Beyond despair over Earth’s destruction: How living in a contemplative setting changed me

by Marya Grathwohl


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In July, 2003, I signed a book contract with Riverhead Publishers. Little did I suspect how dramatically that summer day signature in the living room of Prayer Lodge in Northern Cheyenne country would change my life. Nor did I imagine how much inner work my book about spirituality and care for Earth would demand. Despite having the mission, outline and sample chapters of my book proposal, the manuscript keeps changing as I write: meandering, expanding, deepening.

I soon discover that my book requires huge chunks of solitude, time enough to let the water of my soul clear. I eventually settle in a mobile home hermitage on the property of San Benito Monastery on the edge of a very small town in Wyoming. Four Benedictine Sisters of Perpetual Adoration live, pray and work in the monastery and gift shop, Monastery Creations. True to their charism, they sing the Divine Office four times a day, meditate in a spirit of Eucharistic adoration and practice Lectio Divina.

They graciously invite me to pray with them. I graciously decline. Their beautiful prayer is not my rhythm. I’m a little sad about that.

Instead, I sit and wait for God at windows facing the woodsy banks of the Little Tongue River or the nearby Big Horn Mountains. I write in the presence of mule deer, wild turkeys, horses, the occasional bald eagle, a huge sky and, always, the mountains.

I write when I can carve out time between giving talks, retreats and workshops, participating in vigils and training volunteers. In the course of eight years since I began, to my surprise, I am graciously given my own contemplative-action rhythm.

Something else surfaces. It hangs around me like an ill-fitting dress. It gets in my way. Worse, it sits inside me, pernicious, like a low-grade fever, a fear. Despair is too strong a word. It is “give-up-ness” in the face of Earth’s suffering. I can’t do my work.

One week, halfway through our daily noon meal together, when there is a lull in the conversation, when news of the morning is shared, I ask my friends, four Benedictine nuns, “Please describe contemplative prayer.”

I know they know.

Hope begins, her eyes and face a smile of ease, joy in her life: “It begins in Be still and know that I am God.” Day after day, in pre-dawn stillness, find your own, recognize God. She continues, “Then you become monk, meaning oneness, one with God, self and others.”

Gladys leans into her words, lovely white hair falling around ruddy cheeks. She does a lot of outdoor work. “And contemplative prayer is never just God and you.” Each word is strong. “It’s becoming one with all. All.” She puts down her fork to make a wide circle with her hands. “God, you and all creation.”

Everyone is nodding.

They pray, chanting psalms in a chapel where walls are windows. Gladys drums her hand on the table, four times. A daily heartbeat of prayer in God’s felt presence, within the rhythms of starlight, dawn blush, noon glare and evening glow.

I relish a kind of oneness with all, too, discovered in compassion and grief for endangered species, polluted air and water, clear-cut forests, mountains whose tops have been blown off for coal. Contemplation means knowing the neighbor you love as yourself is yourself – including the whole Earth communion.

Josetta leaps into the conversation, landing gracefully as she speaks. “Contemplation affects your body. Heartbeat slows. Blood pressure drops. Muscles relax. It’s not just your mind or voice praying.”

God stirs in the cells of your whole body, I say to myself. This energizes me for the long haul of writing a book on Earth-care. It sustains me in educating for social, economic and energy-use change in harmony with Earth’s systems.

Everyone has more to say: the importance of daily practice, of stopping whatever you’re doing for prayer times, of losing oneself, and the place on the page, in the chants, of seeing rays of sunrise on the host of bread setting the whole world alight, of praying for all who suffer.

Regina, the eldest, concludes, “Contemplative life and prayer is what our Sr. Natalia Barela, who just died at 105, experienced: She said she no longer had a set time for prayer. She said it beautifully, I think.” Regina continues, quoting Natalia with care:  “God is always with me and I just enjoy God’s presence all the time.”

As if obeying some deeper, sacred pulse of life, we seem to have shared a mutual spiritual journey even as lifestyles and prayer ways differ. Eight years. I gradually make another discovery. Not only did my book demand those chunks of time and solitude. I’d also needed something that would shake that gnawing hopelessness I felt about the future of life as we know it. “What’s the use of a book?” I’d moan. I should be growing food without chemicals, using solar and wind energy, and above all, not driving a car, walking.

“The forces aligned against real care of Earth are so powerful. I am a candle to a gale of destruction,” I say to my friend, S. Helen Prejean, during a writing retreat. Surely she must understand. “I can’t see the point of writing.”

“Okay,” she says. “Just stop. Don’t write.”

I collapsed. Anything but that.

“Despair is a luxury we can’t afford right now,” I’d heard Thomas Berry say. It seared my soul. Right. But just how to tear it out of my heart when all the news about forests, species and atmospheric carbon count keeps worsening?

Perhaps our prayer rhythms have been in tandem. Perhaps the same Light flowed within silence, psalms and scriptures we mysteriously shared, dawn to starlight to dawn. Perhaps we shared faithfulness to contemplation that eventually revealed to me love in the oneness of Earth, Earth I love.

I don’t really know.

But this I do know. Every time I prayed, I felt their prayer, too. It helped me stay my rhythm. Strangely, the choking despair is gone. Left me. That is how contemplative prayer and way of life – even my own erratic rhythm – changed me. The ill-fitting dress is worn out. I cleaned out my closet. And I finished draft three of my manuscript.

[An Oldenburg Franciscan Sister since 1963, Marya Grathwohl lived for more than 30 years in African American, Crow and Northern Cheyenne communities, as teacher, principal and pastoral minister. She is the founding director of Earth Hope, and works in environmental restoration through farming, restoration and other ecology projects.]