Eco-contemplation and Action: Bahnson on the Ecology of Prayer

The latest issue of Orion Magazine, a special 35th anniversary edition, contains several articles that may be of interest to those practicing watershed discipleship, such as “Women and Standing Rock: where does the body end and sacred nature begin?” by Layli Long Soldier (this page contains a number of articles, poems, and photos on a similar theme), and “One Good Turn” by Kathleen Dean Moore, the story of five activists getting in the way of the Keystone XL Pipeline. There’s also a great piece called “The Soldier and the Soil” about an Iraq war veteran who is dealing with his post-traumatic stress through organic farming. This issue of Orion alone could keep you in excellent reading material for the entire holiday season!

Wake Forest School of Divinity professor Fred Bahnson

I point our readers particularly to “The Ecology of Prayer” by Fred Bahnson. It’s a beautifully written essay that moves through the wonder of a tide pool to the startling emptiness of a faith-based climate action rally, he draws us into the poignancy of the emotional and spiritual states many of us find ourselves in when we contemplate creation, and our impact on it. Using the metaphor of moving on to Easter Sunday too quickly without fully experiencing the deep and awful power of Good Friday, Bahnson wrestles with how to best deal with the startlingly intense human reactions to the natural world in all its beauty and loss. How do we grieve well? How do we acknowledge our guilt, and how can we participate in creation’s lament, knowing our complicity? How can we still love and find beauty, even in those places that will be underwater in a generation or two? Invoking Pope Francis, Thomas Merton, and Elizabeth Johnson, Bahnson invites us to behold, to pay attention, and to offer spiritual care that looks more like hospice than salvation. As he puts it:

What Christianity most has to offer the world now is not moral guidance or activism or yet another social program; it is a mystical connection to the Source of life. Cultivating that divine-human love affair seems to me the only hope left. Not as some kind of opiate-of-the-people escape from our problems, but as a nonlinear path that leads us deeper into them. Christianity has no exclusive claim on this relationship. It does have a two-thousand-year-old history full of reliable matchmakers—the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Isaac of Syria, Teresa of Avila, Howard Thurman, Simone Weil, Oscar Romero, Thomas Merton . . . the list is long. We can choose our guides. The inner journey into love is taken not for the self, but on behalf of all life. The purpose of the early desert hermits, Merton wrote, was to “withdraw into the healing silence of the wilderness . . . not in order to preach to others but to heal in themselves the wounds of the entire world.”

To do this, suggests Bahnson, requires that we withdraw: not in a way that simply gives up and washes its hands of the world, waiting for an other-worldly next existence, but to withdraw in order to let ourselves be transformed into “a stronger, more durable self.” We do this withdrawal as an act of self-care, an act of resistance to the siren call of our culture that says we are never enough, and an act that leads to sustained engagement with the issues of our day that are most important. This combination between contemplative withdrawal and sustained action are integrally linked in the Christian tradition, and Bahnson states it well:

The choice is not between withdrawal or political engagement; anachoresis [withdrawal] and prayer are themselves political acts. They change the beholder. In contemplation and silence, we cease our frenzied activity that makes us deny death. We place our hopes not on our own efficacy, but on God who acts through us.

In this season where we await with joyful anticipation the miracle of God incarnate, we hold at the same time the mystery, lament, and awe of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Bahnson’s reminder to withdraw through deeply experiencing all these emotions is apt: rather than withdrawing into the frenzied oblivion of the holiday bustle, he invites us to pay attention, behold, and truly feel, to be incarnate (en-fleshed) ourselves, aware of the wonder and the mystery of God infusing all creation, and building up spiritual sustenance for the hard work of care.