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Douglas Christie is a Professor Emeritus of Theological Studies at Loyola Marymount University and author of The Blue Saphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology and The Insurmountable Darkness of Love: Love, Contemplative Practice, and the Common Life.

Conducted by Devin Zuckerman, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia and a Research Assistant at the Journal of Contemplative Studies (JCS).

JCS: If you could start with an introduction, please tell us who you are, however you’d like to introduce yourself.

Douglas Christie: I’ve been teaching for 25 plus years at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. My connection to the world of Contemplative Studies has come, initially at least, through my longstanding interest in the desert monastic traditions of the Christian East coming out of Egypt, Syria, and Asia minor. That has been a constant pulse of my scholarly interests from the beginning. It has also been a personal interest in the sense that it’s led me into long and deep friendships with particular contemplative communities that have become very important to my life and my work.

I have come to think of contemplation as a way of seeing deeply into the life of things.

Then, developing these ideas further into thinking about contemplative ecology, I began to wonder whether ancient monastic practices of prosoche or attention might help us understand our efforts to live with greater care and attention in the natural world. I wanted to see if it might be possible to connect the sacramental sensibility of the Christian spiritual tradition with an ecological sensibility that sees all living beings as sacred. More recently I’ve found myself thinking about darkness and unknowing and loss, wondering in particular how ancient spiritual traditions rooted in the idea of the via negativa might help us navigate our own places of darkness and loss. Having struggled through trying to think about that for several years, I eventually wrote a book (The Insurmountable Darkness of Love). It feels funny to say that I wrote a book about darkness and unknowing, as if you could say something about that which doesn’t immediately want to get said. But this tradition is marked by the fundamental paradox of trying (and inevitably failing) to bring the ineffable into language. So I am in good company. Now I’m turning back to the desert again to think about elements of the desert and our experience of the desert — vastness, silence, stillness — as sources of contemplative awareness and practice.

JCS: That’s a wonderful introduction. Thank you. Why don’t we start with one of the questions on our list: How would you define contemplation? Or, what is contemplation for you?

DC: I have come to think of contemplation as a way of seeing deeply into the life of things. This is an idea found in Wordsworth’s work, but also corresponds to certain ancient Christian ideas of contemplation. Theoria, which comes out of the Greek Christian tradition, evokes that sense of seeing deeply — yes into the mystery of the divine, but also more generally. It is about deepening awareness. And, while the primary metaphor here is of seeing, there are other beautiful evocations of awareness that draw on the other senses: the tradition of “the spiritual senses.” 

But then, [contemplation] is not always oriented toward the life of things. It’s often oriented, because it’s influenced so much by Greek thought, toward the “world beyond” or the “world within.” That is also beautiful and important. But sometimes it has led to an eclipsing of the actual world. Which is why I have been drawn to pay particular attention to traditions of “natural contemplation” or theoria physike as it is called in the ancient Christian tradition, and to ecological thinkers whose way of seeing into the life of things seems to echo in some unexpected ways the ideals of seeing deeply that I find in these ancient traditions. So, if I say “seeing deeply into the life of things” that includes [seeing] God, the self, others, and the living world — an effort to see and feel everything more deeply and capaciously. 

JCS: Thank you —

DC: That was a very long answer! I gave you a one sentence definition and then elaborated.

JCS: And in fact, I’m going to ask you to elaborate even further, if you don’t mind. If you could, I’d love to hear some examples that have emerged from your research that speak to this “seeing into the life of things,” as you’ve said.

DC: Well, I might begin with an image that I think will help. I’ll try to paint a picture.

When I was first beginning to think about these questions in my early twenties, I encountered a Trappistine monastic community in Northern California, about 5 hours north of San Francisco, called Redwoods Monastery. I only stayed one night (I was hitch-hiking up the coast and had ended up there almost by accident); but that brief encounter changed everything for me. I had never experienced anything like this: the stillness, the silence, the depth of prayer, the warmth and openness of the monastic community. It really moved me. And opened something up in me that I am still, all these years later, trying to live into.

The women who established this community came from Belgium originally in the early 1960s and have always been a small community. A central part of their monastic vocation, rooted in the Rule of St. Benedict, is to offer hospitality to visitors, no matter what your spiritual or religious orientation. That is how I came to stay there in the late 1970s. And I have been spending time there ever since.

The chapel at Redwoods is quite extraordinary. It’s a simple rectangular cinder block chapel on three sides, and a larger floor to ceiling glass wall on the end. The altar stands in front of that glass wall and, through the glass stands a giant redwood tree branching into four different directions. Beyond the redwood tree is a field. Beyond the field is a creek where salmon spawn that runs to the Pacific Ocean, into this incredible wild place called the Lost Coast. Praying and meditating inside that space, holding silence with these women, I felt I was simultaneously inside and outside, that the boundaries between the space of prayer and the wild world beyond were fluid and porous. So, what I learned there, initially and also upon return visits, was how to see and inhabit a world that is whole and unbroken. Nobody had to say anything about that to me. Nobody had to preach a sermon. I didn’t have to read a mystical text about it. It was embodied in that space and in the integrity of practice those women brought to that space.

