Christian Mystics

Mary Oliver...A Remembrance

Mary Oliver.jpg

Mary Oliver was a great North American mystic.  She called herself a "praise poet," but she did not come to her sense of praise easily for she had been sexually abused by her father as a child.  The day she graduated from high school she  left home and never returned.  She says it took her years to get her life back.  "For years and years I struggled just to love my life." 

She was a profound creation centered mystic who awakens us all to the healing powers of nature.  Here are a few of my favorite lines from her poetry ( including of course her poem "At the River Clarion" which names so wonderfully the cosmic Christ and which I reproduce in my latest book on Hildegard of Bingen)

"Glory to the world, that great teacher"

"There is only one question: how to love the world"

" I want to be in partnership with the universe."

" let me keep company with those who say 'look!' And laugh in astonishment and bow their heads."

"Still, what I want in my life
Is to be willing
to be dazzled--
To cast aside the weight of facts.

Mary Oliver drank deeply from the wells of the via positiva as well as the via negativa--she talks of " the black river of loss" and of how "nature has many mysteries--some of them severe."  She urges us to do the same

Mary Oliver recites her poem; set to Phildel's Piano B.
”…When it's over, I want to say all my life I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms. “
(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

On the 50th Anniversary of Thomas Merton’s Death

Monday, December 10th marks the 50th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death—which has now been confirmed as a martyr’s death by the recent solid and important investigative study, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton by Hugh Turley and David Marin (as well as by my own encounters over the years with three CIA agents who were in Southeast Asia at the time).

Photo of Thomas Merton by John Lyons, from

Photo of Thomas Merton by John Lyons, from

A martyrdom (consider the recently canonized Archbishop Romero or the martyrdom of Sister Dorothy Stang, an eco-saint) is not about a death any more than Jesus’ martyrdom on the cross of the empire of his day was about his death or Dr. Martin Luther King’s martyrdom was about his death.  It is about one’s life and teachings: What Good News is someone bringing into the world that so threatens the powers that be that they must hire assassins to silence the teacher?

In Thomas Merton’s case, there is much that he was preaching and teaching that we need to hear still today.  I have tried to lay that out in my recent book, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey.  Here I will summarize just some of his challenges to our awareness. 

--He stood strongly with Dr. King and the civil rights movement--indeed, he and King were scheduled to have a retreat together at his monastery along with Thich Naht Hanh the weekend King was murdered.  King cancelled the retreat offering a “rain check” in order to march with the garbage workers in Memphis.  A “fateful” decision, as Merton commented in his journal following the assassination.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

--Merton stood with those who opposed the Vietnam War and coached the Berrigan brothers about the ways of non-violent resistance.  His last public lecture, delivered three hours before his death, was entitled “Karl Marx and Monasticism”—not the most prudent of topics to lecture on in Southeast Asia at the height of the Vietnam War.

--Merton was a pioneer in the interfaith or deep ecumenism movement—which is why he took his fateful journey to Asia where he met, among others, Hindu and Buddhist leaders including the Dalai Lama,  He interacted with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Rabbi Zalman Schactner, and it was in his encounters with Dr. D. T. Suzuki (who admired Eckhart profoundly) that Merton was opened up to the wisdom and power of Meister Eckhart, about whom Merton said, “whatever Zen is, it is there in Eckhart.”

--Merton stood up with Rachel Carson and celebrated what we now consider the beginnings of the Ecological movement when her book, Silent Spring, came out.  He praised her for her research about DDT and the other poisons we were putting into the soil: that explained for him the disappearance of so many birds from the monastery farm.

--Merton criticized his own church on numerous occasions, speaking of a “spiritual sickness” within it and the “glorified infantilism” that always looks to hierarchy for answers.  In an Easter Sunday sermon delivered to his fellow monks he wondered aloud if Christianity has become a “cult of the dead body of Christ.”

--Merton had an 18-month correspondence with a young and upcoming feminist Catholic theologian, Rosemary Ruether, that revealed his humility and willingness to learn from women’s experience.

--Merton’s conversion in 1958 from being a dualistic monk in the Augustinian tradition to being a prophetic Christian happened under the influence and inspiration of Meister Eckhart whom he called “my lifeboat.”

--Merton criticized the decision to go to the moon in the following language: “Even if we can fly, so what?  There are flying ants.  Even if man flies all over the universe, he is still nothing but a flying ant until he recovers a human center and a human spirit in the depth of his own being….What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from our selves?  This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless but disastrous.”

--Merton predicted that the marriage of religious fundamentalism and American nationalism would produce “the greatest orgy of idolatry the world has ever seen.”

--Merton wrote extensively of the Cosmic Christ such as the following: “The Blinding One….speaks to us gently in ten thousand things….He shines not on them but from within them.”

--Merton of course led a disciplined inner life and taught people how to meditate and contemplate.  Here is one definition of contemplation that he offers us:  “Contemplation is the highest expression of man’s intellectual and spiritual life.  It is that life itself fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive.  It is spiritual wonder.  It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being.  It is grateful for life, for awareness and for being.”*[1]

Speaking personally, it was in correspondence with Merton in 1967 that I was advised to pursue doctoral studies in spirituality at the Institut catholique de Paris.  It was there that I met my mentor, historian Pere M.D. Chenu, who named the Creation Spirituality tradition for me.  So I owe Merton, big time.  In a real sense all the trouble—and the joy-- I have gotten in since I owe to Thomas Merton.

This is a short list of many of Merton’s gifts to us.

Thank You, Thomas Merton!

Thank you for your life, your teachings, your wonderfully artistic writings, your courage and your death.  May we all be so alive and giving and generous.

[1] All citations are from Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journeye

Guest Post: Cherished Childhood Memories of Martyr Dorothy Stang

My friend David Stang shares cherished childhood memories of his sister Dorothy Stang,  "Angel of the Amazon" who was murdered in 2005 for standing up to the rapacious landlords of the Brazilian Amazon, She was a graduate of the University of Creation Spirituality; she is now being considered for sainthood as a martyr and model of sanctity.

