Spiritual values are the key to a harmonious relationship with the earth.
Liza Zogib and Sandra Spissinger-Bang
Protecting lands, territories, and the gifts of nature has been a human endeavor for millennia. That endeavor still exists, best exemplified by Indigenous Peoples around the globe and by other communities and individuals who maintain an intimate connection with their natural surrounds. Such a connection is notably prominent in places that human beings have identified as sacred. Reverence, respect, and reciprocity are at the heart of sacred natural sites, whose custodians work spontaneously to move in harmony with nature, to protect and restore it where they can, and to use it with kindness. This quiet and unassuming action, based on faith and spiritual values, gives great hope at a time when humans need something noble to look to and be inspired by.
The world is undoubtably in chaos. Violence of all sorts is thriving and leading to the environmental and climate crisis that has our children wondering seriously about the planet they are inheriting. Nothing but a profound inner transformation has the power to make the radical outer change needed for our survival. A reconnection with Mother Earth is the necessary spark that may rekindle the fire of humanity and the light of compassion, moving us from chaos to care. Hence, we look to those who are still connected so that we too may remember.
“The wheel of life is us,” says Jôkei Sensei of La Demeure sans Limites, a Zen Sôto Buddhist retreat in France. “At the center of the wheel there is ignorance with its two corollaries, greed and anger. That’s what makes us turn — greed. We don’t take care of anything. Only ourselves, nothing else. We always want more. We would like infinity in a finite world. It’s impossible.”
In the same vein, Sister Iossifia of the Greek Orthodox Monastère de Solan, also in France, tells us, “Humans are made for the infinite. They can only be filled with the infinite. And the only one who can fill this yearning is God. If there is no God, humans will jump on something else. And when they try to fill their thirst for the infinite with finite things, it can only go wrong. As soon as humans try to fill the infinite with material things, this will end up in the unbridled exploitation of our world.”
People like Jôkei Sensei and Sister Iossifia, the custodians of sacred places, bring a ray of hope that change is possible in our troubled world.
Sacred natural sites are the energy points of the earth. They are places where nature, culture, and spirituality meet. Over the past few years, DiversEarth — a small NGO working globally at the interface of nature, culture, and spirituality — has inquired into over 500 of these sites in twenty-two countries of the Mediterranean. Each of these sacred sites, from twenty-three different spiritual traditions, has an amazing story to tell — a story of protecting, maintaining, and enhancing nature and its gifts and inspiring others to follow suit. Caring for them are some incredibly grounded people, living simple lives, working hard, producing sustainably, educating their followers, and leading by example.
The sacred sites of the Mediterranean come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from tiny sites of one hectare or less, protecting perhaps one single veteran tree, to expansive sacred landscapes. They occur in all biomes and at all altitudes. Some are ancient while others are new, and more are still to be revealed. Whatever the case, they all are revered and treated with utmost care.
As Sister Iossifia says, “The earth is the creation of God and we are here to protect it. That is our life project and the project of our monastery.” Sister Iossifia and sixteen other nuns take care of the Monastère de Solan and its sixty hectares of forest and agricultural land. They feel strongly that the environmental crisis we are facing is linked to a loss of spirituality.
The environmental crisis we are facing is linked to a loss of spirituality.
Examples of nature protection through reverence abound in the Mediterranean. The sacred Casentino forests in the Italian Apennines have been protected for over 800 years. To this day, the religious communities are important actors in safeguarding the forests there. Similarly, Monteluco di Spoleto has been a sacred grove for more than 2000 years, first for hermits, then for the Franciscan Order. This historic Bosco Sacro still stands. It has been forbidden to cut trees there for millennia. In northern Greece, the Pindos Mountains are home to many other remarkable examples of sacred forests. Here each village has its own management rules. Some of the forests are strictly safeguarded, whereas in others, activities are carefully regulated. In all of them, veteran trees are protected.
Sacred landscapes may comprise any number of smaller sacred sites or sacred natural elements and often contain one or more pilgrimage routes. They are a particularly important type of sacred natural site in the Mediterranean and indeed the world over — not least in relation to nature protection and mindful management. They offer examples of extended cultural landscapes where people live and make a living, where nature thrives, and culture, based on reverence for nature, blossoms. In other words, they are examples of harmony and wholeness, to which we may aspire everywhere, in all places.
Take for instance the Ribeira Sacra (Sacred Riverbanks) in the heart of Galicia, northwestern Spain. It is a breathtaking sacred landscape that encompasses the valleys of the Miño and Sil Rivers and their tributaries. Dotted with hundreds of sacred sites, this dramatic natural landscape has inspired people for thousands of years.
Or think of Ouadi Qadisha (Holy Valley) in northern Lebanon. “Its natural caves,” says the documentation that supported its designation as a World Heritage Site, “carved into the hillsides — almost inaccessible, scattered, irregular, and comfortless — provide the material environment that is indispensable to contemplation and the life of mortification. In this way a specific spiritual relationship can be built up between this rugged landscape and the spiritual needs of hermits.”
