Refuge: A Definition and Two Spiritual Exercises

One million Armenians were forced to leave their homes in Anatolia in 1915, and many either died or were murdered on their way to Syria.

In this post I explore the definition of the word ‘refuge,’ and describe two spiritual exercises that arose out of that exploration. The word ‘refuge’ can be used as a noun or a verb. The following quotation gives the noun definition as found in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (Unabridged):

1 ref∙uge ‘re(,)fyüj. esp. before a syllable-increasing suffix -_fyә’j n -s [ME, fr. MF, fr. L. refugium, fr. refugere to run away, avoid, escape, fr. re– + fugere to run away, flee — more at FUGITIVE] 1: shelter or protection from danger or distress < seek ~ in flight > < take ~ in the home of a friend > < a house of ~ > 2a: a home for those who are destitute, homeless, or in disgrace b: a sanctuary for birds or wild animals c: a mountain hut or cabin erected to serve as sleeping quarters for mountaineers d: a safety zone for pedestrians crossing a street in heavy traffic: SAFETY ISLAND 3: a means of resort for help in difficulty : RESOURCE* (see note below) < patriotism is the last ~ of a scoundrel – Samuel Johnson > < The ivory tower . . . as a place of ~ from unpleasant reality – H. N. Russell >

  • resource 2: something to which one has recourse in difficulty: means of resort in exigency: expedient, stratagem <her usual resource was confession>

As I contemplated the five verbal examples embedded in this definition; with their deep roots and entanglements, their interior groans and sighs, and their uncertain habitations and delights; I sensed within me a welter of feelings and impressions; some strong, some weak, but all profoundly human.

  • Seek refuge in flight
  • take refuge in the home of a friend
  • a house of refuge
  • patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel
  • The ivory tower . . . as a place of refuge from unpleasant reality

As I continued my contemplation of the full definition, two spiritual exercises came to mind—exercises for me to carry out over the next few days:

Spiritual Exercise #1: Meditate on the five verbal examples and write a paragraph expressing how they touch on the life I am now living.

Spiritual Exercise #2: Explore the three cross-references appearing in the definition―FUGITIVE, SAFETY ISLAND, and RESOURCE—and write a paragraph expressing how they touch on the life I am now living.

NOTE: In an upcoming post, I will include some notes on the nature and character of ‘spiritual exercise’ as I intend it in this context and throughout this blog.

We Are All Refugees Now.

Greeks fleeing the Destruction of Psara in 1824 (painting by Nikolaos Gyzis).

“Our Gallant Ship” is now entering its second year. During its first year the focus was broad and comprehensive, covering climate science, politics, mitigation, activism, population, and much more.

In this second year the focus will be much tighter and will take the title of this entry as its central existential focus and reality: We are all refugees now.

Saying Grace: The Five Contemplations

Though many people no longer ‘say grace’ before meals, it can be a meaningful practice even for those who no longer pray or believe in God. What hinders many people is the superficial speed of their lives and their movement away from the traditions of their youth.

Here is our version of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Contemplations. We adapted them to speak most directly to our own lives and situation. They are contemplations, rather than prayers or supplications. As such, we quietly steep ourselves in them, allowing each one to saturate our being. We recite them everyday before breakfast, taking turns reading, and allowing a few moments of silence between each contemplation – a few seconds, two or three breaths.

If we are well-steeped in these five contemplations, they carry us through the day with tenderness and grace, and with a deeper connection to each other and our world.

The Five Contemplations

This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings, and much hard and loving work.

May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.

May we recognize and transform our unwholesome mental formations, especially our greed, and learn to eat with moderation.

May we keep our compassion alive by eating in a way that reduces the suffering of living beings, stops contributing to climate change, and heals and preserves our precious planet.

We accept this food so that we may nurture our bond with all humanity, strengthen our community, and nourish our ideal of serving all living beings.

We Need Courage, Not Hope, To Face Climate Change: Dr. Kate Marvel

Read (to the end) this beautiful essay by climate scientist, writer, and parent, Kate Marvel:

“As a climate scientist, I am often asked to talk about hope. Particularly in the current political climate, audiences want to be told that everything will be all right in the end. And, unfortunately, I have a deep-seated need to be liked and a natural tendency to optimism that leads me to accept more speaking invitations than is good for me. Climate change is bleak, the organizers always say. Tell us a happy story. Give us hope. The problem is, I don’t have any.” Read more . . .

Important new presentation by Jem Bendell

A new and very important presentation by Jem Bendell was released on YouTube yesterday (February 14, 2019). Jem’s view is that a climate induced societal collapse in our way of life is inevitable, and in the near term (less than 10 years). By ‘societal collapse’ he means the uneven ending to our current means of sustenance, shelter, security, entertainment and identity.