Early Family Experiences of Dorothy Stang and Creation Spirituality


By David Stang

The noise that shook the house was a unusual summer  thunderstorm in Dayton Ohio. The lightning flashed across the afternoon sky, bright  and pervasive. Then came the loud thunder that shook the old one hundred year home.

The big wooden house shook to its foundations. We could now see the  vibrant maple trees outside due to the enormous lightning. The trees were bright and green, with their big maple leaves waving with the winds. The flashing, lightning enhanced the visual effects of the trees. The outside rain quite visible. Again and again, the house shook.

We young ones could not deny the power of nature around us and it affected our very breathing and emotions as we huddled inside the house. The storm, lightning, rain, lasted for hours. We knew to the depth of our being who was in charge of our environment. It was not us.

As the time moved on we soon began to see candles being  lit around the house, especially by the Virgin statues that Mom so loved. After the candles were lit by our Mom we saw her lay on the floor with her arms out and breathing slowly and at peace. We too felt the power of peace with our Mom’s presence.

During that period of time, we wondered how to rate what was most important, the candles, the statues, the thunderstorm, lightning, or the shaking of the house, or Mom. We could not deny the power of the shaking of the house, or the noise, or the pounding of the rain on the roof.  We could definitely feel the incredible power of nature. This power we never forgot as it entered deeper and deeper into our consciousness.

We had heard enough stories about the Irish goblins and faeries from our Mom to know that they existed, so we always wondered if that also we could add to the candles and the statues that  fit in to Mom’s  life,  and was this a different way of feeling and knowing about life. Such thoughts were never taught in school or in our catholic catechism.  

Whatever, Mom lying on the floor with her arms out, breathing peacefully had its own effect on us. After all there we were seven of us, our two older brother were no longer in the house, who were protected by Mom during this extravaganza of nature.

We however, also began to trust Nature as when the storm was over and we went outside, we could smell the energy of the incredible air, see the fresh energized ground, the new power of the trees, and our garden looking fresh and alive. The vegetables in the garden seemed empowered, enlivened by the incredible event of nature and the energized water.

The thunderstorm did overwhelm us for those past couple of  hours but our house was still standing, even though during these storms we could hear the fire trucks in the distance and hear about this or that house, or this or that garage had burned down.  We were however safe, secure and ready for the next storm and candles and Mom lying on the floor. We were appreciative of the food growing in our garden.

We young ones not only lived to even enjoy and feel the energy of the storms but were pushed outside to be with all the wonder and awe that existed outside. We were outside a lot.  We at young ages, jumped on the back of Mummas Farm trucks at 7AM to ride to the farms to pick berries, weed the land, and make a dime to help support each other during the depression. We knew what a sunburn was and suntans. We knew how to protect our backs, protect each other from strangers and behave.

We all had nice tans and good appetites even though the strawberries at Mummas were excellent, with no pesticides, we knew we needed more than fruit, though at autumn time the apples, apple juice was a taste we never forgot. Arriving back home from Mummas, we would go to our own garden to weed it and eat the green onions, carrots, radishes, green beans  and we even had a pear tree and walnut tree.

Mom would be inside preparing supper for seven of us and of course she and Dad were organic farmers (even though in those days was there any other way to farm?) and the food was healthy and none of us had health problems, such as cancer or muscle or other health issues that existed at the time. We did know that there was the existence of city people but felt excluded as we were different, with our hand me down clothes, shoes, and interests.

 Dad was a scientist who worked at Wright Patterson Air Force Base. Such a job and his skills kept us from starvation and living on the streets. He must have been good because he was never fired, even though he had the reputation to speak out strongly for his belief in the protection of Nature and against the chemicals that were beginning to appear in our foods.

Dad was a chemical engineer who believed in the organic route and regulating the chemicals that were just being invented. He took on the leadership of Montsanto that was just beginning to develop its corporation in St. Louis and Dayton Ohio. In fact he was even offered a job with Monsanto, as one of the leaders was a Catholic graduate from the same school.  

Dad would often take us on walks and educate us about what mushrooms we could or could not eat, where to find them and also about the animal kingdom that existed in our area which area was called Miami Valley. I only learned later in life that my twin brother and I were born during the time of the enormous floods in Dayton that almost destroyed the city, a city which was thriving at the time with many engineers, scientists, and inventors.

The Wright Brothers had their bicycle shop in Dayton and of course National Cash Register, General Electric, Frigidaire, and the Big Wright Patterson Air Force Base was thriving in Dayton.  A side story for those who remember, that a UFO landed in New Mexico in the 40’s. It was announced even on the radio which we all heard, and the alien bodies were sent to Wright Patterson where our Dad worked in the Analytical Laboratory where the bodies were supposedly sent.  Oh, the memories and stories of our youth.

How can one forget Winter. We did not have double paned windows or insulation in our walls. We did have heavy blankets and heavy clothes. We slept well under those wool blankets and I even remember snow on our faces one night because, of course my twin brother broke the window near our bed and Dad would not fix it immediately, perhaps to teach us a lesson.  

Mom was a sharp buyer when it came to good clothing for winter. I do not remember any of us ever having frost bite. But we loved winter and we did not need to be told to go outside. You can imagine if we preferred to stay inside how we would have driven each other crazy.

We all had hand me down ice skates, well worn skiis, though the hills were small and so we rarely used them. More importantly we had the old sleds with metal runners that could hold four or five of us and lots of children around the neighborhood and a couple good hills. We did not suffer from not having other kids to play with.

Not too far away, maybe two miles was the Miami River. During the forties the weather was colder and the river often froze over. Sometimes we could even ice skate all the way down from our house to the river. We became good ice skaters and knew how to judge the safety of the ice. We can still remember skating on black ice as it went up and down as you skated on it. Even though periodically we would hear of someone drowning in the river, this never happened to any of us as we were good judges of ice. 

