This article appeared in Sacred Web 25. To order this issue of Sacred Web, click here.
Hidden Sanctuaries: Unveiling the Spirituality of the Natural World
by John Herlihy
I said to the almond tree, 'Sister, speak to me of God.'
And the almond tree blossomed.
(Nikos Kazantzakis, St. Francis)
We make reference to Nature today as though we were referring to our beloved mother who has left us on our own without her abiding presence. Where has she gone; why has she abandoned us; will she ever return to be appreciated and loved as nothing else to compare with in this world? Will we ever again stand in awe of the night sky as the city of God? Will we fall to our knees in a primeval forest to witnesses the sun’s rays illuminate the forest floor like laser beams of light? Will we ever again study the snowflake, the crystal or the spider’s web to remember the intricate and intimate symmetry and perfection that lies in waiting for our expectant minds to witness and observe? Will we once again look into the cup of the lily or the blossoms of the almond tree and remember God?
We love the ocean for its angry moods. The occasional thunder-storm thrills our sensibility and souls with its shock of lightning and the awe of thunder. We may take occasional delight at the sight of a rainbow; but we ignore the road-side trees or the darkness of the night sky because of their everyday presence, while the placid lake leaves us cold because it harbors no thrill or adventure. We no longer relate to Nature in the same way people of earlier times did, living in its midst of its awesome splendor as the natural setting of their outer lives. We live in big cities that show us the blue canopy of the heavens in daytime patches and whose night lights wipe out the sparkle of the galaxies that drift down to earth in remembrance of the city of God. We drive through man-made tunnels that imperiously make their way under rivers and ocean channels. We denude entire forests to service the furniture and housing industries and we pollute our oceans and rivers with waste that will take many millennia to decompose. We never sleep outside in situ under the stars, and apart from the occasional jog through the park or walk through the woods, we never leave the confines of modern-day civilization to have a taste of what it means to be enclosed within the sacred ambiance of a hidden sanctuary.
Late one afternoon recently just after sunset, I drove out into the virgin desert that lay wondrously close to the small, Middle Eastern university town where I work. Because the desert is reasonably accessible from the town, a short drive beyond the fringe of the villas that face the vast expanse of desert wilderness allows me to escape from the turmoil of the busy city and all that it represents. The flaming orb of the sun sat on the rim of the horizon for several seconds as if in a final salute to the tribulations of the day before sinking like melted butter beyond the hem of the world. As I approached the rolling dunes that swept across my vision as some predatory ocean of undulating sand, I abandoned the car as the final vestige of all that I hold dear to the routine of my day, including the ability to move about efficiently and in air-conditioned comfort. Alone and on foot within this primordial sea of shadowy dusk, with nothing but the sand under my feet and the thin line of the horizon to define my vision, I suddenly feel alone and afraid within the sheer physicality of raw nature in all its purity and uncompromising truth, in counterpoint to the solitary twinkling of the North Star that interrupts the emerging night with its inviting message of light beyond the ages of mankind. The primordial fear of the unknown takes hold and seizes my heart in the grip of the unaccustomed feeling that I am powerless amid forces beyond my reckoning or control, forces that render me momentarily insignificant in the face of our Mother Nature.
What is it about the great deserts, forests, and oceans of the globe that render us as insignificant mortals when we confront them alone in all their sublime grandeur? When you come to think of it, Mother Nature has no real outside or inside—no skin and no heart—but is instead some vast combination of outer and inner worlds whose unity creates a reality that cannot be denied, a meta-cosmic symbol that transcends itself by being much more than the sum of its materiality. In the presence of pure nature we stand alone, while the mind is enveloped by the innocence of Nature’s beginning and enduring magnificence.
By the time I had left the road and walked beyond the crest of a nearby dune amid that eerily silent stillness, darkness had conquered the land. I found that the immensity of the desert had suddenly become the venue of some vast infinity. I had fallen through a crack in the universe and in doing so something within me had also broken open to allow the in-pouring of a knowledge that transcended the mere input of the senses. Overhead the night sky was rippling with stars, like diamond stones set against black velvet, highlighting in their infinitesimality the blackness of the heavens and sending their infinite specks of light across millions of light years to reach my curious eye and enter my mind to create a profound sense of wonder and awe that complemented the halo of descending dusk that cast shadows across the land. The faint light of multiple star clusters seemed to pulsate and beckon one another through those vast distances as thought they were in some kind of conspiracy to confound the insignificant mortals that gazed up in wonder upon them from the vast distances below. From the vantage point of that desert plain spread clear to the horizon, the canopy of stars overhead created great rivers of light across the celestial dome. The Milky Way streamed across the sky with its several tributaries. And the great river of light whirled through the darkness to create a grand promenade through the city of God. There seemed to be no ground under my feet but only the abyss of a star-studded space falling away forever, while those falling stars fell into my open soul as strange thoughts of the magnificence of God Almighty amid the infinite whispers of the human spirit that cascade across the deserts of the night.
And let us not forget the awesome silence that bears witness to the reality of sound by virtue of its peculiar emptiness. “Nature’s silence is its one remark,” Anne Dillard has written, as if in making this one remark, silence has uttered the iconic essence of what needs to be known. I was no longer in the desert and beneath the night sky; I felt above and beyond it, as though I had passed through these symbolic images of nature and arrived on the other side of some invisible door to witness a revelation whose significance and import would last me a lifetime. It is interesting to take note of a corresponding silence that lies within us as a premonition of something great that lies just beyond the reach of our own inner horizon. The expanse of the desert epitomizes the reality of a foreboding silence that lies within us as some primal secret awaiting the arrival of a divine whisper. In traversing the vast stretches of sand amid such silence under the depths of the night sky, one quickly comes to realize the voice of a silence that lies within us once we are able to shed the turmoil, fear, confusion and all the other psychological idiosyncrasies that make up the limitations of our mentality and inner psyche. “What makes the desert beautiful,” said Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s little prince to his pilot, “is that somewhere it hides a well.” The hidden presence of the Spirit that lies within me is my hidden well and I am willing to cross the landscape of a desert that lies within me to give expression of what lies beyond the mind and heart amid the turmoil of my days.
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One question we need to ask during this modern era: How do we understand the word “mystery” and how does it define and shape the way we understand ourselves and the world we live in? Many people today may even be surprised by a question that has little relevance to their daily lives. Who today is prepared to assert that there are mysteries surrounding us that will never be resolved, mysteries that actually heighten human consciousness, mysteries that promise alternative worlds and a deeper experience of life than we could ever imagine on our own. The question of mystery and its power to resolve the human dilemma no longer inspires the modern psyche. The modernist mentality of today wants answers not questions, facts that neutralize the mystery pertaining to our origins and final end through scientific speculation, when once there was a time when certain questions were not asked lest a person risk destroying the very forces that keep us asking them.
On the surface, the question of mystery is profoundly simple; we ask it because its subtle inscrutability confronts us at every turn and stimulates the desire to discover what lies at the heart of the human condition. On the other hand, the question of mystery is quite simply profound, so deep that although it will never be resolved within this world, it fuels the desire to transcend human limitations. Elements of the mysterious substantiate for humanity an ancient purpose to life’s procession through time; that which is knowable or provable through the evidence of human investigation is superseded by an ancient mystery—a mysterium tremendum—that positions us within a framework of time that does not pass us by and that creates an ambiance of wonder and bewilderment that opens onto the grace and beatitude of the supra-natural.