This presentation, to 300 people in Bristol, UK, was his first recorded lecture on Deep Adaptation. Using a more informal format than a University lecture, the Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria, invites the audience to explore forms of action additional to drawing down carbon from the atmosphere – actions associated with personal and collective preparedness for coming disruption. Accompanying him was Toni Spencer, a poet and facilitator who works on Deep Adaptation and Transition.


“We need to move beyond the idea that this is taboo and this is counter-productive, and, actually, have far more honest, expansive, open-minded, and open-hearted conversations about what that might mean and about what we might do.”

At one point in his presentation, he asks people to stand up if they feel anxiety, shock, skepticism, anger, sadness, grief, or motivation. It was very striking that most people stood up for the word ‘motivation.’ This, it seems, would confound his critics who argue that he should not talk this way because people will throw up their hands and give up.

He also discusses some of the obstacles: denial, I’m too busy, it’s too difficult, etc. As well, he offers a few immediate actions we can take now: Don’t panic. Don’t process alone. Don’t blame. Do expect a change in priorities. Do join or organize groups. Do act locally and politically. Do combine mitigation, adaptation and joy. He also makes a number of policy suggestions, all well-considered.

He is a member of Extinction Rebellion (XR) but thinks that XR would do well to include in its thought and action a place for deep adaptation. I agree with him on this, for to disregard or minimize our deepest emotional needs would be calamitous.

The presentation concludes with poetry readings by Toni Spencer, adding a human depth that is difficult, perhaps impossible, to attain by any other means, for, as Paul Tillich says,  “art allows us to participate in a level of reality which we otherwise can never reach.”

Please watch the video all the way through as the mental, emotional and psychological support comes after the ‘bad news’ is presented and discussed.

Deep Adaptation: Nobody Knows Where the Human Race is Going

Leo Tolstoy

We were reading in Tolstoy’s A Calendar of Wisdom today. Though, this is not one of Tolstoy’s  well-known books, he spent over ten years on it, working it over and over, enlarging and improving it as he went. In it, he gathered many “benevolent and elevated” thoughts from many places, people, and traditions, several for each day of the year. Though it is strongly influenced by his radical Christianity, he drew on a variety traditions, people, and sacred texts. My tolerance and appreciation for these traditions is very robust, so I enjoy reading in it, even though I do not altogether share his world view.

Here is his first entry for today’s date – January 24:

Nobody knows where the human race is going. The highest wisdom, then, is to know where you should go: toward perfection.

By ‘perfection’, I interpret him to mean what the Greeks meant by the word arete. Arete (Greek: ἀρετή), in its basic sense, means “excellence of any kind”.  The term may also mean “moral virtue”. In its earliest appearance in Greek, this notion of excellence was ultimately bound up with the notion of the fulfillment of purpose or function: the act of living up to one’s full potential. The meaning of the word changes depending on what it describes since everything has its own peculiar excellence; the arete of a man or woman is different from the arete of a horse.

This is what we need to do as we contemplate the impending catastrophe of climate decline and societal break down. We need to refine the peculiar arete, or excellence, that is ours, and do the most good we can for those who suffer the most. This is the essence of deep adaptation.

Here is his second entry:

It is not the place we occupy which is important, but the direction in which we move.

And, finally, this:

Your actions should be determined not by the desire of the people around you, but by the needs of all mankind.

This is the action of egolessness, selfless action. Such action is not concerned with small mind, small self, or small identity. This type of action calls for courage and wider perspective.

Each one of Tolstoy’s brief statements speaks to our present predicament, helping us see what direction we should face, and what inveterate tendencies and habitual patterns we must leave behind.

Deep Adaptation: New Zealand Blue Winter Squash

New Zealand Blue Winter Squash

Inspired by Alistair McIntosh’s post on Extinction Rebellion and Jem Bendell’s discussion of Deep Adaptation, I arose early this morning and prepared a nine pound winter squash for baking. It has been resting in our cellar since October (It is now January 22). Alistair speaks of XR as a ‘joyous call’, and that is what I felt this morning when I began working in the kitchen at about 4:30 a.m.

I love to rise early and work in the kitchen for an hour or two before breakfast. I usually light a candle, burn incense, and listen to Gregorian Chant at fairly low volume, as if the singers were in an adjacent space. One does not have to be Christian to appreciate Gregorian Chant. It is a balm for all. I have three volumes of chant. I also love to listen to Deva Premal’s Moola Mantra , or, on occasion, shakuhachi music.

This squash is baking as I write this. I’ve also put three Japanese sweet potatoes in the oven. We love Japanese sweet potatoes and eat them almost every day for lunch.

This is the day that has been given. Rejoice and be glad in it.