The practice itself is simple: sitting in silence, chanting psalms and celebrating the eucharist with the community. In the Catholic tradition, the Eucharist is a central ritual practice in which the simple material elements of bread and wine are understood as having transcendent meaning. To celebrate the Eucharist in that space was really eye opening for me. It helped me begin to see that everything — the bread and wine, the gathered community, the silence, the world opening up just beyond the altar — was sacred… and connected. When I say that I have come to see contemplation as the art of “seeing into the life of things,” I realize how much I owe to that place and community and to that shared practice. 

From that initial encounter, things continued opening up for me and I found myself following two intellectual-spiritual tracks that at first didn’t seem to have anything to do with one another but eventually converged. One took me back to the fourth century Egyptian desert and the monks who entered that wild, silent, vast emptiness and all the contemplative literature that arose out of that experience. The other took me into the poetry and literature of nature. The ancient monastic world taught me so much about interiority and stillness and silence. And I noticed, in both my textual study and my field work, that it was sensitive to the power of place, especially the vast silence of the desert. But it was the tradition of nature writing and poetry that really woke me up to the spiritual power of the living world. And I began to notice that this literary tradition had its own contemplative sensibility. Reading and thinking in the company of “contemplative naturalists” helped me find my way into a more integrated, holistic way of seeing, toward a “contemplative ecology.” 

So, it’s been just an effort to integrate things more and more deeply. We don’t have such a good language for it even now. The spiritual and the material [or] the spiritual and the embodied often get inadvertently separated from each other because of language or inadequate conceptual structures. In this moment, I think, we’re really hungering to find a way to be whole, in ourselves and in the world.

I’m a big believer in the idea that these traditions… can be lifesaving and enlivening of your own identity, your own hopes for finding a meaningful way of living.

JCS: Yeah. Thank you. Riding the wave of that sentiment, I’m curious if I can ask, do you have any aspirations about the future directions of the study of contemplation? Do you have hopes for the future of the field or [laughs] for the future of humanity?

DC: The future of humanity! I will have to think about that. Let me start, more modestly, with some thoughts about future directions for the study of contemplation. I first became involved in the field of “Contemplative Studies” a few years ago through my friendship with some of the folks who were starting this work at the AAR, and I participated for a few years on the AAR [Contemplative Studies Unit] Steering Committee. I noticed right away a depth of engagement with the questions that was, for me, really appealing and inviting. But I also noticed the significant challenge, especially for my colleagues working at largely secular or R1 research-based institutions, to establish Contemplative Studies as a legitimate field of study. This was different from my experience at a Jesuit university where I didn’t have to make an argument for the importance of contemplative thought and practice; the Ignatian spiritual tradition had long considered contemplation a central part of serious intellectual inquiry. It has been interesting to me to notice that even being able to situate Contemplative Studies within Religious Studies is sometimes very difficult, especially given the skepticism in certain quarters about the very possibility of speaking about things like spiritual experience in a sympathetic way. I have a feeling that what’s emerging as the Contemplative Studies discipline is partly a response to that reality.

This means, I think, that those working in the field of Contemplative Studies are probably going to have to spend a lot of their energy, at least initially, establishing their scholarly bona fides, and making clear that they are studying something it is actually possible to study and think critically about. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But my own hope is that, in doing so, we who are participating in that conversation don’t end up sacrificing too much of the heart and soul of what has drawn us into this work in the first place. “The life of things.” The spiritual traditions many of us study are still very much alive and I think many of those drawn to contemplative studies want to find a way to honor and respect that aliveness. 

My own context has taught me a lot about this. I teach at a Catholic university where the hunger for reflecting on spiritual experience is palpable, though not necessarily in a way that is narrowly Catholic. Our students are quite diverse in terms of religious, cultural, racial, ethnic, and sexual identity. And that diversity of experience and identity is reflected in the questions they ask and the varied perspectives they bring to thinking about traditions of contemplative thought and practice.  

These traditions, with their careful attention to experience, help to open up rich, critical reflection on what it is to be a human being, what it is to be part of this world, what social justice and community can look like. All without overdetermining the religious or theological meaning of our possible responses. Reflecting on spiritual traditions that value silence and stillness and emptiness can help us in creating those spaces in the classroom and help make those spaces more inclusive of more people’s experience. In that sense, I’m a big believer in the idea that these traditions — even if you’re not a practicing Buddhist monk or Christian monk or Sufi mystic or if you’re a 20-year old making your way in your education trying to find out who you are — can be lifesaving and enlivening of your own identity, your own hopes for finding a meaningful way of living. I’m convinced that these traditions are alive and well, and that if we teach them well, we can bring something critical and necessary into our classroom discourses.

In terms of scholarship and research, if the field is to mature and grow, it will of course have to demonstrate a certain scholarly and critical rigor. And, especially for those just beginning to make their way in the field, it will be necessary to demonstrate that this [field] is every bit as informed by critical, interdisciplinary research as any other. But is there something else in the world of Contemplative Studies that we’re also hoping to keep alive? I would say, yes — it’s the very spark or pulse of the traditions we are studying. However, you understand that.

What is Contemplation? is an ongoing series that interviews leading scholars in Contemplative Studies to address this driving question.