From within the cosmic wilderness there is placed within each person an initial spark—call it a form of energy, a vibration, a sound or a light1—that initiates the line of human inquiry into the cosmic mystery. It is a spark that begins as a mystery, that becomes a hidden secret of the Supreme Being, that flowers into a revelation of the essential knowledge of God, that enters into the human soul as an eternal flame, that expresses itself as worship and praise of the Divinity, and that ultimately reflects through human virtue the qualities and attributes of God. Before a person can adopt a religious tradition, before any active participation in the life of the spirit, and before any true understanding of the role of a personal identity within a universal plan, this spark and the mystery it represents must be acknowledged and then confronted.
At the heart of the cosmic universe lies a fundamental mystery that will never be resolved on the human plane of existence. Yet this mystery, like a lingering scent, stirs up desires and emotions that lead us to the edge, not of some forlorn darkness, but of an ineffable light that illuminates a vast universe of aspiration and hope, a mystery that will witness the destiny of humankind as cloud-covered mountain peaks witness the valleys to which they are enjoined. Imagine what life would be like if we had a skeleton key giving access to unsolvable mysteries and hidden powers within the universe. Our capacity for knowledge and action would be heightened beyond measure and we would experience a feeling of empowerment that would be dangerous to control. The doors and windows of our lives would be thrown open to the natural elements whose every message would instill in us a sense of mystery and wonder.
We are attracted by Nature and tempted by its natural artefacts because we are a part of physical nature. The body yearns for the world because it is made from the same materials at the quantum, physical, corporeal, and formal level and will return to the earth as elemental forms of energy. Even our flesh and blood translate into primordial physical desires such as sex, survival and the overall satisfaction of the senses that not only ground us within this world, but that also allow us to partake of its miraculous wonders. When one of the verses of the Qur’anic revelation tell us that as part of the creation process the human body was animated by the Breath of the Compassionate, this verse has a symbolic significance in that the breath of the Compassionate, with the typical movement of expansion and contraction of a vital life force, is actually the physical manifestation of the very Spirit of God. When this breath becomes infused into the body of the person, it becomes the life force represented in linguistic terminology as the human soul. The soul, on the other hand, is created from light. That is why the return to God represents a return to the source of illumination that lifts our hearts in this world and helps us to spread our wings in our flight toward the eternal.
No matter how much we try, however, the sense of the sacred and true feelings for the eternal escape our mental and even our intuitive grasp. Perhaps part of the problem lies in the fluidity of time and the relentlessness of its forward movement. Everything flows and nothing is static, giving rise to the feeling of rushing headlong into places where angels even fear to tread. Time is in perpetual motion and envelopes us within its fluid embrace. We never have the opportunity to see the world within a moment frozen in time. Time is always in perpetuity and always in movement. If time could stop for only a moment, then we would better understand its hidden message and perhaps give us a glimpse of eternity captured within the frozen moment in time.
In this world, the cessation of time’s arrow would create a static and frozen world, held in reserve as a solitary and prolonged moment, an unnatural hiatus with a life independent of us, a parenthetical pause in life’s perpetual movement to reveal a crack in the forward movement of time’s continuum? Birds would halt in mid-air as though frozen in time to reveal a beauty of grace in formal flight. Rivers would freeze up and their perpetual movement would halt its gurgling and become as silent as stone. Snowflakes would fall; but never land; the bud would open, but never fully bloom. All movement would peremptorily halt and all sound would immediately be reduced to silence. It is the pause between breaths; ice at melting point, the moment when water disappears into steam, a moment of transition when we do not know whether it is a particle or a wave. Rainbows and mirages would freeze in frame to become visible and never disappear. Bees would halt in flight is the pause between breath, a silent stroke in the expansion and contraction of universal life. A silence within sound and darkness within vision and a blackness so fleeting it would capture the mystery of eternity in a single sigh. What touches the mind may be perplexing, but what touches the heart is never forgotten. A hunger would develop for the mystery, to feel its presence and to enter its depths. What about the night sky. What would happen if these milky promenades of light appeared only once in a hundred years. How people would savor the privilege and flock out of their houses to witness the city of God that would suddenly appear before them as a tribute to the One God.
The mystery of the night sky would suddenly be revealed for one brief moment, in full dress, resplendent to the eye and bewildering to the imagination. Never having seen it before and having waited for its arrived for untold ages, we would marvel at its appearance and search within the cavern of our deepest sympathies for an explanation that would make sense to us and serve as an enduring revelation of all that is true and real. One might see a pitch black drapery that harbors within its folds pin-pricks of light from some realm beyond this heaven of darkness. Another might see a blue-black bolt of velvet cloth across which has been sprinkled phosphorescent star dust that glows as twinkling stars against the mystery of the universe. Whatever the night sky might appear to be, its singular message cannot be denied, namely worlds are born and universes created that bear no direct relation to our own humble existence, except to extend to us their message of wonder and mystery. In truth, heaven is forever there as a canopy of blue sweeping overhead from horizon to horizon, as protective and soothing during the day as it is dark and aglow with a billion stars at night.
The mystery that lurks behind the experience of Mother Nature leaves us standing at the edge of an abyss. But for all of its incredible depth and profundity, arousing fear and dread in our hearts in the face of the unknown, there are other emotions that are aroused, sleeping like an attentive cat on a precipice, that enter the cave of the heart wild and free, that know no fear and that are ready to take the plunge into the heart of the unknown mystery, come what may. We must discover the truth of the world on our own. And so we shall. We would embrace every experience. We would discard all pre-conceptions of thinking we know in advance. We would see every moment as an open door and we would step through each one wide-eyed, without fear. Children have this primitive feeling toward nature that is wild, instinctive, and carefree. They play with mud balls to make their fantasy a physical reality. There is a child-like joy in looking down holes and exploring caves. Autumn leaves represent minor miracles, like discovering wild berries ripe for picking. The solidity of the physical and natural world is ultimately transitory, while the ethereality of the spiritual world has an enduring presence that lives forever within the mind as an eternal reality. If we were sitting out on some shelf in the vastness of outer space looking down upon the globe of the turning earth, forever in movement in harmony with the rest of the celestial spheres, what would be see but a circular globe, bluish-white, resembling a glass marble with all its fragility and delicateness. No doubt, we would immediately be overwhelmed by what we didn’t see or hear or touch. Then silence and stillness verging on peace, and night would be the universe.
* * *
Nature finds its infancy in the Garden of Eden. In fact, the realm of Eden still exists as a reflection within the world of Nature, and the sacred sanctuaries of nature around the globe still remember the ethereal ambience and beauty of the original, primordial garden. Humanity may have fallen from grace and forfeited the direct perception of God, but the fate of the human microcosm was not the fate of the universal macrocosm. If humans as a microcosm had lost their luminosity and primordial powers and fallen from grace, the great macrocosm that surrounds humankind, including virgin nature, the macrocosmic symbols of the sun, moon and planets, and the metacosmic spheres of space, time and the astrophysical universe that forms the totality of the created universe remains intact as a symbolic image of the other side of reality. Its magnificent beauty, the harmony and order of its circular movement, its overwhelming design and perfection, and its capacity to convey profound meaning and higher, spiritual emotions all point without question to a spiritual significance of the utmost importance.
All of the elements of virgin nature still retain in principle the primordial qualities of beauty, serenity and holiness that people the world over seek and that they can find within the sacred symbols of the world of nature if they share in the symbolist sympathy for the messages that are implicit within this natural environment. The silence of forests, the majesty of distant mountains, and the brilliance of the setting sun witness and testify to the holiness and the healing factors that are the inherent properties within nature and point to the spiritual presence that can calm disquieted minds and balance the disharmony of unhappy souls. The yearning to return to nature that we witness during these times reflects the deep-seeded yearning for the beauty, tranquility, and peace that are fundamental desires of human nature, but that are far distant memories for modern individuals who must cope in their daily lives with the debilitating ugliness of the world and the stressful complexity of life in our huge, impersonal and virtually inhuman metropolises.