At night the people who lived near the river would put on their back porch lights for us to see and even make us hot chocolate. Feeling the warm chocolate in our tummies, and the snow on our faces and the blades on the ice, for us this was heaven. I could be having forgetfulness, but I do not remember any of us complaining about the cold or not wanting to be outside. Life was full of awe and wonder for us as only children can feel such wonder.

Summer was just as wonder filled season as winter. Besides, working on the fruit farm, we were known as the Stang Gang and we challenged all the neighbors in football, baseball, and basketball.

The best players in our family of course were the girls, especially Dorothy and Norma. When the teams were chosen, Dorothy and Norma were the ones that chose the teams. The boys in the neighborhood highly respected these two girls. Also, Tom and I never had to worry about any bullies in the neighborhood hurting us.

One time as we were coming home from school a couple boys challenged Tom and I. Oh, what a mistake. Quickly two of my sisters showed up and tackled the two of the boys, the other boys ran away and the two boys on the ground quickly surrendered. I only remembered this happening once.

I am sure I could remember other stories but perhaps this gives one a picture of our early childhood. With such memories, as we get old, they become so important.

But more importantly this helps us understand the strength of our sister Dorothy who was not afraid to take on the bullies in the Amazon and was not afraid when they put a price on her head and who said, “I will not run away from my family” when she was offered the chance to move on.

Creation Spirituality was an essential part of our lives from childhood. Dorothy going to the Amazon was just another amazing part of her being with nature with the diversity of creation.

Dorothy’s time spent with Matthew Fox in California studying Creation Spirituality was an incredible experience as it confirmed her beauty as a woman, as a nature filled being, and that there were other great women who felt like her over the centuries.

Dorothy saying “I cannot leave my family,” included the forest, the animals and her relationship with all of life that existed around her. Spirituality is not whole when we exclude such thinking and people from our existence.

Sincere Thanks to Jeremy Taylor for his Life and Inspired/Inspiring Work


The Dream World—which is to say the inner world of all peoples—has lost a Giant, a true Leader of wise teachings around the wisdom of our dreams and therefore of our souls, our consciousnesses, our unconscious, our shadows, whether dark or bright, all that which often remains hidden but wants to be revealed and unveiled.  Jeremy Taylor is known worldwide for his books and his teachings and his workshops on Dreams. 

A student of Jung but also a witness operating from his own soul and always face to face with the pain of our troubled world, a Unitarian Universalist minister, a deep co-worker for 22 years in the Creation Spirituality schools first at Holy Names College and then at the University of Creation Spirituality, he was a beloved teacher beloved by his students and by his colleagues from whom he learned and whom he also taught and celebrated with.

One student wrote me on hearing of his death: “I took his class two times at UCS, he was so profound. You attracted such a stellar staff, I am so grateful to have met you all. Your words carry me at this darkest of times.”  She is not the only student who took Jeremy’s  classes more than once.  And she is correct that the staff at ICCS and UCS was indeed “stellar.”  Now Jeremy joins many of them who have become ancestors including M. C. Richards, Rolf Osterburg, Sister Jose Hobday, Robert Rice, Buck Ghosthorse, to name a few.

Our dreams have so much to tell us and no one I ever met, whether in books or in person, was more adroit at coaching people to explore their dreams and understand their wealth than was Jeremy Taylor.  I have met people all over the world—in South Korea, in Australia, in Europe and all over North America, whose lives have been deepened and whose deeper lives have been opened up to them by the dream work that Jeremy Taylor perfected.

These are the words that come to me when I think of Jeremy and his ever-so-fruitful life’s work:

1. Generosity.  He was so in love with his work that he gave and gave and gave again, traveling often and everywhere, in good seasons and bad, to share his wisdom.  He gave unceasingly of mind, body and soul in this process.  I praise him for his Generosity. 

2. Justice.  Jeremy was a champion for social, economic, racial, gender, gender preference justice—justice was at the heart and indeed the origin of his calling.  It was while he was conducting a workshop on racism in the early 70’s I believe in Berkeley when things had hit a strand still and the group of blacks and whites was about to disband, that in one last ditch effort to keep it going he said: “Let’s meet one more time.  Why don’t you listen to your dreams and see if we can find common ground.” 

A week later they regrouped, shared their dreams, and thus began Jeremy’s vocation.  It was rooted in healing—as he said—all dreams come to us for healing, whether personal or community healing; and therefore it was rooted in justice.  He never lost sight of that reality.

3, Solidarity.  Jeremy’s passion for justice also birthed in him a solid sense of solidarity with others who stood up to injustice.   When the Vatican came after our ICCS program at Holy Names College, an attack that lasted for twelve years, Jeremy was a stout supporter of what we were doing; he understood the political and indeed historical ramifications of the battles we were engaged in.  He wrote the Vatican on our behalf and he confronted my Dominican provincial in Chicago about the matter.  Here is something he wrote about the struggle:

Sadly, for vast numbers of people gripped by fear, and the institutions that pander to, and prey upon them, these simple truths [of creation spirituality] do not seem to be at all clear.  These seemingly elementary and self-obvious propositions of humane understanding and spiritual clarity that Matt promotes and celebrates have always been, and alas continue to be at the very edge, and in many cases even well beyond the boundaries of conventional, institutional religious dogma and collective practice.  The resistance is so fierce that we are all still called upon to put our lives and livelihoods at risk when we advocate them publicly.  For me, it is impossible not to call up an Old Testament parallel: “Joseph had a dream, and his brothers hated him for it.”

Jeremy walked his talk and showed up when times got tough.   And he showed up with energy, vitality, humor and plenty of strategies for action.  One of the heroes of the apartheid struggles in South Africa, Dominican theologian Albert Nolan, said to me during the struggle I was engaged in with the Order and with Rome: “North Americans don’t know a damn thing about solidarity.”  Jeremy Taylor did.  He was more than American.

