As we approach Earth Day 2013, we are exploring the relationship between the environment and religion. I asked people from different traditions to talk about how their faith shapes their attitude towards nature. My series of interviews is called, “God is in the garden,” after a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there."
On Tuesday I profiled Rabbi Noah Farkas of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino. Today's edition features Father Christian Mondor, a Franciscan friar and Vicar Emeritus at Saints Simon and Jude Catholic Church in Huntington Beach.
The 88-year-old Mondor has a strong spiritual relationship with the sea. He remembers the draw of the ocean growing up in 1930s Westwood.
“We’d ride our bikes to the beach and swim near the Santa Monica pier,” he remembers. “And all of us learned to body surf. Nobody had a board in those days.” Even a priest remembers his first wave. “It was about a 6 or 8 foot wave. And I rode it all the way into, practically into the dry sand,” he says, a smile creasing open. “It was such a thrill. I was hooked!”
He bodysurfed every day he could, even at seminary in L.A. and Santa Barbara. Later in life, he celebrated his 70th birthday in Huntington Beach…with a surfboard. “I suddenly realized, this is Surf City U.S.A,” Mondor says. “So I bought a board for about 100 dollars, a used board, and got someone to help me. And after a while, much trial and error, I finally was able to stand up.”
During sets at Bolsa Chica and San Onofre, Father Mondor says he learned respect for the ocean’s power, and grace. In the blue room surfers know, he found a deep connection to Catholicism.
“I love duck diving,” he says, referring to the way surfers duck under a wave as they paddle out into position. “You immerse yourself into this amazing ocean, coming up on the other side of that wave, breathing the fresh air, like new, it’s like a baptism almost, every time you go under a wave. And it’s no accident that Jesus chose water as a symbol of new life, that he came to offer us. Through the waters of baptism we are introduced to a whole new life.”
Water, he says, is a proof of what Catholics call God’s order for the universe.
“God is a trinity," says Mondor. "One God but yet three persons. Water is just one of the examples. It’s one thing, but it exists in three forms. Liquid, solid, and vapor. Fog, ice, and the ocean. Yet it’s the same identical thing, it’s still H20. No more, no less.”
As long as he’s been surfing, Mondor has been part of an interfaith council in Huntington Beach. Six years ago, at a time when the clergy abuse scandals were garnering headlines, the Diocese of Orange established an event to return attention to the faith’s basic values.
The Blessing of the Waves, where Mondor and other religious leaders pray together to protect the immutable beauty of the ocean, now attracts thousands. The participants are Jewish, Zoroastrian, Baha’i; Catholic, Christian, Muslim, simply spiritual, or simply in love with the surf.
“We found that all faith traditions have a great respect for the ocean and water plays an important part in everyone’s worship,” Mondor says. “And after, it only lasts about a half hour, these short prayers from each of the faith traditions, we invited everyone there to cross the sand to the waters edge, and extend their hands in blessing, and invited all who wanted to, to get on their boards and go out and form a Hawaiian style prayer circle called a paddle out.”
The ocean is a natural place to pray, says Mondor. As a Franciscan, he lives according to the example of Francis of Assisi, the 13th century Catholic saint and the church’s patron of ecology.
“We can come to know God in the things that he has made," says Mondor. "That’s exactly what Francis, his whole spiritual journey was seeing God in all of creation.”
He points to St. Francis’ Canticle of the Creatures, which he reads from a nearby book: Praise be you, my lord, with all of your creatures. Especially sir brother sun… “He calls him his brother,” Mondor says, in wonder. Who is the day, and through whom you give us light…
The prayer continues, honoring sister moon, and the stars, the elements and the weather by which God nurtures the earth’s creatures.
Praise be you my lord through sister water. Who is very useful and humble and precious and chaste. “And that’s the part that struck me,” Mondor says, looking up again. “Boy, we’ve certainly sullied this chaste ocean. And we need to protect it.”
The sixth blessing of the waves will happen around the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, at the beginning of October. Father Mondor’s looking forward to it. A heart problem keeps him off the longboard now. But the boy inside him says he’ll take a dip in the shallows.