Nature itself is a sacred revelation and a source of knowledge, a Word, a Book and a Logos, whose spiritual meaning and significance manifests itself on many levels and through a multitude of channels. For the Red Indians of North America, their natural environment was a sacred, indeed a primordial and Edenic sanctuary through which the native tribes were able to appreciate the higher spiritual realities and realize the all-encompassing Presence of the Great Spirit (Wakan Tanka). For them, phenomenal nature was sacred nature because it aroused within them a sense of the sacred that permeated the entire manifested world. Forests have been considered sacred in a number of earlier traditional environments. For the Celts and the ancient Germans, the forest was the basis of their very lives and they understood the forest to serve as a kind of temple that harbored the Divine Presence, much like the Red Indians who considered all of nature to be their cathedral. In the Hindu tradition, sages and yogis retired into the forest to partake of its untouched and sacred quality. Sacred forests in India and Japan are still held in reverence by the people just as they were in pre-Christian Europe. Sacred rivers2 and springs are another example of an aspect of virgin nature that was perennially considered to have blessed qualities. The well at Chatres and the famous spring at Lourdes have come to be regarded as sacred because of the miracles associated there. The most famous spring within the Islamic world is the well known Zamzam waters adjacent to the Kaaba in Makkah, which began to gush forth, as the traditions relate, when Hagar, the wife of Abraham, was left alone with her thirsty son Ismael. To this day, the water gushes forth and services the millions of pilgrims that pass through Makkah every year. Muslims firmly believe in its sacred quality, reflecting the eternal and the immutable, and containing the blessing (baraka) that is associated with the ancient spring.
Pre-modern man, who lived in a more traditional environment than the one we live in today, still partook of the “symbolist spirit” in which people were able to retain some sense of the transparency of the forms and symbols of nature, much like Adam did, and actually sensed within themselves something of the quality and attributes of the Divinity behind every created form. Referring to those who still enjoy the symbolist perspective of the world, Seyyed Hossain Nasr has written: “The forms of nature are for them [those with symbolist spirit] letters and words of a sacred language written by the creating power of the Divinity upon the tablet of cosmic existence. To read this cosmic book requires a special kind of literacy which is in fact very different from the literacy taught through modern education, the literacy that often causes many people to become impervious to the symbolic significance of nature and illiterate regarding the primordial message written upon the face of majestic mountains, withering autumn leaves or the shimmering waves of the sea.”3 To read the book of Nature is to read the message of the traditional symbols that constitute the forms and elements of that Nature. Through a willingness to partake of the “symbolist spirit” and through an appreciation of the value and significance of the traditional symbols within nature, we can still have access to sources of knowledge that reflect higher levels of knowledge and of reality.
Traditional symbols can be characterized primarily by their beauty and their efficacy. For one thing, the symbol can be called beautiful by virtue of its actually "being" what it gives expression to and represents, namely a spiritual truth and a higher reality that is reflected within the form. “A symbol is not something arbitrarily chosen by man to illustrate a higher reality; it does so precisely because it is rooted in that reality, which has projected it, like a shadow or a reflection, onto the plane of earth.”4 In other words, we say that a symbol is beautiful primarily because it is true. The beauty of an object results from the transparency of its form through which a truth is made known, and there is nothing more beautiful than a truth that is made manifest. Secondly, a symbol can be called beautiful because it has a universal character and says something of the Unity that lies at the heart of the universe and is its mirror reflection in form. “The beauty of a thing is the sign of its internal unity, its conformity with an indivisible essence, and thus with a reality that will not let itself be counted or measured.”5
A machine6, for example, is not beautiful, although it is the conventional symbol par excellence for the modern world, full of utility and efficiency, but totally lacking in the subtlety, grace and truth traditionally associated with beauty. It may be efficient, functional, utilitarian, economical, and technologically advanced, to name its most obvious qualities; but it does not reflect a truth or identify a spiritual reality. A swan7, on the other hand, incarnates within its very form an aspect of dignity that is virtually archetypal. By isolating this formal aspect of perfection within an animal, it makes the animal not only beautiful but also symbolic of a higher spiritual quality. There is an entire range of animals that actually projects direct and immediate impressions of a symbolic nature. These animals highlight for mankind one of the higher qualities or otherworldly attributes toward which we aspire, the intrinsic beauty of a symbol lying in its meaning and in its truth rather than in its form per se.
The lamb and the dove, in addition to the swan, are animals that project a quality of innocence and a feeling of peace that borders on the otherworldly, while their white color remembers celestial purity. The owl projects wisdom through its “image” and physicality, without the wherewithal for actually being wise. The bear manifests an aspect of heaviness and cunning, and it literally retreats into the earth (cave) for its winter hibernation. The squirrel, on the other hand, elfin and almost cherubic in appearance, shrewdly gathers and stores its nuts for the winter, and remembers where they are when it needs them. Who can look upon the astute activity of the squirrel and not wish to incorporate this proverbial quality into themselves? The camel suggests patience and contemplation, not to forget its ascetic aspect that is curiously reflective of the harsh environment of the desert where the camel thrives. The bee8 is an "inspired" animal that produces honey through its “instinctive” intelligence and whose skill in house building reflects the divine wisdom. The ant9, a lowly creature indeed, was honored by Solomon. The ant, among other social insects, has been a source for all kinds of parables, giving lessons in industry, interdependence, altruism, frugality, humility, patience and endurance. All of these animals reflect at least one of the higher qualities towards which humans aspire and, in endeavoring to exist through the instinctive animal intelligence granted by God, they express their individual symbolic qualities to perfection and without compromise.
In addition to the engaging symbolism of the animal kingdom, the symbols of nature are stunningly beautiful and virtually define the meaning of beauty. Anyone who has witnessed the drama of a sunset, the enchanting quality of the night sky, or the artistry of a snow crystal knows what the beauty of nature can be and is. Yet, how is it possible to further articulate this beauty in words when the symbols themselves serve this purpose so magnificently? The qualities of nature's beauty and therefore nature's truth are reflected firstly in its sense of order and harmony, which by implication conveys to humanity a feeling of certitude that behind this order lies an imperial law that is reflective of a Divinity who has created these awesome phenomena. To participate in the world of nature creates a sense of peace that leads to tranquility of mind and serenity of heart.
In addition, nature conveys the unmistakable impression of sacredness and primordiality. That is why it always produces a spiritual experience that borders on instinctive worship of the Unseen Reality by conveying the feeling that, through the open face of nature, we have witnessed indirectly the open Face of God. The grandeur of the primeval forest, the majesty of the open seas, the vastness of the heavens, and the sublime wonder of the night sky all induce higher levels of awareness through such spiritually emotive experience, the reason being that these symbols all reflect higher levels of reality and indeed the Divine Being Himself Who has created that reality. As such, all of nature, what we refer to endearingly as Mother Nature, transcends the normal modes of symbolic expression because Nature is actually beautiful beyond words and beyond the scope of the human mind.