4. A Learner and Seeker eager for truth.  Jeremy was a life-long learner.  That is what made him so good a teacher, he was very open to learning from his students.  One such student, Victor Lewis, who was in his twenties at the time, is the one who introduced Jeremy to me and eventually to ICCS.  Jeremy was recruiting Victor to attend Starr King Seminary where he taught when Victor said: “Write me a letter of recommendation for ICCS.”  Jeremy resisted.  He didn’t harbor positive feelings about Catholic Colleges.  But he did as he was instructed and it was via Victor, a bright and eager African American student, that Jeremy started to read my books and eventually joined our faculty. 

(His favorite of my books was Western Spirituality.  Why? Because, he wrote, “the evidence presented in that anthology made it inescapably clear that ‘creation spirituality’ was not just the invention of a single brilliant mind, but rather a great underground river that had been feeding and nurturing the best religious thought in any number of different religious traditions for centuries, if not millennia.”)

5.  A priest.  Jeremy was an ordained UU minister but he was also a priest in the archetypal meaning of that word, namely, a midwife of grace.  Jeremy’s life and vocation was all about unpacking the grace that dreams bestow on us and instructing others in how to do this.  This is no small achievement since people are starved still for access to the spiritual life in a culture that tends to be either wildly literalist in its religious consciousness or shut down by scientific materialism and the cynicism, capitalism and consumerism that it spawns.

These are just a few of the gifts that come to my mind when reflecting on the life and death of Jeremy Taylor.  Even his death—coming just two days after his beloved wife and life-long partner Kathy died—was special.  As Louisa Teisch reminds us, “I can understand how a person of such heart would pass by a heart attack after losing his soulmate/wife.  It is often this way with those whose souls are so entwined.”  When people who love and serve one another faithfully for many years die so close to one another it is a sign of a special grace between them.  In thanking Jeremy we thank Kathy also—not just for being his partner in life and work but for her own gifts as an artist and more.

Any death is a time of recognizing that this person’s work is finished.  But what a work and what a ride Jeremy gave to the world!  It will go on and on, like a stone hitting a pond, the circles of his giving and generosity, his passion for justice, solidarity, truth, his fecund priesthood will continue to bestow grace on countless souls and new generations even though he is no longer with us in bodily form and has joined the ancestors.  But wait for the dreams to come!


Memories of Sister Dorothy Stang and her Art

Sister Dorothy Stang, S.N.D.N., who returned to the Amazon rainforest on graduating from the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College, was a leader among her peasant people in standing up to privileged land owners on behalf of rural workers and in defending the Amazon rainforest. We remember her with love and honor her as our first martyr.

This article by Sharon Abercrombie was published in the National Catholic Reporter on February 12, 2015, the 10th anniversary of her death. It celebrates her exuberance, and her passion for prayer through the arts.

Painting, dancing were Sr. Dorothy Stang's lesser-known passions

Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dorothy Stang in her dorm room in 1992 at the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names University, in Oakland, Calif. (Sharon Abercrombie)

Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dorothy Stang in her dorm room in 1992 at the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names University, in Oakland, Calif. (Sharon Abercrombie)

Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Dorothy Stang’s persistent activism on behalf of Brazil’s poor and the earth is well known to environmental and social justice activists throughout the world. Thursday marks the 10-year anniversary of her death at the hands of hired guns.

We know from her twin brothers, Dave and Tom Stang, that she would often convince female security guards to allow her to camp out on the floor of the Brazilian Ministry of Justice the night before she was due to testify at public meetings.

We know that if an official denied having received one of her letters, this delightfully outrageous Cincinnati sister would walk to the politico’s filing cabinet, and much to his embarrassment, whip out the document.

Not so well known, perhaps, is Rainforest Dot’s love for painting and dancing.....

(read more...)


This memorial essay was written by David Stang, brother to martyred activist Sister Dorothy Stang, SNDN. Reprinted with the author's permission.

Dorothy Stang, by Marcy Hall:  Used with permission from FutureChurch  No further use of this image is permitted without the express consent of FutureChurch.    

Dorothy Stang, by Marcy Hall:
Used with permission from FutureChurch
No further use of this image is permitted without the express consent of FutureChurch. 


OnFebruary 11, 2005 Dorothy Stang called Colorado to talk and she said, “I cannot leave my family in Esperanza. I know that Luis and his family have just had their house burnt down, their crops destroyed and his wife and children are out in the Amazon forest with no food, blankets, or protection of any kind and there are others who are very afraid nearby. Can a Mother leave her children in such need,” she said?  I wanted to tell my sister over the phone, please don’t go to Esperanza.

“David,  she continued to talk, I am on my way to Esperanza, now,  with food, clothing, hammers, nail, saws.  For one minute though David I can smell the cool air of Palmer Lake Colorado where you live, and say hello to you. It is very hot here, humid and it is raining. I stopped at the police post to ask for assistance as there are killers where I am going but the Police  refused to help me. Thugs  have just burnt down Luis’s home and they are terrorizing the people who merely want to survive and maybe even enter into the economy of their country. The Government has approved this Project of Sustainable Development where Luis just had his house burnt down by the local Ranchers, Plantation Owners, and their armed thugs who believe they are the government. I am going to Esperanza, to show support, maybe protection and help them, though this terrible  time,  however this time I am a little nervous.” Again, I wanted to say please don’t go. Now, I am trying to pull myself together with this disconcerting  phone call as it is 4AM here in Colorado.  I could still hear the people outside Dorothy’s house laughing and joking. “ The next day Dorothy was murdered. Six shots were fired at her, at close range and all of them hit her, a 73 unarmed woman who was a known protector of the poor.

