Friday, August 3, 2007

re-thinking ritual

You were called to freedom,
Only do not use your freedom
as an opportunity for self-indulgence,
but, through love,
becomes slaves to one another.
For the whole law is summed up
in a single commandment:
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself!”
Gal 5:13-14

I did a workshop at Esalen Institue in Big Sur for the first time last weekend. To people who ask me the title of my workshop I usually preface an answer by saying, "I am going to use the same title until I give this retreat/workshop to every person in America: Spirit, Soul and Body: the Universal Call to Contemplation." Young Jay went down with me––Sanjaya––as my assistant. This is the second retreat he has helped me with and is very good to have around. He knows what I am going to do and anticipates my needs by lighting incense before I get there, putting the music on, he even got up with me early to stretch before the regular yoga session. I also thought that he would love the place––Esalen––and he did, the sumptuous organic gardens, the hot spring tubs, the location perched just above the ocean, not to mention the colorful creative crowd of searchers who crowd that little piece of paradise.

I had wondered about how Christian I could make the workshop, hoping that I had adequately, fairly described it and myself as coming from a mainly Christian background. I brought with me the same prayer service, based on Shantivanam's, that I have been using these past years. I have never really gotten negative feedback on it, except for from Laurence who thought it was too prolix for the WCCM retreats. But by Saturday morning (we had begun Friday night), it was obvious that it had raised some hackles. Two young folks met me at the door of the Big Yurt, where we were meeting, and said that they had decided to drop out because they were not Christian and it was a little too Christian for them. Then at the end of the first talk, on Body, when I asked for questions, comments, there were no questions about the subject matter; there was mostly discussion about why we had to say these prayers, being the Trisagion, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, etc. They were fine with the Sanskrit chanting, and the Buddhist metta sutta that are also in the service, but the words of the prayers and psalms were sticking in their throats. I admit I thought that the Hail Mary (Syriac version) might be a stretch for some folks and had said as much the first evening, that if anyone didn't think they could say certain of the prayers they should feel free to not. But the discomfort was a lot deeper. There was also a pointed comment about the exclusively male language. And, of course, as much as I had vetted them, there were still certain sentiments in some of the psalms that made people bristle, any talk of "foes" especially.

Not everybody was bothered or agreed, mind you, but I was still a little taken aback, though I should have been a little less optimistic about my ability to ease a crowd at Esalen into such a thing. My friend Ayres, now from England, was there, and his comments were moderating and typical of the kind of inter-personal dynamic operative at Esalen at its best (he had been a resident there for some time), that we should struggle with the elements in the prayer service that made us uncomfortable and see what they were bringing up for us. We had another discussion about it later, and it was good. The thing that was bugging me the most was that I was afraid that they were missing the content of the talks due to the noise factor of the ritual. It is, as Ayres also noted, what I had brought to share from my tradition, and I am unashamed of it, but did I absolutely need to contextualize my teaching in precisely that way for my comfort or for their sense? Emphatically I answered my own question, No. Though I thought it was valid to try and get people to see how also these prayers that they were struggling with were valid expressions of this same Universal Wisdom, flowing from the same source and pointing to the same Ultimate Reality beyond words that other rituals and prayers were.

Later that afternoon, when I had, as I often do, shortened the ritual for the afternoon talk, there was still a line in Psalm 119, which is generally pretty usable in every situation, that made someone react and we got started all over again on the discussion. And again, I was afraid that folks were missing the content of the talks. As a matter of fact they hadn't missed the content completely, but I did want to take out the noise factors and find some common ground, as I say myself often, "to find some words that we could all say together."