Consider, for example, the elements and substances of nature, how they have developed and grown within certain optimal conditions that were conducive to their order and design. Is this pattern of development an accident, a chance happening, some form of necessity as many modern scientists would have us believe, or are we dealing once again with the miracle of the creation symbolized in the Hand of the Divinity. We only need to think of the great substances of nature such as diamonds, gold, silver and other natural elements, how beautiful and desirable they have always been. Think of the qualities of such precious stones as the transparent crystalinity of diamonds, the bold color of emeralds, sapphires and rubies, the perfection of pearls, and the solidity and smoothness of marble. Even the varieties of wood that characterize certain trees make statements that extend far beyond the literal constitution of the tree. We are thinking here, for example, of the majesty of the oak, the dignity (and scent) of pine, the verticality of the poplar, and the ethereality of the willow. All these objects within nature are natural, original, and pure, without artifice or pretense. They express integrity and completeness, and they speak a message to all those who appreciate these natural images and substances, a message expressed most eloquently through the voice of silence. Precious stones in particular are known to have a unique resonance whose sympathetic vibration can have a soothing, even healing effect on a person. Ivory has traditionally been used for carving exquisite statuettes and other handicrafts because of its unusual color and pliability; while marble has provided the source material for ancient monuments and world renowned sculptures because of the implicit beauty of its configuration, its integrity of stone, and its simplicity and purity. Wood has traditionally been associated with the sense of smell or taste. Pine is remembered for its exquisitely odoriferous scent evoking the mysterious lure of the woodland forest; frankincense is the solidified sap of a tree found in Oman; Vermont maple syrup is an edible sap drawn from the inner seams of the maple tree, its life blood as it were.
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Hidden sanctuaries cannot be understood with the mind alone; they can only be visited as a body, mind, and soul experience of a remote land from a more primordial, Golden era. The mountains, the heavens, the broad expanse of valley and flowing river all speak of high and sacred mystery, and imprint themselves on the mind like the woodcuts of one’s first primer, primitive, ancient, and mythic. The true spirit of the nature experience sinks deep into the well of the traveler’s soul to reveal a natural awe that awakens a sense of transcendence and contains an intimation of higher worlds. The countryside or natural landscape cannot be thought through, reasoned or measured in terms of size, shape, or geometric proportions—much less their national or social boundaries. The true force of the nature experience strikes the traveler in the same way that a bell creates a resounding note when struck. The serenity of a natural landscape with its undulating waves of hills and valleys and signature movement of its lilting streams strikes a resounding cord within the bell of one’s being that resonates with a purity and truth that is hard to come by in today’s modern, frenetic world. The sweet benevolence of Mother Nature has a gift to give; the unsuspecting traveler needs to explore the silent places of its mountainous terrain and its ancient, traditional landscapes in order to uncover what that gift might be.
I recently made an unexpected journey through what I referred to elsewhere as “the silent places” of Ladakh, a province of Northern India nestled between scenic Kashmir in the West and the Tibetan plateau in the East, an area that echoes the broad silence of distant ages in the presence of its natural wonders and ancient artifacts. Whether it be the broad valley of the Indus River creating a brushstroke of lush farmland on its either banks amid the vast stretches of this brown and desolate moonscape, the imposing snow-clad mountain peaks reaching to carve the meaning of their mystery on Heaven’s walls, or the ancient monasteries perched atop a mountain crag like a watchful eagle witnessing the passing of centuries, an eerie silence pervades the landscape, offering the promise of an alternative and unique experience to the hustle and bustle that we have grown accustomed to in all the major metropolises of the world.
Ladakh is a land of ancient artifacts and spiritual remembrance, whether it be through the wonders of its natural beauty or the miraculous spiritual heritage that still represents a living tradition in today’s anti-traditional and materialistic world. The people seem to live in this natural environment of river and mountain with the same acceptance that they adjust themselves to a thirty percent reduction in oxygen at this altitude of over 11,000 feet. To the unaccustomed eye of the traveler, this is a primordial landscape, untouched and wild and achingly beautiful. My parch sensibility drinks in this draught of natural beauty like nectar of the gods. Scattered through the landscape are the spiritual vestiges of a traditional past in the form of stupas spread dramatically across the sweeping plain and prayer flags and prayer wheels by the side of the road. They stand as silent sentinels of some ancient memory that bears kindling and they amply fulfill their function by simply being where they are, sending the spirit of the mantras written upon the flags and wheels into the blowing wind.
Several days into my stay in Ladakh, I was scheduled to travel deeper west on the way to such places as Kargil and Kashmir. The attendants at the hotel made a great fuss, insisting that I have a solid breakfast to fortify me for the coming journey. I am not sure I knew what they meant, but their engraciating smiles and the promise to keep my room ready for me for the several days that I would be gone endeared them to me. Once out of the protective cocoon of the capital city Leh, we were heading further west deeper into the more impassible mountain ranges of the Himalayas. This area was indeed mountainous desert, with high, rugged barren mountains bereft of any trees or vegetation. The road itself followed the course of the Indus River which itself made its own meandering course through the desolate hills. The mountains themselves rose straight up from the valley floor at nearly right angles. As we drove through the area on hair-pin turns and looked down through the car window at a drop hundred of meters bellows to the muddy, swift-moving river, I took note of the steep cliffs on either side of the narrow valley. This is earthquake country I thought to myself. The shuddering of the earth in this environment would bring immediate catastrophe to anyone with the misfortune to be a part of this primitive landscape. And yet for all of the rugged topography, the steep drop to the river and potential for land and rock slides, there was an enchantment to this natural setting that was intoxicating to behold. As a modernite of the metropolises of the world, I was thirsty for the natural beauty and mystique that nature offers the human soul. You could drink it like a draft from which dreams are born; it sets a person thinking of the natural wonders that God has scattered across the earth like tinker toys, but that we hold in awe at their very sight. At several points along the way, I asked the driver to stop and cut the engine. As the engine voices flowed away like vapor, a fragile, brooding silence quickly emerged to overwhelm the mind with its deadly suspension of sound. These were the silent places of Ladakh out in the middle of nowhere, but that around every corner was a new vista and a new destination. One of the natural byproducts of such natural environments far away from any sign of people and civilization is that deeper thoughts and emotions begin to emerge from some deep well within us, leading to questions that have few true answers. Would I find what I was looking for I wondered, indeed what was I looking for that would bring me to this moment sitting on the edge of a rocky cliff with the Indus River flowing majestically below my feet amid such fragile and absolute stillness.
In these silent places, nature becomes gigantic and we as humans are reduced to the insignificance that we truly are. We become Lilliputian and the spaces in which we find ourselves are gigantic beyond the measures of the earth. The mountains loom above us and the valleys drop below our feet; the sun moves across the heavens casting stark shadows across an indifferent earth like some great inimical and magnificent spirit. In withdrawing from the world and arriving in such far distant, wild and remote regions of the earth, the journeyer feels drawn into some mighty simplification through the experience of these raw manifestations of nature, as though the complexities of the world were reverting back toward their original primordial unity in which all of created nature including the sun, moon and stars become once again powerful symbols of a higher order of magnitude that accompanies a higher consciousness. The natural environment was no longer apartment blocks, advertising signs, networks of highways; but rather mountains, valleys, rivers and streams, the blue sky overhead and the intense sun moving westward, casting ominous shadows across the earth. In such an environment, extraneous considerations disappear. The entire cosmos of experience comes to be an expanse of rugged plain and a solitary trail leading beyond the next bend toward some unknown destination about to be arrived at. As a once in a lifetime journey, I hoarded the drops of this experience, as the life of the world beat through me together with the beating of my own heart.
At one point along the road, we passed through an area called “the magnetic hill” which is an area that allegedly defies the law of gravity. It is said that when a vehicle is parked in neutral on this metallic road, it will slide up rather than down the road. As we made our way through this picturesque landscape, we finally came to the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar Rivers. The narrow valley that we had been following along the river suddenly opened into a crossroads of multiple valleys through which the mighty Zanskar River flowed. It was a rude awakening for the Indus which until that point had had free reign of the landscape tracing its sinuous path through the line of least resistance through mountain valleys in search of its terminus in the broad opening of the Arabian Sea. Now this muddy, turgid river met the emerald green placidity of this other great, meandering river, a meeting of mighty forces if there ever was one. It was a sight to behold, these two proud rivers, the one dark and turgid and the other deep green and slow moving, coming together in a marriage of opposites that from henceforth would make their way together through these sublime mountains.
