There is an ancient Buddhist text, the Samyutta Nikaya, that recounts teachings from the Buddha’s lifetime. One verse describes the Buddha’s right-hand man, Ananda, turning to the Buddha to exclaim, “Lord, I’ve been thinking that spiritual friendship is at least half of the spiritual life!”
“No, Ananda,” the Buddha replies. “Spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life.”
So it was at the Collegeville Institute last July. Twelve participants in the writing workshop Apart & Yet A Part met as strangers, and deep friendships were kindled over the course of the week. During our last evening together, we seized on the idea of continuing our connection through a shared writing project. Several of us decided to write about our encounters with the divine, attempting to answer the question, “How do you know that God exists?” For me, the friendship experienced in the writing of these pieces became in itself an important encounter with the divine.
The resulting essays—my piece examining ecology and faith, Kurt Armstrong’s reflection on Christian commitment, Paige Eve Chant’s family memories, and Porter Taylor and Jamie Howison’s stories of how their pastoral careers began—will be published here in Bearings Online over the next few weeks. We hope that our words stir in you a recollection of your own significant encounters with God.
Walking alone on the first evening of a retreat in rural Minnesota, I found a narrow turn-off onto a path ensconced in oaks and maples that quickly petered out into an open meadow. Halfway across it was a subtle turn-off to the right, a lane of yellow grass alongside a patch of Queen Anne’s lace, and then, down a gentle slope, a lightly swaying bridge over a shallow lake. Minnows flitted beneath lily pads in shallow water. Onward—at the bridge’s far side, past purple coneflowers, dragonflies, a slope upward now—lay the university campus, all tended lawns and quiet courtyards.
I made a tiny, private promise I’d walk to campus through this prettiness every morning, rather than along the functional but less charming road. I kept my commitment, often pausing to stand in silence doing nothing, glimpsing something spiritual I hadn’t been paying attention to. For a while, I thought it might be a querencia, too.
Querencia is a Spanish word that pins together the verb querer (“to like, want, love”) and –encia, signifying a place. It means “the place one loves to be”—a refuge, in other words.
Its etymology offers another, more evocative layer. The word comes from Spain and Latin America’s bullfighting tradition. A bull, though stronger than any human, is lanced in his flank before the fight begins. The wound makes him weaker than the costumed men who parade before him; inevitably, they will defeat him. Nonetheless, there is often a spot in a matador’s ring where the bull becomes inscrutably, yet perceptibly, at ease, and therefore dangerous—a place to which the bull will return over and over, gathering strength to fight. That spot in the bullring, that center of power derived from highly personal comfort—that’s the real querencia.
The retreat I was attending was at the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, and it was for writers working on projects of a Christian bent. I didn’t come expecting to find any particular comfort or refuge for myself. Of course, part of the idea was a particularly comfortable spot in which to work—but having converted to Zen Buddhism a decade before, I was accustomed to retreats of arduous, near-military silence in ice-cold, pre-dawn temples.
Plus, being Buddhist gave me other reasons to expect comfort might not be forthcoming. I was an obvious outsider—not a theologian, religious, or clergyperson, but a journalist; not only unversed in the formalities of Christian theology, but a non-Christian altogether. When a group member proposed we all write essays on the question, “How do you know that God exists?” I thought I might be the only one for whom the truest answer was, “Yeah, but I don’t know.”
But for all my disinterest, the place’s charms were unmistakable. The more I thought of that meadow in particular, the more it seemed to involve a clear, rather cozy hint of God.
Is some aspect of spirituality innately wound together with nature? It wasn’t what I came to Collegeville to consider, but it wasn’t far off.
My writing project was on the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton, on whose former monastery, Gethsemane, a gas pipeline had recently threatened to intrude. A fight against it had ended in a victory for environmentalists and monastics of central Kentucky. In the midst of reporting that, I’d realized Merton’s huge oeuvre offers a wealth of insights on environmentalism. By the time I was in Collegeville, I was delving into the significance of his words to climate change—a problem he’d neither encountered nor foreseen, but for which his work offered surprising insights.
Merton’s writings make clear his environmentalism was no political abstraction. They number over 1,800 (per Monica Weis, SSJ, author of The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton) and appear scattered across his journals, detailing over and over his love for his home, a rural area in Kentucky continuously occupied as a monastery longer than any other land in North America. “I sat on the high bank, under young pines, and looked out over this glen,” Merton wrote in a journal published posthumously as Entering the Silence. “Right under me was a dry creek, with clean pools lying like glass between the shale pavement of the stream, and the shale was as white and crumpled as sea-biscuit. Down in the glen were the songs of marvelous birds…. The marvelous quiet! The sweet scent of the woods—the clean stream, the peace, the inviolate solitude! And to think that no one pays any attention to it.”
No one pays any attention to it. I read those words one morning after passing through the meadow, and I felt a twinge of self-recrimination. Later, standing once again at the little clearing near the bridge, I could catch a clear, rather cozy glimpse of something rather vast, even transcendent. I could see all the attention I hadn’t been paying, environmental reporting aside.
