For centuries, mystics and others retreated to monasteries, places where material possessions were left behind in exchange for a simple, contemplative life. At a monastery or convent or vihara, individuals lived in community with others seeking spiritual fulfillment. And they raised their own organic food.
In those historical monasteries, there were rules to follow within the community, and members got their marching orders from a religious administration outside their walls. This monastic system worked for a while for a lot of people. And then it didn't. As many old monastery buildings have long been left to crumble along with the hierarchical order that oversaw them from afar, modern contemplatives find themselves tentatively stacking stones here and there. Some believe it just might be possible to recycle some monastic traditions to serve the emerging spiritualities of the present age. Take Noel Schmidt of Santa Rosa, for example.
An earth-loving contemplative, Schmidt would like to start a live-in community in Sonoma County with a soulful commitment to sustaining the planet. He is clearly not following a conventional religious track here.
"I studied Christian theology and spirituality for a number of years," says Schmidt, a retired high school religion teacher. "But I have transferred my need for a spiritual focus to the land and to what we're doing with the land."
What he has been doing with the land lately is sustainable agriculture education. For the benefit of young people, Schmidt created and operates Patchwork Farms, a nonprofit farming project on a few acres located off Angela Drive. At Patchwork, chickens run around, vegetables grow placidly without pesticides, and students from neighboring schools do community service projects involving sustainability. They also dig in the dirt, play and generally enjoy moments in the unique and increasingly rare setting of a working farm.
But the 63-year-old grandfather and former Peace Corps volunteer is dreaming of an even deeper commitment to the land and the spiritual qualities he finds in contemplation of the land: a kind of eco-monastery.
"I don't see much purpose for being on the planet except to prepare something for our progeny and to carry on what our ancestors began, to keep life going on this planet," Schmidt says. Toward this goal he has created a kind of eco-chapel on the farm. And he has high hopes for it."We're building a dome, 46 feet in diameter and 25 feet tall," Schmidt says. "I would really like to turn that into an earth sanctuary, so Patchworks becomes a place where you can pause and reflect on the amazing thing in our possession, this life and this planet. It would be a place for spiritual awakenings."
Such awakenings will no doubt be of the eco-centric sort. With the likes of theologian Brian Swimme and other New Age prophets, Schmidt sees the need for a planet-based spiritual mythology. "It's actually about creating for ourselves a new story," Schmidt says. "One that includes the formation of the universe long ago, how we were created from the stellar explosions and how the material of our body came from the stars."
But to create the story, Schmidt believes, we need a community of like-minded souls. "We really have to get a community organized, of people who are really committed to and serious about the eco-zoic age." (Eco-zoic, a term coined by theologian Thomas Berry, describes the present Earth era.) Schmidt envisions this monastic group living simply together and working the land, keeping bees and getting by with community-supported agriculture. He also sees the community gathering every day, first to meditate and then to work the land. "When you make a commitment to living simply," Schmidt says, "you commit to live in partnership with other people and life forms and commit to connecting yourself to what Wendell Barry called 'the ground of all being.' It's the connection thing—the spirituality of land and life in general."
Recycling parts of monastic tradition, Schmidt hopes to model "living with what we have on this earth in a way that is not damaging." He claims it must be done in close community. Interested? www.patchworkfarms.org.