As it happens, we did know our destination and I had the luxury of a guide, jeep and bottled water to service our needs along the way. We were on our way to a base camp deep in the western mountains of Ladakh on the road to historic Kargil and Kashmir which for the last decade has been off-limits for most travelers because of the sectarian turmoil that continues to plague the region. The promise of a deluxe tent awaited my arrival; but before settling into camp, we made our way off the beaten path into a side road barely worth the name to the village of Alchi that hosted a monastery that was built over 1000 years ago. Unlike many of the other monasteries I visited during my stay in Ladakh, the Alchi monastery distinguished itself by remaining hidden at the tail end of the village. We made our way downhill through the village amid the gurgle of running streams on either side of the road. It was a hot and dusty mid-afternoon after the long drive from Leh and the sound of the rippling streams was refreshing if not uplifting amid the ancient ruins of this small village. In turning one final corner, my guide pointed up beyond the wall. “The story goes that the Lama who founded and constructed the monastery placed his walking stick on this spot near the entrance of the gompa he intended to build on his way from Tibet.” I looked up and saw a number of crude walking sticks placed along the back of the wall. “I don’t understand,” I said confused. “You see that tree behind the wall?” my guide asked me. “That’s the Lama’s cane. It has grown into a tree.” And indeed, I now clearly saw a beautiful willow tree rising heavenward that was once the walking stick of the Great Lama Rinchen Zangpo, called the Translator, who 990 years ago build the ancient and still beautiful Alchi monastery tucked mysteriously in the back end of the village Alchi. We visited the various temples that house ancient traditional mandala paintings, now fading and disintegrating from age and weather. There are also exquisite wood carvings in the Kashmiri style said according to the biographies of the famous Lama to have been done by 30 craftsman personally brought over from the Kashmir by the Lama Zangpo who is said to have been responsible for the building of over 100 temples within the province. What extraordinary souls these people must have been.
At sunset, the dark silhouette of the mountains, like some sleeping giant, was cast in sharp relief against the bright light of the dying day shooting up as if in protest into the dome of the heavens above. About 1:00 am in the morning, I awoke and decided to step out into the night for a breath of fresh air. There was a hushed silence all about as I sat myself down in one of the bamboo chairs in a nearby garden. The feeling that overcame me as I sat there in the darkness, however, was much more than the presence of an unearthly silence. It was as thought I had stepped through an open door into another dimension altogether. This was not the same garden and wicker chair that I had sat in when I first arrived in the light of day. This was another world entirely and the feeling of deep silence that hovered at the edge of this experience had an otherworldly quality to it strong enough to arouse the instincts of the soul. As I looked up into the night sky, I felt stunned with disbelief. At this altitude and within this rarefied setting deep within the Himalayan Mountains, the night sky was a brilliant field of myriad stars, enough to take your breath away. There were so many of them in clusters and clouds that they seem to form pathways to infinity. I have walked through all of the major cities of the world, but have never witnessed such a spectacle before. And I thought: How we ignore the beauties of nature that we have available to us and how we forget the secret message that lies hidden within the symbolic signs of nature that surround us every day of our lives. As I sat there gazing upward in astonishment, the stars seemed to shine as specks of light through a blanket of night, permitting the light of heaven to shine through to us mortals below and recalling the words of Genesis referring to the stars as “lights in the firmament of heaven.” Here, in the image of the night sky, we have the perpetual image of the “city of God” at our disposal, and yet we very seldom have the time or inclination to take note of the spectacle of this mystery, much less understand the sacred implications of “what is written in the stars.” As I made my way back to the tent, I took note of the three quarters moon that seemed to hang in suspension in all its beauty as it climbed over the horizon of the looming mountains like the eye of an owl hidden in a tree.
On another day, when visiting one of the many temples that speckle the arid landscape with their inviting presence, I had another moving experience that touched deep within the soul. Before leaving the sacred precinct, I stepped over to the porch of the temple and gazed reflectively at the panoramic scene before me. As the mountains fell away down the face of the cliffs, I listened to the silence that lay over the land as an abiding presence. The sea has its reflection of the stillest and darkest night; the woods are quiet with hundreds of lesser noises but here was the suspension of sound, except for the occasional bird or movement of the rows of prayer flats flapping in the wind. At first, the silence of the landscape strikes the visitor like a flea in the eye or a splinter under the skin. It feels bothersome, leaving you to wonder where the comforting noise that we are accustomed to has disappeared. You look around and wonder what happened. The silence floats on the wind and whispers into the ear of mysteries unrevealed and narratives unread. The bell of one’s sensibilities echoes with the waves of this emptiness clear down the bottomless well of the soul. It is as invisible as the wind and as soundless as the void; a borderless and boundless overlay to the serenity of the valleys and the majesty of the mountains that surround me. I feel shaken and humbled by this unaccustomed silent intruder into my consciousness, as if the noise of the city were a long lost and comforting friend, far from the familiarity of the chaos and cacophony that reminds me I am alive. We have grown accustomed to the turmoil of sound and feel uncomfortable with the silence of the night sky or the hush that hovers over the valleys and mountain peaks. Will I grow as accustomed to the unheard and unseen premonitions of this native landscape in the same way that we grow accustomed to the hush of a church and the lingering scent of incense and feel comforted by their abiding presence?
We began to make our way down the side of the mountain once again, when the guide asked me if I wanted to visit the nunnery that we were just passing by. “Yes, indeed”, I said immediately, thinking what a rare and unique opportunity that I should not let pass by. We backed up on the narrow road and pulled into a dirt driveway leading up to the nunnery perched on the hill. There were some old buildings and a small courtyard where we sat in the shadow of some willow trees. As we took rest and absorbed the quiet ambiance of the place, I suddenly heard the sound of robes flapping like bird wings in the air. “That’s one of the nuns,” my guide explained as I saw a fleeting figure run from one building to another. “It’s difficult to tell the difference between the monks and the nuns.” Indeed, the fleeing monk was indeed a nun, head shaved with the prominent Mongolian features of slanted eyes and moon face, smiling demurely at the elderly pale-face sitting in repose under the tree. I could hear running water in the background and the guide led me over to a small waterfall that cascaded over a rock ledge in the hill. “Have a drink,” he encouraged me. Indeed, I took up his offer and drank deeply the crystalline waters of this glacial stream. The Chinese would call it “qi” and the Indians “prana”; I call it a poem in motion. By all accounts what I experienced in these clear refreshing waters was a life force that was original in quality and from a unique source. I do not exaggerate when I say that I could feel the energy of the snowmelt mountain stream course through my veins depositing its clear and pure essence like some electrical charge through the meridians of my body. This was true nectar of Shangri-La.
* * *
As I look back in time through the prism of my nostalgic imagination, I marvel at my willingness—indeed my boldness—to embrace the exotic and the unknown, as though these were challenges of my inexperienced soul that I needed to overcome, not to prove anything to myself; but rather to rise above myself and the limits that my nature and condition in life had allotted me. I remember feeling the ominous quality of apprehension and vague regret as I made my solitary way down a pathway into the forested mountains on the peninsula of Mount Athos in Northern Greece on the way to Turkey. Once inside the stately limbs of those grand trees towering high above me, loneliness crept over me that felt like a cloak a size too small. They say that one can feel a sense of powerful loneliness in a crowd of strangers; however, nothing can quite compare to the feeling of supreme solitude amid a forest of trees with only the solitary path leading forward to some unknown destination tracing a message of purpose and promise amid these ancient hills. I had been told that it was impossible to get lost if that was any comfort. The sea coast was not far off to my right; in fact I could hear the resounding rush of the surf recreating in my mind the tumult of the Aegean not far away. The path itself was like a corded necklace with the 1,000 year old monasteries strung along the way like cultured pearls inviting the pilgrim wanderer to partake of their mystery and fascination.