I often mention the talk that Fr Bede gave in 1992, when I was still doing my observership in the monastery, the talk that changed my life. I have carried a tape of that talk around with me for years now, but I don't believe I have ever listened to it since then. It seemed propitious to listen to it on my way down for the Esalen workshop because it felt like a crossing over of sorts to lead something there for the first time. So Jay and I listened to it in the car. It was even more timely than I thought. First of all, pace detractors to the contrary, Fr Bede immediately started out talking about Spirit, Soul and Body, and how that informed all his thinking. But then, among other things, he mentioned having just been down to Esalen. Witht at in mind, after the little discomfort over the prayers and psalms suddenly I was 100% sympathetic, which I have not been up until now, of his "decimated Psalter," as the brothers at Shantivanam called it, at least with the attempt. When people stumble over that language, it isn't to enough to ask them to get over it, and we certainly can't expect them to translate and deconstruct the psalms or prayers while they are reading or praying them. And haven't I said many times in my talks on the Liturgy of the Hours that my goal is not only not to convince someone to pray the Roman Office or any other semi-official version of the Liturgy of the Hours, nor was it even to get people to pray the psalms, as much as I love them? My goal is to pray constantly and to live prayerfully, and to foster that for others if I can be of service.

So with all that in mind, and heading to Omega Institute in New York in a few weeks, which is considered the "Esalen of the east," for an even longer workshop on the same theme, I have been doing two things. First of all, in regards to the psalms, I have been taking another look at the ICEL psalter's almost totally inclusive language version (as regards the Divine as well as other people) of the psalms and re-vetting them as well for exclusive language regarding foes. It's even more than making them into Psalms for Christian Prayer, the title of Bede's collection of Psalms. It is a matter of psalms for inclusivists of every stripe, which I must admit is not a beginning stage in most peoples' spiritual lives. Obviously I do want to find a way to use the psalms, and the ICEL version may come the closest to modern and popular versions of the Upanishads or the Gita or the Dhammapada, not a comprehensive scholarly version, but one that invites in and facilitates prayer.

This is a change of heart and mind for me. I have not ever warmed up the ICEL Psalter. I thought that they pushed too hard, and in removing every masculine pronoun for God they made another noise factor not just for traditionalists but for ordinary folks as well. But now I get it. Even if it could never have served for common use in the lectionary of the Roman Catholic Church, it can serve me and my people.

The second thing that I have been doing is coming up with a new opening prayer, with different language. I had carried Bro David Steindl-Rast's words in my head. At lunch after the morning session on Saturday I had talked to him about some of the difficulty we had had with the language of the ritual, and he was sympathetic but said, "Maybe you will have to come up with your own ritual." I was resistant to that for some reason, but while I was waiting for my car to get smogged the other day I suddenly got, well, inspired. (Thanks for the delay, Subaru of Santa Cruz.)

Here is my first version of it. I wrote it out on the plane yesterday and have been using it in my own samdhyas:

Leader: In the name of the God beyond all names
and the Word made flesh,
who pour the Spirit into our hearts,
in whom we live and move and have our being:
ALL: Amen!

Holy are you, O God,
Holy are you, the strong,
holy are you, immortal one.

Blessed are you, O God,
Who dwell in the abyss
and are seated among the cherubim.

Praised be you, O God,
Who dwell in highest heaven
and in the cave of our heart.

You are our mother, you are our father,
You are our brother, our sister, our friend.
You are our riches, you are our wisdom,
You are our all, our God, our God!

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Blessed are those who mourn:
The reign of God is at hand!

Blessed are the meek,
Blessed those who long for righteousness:
May Your will be done on earth!

Blessed are the merciful,
Blessed the pure in heart:
The reign of God is at hand!

Blessed are the peacemakers,
Blessed those persecuted for justice:
May Your will be done on the earth!

Give us this day the bread we need:
Forgive us as we forgive others.
Let us see your loving kindness:
And grant us your salvation.

Glory to you, O God:
Glory to you, Creator,
Glory to you, O Christ,
who have compassion on your servants.

Sing praise to the Abba of Jesus,
To the Spirit in the cave of our hearts.
Through Being and Knowledge and Bliss,
We are called to share in their life.

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