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Sanctuaries: from Assisi to Egypt

Writing about western Christianity’s monastic orders, Diarmid MacCulloch has highlighted the centrality of nature – and of gardens – to the practice of contemplation and silence:

The Carthusians had chosen to make a myriad of little paradises out of the enclosed individual gardens cultivated by their hermit-monks. The Carmelites, by contrast, remembering their mountain-wilderness, saw paradise in nature unspoilt by fallen humans.*

Throughout history there has been an intimate connection between nature, whether tamed or untamed, and the spiritual life. From rishis in forest ashrams in ancient India, to the close associations of gods and goddesses with the natural world in Egypt (e.g. the goddess Nut with the sacred sycamore tree), through to monastery gardens wherever Christianity appeared, the idea of finding sanctuary in nature has been an enduring theme.

And in our frenetic modern world, what better place to find our own sanctuary than in a quiet, well-planted garden with birds and insects for company as we collect our thoughts and spend time in quiet contemplation? Or, come to that, in a walk in the woods following in the footsteps of S. Francis?

On my recent travels, I have encountered some beautiful examples:

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From St. Francis surrounded by the thornless roses that are said to grow only in the garden of the Porziuncula Oratory close to Assisi, to the gentle atmosphere of the hermitage in the woods above the town; to the quirky garden of Andre Heller on the western shore of Lake Garda, its slopes planted with everything from bamboo groves to citrus fruits, the happy marriage of spiritual contemplation and nature’s generosity is inspirational.

In Egypt, the connection is still present, but you may have to search for it. First among the places I would turn to is the monastery of S. Antony, close to the Red Sea south of Ain Sokhna. Here you find a community of monks who cultivate a traditional garden featuring date palms, vines and a variety of vegetables such as onions and salad leaves:

S Anthony's Egypt
In the C4, Saint Antony’s main preoccupation was to get away from the crowds of enthusiastic followers who were flocking to him. Originally, he sought sanctuary in this lonely spot, choosing a cave half-way up the escarpment behind the monastery. I don’t suppose a garden was a priority for him, but it has developed along with the community of monks as a way to survive.

Finally, I would add it goes without saying that if you seek spiritual enlightenment in a holy place – a sanctum – you may encounter the unexpected. You might even meet an angel…

Angel, Assisi 5.16

Outside the church of Sa. Chiara, an angel alighted: Assisi, May 2016.


*See Silence: A Christian History by Diarmid MacCulloch published by Allen Lane, 2013

Written for the WordPress Daily Prompt, 25/7/16

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