As I made my way along the narrow pathway through the forest, I began to shed my latent fears and absorb the wild ambiance these silent sentinels created as they cast their subtle spell across the face of the peninsula. The heart of the forest inspires reverence and awe; as in a cathedral there is something that speaks directly to the inner soul. It radiates its character of primeval wilderness almost as a physical presence and conveys its feeling of wild inviolability to all who enter its confines. One walks softly and subdued within the general calm of its sublime depths, as if in some vast hall that has been pervaded by the deepest sanctities and solemnities evidenced within Nature. Every tree seems to have a spiritual quality; every branch and leaf reaches upward towards the heavens as if upholding the sky with their praise of God. These age old patriarchs never cease their worship and praise, but are forever conscious of the Divinity within the confines of their own sacred nature. Would that we could emulate the tree and exhibit the same unfailing integrity and fortitude in our own nature.
Trees are the silent sentinels of the earth. People are born, live and die, but trees watch over the earth through the millennia and contribute to the harmonies of the natural order with their calm and stately repose. Cultures may fade into oblivion and entire civilizations may crumble and die without disturbing their magnificent nobility and self containment. Barring accidents or the machinations of humankind, they give every appearance of being immortal. In order to die a natural death, a tree needs an abundance of time and nature holds no surprises for them that they cannot bear. Perhaps that is why the wanton destruction of the great forests of the world seems so evil and so unnatural. Some trees were in their prime when Christ walked the earth. No other thing in nature has looked down upon the passing of the centuries with such detachment as these regal monarchs of the great primeval forests. The forests themselves are a remarkable study in self containment and splendor. The silence of a forest can be deafening; countless trees are gathered together as a forest unity in mute splendor, like a great, collective spirit.
In walking through the grandeur of a forest wood, I felt myself shedding the turmoil of my days and observing the stately pines with the natural eye of the chip monk and the owl. The residue of some melancholy heartbreak has come and gone; the frustration and failure of my routine efforts no longer find firm ground; the anger, jealousy and other petty miseries that punctuate the days of a life disappear with some passing wind. The rays of light find their way through the branches and leaves to cast their warm glow onto the forest floor like a torch from heaven. Their photons have passed millions of miles to make their presence felt within the human mind. The trees of the forest stand tall and lend something of their calm, ennobling grace. Through their act of giving, they become a part of me and I become a part of them, a living, walking, breathing tree, a pillar of strength, standing tall, rooted to the earth but immortal because of a vision they convey that leads far above along the pathways to the stars.
In pursuit of the quest to make my way on foot across the peninsula visiting whatever monasteries I came across, I made my way with determination through this primeval wood. The paths that link the monasteries were actually a main feature of the area. In those days, the paths were for the monks as well as the random visitors like myself. Many of them were beautifully cobbled, clean and fairly well maintained. Some were signposted, stating the number of kilometers to the next destination or the number of walking hours. There were even wayside fountains or drinking places, often nearby some wayside shrine. Nowadays, Athos is full of roads linking monasteries. What this form of modernization has robbed from the experience is the true sense of pilgrimage while on a spiritual quest that comes from making one’s way on foot. I was not simply on a mission to get to one shrine or another, nor to visit these ancient monasteries as objects of curiosity. This sacred adventure was a deliberate attempt to give myself up to the conditions of the journey itself rather than arrival at some ultimate destination, not in the habitual conditions of comfort and safety that we are usually accustomed to as tourists and modern-day travelers. Subconsciously I wanted to break from this kind of servitude and set out on my quest into the unknown, not only on a journey into the interior of the forest and the forbidden sanctum of the peninsula, but on a journey into the center of the self as a true seeker of experience that harbors within its folds a revelation. Within this perspective, walking on one’s own two feet became an essential part of the experience.
There is nothing so honest and effortful as the experience of making tracks in the earth, traversing great distances, and arriving at some unique destination on one’s own steam, especially in this day of jet age travel and business class convenience when the world passes us by and we take no notice of it. On such a journey, one’s own feet actually tread the earth from which we are made. The five senses are alive to the revealing messages of nature, marveling at the beauty of the natural forest, the sound of the insects and birds, the bold shafts of light that filter their elegant rays through the density of the forest like swords of light, the timeless vistas of the surrounding sea with its expansive display of color and light. The inner meaning of an experience becomes made up of cells in a thriving honeycomb of wonder and imagination, creating an inner edifice that becomes a permanent remembrance of something deeply felt that has touched the membrane of a deeper self, awakening us from the deadening and soporific routines of our day that entrench us within the crude sensations of the outer world only, rather than lifting us up and away through the wisdom of higher level seeing, listening, tasting, smelling and touching or being touched by that sacred mystery which brings us into our own true selves and reveals the best of our true nature. One of the monks has written on the power of perception in using the physical senses for something more than ordinary seeing, smelling and listening to the world around us.
I say not that man (Adam) should not have used his senses, for not in vain was he clothed in the body; but I say that he should not have dissipated himself in sensory things. He should not, abandoning intelligible beauty, have fastened upon sensory things... Yet this is what he did. And because he used the senses wrongly, and marveled at sensory beauty, thinking its fruit beautiful to the sight, and good to taste, and eating of it, he abandoned the enjoyment of intelligible things. Therefore the just Judge, judging him unworthy of what he scorned, of, that is, the contemplation of God and of all beings, deprived him of Himself and of immaterial realities, and made darkness His hidden place.”10
Of course, we are humans struggling to come to terms with higher consciousness within the modern setting and not birds in flight or butterflies alighting from blossom to bloom in search of nectar for the hive. I was searching for nectar of another sort to fill the inward cavern of the heart with heartfelt and revelatory experience, including the weariness of extensive trekking, the hardship of traversing the dense shrub lands and hills. But all the while, through the effort and loneliness emerge a prayer to fulfill one’s purpose in making the pilgrim journey in the first place with fortitude and perseverance. Slowly, an inner change begins to make itself known, a new rhythm begins to grow beyond the sound of my own footfalls; a deeper harmony manifests that matches the serene movement of the clouds passing with detachment across the crest of the mountains and the rhythmic texture of the arching trees bending to the force of the wind.
Here, at least for a time that has perhaps long since vanished in reality, the dragon of the modern world has had no true entry. It was as thought I had stepped into a fishing boat with a few monks returning to the Mount, my heart aflutter in this strange environment like the flapping wings of the seagulls that encircle the boat. Through some miracle of time travel, it felt like I had alighted like a nervous dragonfly onto the dock of some ancient medieval world. It was as thought I had slipped through some invisible crack in the modern world to find myself in another dimension altogether of sun and forest and grand medieval monasteries that looked like huge castles or well fortified citadels of yore strewn across the mountains and coastal shore by giants from another age. On one level I felt like some alien being thrust onto the shores of a remote island; but on another level, I felt close to finding some inner hearth in the sight of those towering monuments, perched on those rocky crags like bald eagles watching detachedly over the life passing below them and yet beckoning the wayward pilgrim with the message of some mysterious promise awaiting the interested traveler who might pass through this ancient realm in search of a truth that will satisfy all desire.