 A week after Dorothy’s murder I flew to Anapu and visited Esperanza, sat and cried at the spot where she was murdered, sat and cried at the spot where she wasburied , deep in the Amazon, surrounded by nature, beautiful trees,  falling rain, humidity, singing birds, the dirt, mud  and the people. I was surrounded most especially by the poor who hugged me, touched my t-shirt with Dorothy’s picture on the front of the shirt. They all cried, but most of all, I saw unbelief in their eyes that this person who for years fought for them, ate with them, slept with them, how  could she be murdered, they thought. She had often escaped death, prison, hunger,  and stood with them, a warrior, fearless, undaunted. She would often show up with legal documents from Belem or Brazilia, documents  to protect their homes and land. She was known to all of them, to not only fight for them personally, but also for their schools. Schools which  from the beginning she personally helped build,  over thirty schools. She would often see that their teachers were paid and even developed teacher training centers. However,  I cannot forget the local Brazilian priest, who slept at Dorothy’s grave for a week, to protect her grave from being desecrated by the local ranchers who hated her. He left her grave only after the Federal Government sent troops to protect the people and Dorothy’s grave. His hug was a greatly appreciated.

People walk 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) accompanying the truck carrying Dorothy Stang's body to its final resting place.

People walk 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) accompanying the truck carrying Dorothy Stang's body to its final resting place.

 As I sat in the Bishops pick up truck with soldiers in the back for protection, driving from Anapu to Esperanza, I was stunned to watch the driver handle the muddy road, slide down the hill and just stop right before the wet log bridge and wonder how we would cross over. The driver was  telling everyone to get out and walk over. As we slipped on the wet logs, looking at the raging river down below, we wondered how he was going to cross over with the Bishops pick up. Staring intently we watched the driver make the sign ofthe cross, put the metal to the petal and sped over the narrow wet bridge, the tail end weaving back and forth. Truly this was a marvel of driving. I thought to myself how did Dorothy a week earlier make it to Esperanza   in a tiny car during the rainy season, for we had four harrowing bridges to cross over, deep mud, and hills and valleys to climb and slide down, hoping not to slide into the river itself.  The 20 miles from Anapu to Esperanza took four hours.  I kept repeating to myself during this drive, Dots powerful  message, “I cannot leave my family.” A message so powerful it overcame the enormous struggles that I was seeing before my very eyes. Tears came to my eyes, thinking, like the people, how could they kill her, however, still  remembering Dot telling me that there were hundreds of leaders, farmers, who have been killed in the area just in the last couple of years.  As I slept in Dot’s bed that night, on the walls were pictures of those who have been murdered. On the night stand was a little shrine that she made and on the wall, next to the door, was a piece of bamboo, slit in the middle, and carved out of this bamboo was the Christmas crib set that she would touch every morning when she left her room.  Can we wonder if we would have staid true under such horrific circumstances, and knowing that many people already had been murdered? Can we not ask what strength it took for Dorothy to stay with the poor.

I mention all this to set the stage for the important question, “what happens now” in this great forest that the world needs, for   such corruption and violence does not just disappear. Over the next ten years, after 9 trials and only four people being indicted by the State of Para, the killers are after less than ten years  now free. Even one of them has been indicted again for another killing. The big rancher Regivaldo appealed his verdict of 30 years in jail, to the High Court of Brazil, and he won his appeal. For years now , he is free on appeal, even though the judge of theCourt of the State of Para clearly stated, “ Regivaldo even if you appeal, you must stay in jail during the appeal.” W e all remember  In a packed courtroom, at the trial of Regivaldo,  with one of the now free killers sitting right in the courtroom with us and with his thug friends. We all heard the verdict to Regivaldo from the Judge saying, “You will stay in jail, if you appeal.”  The Judge during the trial brought in extra policemen to protect us, as the courtroom were full of Regivaldos powerful friends. I am sure the last thing the Judge wanted wasto have  murders in his courtroom. As we left the courtroom, we sawone of the TV broadcasters  surrounded by security, for she had just been threatened by a motorcycle gang, supporters of Regivaldo, who we were told were  going to escort Regivaldo  home free. They were angry that he had been indicted.  Obviously, the trials were merely a small part of what was and is happening in and to the Amazon. We must remember that there were many others involved in Dorothy’s murder and many of the other murders of the farmers in the Amazon, all free.

As we move on to today, one does ask, who controls the Amazon today? . For example, there is a new law allowing  cutting down illegally the trees in the Amazon,  and that all who cut down trees illegally in the Amazon in the past  have been legally forgiven. Sucha horrendous law helps me to  remember one of the people who worked for years in the Amazon saying to me during the trials, David, “these trials of Dorothy’s killers are merely a distraction from worse things that will happen. ” One wonders if any good behaviors remain of all the work that Dorothy and the people did. We do hear that, the two Projects of Sustainable Development, that Dorothy and the people worked so hard to create are thriving, and others farmers are uniting to demand, their rights to own their land, seeing that the projects were able to persevere why can’t they fight for their rights. The schools are still open. The special school to educate future farmers, is still open. The seed of Human Rights planted by all those who have been murdered are growing and the memory of Dorothy and all those warriors for the people in the Amazon are still remembered even, in the midst of enormous oppression such as  pisteleiros are still haunting the forest,  and hundreds of years of  tradition that supports these  Injustices continue, so one wonders how things can possibly go forward?  Is it not the blood of those who gave their lives that keeps hope alive? Is it not those who still continue to fight for their rights that give us hope?

Changing long term habits of oppression can be so difficult. Dorothy knew very clearly the long history of oppression that she was up against and that she did as much as she did is clearly a miracle in itself.  There is a saying that, “ We must know History or we will certainly repeat it”. This we must know in order to understand why there are so many murders in the Amazon, among Indigenous People, among the poor. Historians tell us,  “When Christopher Columbus first set foot on the white sands of Guanahani Island, he performed a ceremony to take “possession” of the land for the king and queen of Spain, acting under the international laws of WesternChristendom. Although the story of Columbus’ “discovery” has taken on mythological proportions in most of the Western World, few people are aware that his act of “possession” was based on a religious doctrine now known in history as the “ Doctrine of Discovery”. Even fewer people realize that today five centuries later, the United States government still uses this archaic Judeo Christian, Doctrine of Discovery” to deny the rights of Native American Indians, to their lands. This Doctrine pervades the thinking of the rich and powerful in Brazil.

