Douglas Christie. The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 488pp., $31.95
Douglas Christie’s The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology is a lyrical synthesis of naturalism, theology, poetry, and spirituality—all for the sake of developing a new language to express a sacred world and our human place in it. Not quite a first-hand ecological account or a theological framework, Christie writes deftly between both disciplines exploring the roots of today’s environmental crises and recovering contemplative practices that could bring about a ‘reweaving of self and living world, in all its dimensions—ecological, literary, ritual, political’ [p. 24]. It’s an ambitious and provocative book.
To make the argument work, Christie first associates specific environmental problems (like his own witness of deforestation or decreased salmon populations near a monastery in Redwoods, CA) with a deeper fragmentation between self and world that makes these destructive actions possible. Second, Christie interprets the Christian contemplative tradition as a set of practices that can foster a ‘transformation of consciousness’ [p. 54] that can restore a sense of the whole between self, God, and world. As other chapters introduce specific practices, these two convictions of rupture and contemplative transformation become a kind of ostinato, bringing every essay back to the fundamental problem of rupture and the possibility of healing.
Specifically, Christie organizes each chapter around Christian monastic ideas such as attention (prosoche), tears (penthos), the Word (logos), and others. In each chapter, he draws together naturalists, theologians and spiritual writers, blending their differing perspectives into a single voice. In a discussion on grief and tears, Christie compares the careful accounts of environmental destruction by writers like Aldo Leopold and W. G. Sebald with the monastic belief that tears are a gift that can ‘help deepen one’s capacity for seeing, feeling, and responding to the world and world and the movement’s of one’s own soul’ [p. 85]. In a chapter on land (topos), he uses Peter Berger’s work on metaphysical homelessness and the desert fathers’ commitment to both cell and landscape to reflect on the spiritual effects of losing a sense of place.
Throughout these essays, Christie continually interrupts himself to ask lyrical questions like ‘The world is precious but ephemeral; the Word, through whom the world exists, is eternal. Can one attend, carefully, to both? Can one cultivate a contemplative awareness sensitive and subtle enough to encompass the whole?’ [p. 202]. It’s indicative of an earnest posture, one that helps him avoid staid theological arguments and makes the book equally rousing and difficult to categorize. Is The Blue Sapphire of the Mind a philosophical search through nature in the tradition of Annie Dillard? Is it kin to Denise Levertov’s embodied mysticism? Is it closer to Wendell Berry’s political landscapes or Rowan Williams’ natural theology? Christie’s writing combines all of these approaches, until they slowly accumulate in the final chapter on telos, a meditation on the full restoration of intimacy between self, God, and world:
If the renewal of contemporary ecological discourse is to be as deep and far-reaching as possible, it will somehow have to account for the entire range of relationships that bind us to the world: the moral or spiritual ecology within which we live and move and have our being. The language of paradise can help us reintegrate those dimensions of the whole that belong together but have too long been conceived of as separate and distinct; it can help us navigate the fluid space that binds heaven and earth, learn again to see them together, as part of a single mysterious reality. [p. 336]
By the end of the book, Christie’s vision seems to spill the boundaries of the discourse he seeks to shape and becomes a spiritual treatise for anyone looking to live more intimately within the world. Those who are both artists and theologians might especially find his chapters on the Word (his most precisely theological argument), the embodied boundaries of eros, and the spiritual discipline of attention especially helpful for their practice.
Two lingering issues come to mind after reading the book. First, as more and more people live in designed environments, it would be valuable to find a way to bring this “contemplative ecology” into these contexts, especially in discussions on urban ecology and virtual reality. Second, some readers might find Christie’s constructive work too far afield from traditional Christian doctrine, and strengthening the theological ties between his ideas and confessional faith could make the book more accessible to these readers.
At the beginning of his argument, Christie suggests that the role of the monk was to ‘learn to live in the world as a healing presence, attentive and responsive to the lives of other being and capable of helping to reknit the torn fabric of existence’ [p. 7]. In The Blue Sapphire of the Mind, Christie translates those same spiritual insights into new forms, inspiring readers to seek out that healing presence for themselves and giving them a new language to do so.