Rewilding the West by Julie A. Ferraro

Dwelling in the Wilderness:
Modern Monks in the American West
By Jason M. Brown

Trinity University Press, 2024
$18.95   176 pp.

This book began as author Jason Brown’s exploration of “place and landscape,” as he notes in his introduction. As he studied for his doctoral degree in ecological humanities at the University of British Columbia 10 years ago, he searched for a dissertation topic, deciding to visit four monasteries of Catholic monks in the western part of the United States and learn how their spirituality linked them to care of the earth.

For those unfamiliar with Catholic monastic living, Brown begins with a basic primer of concepts: the Liturgy of the Hours, the Eucharist, contemplation, and lectio divina. From there, he writes a combination travelogue–interview for each location, with scientific observations blended into the mix.

Brown acknowledges the realization “my research had more than just academic implications” as he defines the term Anthropocene. He cites Fr. Antonio Stoppani, who initially used the term Anthropozoic in 1873 as the “first reference to the human presence on earth with the force of a geological epoch,” and proceeds from there to mention Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Wendell Berry, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau as he details humanity’s impact on the planet.

While some of that language may require a dictionary to grasp, the best parts of the text are the monks’ honest observations about what is happening around them, both spiritually and tangibly.

Using pseudonyms for most of the monks (except those who have published works and are suitably referenced), Brown brings the ambiance of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California; Christ in the Desert Abbey in Abiquiu, New Mexico; New Clairvaux Abbey in Vina, California; and Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey in Carlton, Oregon, to life as the Trappists, Camadolese, or Benedictines live out variations of the Rule of St. Benedict.

The monks as Brown presents them are unique human beings with equally unique perspectives, occasional quirks, and oft-brutal honesty. Whether it’s a monk from Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey recovering from a heart attack in hospital while slathering butter on his breakfast pancakes and making observations about why farming harmonizes well with monastic life, or a Franciscan-hearted vegan monk at Christ in the Desert Abbey who cares enough not to harm the bugs and worms while he’s gardening—and believes animals are brothers to humans, able to feel emotion with their own souls—the sincerity of their beliefs is inspiring.

Brown notes the theological discoveries he made as he worked alongside the monks for months at a time: “While institutional churches tend to emphasize the correct wording of creeds, theology, canon law and what constitutes a sacrament, the desert hermits . . . immersed themselves in the silence of their wilderness retreats.”

The author currently serves as a lecturer at Simon Fraser University in the Department of Global Humanities, teaching courses such as Auguries for the Anthropocene: Birds and the Human Imagination; Sacred Groves: Trees, Forests, and the Human Imagination; and Charged with Grandeur: Ecological Ethics, Theology and Spirituality. He earned his BA in anthropology from Brigham Young University, as well as master’s degrees in religion and ecological theology from Yale Divinity School and in forestry from Yale University.

Brown’s passion for blending spirituality with ecology is clear not only in his style of writing, but also in his live presentations on environmental topics. And when it comes to gaining a more thorough understanding of the reality and vitality of the monks he’s interviewed, he is a born storyteller. He conveys the monks’ conversations, both serious and lighthearted, without imbuing them with a false otherworldliness that might detract from the essential message at hand. ♦

Julie A. Ferraro has been a journalist for over 30 years, covering diverse beats for secular newspapers as well as writing for many Catholic publications. A mother and grandmother, she currently lives in Idaho. Her column, “God ‘n Life,” appears regularly in Today’s American Catholic.

Image: Bird in flight, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Michael Centore

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