My pilgrim experience found its flowering in a visit to the Grand Lavra at the end of the Athos peninsula, the prototype of all the monasteries in these medieval environs. As I approach its impressive gate giving entrance to the grand monastery that resembles to my inexperienced eye a Turkish structure, I take note of the towering peak of Athos in the distance, as though the 1,000 year monastery still stands under the patronage of its watchful gaze after a long and varied history. The gate upon closer inspection is actually a four-pillared portico that covers a broad-roofed domed verandah where I image the monks sitting in the early evening watching the creeping shadows descend in a darkness that matches the silence of the night, the passage of day to night being an event worthy of notice in places such as this, out in the wild natural order with no sign of civilization creeping around the edges of the mind and heart. I also sit down, fairly exhausted after my day long trek through the forest and over the jagged foothills of the area surrounding the Mount, wondering what will happen next as I take note of a couple of stately cypresses bending slightly in a gentle wind amid a sea of rugged olive trees, but feeling confident that I will soon be in good hands. It is still hot and on the waves of heat float the intoxicating scent of crimson oleanders that spill down from the roof of the verandah.
No doubt, the porter, who resides in a kind of lodge abreast of the double doors, framed with plates of iron, has heard the rustle of my sandals and my weary sighs, or perhaps he is on the lookout for wayward travelers who come knocking expectantly at these massive iron-clad doors. Whatever the case may be, he greets me with a nod of the head and the hint of a smile through a small aperture in his flowing, white, patriarchal beard. It’s the eyes that are penetrating and clear. After uttering a somber greeting in Greek from beneath his bowed head, he leads me affectionately by the arm with one hand, while the click of his beads make their way through the fingers of his other hand. We pass down through the narrow passage of this ancient gateway, up a small slope until we pass through another smaller door that gives issues beyond the inner wall into the courtyard of the monastery, a narrow rectangle that I later learned was about 400 feet long and 150 feet wide. Around the court and rising heavenward run the ranges of cells making up the honeycomb of the old wooden-galleried buildings. The porter leads me with some determination into one of these buildings and shows me into a sparsely furnished guest room where he indicates that I should leave my backpack. He then takes me to a main reception room where he gestures for me to sit and wait. After a few minutes, he returns and there is a solemn kindness in his offer of the traditional tray of refreshment, including the well known Greek ouzo, Turkish delight with its distinctive taste of pistachio nut sprinkled with powered sugar, and black Greek coffee in a miniature cup, followed by a glass of fresh cool water that I imagine has made its joyous way down from the holy mountain into the well of the age-old monastery. I drank down the draft like the waters of the first primordial spring, its sparkling freshness enervating me anew.
All is quiet now. The silence of the evening is interrupted by the murmur of the Aegean surf whispering its perennial secrets into the nooks and crannies of the rugged shore. The harmonious echoes of the monks chanting the sacred psalms of Vespers in the nearby chapel recalls to me a far distant memory of a time in primary school when I too sang the mesmerizing verses of Gregorian chant as a member of the boy’s choir. Even at that young age, I was taken in by its sobering melodies and mellifluous rhythms, reflecting a more traditional era in time when such sacred music could be composed and chanted as though by heavenly choirs. In this setting, these simple, haunting melodies reach deep down into some inner well to draw, like fresh mountain water, the sweet memory of some long forgotten dream or deeper presence that lies within us, a witness if you will, of all that is sacred and dear to our conscious selves. Finally, it is the responsibility of a punctual monk to intone the evening bell that makes its way through the corridors of rooms and cells announcing the evening meal and summoning the monks to table.
In the center of the rectangular courtyard I find everyone making their way to the refectory for their evening meal. As I follow and mingle with them discreetly trying to blend in, I am politely ushered inside by a charitable monk and guided to a place to sit down at a long table made of marble slabs on seats of solid stone covered with a piece of wood. This monastic eatery is cruciform in shape and as I gaze about waiting for the food to be brought, I notice that the walls are covered with wall paintings, with scenes of the last Judgment, the terrestrial paradise, the Last Supper, together with portraitures of Athonite monks. At the end of the transept, I see the Tree of Jesse11 and the death of Athanasios, the founder of the monastery. The walls and ceiling, which is arched and painted with colored baskets of fruit, are darkened by the smoke left behind by candles burning down through the centuries. The food that I was served along with the other monks was simple and honest fare, a thick, homemade soup with noodles and a piece of farmer’s bread hard enough to crack a tooth, but temptingly softened in the thick broth. The meal itself had a ritualistic quality about it. A reader stood grandly at a lectern and read psalms from some leather-bound manuscript like a grand patriarch, the words tripping off his tongue with sober resonance. At certain moments during the reading, the monks sipped at their soup, while at other times they drank red wine from small metal goblets.
That evening, before returning to my allotted guestroom, I step out onto a nearby corner balcony to rest my weary bones and attempt to absorb something of the mysterious and serene ambiance that hovered about the place. I had noticed that balconies are common enough in many of the monasteries, hanging from the heights of the outer walls like damsels in distress, and commanded magnificent views across the waters clinging as they were to the sheer walls of the towering structures. I noticed they are often used by the monks who sit quietly together and talk with one another. As I sit there alone on a wooden bench surrounding the porch, fenced in by a rot-iron grill on all sides, through which I can see the gentle movement of the dark, night-time waters of the Aegean, I begin to reflect on this amazing experience. This is a night touched by the late summer moon climbing out of the sea with its fiery orange light, glistening in triumph in its agelessness and spreading across the earth its wild freedom to inspire the mind and set the heart aglow. Now that night has fallen and silence reigns, the soul of the monastery seems to hover in the air like a spectral ghost as it wafts its way through the open places of the buildings like a gentle probing mist. The light of the moon cuts across the expanse of sea like a scimitar cutting its way through black velvet, creating a laser beam of light from the horizon to my slippered feet as I sit there gazing reflectively beyond the horizon of my own imagination.
There hovers in the backcloth of my mind an unexpected awakening that may never fully see the light of day unless I help it nurture and grow. I think of what I have seen since my arrival, including a variety of somber, indrawn monks with their beards and rounded caps and flowing black cassocks, the medieval monastic stone citadels still surviving like crowns of glory from another era, the natural beauties that provide the setting for these ancient buildings and enhance the spirit of the monks and recluses, all artifacts of another time and place that are still here to inspire people who live within this environment with a spiritual message that transcends time and the passing of generations. There is a spark in every one of us that needs only to ignite the flint of some inspiration within nature to awaken the dormant witness within us of something greater than ourselves, to feel the sudden inrush of some experience vaster than ourselves coming as though through a crack from another world and another self, an experience that echoes the natural cadences of rhythm and nature whose harmonies trace their origin back to God. Why shouldn’t thoughts and impressions that are strange and beautiful and true resonate their harmonies within the firmament of the human soul so that we can participate in the sublime messages of nature when they shine their wonder down upon us? As I sat on the balcony absorbing the subtle ambiance of the night, I was beginning to realize that nature’s beauty and peace will shine its mercy down upon those who are receptive to its natural call and will flow into their aspiring soul just as naturally as sunshine flows into trees.