“The trees, the animals, the water, even the rocks have souls.” This belief — from another sacred landscape, the Munzur Valley in Turkey — reminds us of Indigenous beliefs in other parts of the world. Here, in this beautiful valley that sits in the shade of mountains by the same name in eastern Anatolia, Kurdish Alevis (followers of a mystical Islamic tradition) live their lives with the greatest respect for nature. “We have no holy book,” they maintain, “we follow nature.” If nature is the holy book, then clearly there can be nothing but respect and a relationship with the earth that is whole and therefore holy.
If nature is the holy book, then clearly there can be nothing but respect and a relationship with the earth that is whole and therefore holy.
For Jôkei Sensei and Toen-Ni, the custodians of La Demeure sans Limites, living with respect for all beings is key: “For us Buddhists, humans are part of nature. We are part of a whole and therefore have such a great responsibility for nature. ‘Man’ is at the top of the pyramid — we have the power to either destroy or take care.”
From respect stems responsibility. Not an intellectual responsibility, but one that arises spontaneously from compassion. The Buddhist practitioners who come to this sacred place learn to make these noble concepts very practical.
“In our practice,” notes Jôkei Sensei, “these are simple ethics. I must take care of what is around me, but also of myself. The Buddha is clear when he says that we must take care of ourselves before we can take care of others. That means we must be conscious, present and straight — attentive to everything.” As such, we all can learn to walk mindfully, eat mindfully, cultivate the land mindfully, the smallest everyday task becoming a noble activity, a meditation.
Reciprocity refers to relationship. Our relationship to the rest of nature, our relationship to one another, and our relationship to something bigger, higher. Sacred natural sites illustrate a positive reciprocity that we can learn from. Nature has provided humans with quiet sanctuary, and in return humans give care to nature, in gratitude.
In some cases, whole islands in the Mediterranean are protected by religious communities. The nature of islands, isolated and often uninhabited, has provided the peace and seclusion that faith communities have sought out over the centuries. Wonderful examples include the island of Koslijun in Croatia, where the only inhabitants are Franciscan monks who maintain an intact forest, or the small island of Saint-Honorat, near Cannes on the French Riviera, where the first monks arrived in AD 410.
Similarly, the caves that have provided such a critical role in human survival are venerated all over the Mediterranean for one reason or another. They have been refuges for hermits and spiritual seekers since time immemorial and today remain as sacred sites. The Grotto Sant’ Angelo in Italy, the Cave of Elijah / El-Khader in Israel, and the Grotte de Saint Eucher in France are a few examples of caves where spiritual events have taken place and where care is reciprocated.
“We live with the rhythm of the earth and its Creator,” says Sister Iossifia. She and her fellow sisters don’t just talk about this relationship. They live it and they inspire all who visit. With hard work and guidance from the French writer, farmer, and environmentalist, Pierre Rabhi, they have listened to the earth and revitalized the soils. Now they produce exquisite wines, vinegars, sweets, and other foods that are well-known in the region.
At sacred natural sites, reciprocity with nature is central. Mother Earth takes care of us, and we must take care of her — a most simple and logical framework within which to live.
At sacred natural sites, reciprocity with nature is central.
DiversEarth’s inquiry is possibly the most extensive Mediterranean-wide examination of sacred natural sites to date, but it remains a drop in the ocean in view of potentially tens of thousands of such sites yet to be identified in the region. Nonetheless, it offers a valuable insight into the richness and importance of the religious and spiritual traditions that remind us of the sacredness of life on earth and inspire us to play our part in caring for it.
In addition to drawing much energy from this work and from the inspirational people we met, we have retained some simple lessons that we now endeavor to put into practice in our own lives:
- Cherish the earth
- Look to nature, see your place in it, and learn
- Plant a tree, grow something to eat
- Eat mindfully
- There is no waste, everything has a value
- Live with the seasons
- Walk mindfully
- Remember your connection to everything else
- Enjoy silence, breathe deeply, slow down
- See the beauty of living simply
Learn more or order a copy of the beautiful book Protected by Prayer: The Sacred Natural Sites of the Mediterranean at diversearth.org.
Liza Zogib is founder and co-creator of DiversEarth and chair of the IUCN Specialist Group on Religions, Spirituality, Environmental Conservation and Climate Justice. Liza practices many Eastern art forms that move the body to clear the mind.
Sandra Spissinger-Bang is co-creator of DiversEarth. She is an ethnobotanist, inspired and fascinated by plants, their uses, stories, and meanings. She is a founding member of Les Zombelles, an association in Geneva, Switzerland, that helps city dwellers reconnect to the earth by tending an edible forest garden.
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