Why do I bring this document before us? The Plantations Owners, Ranchers, in Brazil still feel they have the same right of discovery, even if people live on the land they are claiming. Governments are vital to overcoming this long habit of Discovery. Dorothy was very involved with the Government of Brazil on so many levels, Education, Land, Freedom, to change this horrendous memory of the, “Law of Discovery.”  As the Federal Prosecutor of Land in the Amazon said in the Courtroom, “She did what we were afraid to do, she encouraged us to do our job.” The stories of Dorothy going to Brazilia or to Belem to help people get legal documents to protect their ownership of land  is well known. In 2005, when I went to see the Minister of Justice, I was stopped at securityat the Justice Building entrance. The security person who stopped me looked at meand said, “ I recognize you she said, you look like your sister Dorothy. I am the one who would give her permission to sleep in the hallway all night so she would be at the officer’s door when he arrived the next morning to do his job and Dorothy would get legal documents to help her people.” I saw a look of pride in her eyes as she spoke. Hopefully, this pride  is the future of Brazil, of the Amazon.

David Stang

Feb. 15, 2017



Tracing the First Mystical Women's Movement: a Beguine Pilgrimage

Screen Shot 2015-05-07 at 10.02.56 PM this past May, I sent out an invitation to join the “Spirit of the Beguines” Pilgrimage and Retreat this September where I will be lecturing and enjoying visiting five different Beguinages in Belgium.  If you are thinking of joining the Pilgrimage – now is the time to sign up; Registration closes July 20.

You Are Invited......

This September I am joining Susan Coppage Evans on a Pilgrimage to Belgium to study the Beguines. Susan has an intuition that the Beguine movement, which was the women's movement of the Middle Ages, holds some promise and insight for our times too.  I think she is on to something.  This movement was all about 1) community and 2) service.  It was not about religious authority and vow-control therefore (and for this reason it was opposed by the papacy of the time and much of the status quo) but about living authentic lives of learning, service and mutual sharing.

Today lots of groups, the "new monastics" and others, are looking to life-styles that are not just market-driven but also are not religion-bound.  Places--spaces--where learning and soul-growth happens along with service toward and with others.  Do the Beguines hold some keys to this kind of movement?  Join us on the pilgrimage, learn more about them, enter their morphic field, and decide for yourself.

 In the following article, Susan explains more about the Beguines and the passion behind the pilgrimage. Retreat attendance needs to be confirmed in June and the cost increases on June 1st – so let us know son  if you are thinking about joining us!




Imagining and Creating New Communities: The Beguines did it in the Middle Ages, Can’t we now?

Our Beguine ancestors seem to say, “Yes, we did it over a thousand years ago – before all the conveniences of communication that you have today.  We found ways to live authentic, meaningful and helpful lives in community. We were not limited by our time or culture.  We made a difference and the world still needs that. Learn how you can best nourish and be nourished in community. Dream it, imagine it, and work with others to create it.”

In March of 2013, my focus was intensely on the retreat and pilgrimage to Hildegard’s Rhineland that I was leading. As the retreat came to a close, I began shifting my focus to traveling through the nearby region with my husband.  When I looked at the map and our loosely planned itinerary, which only required that we return the car in Amsterdam, I realized that our path took us right through the areas most densely populated with communities of Beguines during the Middle Ages. 

I learned about the Beguines initially through teachings by Matthew Fox and then through the writings of other spiritual writers. Something about these creative and courageous women grabbed my attention and once they had my attention they grabbed my heart.  So as my husband and I wound our way from Bingen, Germany through Belgium and up to Amsterdam, we stopped at Beguinages – many of which are now protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

beguinessewing.jpg.w300h191Women who were called Beguines began forming unique communities around 1200 AD. Prior to the formation of these communities, opportunities afforded women were to marry or to take vows to the Church. But during the time of the crusades, when many women were left to care for land, families and communities while men were off fighting, a new independence emerged. This independence coupled with the practical, compassionate spirituality practiced by newly formed groups like the Franciscans and Dominicans and the traditions of the traveling troubadour, gave women the courage and inspiration to live independently and with purpose.

 Beguine communities varied in their formation. Many were houses shared by a handful of women; others were large communities with nearly 1000 members. Beguines came from all backgrounds. Wealthier Beguines lived alone in their own homes within the community and provided support for houses that hosted numerous poorer Beguines in dormitory living. Beguine communities often included children – orphans and child prostitutes that were taken in, supported, protected and educated.  Beguines were not nuns but they lived according to their own Beguine community rules and they were free to leave and marry. At their peak, there were nearly a million Beguines and they prospered for hundreds of years, the last Beguine died in Belgium in April 2013.

 Some refer to the Beguines as the first women’s movement. Certainly, they were courageous in stepping out of traditional roles which resulted in persecution and violence. Beguine communities formed during a very fertile time in history.  As societies moved from a barter economy to a coin economy, Beguines participated in the economy. They played a significant role in the textile industry, producing lace and other materials. And as royalty realized that their wealth increased with an educated populous, Beguines were employed to teach literacy.

 The driving force behind the Beguine movement was an experiential spirituality that embodied the compassion of Christ and sought both to live in contemplation and in compassionate service.  Far from the hierarchical religion of the day, Beguines lived a spiritual life that was both humbling and empowering in its experience of unity with God. God was experienced as much as Mother as Father and as much as Mystery as Known.

 There is much to learn from the Beguines, both in their spirituality and service as well as in their courage and creativity. Personally, I am attracted to the Beguines as models of discernment and innovation. I am curious as to what forms of community need to be birthed in my time and culture. I read about and witness the dwindling of church attendance. I watch with interest as new movements develop like the New Monastics, on-line spiritual communities and “virtual monasteries”. I visit Co-Housing communities and read about New Urbanism.

