One of the “virtual” mentors on my spiritual journey has been David Backes who runs the outstanding blog New Wood. Dr. Backes is a university professor and Roman Catholic deacon. New Wood is a blog that focuses on everyday spirituality, spiritual ecology, Thomas Merton and prayer. From the blog’s About page:
This blog gets its name from an old Si Kahn song, a song about connectedness to the land and to family, about relationships and living simply, a song about a well-nurtured hope that lasts through the difficult times. In 2010 I had found similar signs of hope in a little grove of pines planted next to an Iowa church in the 1800s by Irish farmers. As I wrote in that first post: “Each of us faces storms of life, and the next couple of generations face some very large ones. Energy, climate, water, poverty, and more. It’s not hard to get overwhelmed by a sense of futility, to give in to anger and cynicism, when much of the world seems not to care. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Opening our hearts to a wounded world does not lead to cynicism as long as there is hope. And I believe there are signs of hope in all kinds of places and situations. The storms of life will get us all, eventually, but if we can find within us the vision of the Appalachian farmers in Si Kahn’s song, or the Irish farmers who planted the little grove of pines that brought joy and inspiration to me last summer, we will recognize the new wood springing from the roots underground. And when that happens, the hope that perhaps was almost gone–it’s gonna rise again.
The categories listed across the top of the page not only display the main topics of the New Wood blog, but provide a kind of outline to my life. Even as a toddler I was drawn to the kinds of experiences that I later realized had a deep spiritual quality to them. As I grew into my college years and beyond, Sigurd Olson and Thomas Merton had major impacts on how I began to look at life and my own dreams and purpose. I ended up as a university professor teaching courses on nature and culture, religion and culture, and climate change; in addition, my sometimes tortuous spiritual journey led me away from religion, then eventually back to it, even to the point of becoming ordained as a Roman Catholic deacon. I don’t fit very well the kinds of liberal-conservative splits that people often like to impose. I don’t always know if I fit very well in the university system or in the structure of the church, either. I think that life can be a whole lot less complicated than most people seem to think, and that joy really isn’t so hard to find, after all.
I discovered New Wood when I was reading an article in America magazine and saw a link to New Wood. It was a challenging period in my life where I was in the spiritual desert, desperately seeking guidance but not knowing where to turn. The depth and beauty of New Wood spoke to me at a time when I really needed it. As a further example of God’s working in the world, it turned out that Dr. Backes and I both lived in Wisconsin USA. Through additional good fortune, Dr. Backes was able to come to my parish in 2012 to provide an outstanding presentation on Catholic theology and climate change. It was a wonderful presentation and I enjoyed meeting Dr. Backes in person.
There is some overlap in themes between New Wood and this blog but New Wood is more mystical than mine. One of the best sections of New Wood is the section on Everyday Mysticism which has definitely enhanced my prayer and spiritual life. Sample blogposts from that section of the New Wood Blog are set forth below.
Dr. Backes’ professional and personal obligations prevent him from writing every day but he still regularly posts on Wednesdays and I look forward to reading his thoughts every week.