But was no one paying any attention to it? Perhaps in Merton’s time, when the environmental movement was nascent, that felt truer. But respect for nature existed before Merton¸ and many authors have been around since, offering myriad expansions that align with his.
Writer Barry Lopez has remarked on indigenous people’s habit of close observation of wilderness, connecting it to spiritual well-being: “Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place. A continually refreshed sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world… undermine the feeling that one is alone in the world, or meaningless in it.”
Even in Merton’s time, observations of connections between the natural world and spirituality were near at hand. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring famously sparked Merton’s environmentalism (the book, which explained how the pesticide DDT damages animal life cycles and habitats, also prompted widespread environmental activism and the US government’s founding of the Environmental Protection Agency). Raised at the foot of a foul-smelling industrial mill, Carson herself had understood the spiritual dimensions of place. In a speech after the publication of Silent Spring, she said, “I believe that natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.”
She suggested nature itself is a querencia. About birdwatchers who’d reported the earliest signs of DDT’s toxicity to wildlife, she wrote, “By contemplating the ‘exceeding beauty of the Earth,’ these people have found calmness and courage.”
To be close to nature—to observe it or rest in awareness of it or refuse to supplant its innate beauty, as Lopez, Merton, and Carson suggest—would appear to involve acknowledging it’s not ours to control. Really, it’s possible to think of the natural world as defined by this quality; the Teutonic root of “wild” is “will,” as in self-determination. Wild land, which humans have not tilled or otherwise tamed, is self-willed—a place with a complex, unconquered state of being—land that does as it likes.
In Collegeville, it dawned on me that basic surrender to the self-will of the environment was one way to know that God—or one aspect of what is meant by “God”—exists. In its innate and irreducible wildness, nature includes many elements, known, unknown and unknowable, that we can scarcely influence but on which our lives nonetheless depend. Direct experience of nature can hint at our simplicity and smallness in light of chance, complexity, and sheer celestial space, the benevolent near-infinity that extends so far beyond our grasp it is virtually unimaginable to us. Understanding this embeddedness in a grand natural order implies the necessity of respect for nature—a state Buddhists might call clearly seeing things as they are, or what some Christians might call obedience to God.
The Book of Matthew suggests this respect is ancient: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin. And yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28-19, KJV).
In my Zen tradition, Japanese poet Matsuo Basho offered the same, with a succinctness hinting at the preference for direct experience Lopez also describes:
Into the ancient pond
A frog jumps.
It’s worth noting that self-willed nature isn’t the Garden of Eden. It’s not a garden at all. Humans till and tend a garden, fussing over the land as a parent lovingly fusses over a child. Self-willed land, larger and more capable than us, does quite the opposite. We’re there not as gods, but as we are might be with God. We’re the children, and it’s the parent.
The edge of Collegeville isn’t proper wilderness, of course. It is the tiniest taste of one. But it’s enough to prompt a city-dweller like me to grasp what she’s missing, to cease feeling for a moment she’s alone or meaningless to this world. But humans do tend the Collegeville land, and to many of us it’s a place of temporary visit, not the permanent belonging real awareness requires.
The vibe of Collegeville isn’t a querencia, either, at least not to me. The idea that a querencia is necessary to act with the “calmness and courage” of Carson and her ilk, or that we must find space to rest between phases of an upcoming long struggle against climate change—that’s true, and more relevant now than ever. The alterations to society necessary to avert onrushing disaster threaten to upend the insights of Matthew 6, in fact (“Take not thoughts of the morrow, for the morrow shall take the thoughts for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof” Matthew 6:34, KJV). The word implies fleeing from suffering or gathering strength against an outside threat. But Collegeville isn’t quite that. To infer the retreat meant to be a querencia would be to impose on it an attribute it didn’t really intend.
Months after I left, I finally found a word that better encapsulated the sense of a lakeside meadow. It’s not Spanish, but Swedish—well-fitting a place nestled in the Nordic immigrant culture that has defined rural Minnesota for over 150 years.
The word is smultronstället, and it is etymologically simpler than querencia, yet as evocative, and more pleasant. In free translation, it means a refuge in the sense of nestling closer to calmness or comfort; a place where one feels the particular mix of coziness and freedom that signifies home; or, for me, a place to access the warm comfort of a certain vast unknowability through attention to beauty.
Though it’s not their literal meaning, the sequence of sounds reminds me of the long, peach-toned twilight of Minnesota summer evenings, of the hot yellow-green of the meadow under noonday sun. I’ve come to associate the whole idea with Rachel Carson herself, too—not because she spoke the word, but rather because her work indicates she understood it. As author Lisa Sideris has written about her, “Carson simply asks us to reverse the telescope and discover our place in the amazing universe we actually inhabit, the world as it really is. That, in a nutshell, was her religion.”
In particular, I cannot think of Carson without recalling the sweet grace of the word’s literal translation. Smultronstället is what I might’ve found in the lakeside meadow, had I reversed the telescope well enough.
Literally, it means “wild strawberry patch.”