 When my husband and I walked the cobblestone paths in Belgium’s Beguinages, I recognized the brick architecture from my youth. The Beguinages reminded me of the row-homes of Baltimore. Now, my imagination wanders and I imagine a community of neighbors, like the Beguines who choose to live in support of one another and of our wider community. I imagine as my husband and I enter retirement there might yet be a different type of community that sustains us and fosters (puts to work) our talents and gifts.  I imagine that sweet spot that the Beguines fostered: a community of spiritual friends that is steeped in solitude and togetherness, action and non-action, organization and freedom, study and activity.

beguine facultyclub.jpg.w300h197

 This September I am returning to the Beguinages of Belgium with colleagues including Matthew Fox and a small group of pilgrims to study the Beguines and to be like the Beguines in their “experiential” approach. We will visit the cobblestones of five Beguinages; we will immerse ourselves in the emotional, spiritual and physical environment of the Beguines and see what emerges for each participant. Just as the Beguinages were all independent and developed according those who lived amongst them, so will the retreat foster and support the percolation of individual ideas and inspirations.  It will be an interfaith, inter-denominational gathering encouraging each participant to lean into the wisdom and courage needed to support communities – new and old.

 Yes, there has been a lot of planning to bring forth this retreat but there has also been a sense of following - a “yes” to the calling forth.   There has been amazing synchronicities amongst newly met colleagues. It feels as if this pilgrimage is blessed by our Beguine ancestors who seem to say, “Yes, we did it over a thousand years ago – before all the conveniences of communication that you have today.  We found ways to live authentic, meaningful and helpful lives in community. We were not limited by our time or culture.  We made a difference and the world still needs that. Learn how you can best nourish and be nourished in community. Dream it, imagine it, and work with others to create it.”

 If you want to drink deep of the Beguine movement and have it influence your communities- those already birthed and those yet to be birthed, join us in September.   Register by the end of this month to be one of the 28 people, including teachers, on the retreat.   Registration information and a detailed itinerary can be found on my website:

Susan Coppage Evans, D.Min Graduate of University of Creation Spirituality Founder of Creation Spirituality Communities Retreat Leader through WholeHearted, Inc.


The Other Side of the Catholic Tradition

(A shortened version of this article appeared in The Washington Post 061411: People who came of age in the past forty years have known only one version of the Roman Catholic Church—a version of an iron-fisted ideology that first a Polish pope and then a German pope have enforced in the process of condemning liberation theology, creation spirituality, women, gays, the “secular world,” and much more.  Not only all bishop-making has accrued to the Vatican headquarters but also all teaching, calling itself the only “magisterium” or teaching arm of the church to whom all must kneel or get out.  Since “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, as Catholic historian Lord Acton observed on hearing of the declaration of Papal Infallibility in the nineteenth century, we have also seen of late immense corruption in the way the hierarchy has and has not responded to pedophile clergy and in the way it has denounced theologians and others who bring ideas to an age-old tradition.

But looking at the long and varied history of the church one gets a different impression.  Diversity and pitched battles abound before the time of instantaneous heresy hunting made possible by faxes, phones and emails changed the rules of the game.  Back when it took mail weeks and months to go back and forth by horseback and river boat, much gestated that was creative.  Let me offer a few examples.

In twelfth century Germany, the Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen, author of ten books, the first opera of the West, dozens of songs, and a healer, awakened popes and abbots alike, firing off letters that would make a Cardinal blush with shame in our day.  Her favorite topic when she preached all around Europe (Yes, a woman preached!) was the laxity of priests.  She writes of a vision of a “very beautiful lady,” who is the church who speaks thus to Hildegard: “This fact, that the wounds of Christ remain open, is the fault of priests.  For they are the ones who are supposed to make me radiantly pure and serve me in purity; but instead in their limitless greed they move from church to church in their practice of simony.  And even my robe is torn thereby, for they are violators of the law, of the gospel, and of their priestly duty…..They cover my face with dust, tear my robe, and make my cloak dark, and my shows black….They do not adhere to the straight ways, that is, to the hard and rough ways of justice.” (329f)

In a letter to Abbot Helenger who complained to her of dryness in his vocation, she offers this advice: “Sometimes you have the style of a bear who often grumbles to itself in secret; sometimes you have the style of an ass, for you aren’t solicitous in your duties but are glum and in many things bungling as well….. (303f)

And to Pope Anastasius IV she wrote these blunt words: “O man, the eye of your discernment weakens; you are becoming weary, too tired to restrain the arrogant boastfulness of people to whom you have trusted your hearts.  Why do you not call these shipwrecked people back? And why do you not cut out the roots of the evil which chokes out the good?  You are neglecting justice, the King’s daughter, the heavenly bride, the woman who was entrusted to you.  You are even tolerant that this princess be hurled to the ground.   Her crown and jeweled raiments are torn to pieces through the moral crudeness of men who bark like dogs and make stupid sounds like chickens which sometimes begin to cackle in the middle of the night.  They are hypocrites ….Therefore, O man, you who sit on the papal throne, you despise God when you don’t hurl from yourself the evil but even worse, embrace it and kiss it by silently tolerating corrupt men.  The whole Earth is in confusion on account of the ever recurring false teaching whereby human beings love what God has brought to nothing.  And you, O Rome, are like one in the throes of death.  You will be so shaken that the strength of your feet, the feet on which you now stand, will disappear.  For you don’t love the King's daughter, justice.”  (273ff)

In addition to criticizing churchmen, Hildegard composed marvelous music (I call it “erotic Gregorian chant”) and poems, painted over 40 mandalas that we still possess, wrote ten books including books on trees and stones and medicine.  She has been accredited with discovering vitamins and the need to boil and purify water.  She says “all science comes from God” and taught that the Cosmic Christ or Divine Wisdom lived in every being (“there is no creature that lacks an interior life”).  She wrote: “I, the fiery life of divine wisdom, I ignite the beauty of the plains, I sparkle the waters, I burn in the sun, and the moon, and the stars.”   She was a Renaissance woman.

