UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Dwelling in the wilderness : place, landscape and the sacred among catholic monks of the American west Brown, Jason M.


A monk’s purpose is to seek God, and contemplative monks in the Roman Catholic tradition are specifically called to seek God in place. Drawing from biblical motifs, religious symbols, spiritual teachings and monastic traditions, monastic communities have forged deep and abiding relationships with their rural and wild locales. While many of the studies concerning monasticism’s relationship to land engage historical and theological dimensions, far fewer give adequate voice to the range of lived perspectives of contemporary monks themselves. Exploring research questions focused on the relationship between environmental discourses and contemporary monastic spirituality, during field work conducted between December 2015 and May 2016, I interviewed 50 male monastics at four monastic communities through both seated and walking interviews. Embedded in the interdisciplinary literature of place and landscape studies, my findings are interpreted through the lens of recent debates regarding the role of cognitively or socially constructed discourses in the experience of landscape. Socially constructed or “representational” perspectives emphasize the semiotic character of experience and meaning making with place and landscape. Rooted in identity, gender, class, ideology or religion, we project meaning onto an otherwise meaningless objective landscape. More recent phenomenological approaches attempt to shift away from any vestiges of Cartesian dualism between subject and object by rejecting representational or symbolic understandings of experience for an emphasis on pre-cognitive, embodied, sensory experience as the fundamental driver of our experience of land and place. I argue that contemporary monasticism, rooted in both symbolic religious constructions and powerful spiritual experiences of land, has engaged environmental discourse through ‘bridging,’ a practice which attempts to assimilate environmental discourse into monastic spirituality on its own terms. The monastic sense of place, the question of ‘sacred’ land, and the observation of religious symbols in land demonstrate what I call an embodied semiotics wherein established religious and environmental discourses are relationally attached to and molded by embodied contact and experience with land.

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