Greetings all –
My father spent decades building what he called a megalithic park in eastern Pennsylvania, raising stones in circles and dolmens, in stone buildings and stones standing by themselves across the 22-acre park. He’s been gone several years now and I haven’t been back: But my memory of Columcille resonates with this simple yet precious sense of sanctuary. In such hallowed places—and I hope we will find and name many in this challenge—the veil between I and Thou is the faintest.
My thought on sanctuary stems from a book I am brooding about my father and his work at Columcille. Writing it was his only dying request and I share enough of his vision to feel I can contribute to his legacy in a meaningful way for the Columcille community which now works forward. I’m in no hurry; I retire in another year or so and it will be a good project to fill those daily hours. It takes a while for founders to find their way into myth. St. Columba’s tale wasn’t taken up until Adomnán became the seventh abbot of Iona. His Vita Columbae or “Life of Columba” was written around 697-700 AD and played a pivotal role in establishing the cult of St Columba. It is also the most important surviving work of medieval Scotland.
If the Columcille community can survive – there are financial and leadership challenges, and the park must find the right balance between work and festival — I believe it can serve as a model for human and nonhuman relations that can provide vision and possibility for a healing Earth. So allow me to indulge the Columcille metaphor in order to expand on a new sense of sanctuary.
The stones which are Columcille’s consonants – some bigger than houses, other pebbles in a palm — were grated off Blue Mountain as the glaciers heaved south, tumbling and collecting in Fox Valley where my father lived. (According to geologists, the rocks to heave forth when the Earth first crusted formed a line from the British Isles to the Appalachians.) There is a cold feel to those stones, mute as death and almost as old as starlight. The St. Oran bell tower in the field is circular and close, its roofless view tugged by the changeful sky overhead; the St. Columba chapel is plainchant, a primordial vowel which human voices singing together echo the ages. Mananann down at the far end of the field is three times human height and the three stones which form the dolmen called Thor’s Gate are twenty to forty tons each. Rest your cheek on such stone and you feel yourself sinking into the abyss of time, descending from Bucks County to Stonehenge into the deep end of Lascaux.
Hallowed, somewhat harrowing stuff: But the sense of sanctuary you get from walking Columcille’s grounds arises from something more, Om-vowels that are nearer and habitable with the sacred. In the old conception, there’s always a Woodhenge next to Stonehenge. Maybe it’s the way animate and inanimate worlds blend so sweetly there, a communion of living and dead, tree and stone, human votives and lunar candlelight merging in one expression. Back in 2007 the word I found for it was “Halycon”:
Here in the halcyon nothing intrudes,
not even when it does. The off-road
toy whining round the house next door
and the gun range a few miles down
filling the distance with random shot:
they try to mar but can’t, not on a day like this,
so perfect in early autumn, fair and
cool enough to bourne the heart red and gold,
a boule in the burnsoak of oak and ash leaves.
The halcyon pays no attention
to the dozens of visitors who wander
about the tall standing stones,
nor to their aged lifter back up in the house.
Not even to the Maker of all in this pen
dreaming of solstice from a womb of cold stone.
The halcyon blesses what releases
as if autumn day were sign,
its immensity belled in a thatch of
dying ferns’ airy curls.
Gnats and a jet overhead, people
coming and going through the
chapel behind me and the halcyon
weaves on those delicate stems,
souled to infinity as everything
slowly drowses and loosens
the God in us all
whose love graces our fall.
Everyone seems to sense the sanctuary nature of the land; an attitude of love and respect for the place pervades. In Columcille’s four decades of unfolding there has been almost no vandalism, no beer cans and tire tracks and rubbers in the deep wood, no graffiti on chapel walls. Some Westboro Baptist clones once demonstrated across the road during one of the community’s Beltane festivals, waving “God Hates Fags” signs and such, and journalists consistently get the narrative wrong digging up local color for newspapers and magazines: But whatever fret and angst of the falling-apart world vanishes after a few strides onto the field with its standing stones, another kind of time replacing profane with sacred.
I’ve puzzled some over how that special sense of sanctuary came to Columcille. There were New Age influences; my father had visited Findhorn and Iona; he and I spent many hours drinking Scotch in the ‘70s and ‘80s yammering about Being and Becoming, spirits of the land and Guardian energies; we were trolling for Laws of Manifestation which would turn an idea about community into reality. But really, I think it was just decades of daily work on the land with a love and respect that would slowly harvest a beloved vibration in the land. You want sanctuary, sanctitude and the sacred? Treat something as such.
Religion has been practicing sanctuary for millennia, from the Hebrew cities of refuge described in the Book of Numbers, the temenos of Greek shrines, the sacred groves of the goddess or in the consecrated ground upon which Christian churches were believed to have been built, with an even more intense sanctum immediately around the altar, which in Catholic churches were often inlaid with sacred relics.
In all of these the sanctuary was between human and the divine. Fleeing slaves or those committing accidental manslaughter could find refuge in these sanctuaries, shelter from the chaos of the human storm. Today we also have animal sanctuaries, lands protected from the same predations of humanity. Last year a proposal by the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity called for national parks, marine sanctuaries and other protected areas to cover 30 percent of the planet in order to stop a sixth mass extinction event and slow global warming.
