Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Place-Making as Contemplative Practice

Academic journal article Anglican Theological Review

Place-Making as Contemplative Practice

Article excerpt

In an age of chronic and widespread displacement, the work of place-making-the discovery and cultivation of a sense of place-has gained new significance and meaning. In this essay, I propose to consider how place-making can he understood as a form of contemplative practice. Anthropologist Keith Basso describes place-making as a work of "retrospective world-building" that enables a person or community to see a place in all its richness and complexity and hold that place in the imagination. Following the work of photographer Robert Adams, I want to suggest that what makes this work contemplative in character is the integration and interplay of geography, autobiography, and metaphor. The example of Thomas Merton's attention to place as part of an encompassing spiritual vision will serve as a focal point for arguing that the work of place-making can and ought to be considered a genuine part of contemplative practice.

"Where are we going? Always home." - Novalis

A week before his death in December 1968, Thomas Merton stood barefoot and alone, gazing up at the huge Buddhas at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka. He had journeyed halfway across the world and across the entire span of his life, it seemed, for this moment. His account of this experience, recorded in his journal four days later, has been justly celebrated as a singular moment of awakening in Merton's fife, a breakthrough that left him unalterably transformed. Consider this description of the experience: "Looking at these figures, I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity; as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. ... All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakatja -everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don't know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running through one aesthetic illumination. Surely, with Mahabalipuram and Polonnaruvva my Asian pilgrimage has come clear and purified itself. I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don't know what else remains."1

Merton's account leaves no doubt about the power and profundity of this experience. And yet, it is maddeningly dense, its meaning elusive. Something important about his own spiritual identity shifted as he stood there, gazing up at the faces of the Buddhas. But apart from his sense of deepened clarity, it is difficult to say, really, what this experience meant for him. Nor do we have the benefit of further reflections on the experience from Merton himself: six days later, he lay dead on the floor of his room in the Red Cross center outside Bangkok, Thailand.

I want to respect the mystery of this experience and the silence that surrounds it. Still, I think it is rich with possible meaning for us and would like to reflect further on the experience. In particular, I would like to consider what it can tell us about the significance of place within contemplative practice. For, whatever else may be said about Merton's encounter with the Buddhas at Polonnarawa, I believe it was without question a profound experience of place, or what anthropologist Keith Basso calls "place-making." And if one wants to press further to ask what kind of an experience of place it was, I would call it an experience of homecoming, a sense of having arrived home after a lifetime spent searching for it.

Merton's own experience of place can, I believe, help us grapple with the growing concerns about the significance of place in human experience as a whole and in contemplative experience in particular that have become so characteristic of our own age. In what follows, I want to examine some of the reasons for this concern, considering in particular the widespread sense of displacement or homelessness that has come to characterize contemporary experience. …

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