Thomas Aquinas followed a century after Hildegard and just after Francis of Assisi.  Aquinas was a genius of the first order whose intellectual output has rarely been equaled.  He died at 49 (the last year of his life he was struck dumb and neither wrote nor talked) but he wrote numerous works including commentaries on ten of the works of the greatest scientist of his day, Aristotle, who was being translated in Muslim learning centers in Baghdad for really the first time.  Aquinas said he preferred Aristotle to Plato because Aristotle “did not denigrate matter.”  A pope had forbidden Christians to study Aristotle but thanks to an Irish professor in Naples (a stone’s throw from the pope), who put scholarship ahead of obedience, Aquinas was introduced to Aristotle as a young man at the newly born University of Naples.  Aquinas committed his life to integrating Aristotle into Christianity—a direct affront against the fundamentalists of his day (and ours) who prefer Plato’s dualistic matter vs. spirit rap that appealed to Augustine and forms the basis of the Catholic Church’s teachings on birth control and homophobia to this day.  (Augustine said that all sex must be justified by having children.)   So controversial was Aquinas in his day that at one point the king of France had to call out his troops to surround the convent where Aquinas lived to protect him from…Christians aroused by fundamentalist clergy who insisted that believers did not need the science of “pagan Aristotle” since they had all their answers in the Bible.  For Aquinas, “revelation comes in two books—the Bible and Nature” and “a mistake about nature results in a mistake about God.”  Thus, the importance of science and scientists.

Aquinas rejected Augustine’s “introspective conscience” in favor of a cosmic perspective as when he says: “Every human being is ‘capax universi,’ capable of the universe.”  And again, “all beings love on another,” and “the order of the universe is the ultimate and noblest perfection in things.”  Aquinas says “joy is the human being’s noblest act” and he endorsed conscience in a big way, saying that one is always responsible to one’s conscience, more than to any other authority.  (Indeed, Dr. Martin Luther King jr. cites Aquinas on this point in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail—Aquinas as a basis of civil disobedience.  We are to obey conscience, not necessarily man-made laws.)  Aquinas was condemned by church authorities three times after he died but eventually he was declared a saint.  Carl Jung has said that by bringing scholasticism from Islam to the West he inaugurated the beginnings of modern science since scholasticism was a method for learning that emphasized questions and answers over recitations of past “authorities.”  To the credit of the Dominicans, they protected their brother against the ire aroused by his forward-thinking teachings.

Another Dominican, Meister Eckhart, came right after Aquinas and he stood on his shoulders becoming the most important preacher in Europe.  He is probably the greatest mystic the West has produced and his writing abound with depth, humor, paradox and challenges to establishment Christianity.  For example, he declares, “I pray God to rid me of God” and he emphasizes what contemporary Biblical scholars are saying, that Christ is found not just in Jesus but in all of us.  Eckhart says, “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God 1400 years ago and I do not do so in my time and my person and my culture?”  And again, “we are all meant to be mothers of God.”  He declares that “the highest work of God is compassion” and that “compassion means justice,” in fact, “compassion is where peace and justice kiss.”  Eckhart was condemned by Pope John XXII a week after he died.  It was reading Eckhart that converted Thomas Merton from a dualistic monk of the 1950’s to a prophetic mystic of the 60’s.

Today’s eco-prophet, the late Thomas Berry (a priest in the Passionist Order and author of The Dream of the Earth, The Great Work and The Universe Story with Brian Swimme), often talked of how much he owed his twin mentors, Thomas Aquinas and Teilhard de Chardin.  Chardin was a French Jesuit mystic and scientist who was banished from his home country to China early in the twentieth century but who found plenty of scientific and mystical work to delve into in his exile.  He spent his life researching the deeper meanings of science and spirituality and, being forbidden to publish most of his works in his life time, he left his books in the hands of a woman (not to his Order) who got them published shortly after he died.

A fifteenth century scientist, mystic and cardinal in the church, Nicolas of Cusa, taught that “every face is a reflection of the One Face,” that is of God.  He called for deep ecumenism saying that while we call ourselves by many religions there is only one wisdom.  The late physicist David Bohm said he owed more to Cusa than to Einstein!

Recently I was giving a retreat at a Unitarian Universalist Center in Rowe, Massachusetts and a woman said to me: “I am so grateful that you, unlike Teilhard de Chardin, did not remain silent as the church asked.  You spoke out and took the consequences.”  I remarked that we live in a different time than Teilhard (who died in 1955), but I did appreciate her comment.  Ours are not a time for keeping silent.  The old wine skins are no longer holding the rich wine that is still flowing from the teachings, the life, and the story of Jesus.  New wine skins are needed to hold not only the rich lineage of the past but the mixing with other faith traditions, with scientific breakthroughs, with contemporary movements such as the women’s movement and the eco-justice movements, and today’s Biblical scholarship that can and ought to occur today.

Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council of the early 1960’s which inspired many Catholics and non-Catholics alike has been called the “greatest religious event of the twentieth century.” It set the stage for a new future in religion to happen including a spreading of decision-making beyond Rome and empowerment of lay people and deep ecumenism.  It gathered  great theologians from all around the world—people like Karl Rahner, Hans Kung, M.D. Chenu, Yves Congar, Teilhard de Chardin, Edward Schillebeeckx and many others.  Sadly, the papacy of John Paul II crushed it all including the courageous response of Latin American Liberation Theology that supported the poor and oppressed in direct expression of Gospel values and, contrary to the spirit and law of Vatican II, launched a modern day Inquisition with Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) as its chief inquisitor.  It is my opinion (and that of many other theologians) that in squelching the Vatican Council, the Vatican has been in schism for 40 years.

Can the Catholic Church resurrect from its self-dug grave and experience another renaissance in giving great souls and ideas to the world?  Can it move beyond eras of Inquisitions, crusades, witch burnings, sexism, anti-semitism and other dark temptations?  Certainly not in its present form where curial bureaucrats take it upon themselves to censure all thought and creative movements.  But, as I point out in my recent book, The Pope’s War, if an angry and demanding lay movement rises up and declares the present and past papacies schismatic and moves ahead to deconstruct the church as we know it and reconstruct It on the authentic principles of Jesus’ spirit and teaching, and puts spirituality ahead of religion and travels lightly, surely something wonderful and needed could occur.