But what about sanctuary shared by all creation, human, animal, vegetal and mineral? Images of Eden speak to a primordial condition of unity. The songs of Orpheus were so sublime that all creation gathered around in harmony to listen. The Otherworld remembered by writers in medieval Ireland was sinless — without blame — no moral code to remind us of our great error.
What strikes me now about places like Columcille – and may be the essence of the book I may eventually write — is that at it envisions that sort of sanctuary. There were days—days of hauling stone for the bell tower, or cleaning trails, or working in the organic gardens or traipsing along with hundreds of others for May Day or Samhuin — graced with a halcyon fairness which felt like walking on sunshine. On those days, the veil between words and world and vanished into an effervescent sense of sanctuary for all — critters, stones, trees, sunlight, fungii, flies, starlight, wind, water and tiny humans — a unity in glory.
I am sad for the scarcity of such sanctuary yet hopeful for the earth because seeds like Columcille are there. Sanctuary is not lost and irretrievable; no literal voyages to the otherworld are required, there are no drugs to take or demons to be cast out. All you must do is protect and border and greet the world with all your heart in the locale where you live.
The fragrant hope and strength of sanctuary can be grounded in astonishing Anthropocene damage; as Wendell Berry said, its difficulty is its possibility.
I’ve been making my way slowly through the Eco-Poetry Anthology, a 600-page contribution to the poetry of earth which does a lot of footwork pacing off the green sanctum we inhabit when striving for our best sense. “Co-editing (it) has been a labor of love against despair,” Ann-Fisher Wirth writes in her introduction. “…We are living out a colossal failure of heart, will, and imagination.”
Yet Laura Gray Street, her partner in editing the collection, defined well what that labor means:
In a sense, poetry has always been ecopoetry, in that the origins of poetry are embedded in the natural world and poetry has traditionally foregrounded nature, in a way that drama and fiction have not. Ecopoetry isn’t just any poetry garnished with birds and trees; it is a paradigm shift. It is the apprehension of real biological selves (as opposed to fantasy selves) inhabiting the planet along with us, a mix of negative capability and empathy expressed with the cadence, imagery and wit to make it visceral, so that it lodges in our neural systems and cultivates the environmental imagination that is analgous to the crucial biodiversity of the rainforests in our intestines.
A paradigm shift: Nature’s voice in our own. When my father once visited Iona, he says he encountered the ancient energies of the island. “Our work is your work and your work is ours,” they said to some deep part of his listening. He took that as mandate to build what would become Columcille, perhaps he heard right. Ecopoetry can take up the same work, finding ways to greet and border and protect the world in front of us.
David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous suggests how we can begin:
The human mind is not some otherworldly essence that comes to house itself inside our physiology. Rather, it is instilled and provoked by the sensorial field itself, induced by the tensions and participations between the human body and the animate earth. The invisible shapes of smells, rhythms of cricketsong, and the movement of shadows all, in a sense, provide the subtle body of our thoughts. Our own reflections, we might say, are part of the play of light and its reflections. “The inner — what is it, if not intensified sky?”
By acknowledging such links between the inner, psychological world and the perceptual terrain that surrounds us, we begin to turn inside-out, loosening the psyche from its confinement within a strictly human sphere, freeing sentience to return to the sensible world that contains us. Intelligence is no longer ours alone but is a property of the earth; we are in it, of it, immersed in its depths. And indeed each terrain, each ecology, seems to have its own particular intelligence, its unique vernacular of soil and leaf and sky.
Each places its own mind, its own psyche. Oak, madrone, Douglas fir, red-tailed hawk, serpentine in the sandstone, a certain scale to the topography , drenching rains in the winter, fog off-shore in the summer, salmon surging in the streams — all these together make up a particular state of mind, a place-specific intelligence shared by all the humans that dwell therein, but also by the coyotes yapping in those valleys, the bobcats and the ferns and the spiders, by all beings who live and make their way in that zone. Each place its own psyche. Each sky its own blue. (262)
Sanctuary takes a village. Its work is not easy. Seldom does Avalon clear the mist of first drafts. There are few mentors. The dream falters, turning moral or mortal. Conditions are not ripe. (At Columcille, the Anthropocene has seeped in; the oaks are besieged by gypsy moths and oak wilt, while beech bark disease afflicts the beeches; Superstorm Sandy leveled dozens more trees.) We need each other. The world inside each of our voices comprises the earthly choir of the forum. My faith is that a unique sanctuary is right in front of us if we can sing it forth.
For this challenge, write about Sanctuary. Where are those places near you in which you find the communion and forgiveness and renewal of sanctuary? How is it created and with whom is it shared? What can be done to ensure it grows into a deeper communion for generations to come?
I leave you with this poem by Mary Oliver from the Eco-Poetry Anthology as a ripe phrasing of sanctuary. May our poems work toward the same end.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting‑
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.