.”

Why contemplation? The short answer is that I found (and still find) a disciplined practice of intentional silence to be far more transformational and nurturing than most other spiritual/religious activities (including most forms of Pagan ceremonies). Well, then, why Christian contemplation? Why didn’t I just become a Buddhist? Well, silence is silence; but Christianity is also my home faith (I grew up in a Lutheran Church and spent my young adult  years as an Episcopalian). Because it spent so many centuries locked in the cloister, the contemplative tradition of Christianity is marginal (most Christians, let alone non-Christians, have no idea there is such a thing as “contemplative Christianity,” and many who have heard of it misconstrue it as some sort of Christian/New Age hybrid). But the tradition does exist, and I reached a point where I realized that rather than be a Pagan who was unhappy with the dearth of contemplative teaching within Neopaganism, it made more sense for me to return to Christianity, immerse myself in the Christian contemplative tradition, and learn how to deal with the towering problems within Christianity (like sexism, dualistic thinking, and hostility to nature, for starters). It has been profoundly challenging in many ways, but I have been blessed to discover that contemplative Christians, even though a very small percentage of the overall Christian population, often share the same frustrations that I have with Christianity — as well as a similar conviction that contemplative practice is the best hope, not only for our growth as individuals, but for making some sort of a positive difference within the Christian community as well as the world at large.

So… back to Jeff and Ali and this blog. Here was how my thinking went: “Gee, what a wonderful new project they have launched. How beautiful that they are committed to exploring nature spirituality, and its social and political implications, not only from a Pagan perspective but also by including a larger, interfaith perspective.” But what do I, Pagan-apostate-turned-Christian-contemplative, have to offer to this conversation?

And my humility kicked in, and I thought, “not much.”

But the idea of writing in this forum wouldn’t go away. And I realized that the issue was not so much about my expertise as about my heart. Once upon a time, I embraced Neopaganism because in my heart I wanted a spirituality grounded in the earth. Then, a few years later, I came to discover that, as much as I had tried, I didn’t really belong in that world (a dear friend of mine, who is a well-known Pagan musician, told me shortly before I entered the church that he supported what I was doing, because I was such a bad Pagan!). I was like a young woman who developed a powerful and meaningful crush on another woman, only to find after giving that relationship an honest try that it simply wasn’t who she was — that in her heart of hearts, she really wanted to be with a man. In other words, I was to Paganism what Jessica Stein was to lesbianism. Of course, I’m not sure that I am any better at being a Christian than I was at being a Pagan, but at least I’m where I belong. And yet — here’s my point — that burning in my heart for an earthy spirituality, a sacral relationship with the soil and the sky and the body, remains with me.

So I decided I needed to explore this question: what does “nature spirituality in the digital age” mean from a Christian contemplative perspective? I am writing here not because I have an answer to this question, but precisely because I don’t have much of an answer. The liturgy, theology, sacred stories, ritual practices, and ethical mandates of Christianity in so many ways seem foreign, perhaps even inimical, to the idea of “nature spirituality.” But voices in the tradition offer interesting insights. Bernard of Clairvaux, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Merton, Francis of Assisi, the Irish and Welsh saints, Thomas Berry, Rosemary Radford Ruether: these are just a few of the voices, from the past as well as the present, that have dared to explore a Christian approach to nature spirituality. I’m afraid that nature spirituality within Christianity is even more marginal than contemplative spirituality. But “marginal” is not the same as “non-existent.” What a wonderful privilege it is to be alive today, when submerged voices from the past can join together with visionary voices from the present to articulate an authentic, holistic, dare I say green Christian theology of nature. Hopefully, my writing here can be part of that larger, emerging conversation. Let’s see where it takes us.


Carl McColman is an author, retreat leader and spiritual director. His blog, www.anamchara.com, celebrates the mystical and contemplative dimensions of both Christian and world spirituality.

Carl’s books explore spirituality from a variety of perspectives. His Christian writings include The Big Book of Christian Mysticism and Answering the Contemplative Call. His Celtic and nature-based writings include The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Celtic Wisdom.

Since 2005 Carl’s spirituality has been anchored in the Cistercian monastic tradition. He is not a monk, but a professed lay associate of a monastery that owns and protects one of the largest green spaces in the metro Atlanta area. In Cistercian spirituality Carl has discovered the link between the Christian faith, contemplative practice, and a foundational love for the natural world. Carl’s writing reflects Cistercian earthiness integrated with the recognition of contemplation as an essential tool for peacemaking and sustainability.


Photo Credit: (CC) kataaca (source)


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