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Award-winning poet Tim Lilburn connects to the land through contemplative practice

Union Theological Seminary’s Insight Project hosts interdisciplinary conversation

by Beth Waltemath | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Tim Lilburn

“I didn’t know how to be where I was,” award-winning poet and essayist Dr. Tim Lilburn said in a public Zoom lecture held by Union Theological Seminary in New York City on Tuesday. The lecture was the fifth public forum of The Insight Project, which is described on its website as “a multi-year program series that seeks to put theology in conversation with a wide range of partners in the humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences.”

“At its core, The Insight Project seeks to redefine our understanding of theology not simply through the reformulation of doctrine, but through a reframing of the imagination,” said the host of Tuesday’s event, the Rev. Dr. John J. Thatamanil, Insight’s director and Professor of Theology and World Religions, before acknowledging the presence of the generous alumnus, Dr. Mary Coelho, who funds Insight.

Dr. Mary Coelho

According to its webpage, Coelho’s goal for Insight is to “deepen discourse around the ‘big questions’ and to provide space — particularly for students — to engage in dynamic, interdisciplinary conversations across curricular boundaries.”

Presenting on the topic “Faith, Contemplation and the Land,” Lilburn, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and professor at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, is the first poet and professor of creative writing to participate. He is the author of 12 books of poetry and three collections of essays, including “Living in the World as if it Were Home,” “Going Home” and “The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place.”

Thatamanil described Lilburn’s meditations as recovering the ancient philosophers’ grasp of science as a spiritual pursuit. “It’s one of the intentions of this lecture series to cultivate in theology students and theologians more broadly an attention to the sciences,” noting that how Lilburn uses the word “physique or “phusis” “is very much a part of the ancient tradition’s conception of physics in antiquity as understood to be part of the spiritual life.”

Before describing his journey to reconcile his spiritual and physical realities within the metaphysical and aesthetic traditions in which he trained, Lilburn described a moment of epiphany that transformed his faith, art and scholarship, turning his preoccupation with the transcendent into a desire to be rooted in the natural world and at home in the particularities of place.

Until his early 40s, Lilburn admitted “place was completely irrelevant” to his intellectual projects; rather he was “preoccupied by the structure of cognition and the pure desire to know.” Then, in the summer of 1990, he experienced a “transformative blow” while walking from a public library through a park in Regina, the capital of Canada’s Saskatchewan province. A big storm was coming in, but pedestrians were going about their typical business: walking in and out of public buildings, hotels, churches and shops or milling about the park, except for a few members of the Cree nation who were watching the storm approach from the South.

“It became clear to me that the Cree men who were in the park, without a doubt, came from the ground. They seemed to be rooted in that place. But everything else in that moment was floating … even I was floating,” Lilburn said. The buildings felt to him to be unmoored from the Earth. “The beautiful Baptist church and the venerable Hotel Saskatchewan were caught up in a nostalgia for metropolitan centers of powers.” Lilburn saw in the people, the buildings and the culture they represented a desire not to be grounded in the present Earth but to be acknowledged within a tradition of power shaped by a Western past and obsessed with an exalted future vision.

“The Cree men obviously had no need for this kind of approval,” Lilburn explained, in contrast to his own unattachment in the middle of his own life, after a career moving around the Pacific Northwest and Canada to teach at universities. “It wasn’t just me that was disconnected, but the culture that shaped me, most of the books in the library on whose steps I stood, all of the religious practices and political ambitions within the culture that shaped me were dreaming of another place and hoping for an affirmation from another place.”

The Rev. Dr. John J. Thatamanil

Raised in a working-class Protestant family, trained as a Jesuit and employed as a professor, Lilburn turned to poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins and the 12th-century Franciscan philosopher-theologian John Duns Scotus for guidance on how to truly see the natural world not as an object to master or data to mine but as a companion and equal. Duns Scotus’ doctrine of haecceity, deriving from the Latin word “haec,” meaning “this,” provided a framework to approach every living thing as uniquely and wonderfully made.

Lilburn began to learn the names of local trees and plants and to call them by name, including the names given to them by the WSÁNEĆ nation of the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island where he now lives. “Learning the first language of the land where one lives is an invaluable spiritual political exercise,” he said. Lilburn is working with poet and language keeper Philip Kevin Paul of the WSÁNEĆ nation to learn SENĆOŦEN. “I find that speaking SENĆOŦEN to the land is an act of showing courtesy toward the land,” Lilburn said.

Lilburn is combining this practice with other early Christian contemplative practices of reverent being to help him deconstruct his colonialist position of relating to things through the lens of mastery.

“My conundrum of ‘how to be here,’ from the perspective of my mainstream culture, seemed to be a raging hypochondria,” he said. However, as Lilburn dove deeper into the fourth- and fifth-century mystical theology of Evagrius Ponticus and Pseudo-Dionysius, their insights helped him to dissect the insatiable attention and ambition of his own contemporary culture.

Lilburn diagnosed the disordered appetite of his colonial and capitalist culture to be akin to the sin of acedia, a pervasive boredom, dissatisfaction and restlessness. In other words, it’s a problem with being where one was and content with who one is in relationship to others. Lilburn described the restless yearning and sense of estrangement from divine love named by Platonic philosophers and Western theologians and imagines the metaphysical healing possible through the physical connection with the earth. “The lost shard that Eros helps us retrieve is the actual land where we are,” said Lilburn, who like Plato, blamed another mortal sin — pride. “I think the actual land is lost to us because of hubris and the path to connection has to go through reconciliation with Indigenous people.”

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