That evening, I laid down to rest in the austere guestroom, painted stark white and furnished with a broad divan and an iron bedstead with a pillow and clear, white sheet. Along the wall opposite the bed was an olive wood writing table and chair standing on a flagstone floor. It has been a dry, hot day with an intense sun; but now a cool breeze wafted through the open window and spread its benevolence upon the bed and tabletop as I drifted away into the well earned treasure of untroubled slumber. But before I do, I think how little in our routine day do we sufficiently address ourselves to the clues and signals that life has to offer us in terms not only of life’s implicit mystery, but also in terms of its hidden disclosure of what God wants us to know. Our work and our efforts, our shallow imagination and our empty satisfactions, our hollow words and our feeble aspirations will all go unsung across the generations because they are unworthy of our true attentions and unfit as the stuff of our heart’s desires. Few men and women ever perceive the great mysteries of life on their own; they need to rely on the largeness of their mind and wisdom of their senses to perceive the archetypes of a grander order fall down into the symbolic images of nature and humankind, filling the everyday forms of life with otherworldly, spiritual meaning. We cannot escape the world, except occasionally, as I have done on this monastic pilgrimage; not many people even want to these days. But I was able to take leave of the mundane world, to receive the rarefied perceptions and noble dignity conveyed through a hole in the fabric of our experience that leads us on an inward journey, in order to balance the outward one we make through life with its wisdom and blessing. That evening in the shadow of Mount Athos was such a moment that summarized the entire pilgrimage, matching the sublime beauty of nature, the traditional history of the area, and the spirit of the surroundings with the awakening of my own consciousness to achieve possibilities of a higher order of magnitude and to touch a greater truth that lies beyond my own limited horizon.
Today the routine of the monks is still much like the life described by an 18th century Athonite monk, Konstantinos Daponte, in a passage that recreates something of the joy and self containment that are the innate blessing of the monastic order. He writes:
“And I had a small axe and I cleared pine-trees, olive, holm-oaks, and I chopped them up. And sometimes I planted olives, sometimes pears, or apples, or almost-trees, or vegetables, leeks and garlic, and I rejoiced in the soil as the worldly man in money. I found myself in a garden of graces, in a true paradise of delight. And sometimes I went down to the sea and gathered limpets, shells, crabs, and sometimes prawns, and in these I rejoiced more than in courtly banquets of lords and ladies. I was all gratefulness to the Lord, and my heart was full of unspeakable delight. The place was full of fragrance, the trees gave out their odours, birds flew round about, singing while one chanted, and the ground was covered with various flowers and lilies, delighting the eye and ear and filling one with gladness... Hearing, sight, touch, smell all offered thanks to God. You tire of the cell? Go out for a walk, strolling through the solitude’s loveliness. Go to the spring, or to the seashore with its beauty. Go to the caves, to the cells of ancient ascetics, divine palaces, repeating always as you go the “Kyrie Eleison” so that you do not stop the flow of mercy. You see the mountain? The plain? Wonder at the creator’s wisdom and power... You see some beast? Do not fear—it will not harm you... You see your terrible enemy, the devil? Do not be troubled: show him your cross. Your walk is over? Return to your cell, take your work-tool, or your papers. You tire of that? Take your spade up. You tire of the spade? Take again your axe. You tire of that? Take up your chaplet. The chaplet feeds the heart with joy. It is the hour for prayer. Embrace it eagerly, speak a while with God, with unspeakable joy, with such delight and honour as the Angels.”12
My sojourn in this rarefied setting was all too short; but looking back in retrospect now and with forty years of hindsight to support my fading remembrance, I can honestly say that this brief spiritual interlude had a profound effect on me, leaving behind a subconscious desire to probe deeper than the surface experiences that life had to offer, superficial experiences that amounted to little more than smoky white breath on a chill winter morning. When seeds are planted and sewn into the earth, they sometimes take considerable time to develop firm roots; but once these rootlets take their sinuous hold, they can grow into an unexpected awakening we would never have consciously discovered on our own. The initial force of spiritual emotions makes itself known in small doses so as not to overwhelm the simple and inexperienced soul with their miraculous wonder. These higher emotions are but fragments of an experience that become the colored stones of an elaborate mosaic that when bounded together make up an individual life. It has taken 40 years to forge these words on the page as footsteps into the past. No subsequent trip I have taken, whether it be into the jungles of Malaysia where I learned the mysteries of the cure, or into the broad valleys of the Himalayas where I learned about the simplicity of the Buddha nature, can approximate the virgin quality of this brief sojourn in the shadow of the holy mountain of Athos. It was my first journey with soul, a journey into the unknown as though I were on a search for some unspoken treasure, a journey that one must make alone, a journey in which something is left behind that you could afford to loose, in order to take something with you that you could not afford to leave behind.
The journey through a natural environment has the potential to lead us into hidden sanctuaries that we could never dream up on our own. Nature lies all around us to witness and behold; we only need to read and understand its symbolic significance as a gateway to another, higher world of the spirit and absorb its true spiritual ambiance. The true price of wisdom lies in being able to give up the superficial and inconsequential affairs of our lives as empty fodder in return for the only treasure worth having. In return recognize that the non-vital can be gladly abandoned for the absolutely essential, when it presents itself. You are tired of the drudgery of your lives, look to the sunrise as it climbs like a stalking animal out of the earth to illuminate your eternal day with its beneficence and light. You feel unhappy and cannot account for why, let the clouds and the wind sweep your heart clean. When you feel confused or depressed and the mind is taking you to places you don’t want to go, then lift up your heart through prayer and remembrance. As our Greek monk, Konstantinos, has reminded us, every moment of our lives is the hour of prayer. “Embrace it eagerly, speak a while with God, with unspeakable joy, with such delight and honour as the Angels.” Then, we will blossom like the almond tree and our lives will speak of God.
1 In the Islamic tradition, the universe is initiated through a vibratory sound with the words “kun, fa yakoon (“Be and it becomes”), while the Biblical rendition of the creation begins with the words: “Let there be light.”
2 In Lough Derg in Donegal, the most northerly county in Ireland, there is an island on which can be found a number of Christian shrines dating from the Middle Ages and also a cave, which represents the entry to the underworld. It is called St. Patrick's Purgatory for it is said that it was here that St. Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, made hell and the Mount of Purgatory appear to the heathen in a vision. Since the Middle Ages, the island has been a place of pilgrimage.
3 The Need for a Sacred Science, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993, p. 122. See Chapter Eight in particular, "The Spiritual Significance of Nature" for a complete exposé of the spiritual significance of the world of nature, especially for modern man who has lost the sense of the sacred that nature proclaims through its beauty, its harmony, and its balance.
4 Martin Lings, the Eleventh Hour: The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern World in the Light of Tradition and Prophecy, Cambridge, England: Quinta Essentia, 1987, p. 36.
5 Titus Burckhardt, Mirror of the Intellect, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1987, p. 33.
6 It could be argued that a machine is a symbol, because it is a form that represents an idea concerning means and end that is realized with precision if not with grace. A traditional symbol is not an earthly form created for merely a pragmatic and utilitarian end; rather it is a formal means to a spiritual end.
7 In the Hindus tradition, the divine swan Hamsa, swimming on the primordial sea, hatches the golden egg of the world.
8 And thy Lord taught the bee to build its cells in hills, on trees, and in habitations; then to eat of all the produce of the earth, and find with skill the spacious paths of its Lord. There issues from within their bodies a drink of varying colours wherein is a healing for me: verily in this is a sign for those who give thought. (16: 68) Most notably, the entire Sura 16 of the Quran is named al-Nahl, the bee.
9 At length, when they came to a (lowly) valley of ants, one of the ants said: 'O yea ants, get into your habitations, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you (under foot) without knowing it.' (27: 18) The entire Sura 27 of the Quran is named al-Naml, the Ants.
10 From “The Theoretikon of the Blessed Theodore”, in the Philokalia (Athens 1893), quoted in The Holy Mountain of Athos, op. cit., p. 151.
11 Jesse is the grandson of Ruth and the father of David. From the 11th century, the Tree of Jesse has been portrayed in wood carvings, manuscripts, stained glass windows and wall paintings. Jesse is usually portrayed recumbent with a tree rising from his body.
12 See Konstantinos Daponte, The Garden of Graces (Athens 1880), quoted in Athos the Holy Mountain, Philip Sherrard (Woodstock, NY: The Overlook Press, 1985) p. 145.