September 19, 2017
I just got back on Sunday night from a week out in some of my old “stomping grounds,” so to speak—namely, northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. The main purpose of my travels was to spend a number of days in retreat at Holy Wisdom Monastery near Madison, Wisconsin, and I’ll write a bit about that in a separate blog post soon.
One of the things that struck me though, right off the bat after picking up my rental car at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and beginning the drive north and west to Madison, is how profoundly different the physical landscape is out there compared to here in Connecticut. Huge swaths of central and northern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin are simply flat, flat, flat. It’s not an unfamiliar landscape to me, by any means; not only did I spend close to 9 years in northern Illinois between my seminary years in Chicago and my first congregation in Rockford, but the section of central Michigan in which I grew up is similarly flat and broad. Nevertheless, even though the landscape is familiar, I have been away for long enough now that the contrast always strikes me whenever I return.
I’ve often found myself wondering over the years how the physical landscape shapes—probably in an unconscious way—people’s sense of spirituality, religiosity, and/or theology. I know the physical architecture and style of a church or other worship space affects me at some level—although whether it’s because of something inherent about the architecture, or instead more about memories and associations, I do not know. In any event, what about the broader physical and geographical landscape, though? Does the lush forest and highly hilly landscape of eastern Connecticut shape how we understand or experience God in a different way than the big sky and broad horizons of the flat Midwest would? How do landscapes affect our sense of, and sensibilities around, community? Does the “culture” of church (or even whole denominations) get affected by the physical landscape of the region?
I don’t have any specific answers… just food for thought…
And here are some pictures from the landscape around Holy Wisdom Monastery in Middleton, Wisconsin (just outside Madison):